St John Chrysostom Episcopal Church – Delafield, Wisconsin
Third Sunday of Easter – April 15, 2018
V. Rev. Steven A. Peay, Ph.D.
[texts: Acts 3:12-19/1 John 3:1-7/Luke 24:36b-48]
"Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?" Jesus' question to the apostles, hiding in the upper room, is also asked to every assembly of Christian believers. That question confronts us this morning as, like the disciples, we are "in our joy disbelieving." We want to believe, we want to accept, but the doubts continue to bother us. How can the message of Christian faith possibly be true? How can someone rise from the dead? How can a human being become a child of God?
I don't believe that doubting is wrong. Rather, I am an advocate for doubt. All of us have heard the phrase from Descartes, "Cogito, ergo sum." "I think, therefore I am." That may be the most famous, but I don't think it's his most accurate proof. His most accurate proof was, "Dubito, ergo sum." "I doubt, therefore I am." Because his understanding was that one cannot doubt that one is doubting. You see that you have to exist as the doubter, you can't doubt that you are doubting. You can doubt everything, except doubt you're doubting. Dubito, ergo sum -- no doubt about it.
Doubt, then, sets the parameters for faith. As there can be no reason without doubt, neither can there be faith without doubt. Faith rises out of doubt. Faith when first learned deals only with certainties. These are the things that our parents, our teachers, our heroes have explained to us. But the situation changes as we grow older. I like what the theologian Romano Guardini has written. He says, "Belief in the living God, the Creator and Father, means really belief in him as he is in himself." But in the mind of everyone, as I have said, faith is associated with some kind of mental image. For the child that image is first of all his/her own father, only raised to a mysterious greatness or to some other person especially revered or who represents majestic authority. As the child develops, that early image no longer fits in with newly found ways of thinking and feeling. The natural loosening of the ties between child and parents and opposition to the authorities in one's childish world have an effect. Hence, the young person's belief in God begins to waver. Now, is that wavering necessarily bad? No.
Doubt simply signals a change in the relationships and perceptions that we have. We need to learn to understand the difference between revealed truth and our own certainties. Like when we found out the real truth about Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, we begin to realize that reality can live in larger constructs. So that we can very well say, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" because the spirit of giving is more than just the personification of giving. So here we come to see that maybe we've constructed a vision of God that is not the same as divine revelation. "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?"
Doubt, a healthy skepticism, allows for real faith. Coming to know who God is in himself means to develop. This is what the great existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers exposed in his classic Philosophical Faith and Revelation. There he raises the point that creeds, statements of faith, had once served a purpose as defining or explaining how believers related. However, when these statements became absolutes, here's the truth and there is no other, they can then become fatal to relationship. If we think that we possess all of the truth, if we have no questions, then we don't need to communicate anymore. We don't need to ask questions. We don't need to be open to questions. We become closed. Thus, the I-Thou relationship that is central to coming to know God, as the Transcendent came to make contact with the finite, is cut off. We're stuck in our own little world which we've made too small.
Peter Berger, who was a sociologist of knowledge as well as of religion, took this notion a step further. He says that there is a heretical imperative. The Greek word herein means an opinion or choice, so the heretic makes choices of what to believe from the whole body of the tradition. Berger says, given the wide spectrum of choices that are available in our pluralistic society, coming to the heretical imperative is absolutely necessary if we are to affirm faith in God. Berger wants to affirm the human as the starting point for theological reflection and to reassert the sacredness and the supernatural character of religious experience. So relationship with the Other is what enables us to deal with present reality and future uncertainty.
Relating to a God who see us as not some object, but as a subject, as one who is able to relate, affirms our own dignity as human beings. It says that there is something worthwhile in us and in the world around us. This is why I am convinced that God spoke his Word into flesh in Jesus Christ. As John writes, "See what love the Father has given us, that we be called children of God." Jesus is the one, who by his incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection, fully embraced humanity and brought it into God's life. In him we see how God wishes us to relate and how we are to respond. So our present status as God's children and our future hope of the full revelation of God's mind to us has real, profound ethical meaning for the present. We are called to truly become children of God, living after the manner of Jesus in the way we approach each other. We are to respond to God's invitation to be his children and to live after his image and likeness, restored in us through faith in Jesus Christ.
Our response need not be irrational. Faith is not antithetical to reason. Thomas Aquinas would talk of grace building on nature and how God can speak to the human intellect in such a way as to begin the process of redemption. In other words, from our doubt, through our reason we can come to relate to God. We often wonder how this can happen, especially in face of the claims of the resurrection. However, in the words and acts of Jesus we find that the risen Lord is no phantom or figment. In Luke's Gospel Jesus teaches us that death and resurrection are not escapes or excuses for not living in a responsible or reasonable manner. One commentator cited George Bernard Shaw, who -- in true Irish tradition -- was a great skeptic, as saying that he could imagine no fate more horrible than remaining himself forever. "The good news of the story of the resurrection is that there is a genuine transformation of the self, but it is not a change into a dreamy fantastic state that would be so totally different as to be completely discontinuous with the lives we have lived as real human beings. Resurrection life is God's own mystery, but we hope for it as life continuous with but different from the one we now know." This resurrected life begins here and now in the way we approach life every day and it produces joy in the heart.
The joy which marks a child of God is not giddiness. Nor is it foolish. Rather, the joy which comes of realizing who one really is, that God is our truly our father and not simply our progenitor, gives a sense of well-being and of peace. It allows us to respond to the world around us differently; not with harsh words or narrowed vision, but with genuine kindness and concern. In difficult times and in the face of things which seem to make no sense we can begin to see God at work, seeking to relate, seeking to love, seeking to care for us.
I encourage you, as children of God, to embrace doubt. Don't reject doubt, embrace it. Question, ponder, think and as you do God will reveal himself. Perhaps not as we'd like or as we'd thought, but he'll be there. God's presence will be as real in that moment as it is right now in the midst of this gathered people. God's presence will be as tangible in that moment as it will be in the bread and cup to be shared among us.
If Jesus had not asked those apostles about their fear and doubt they would never have known the joy, even in their disbelieving. If they hadn't questioned, Jesus could not have affirmed them and that they were now heirs with him of the Father's love. There would be no faith if there was no doubt. Creeds wouldn't have been written if someone would not have challenged. Faith comes only after doubt. If we've never doubted, we never believed. To be a child of God is to have the freedom to doubt, to come to faith, to have joy in living. To be a child of God is a great gift -- no doubt about it!