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“Some Doubted”

A sermon by Sid Burgess for Edgewood PC, Birmingham, AL
Trinity Sunday, June 19, 2011

Text: Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Doubt is like a bad cold. We’ve all had it, and we’re all likely to get it again. In the intellectual ferment of youth, or in the despair of old age; reveling in the glow of romance or reeling in pain of rejection; celebrating success or tormented by the sting of failure, doubt can rear its head, any time, any place, any person. But what a shock to find doubt on a mountaintop in Galilee, that first Easter Sunday so fresh in memory. Here are first hand witnesses. Here are the disciples who heard it first from the women, who heard it from the angel, and then, who heard it from the Risen Christ himself: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The women follow these instructions. The disciples accept their word—the word of women, the church’s first evangelists. The men travel down to Galilee, climb a mountain, and find themselves face to face with the Risen Lord-- the one crucified, dead, buried, now standing before them in the flesh, “but some doubted.”

Matthew does not name names, but the suspects are all known to us. One or more of the “eleven. . . . ” One or more of the disciples with eyes to see and ears to hear, right then and right there, cannot believe what we, here and now, are asked to believe and to proclaim with heart and soul and voice: “Christ is risen, indeed!”

In 2010, the 100th anniversary of her birth, Mother Teresa was honored the world over for her lifetime of ministry to the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the dying. At the time of her death in 1997, the religious order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, was operating 610 missions in 123 countries, including hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis. From the tender age of 12, Mother Teresa had committed herself to a life of faith. During her lifetime she was honored by churches, governments, universities, and humanitarian agencies. In l979 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace.” Since her death, Mother Teresa has progressed rapidly along the steps towards sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Thus, it came as quite a shock to the world to learn that for nearly 50 years, Mother Teresa privately experienced doubts over her religious beliefs--doubts which apparently continued until the end of her life. According to the editor of her private papers, who is also the church official directing efforts to have Mother Teresa declared a saint, there were times when "she felt no presence of God whatsoever," "neither in her heart nor in the Eucharist."

Here is Mother Teresa, in her own words, expressing her grave doubts about God's existence and the pain she felt over her lack of faith:

Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul . . . . 1

Advocates for Mother Teresa point out that Christian mystics through the ages have experienced periods of doubt. The saint whose name she took when she became a nun, St. Therese of France, called her own doubt a "night of nothingness.” The better known, 16th century mystic St. John of the Cross, coined the term the "dark night of the soul." And St. John believed this to be a critical stage in the maturing of some of the world’s most inspired spiritual masters.

Even so, many have expressed disappointment that Mother Teresa, this woman who devoted her life to worship and service, was filled with doubt – agonizing doubt.

This is not the case for my friend and colleague, Joe Slane, pastor of Southminster Church. In a Trinity Sunday sermon three years ago Joe wrote:

My only sadness is that Mother Teresa did not speak publicly of her doubts. Her witness inspired thousands of people to faith. Would (not) Mother Teresa’s witness have been even more winsome had she shared her doubts?

Joe, always to be trusted as a good source for pulpit humor, goes on to quote his favorite theologian, Frederick Buechner, who writes,

If you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep (faith) awake and moving.

Writing to first century Christians, the author of 1st Timothy concedes: “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great” (3.16).

You could have fooled me! Why, I can remember the very first time I heard “God” and “mystery” in the same sentence. I was reared to think doubt was an unpardonable sin, for there was no mystery in matters of faith. From Genesis to Revelation, it was all fact. So, for many years I wondered what was wrong with me. Why could I not believe the claims of the Bible, the miracles, the supernatural wonders, the extraordinary claims of divine rescue and redemption? Why could I not believe in God when belief seemed to come so easily to so many?

A chance encounter with a Dutch biblical scholar helped turn me around. I bought the book JESUS, by the late Edward Schillebeeckx, in paperback for $1.00 at a book sale. I bought it because in the dedication he quoted this verse from 1st Thessalonians: “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (4.13).

I took that to mean Schillebeeckx was writing for those of us who had no hope for faith. Among the many things I learned from this Roman Catholic scholar, seconded by many other theologians from various traditions, is that-- in the biblical world--the goal of faith is not belief, surely not the certitude promoted by popular religion. The goal of faith is hope. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”(Hebrews 11.1).

For the poet of ancient Israel, faith hinges—not on believing the unbelievable—but on respect and hope:

Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who (respect) (God),
on those who hope in (God’s) steadfast love,
Psalm 33:18

So, back to that mountaintop in Galilee. Back to those disciples squirming with “ants in the pants,” suffering with doubt. Listen to the treatment Jesus prescribes for them and or all of us who struggle with our own doubts:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Got doubts? Get to work! Do the work of the Church: baptize and teach. To baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” takes us back to the baptism of Jesus himself, when the Spirit descends upon him as the voice from heaven, proclaiming him the beloved Son. Now, at last, the theme of this Lord’s day, Trinity Sunday, comes into focus, as Jesus tells his followers—true believers as well as the not-so-sure—to reenact his story in the baptism of new disciples, wrapping them in loving embrace of God the Father and the Son-- an embrace sealed by the Holy Spirit.

Notice the order of these instructions. First, baptize, and then teach. We moderns wonder that it is not the other way around. Should we not first teach, should we not first instruct? Before we baptize, make certain that the new converts fully understand and accept the basic concepts of the Christian faith?

No, we are first to baptize. Baptize the babies. Baptize the children. Baptize youth and adults, then teach them the Good News of the Reign of God. Teach them, and in so doing, reassure one another of the divine intentions for all humanity

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are those who mourn,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5).

Do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or what you will drink,
or about your body, what you will wear. (Matt. 6)

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged (Matt 7).

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you (Matt 7).

And there is more, much more to teach--and to learn--about living under the reign of God. Here again are the words of St. Paul in today’s lesson:

11 Finally, brothers and sisters . . . live in peace;
and the God of love and peace will be with you.

In these teachings I have hope, and with hope, I have faith. Faith to receive and faith to share this divine blessing:

13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

1 Teresa, Mother; Kolodiejchuk, Brian (2007). Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. New York: Doubleday. Cited in “Mother Teresa” from Wikipaedia.com.