"Never Fear Your Doubts"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 18, 2004

Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31

     This morning we are going to be examining a practice in which all of us engage from time to time.  We have doubts.  We can grow skeptical, suspicious and cynical.  Even though we recognize these qualities in ourselves, Thomas, the star of our Gospel lesson this morning, received a label that has remained with him for nearly 2,000 years. It is always fascinating that in spite of all the marvelous things that some people have accomplished during their lives, we remember them by one incident where they stumbled or did not conform to someone's expectations?  Many of us know this disciple as "doubting Thomas." 

     As we identify ourselves with this one episode in Thomas' life, examine how your own mind tends to work.  What happens to you when you listen to politicians pontificating about their virtues and their words clash with your own common sense?  What do you think when you see an infomercial featuring a sales representative in front of a glass washing machine filled with muddy water?  Into the washer tub, he dumps a cup of Oxi Clean and within minutes the water becomes crystal clear.  What are you thinking when you see a woman in her athletic bra and tights telling you that she lost 120 lbs. in six months by working out 12 minutes a day on a piece of exercise equipment?   

     Illustrations like these are too numerous to count.  We look at and listen to things that are so far beyond our comprehension that we doubt the integrity of their claims.  Think of Thomas being confronted by ten of his friends who tell him something outrageous, "We have seen the Lord."   Most of us would stand right with Thomas with our doubts. 

     Thomas responded, "Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe." This story, however, comes to a satisfying conclusion. A week later, Jesus came to the group again but this time Thomas was with them.  Thomas sees and believes.  This little drama inspired Jesus to say, "Thomas, do you believe because you see me?  How happy are those who will believe even though they have not seen me."

     For the sake of discussion, suppose Jesus had never returned to fulfill Thomas' desire to touch his nail prints?  Would Thomas have ever moved beyond his doubts?  If this alternate story line had occurred, Thomas would be where the rest of us are right now.  He would have to trust the testimony of others if he wanted to base his faith on Jesus' resurrection.

     There are a number of us who remain unconvinced until the reliability of something can be proven again and again.  The Food and Drug Administration, for example, insists on three phases of testing before a new medication is allowed to enter the marketplace.  The Agency has not only censored many of the claims being made by companies but it has also successfully removed products from the shelves of our stores because they were proven to be unsafe.  Doubting the claims, hype and promotions of such products ultimately benefits us.

     The question I would like to address today is this:  Should the resolve and strength of our faith hinge on the accuracy of stories in our religious traditions?  Think about this before you answer.  

     Many of us place a considerable emphasis on what we believe Jesus did for us on the cross.  We place our hope for eternal life in Jesus' resurrection.  Are these events absolutely essential before we choose to funnel loving energy through our spirits and personalities?  Many people believe they are, even though the meaning of these two future events was never addressed by Jesus during his Galilean ministry. 

     Think of our parent religion for a moment.  Think about the story of Joseph and how Jacob's expansive family had gotten into Egypt during the seven years of famine in the Middle East.  Think about the rise of a Pharaoh "who knew not Joseph." He enslaved the Jews and slaughtered many male babies as an insane strategy for controlling their expanding population (Exodus 1:22)  As a result, one infant was sent down the Nile in a basket, a basket retrieved by Pharaoh's daughter.  Think of the stories of Moses who eventually liberated the Jews from their Egyptian taskmasters. 

     What are we to think when researchers tell us that there is little to no archaeological evidence suggesting that a large population of Jews was ever in Egypt.  Goshen, the fertile land given to the Jews by Pharaoh, has been scoured by those seeking proof that the Hebrews once lived there. Nothing definitive has been unearthed.  Are we to assume that because of the lack of physical evidence none of these events ever happened?  If there is doubting among more thoughtful people, quite often the source of it comes from the stories of our faith traditions.

     We should never be afraid of doubting.  There are times when our skeptical observation has saved us from being caught by scam artists.  Doubting says to us, "I need more evidence.  I want to experience the reality of this for myself."  It is fine to doubt even some of the major beliefs that are central to our faith. 

     A person can doubt everything if they desire and that is fine!   There comes a time, however, when our spirits have to move beyond our doubts if we wish to evolve.  How can we do this?  Perhaps this thought may help.  Our belief in the importance of certain historic events is not what Jesus taught.  We have to understand this if some of us find it difficult to move beyond our doubting. 

     It is interesting that no one doubts what is essential to life.  Who among us, for example, doubts the value of kindness, forgiveness, trust, tolerance, patience, generosity and character?  When we make mistakes in judgment or say something that is out of character for us and others extend forgiveness instantly, is there anyone here who would resent that? 

     What is interesting is that these qualities do not originate from a source that can be identified. We could dissect human beings one after the other and never find the chemicals, tissue or organs that generate such loving responses.  There is no evidence and yet no one doubts these responses are real and essential for a well integrated life.

     Can science identify what causes one person to become a peaceful, gentle human being while others remain pensive, anxious and become angry at the slightest provocation?  We create with our thoughts but the creator-spirit in us remains invisible.  No one can prove the existence of a source for spirit but every day we encounter its presence as we associate with others. Before you think I am trying to distill our faith tradition into a list of pleasant personality traits, think again!

     What is so amazing when we consider our beliefs is that many of the insights Jesus taught were embodied in the life of Joseph centuries before Jesus was born.  Clearly Joseph was already living in a reality Jesus would later call, the Kingdom of God.  No one could see the origins of Joseph's attitudes and behavior, but the results of his life have inspired people across the centuries.

     Joseph instinctively understood that God was with him and had a purpose for his life even when he was sold as a slave into Egypt, even after being falsely accused by Potiphar's wife of trying to rape her, and even after being forgotten by the wine steward which left him in prison.  He always bloomed where he was planted because of what he knew.  As we recall the story, Joseph rose to become the superintendent of the prison before being pardoned..

     Joseph's spirit had grown so enormous during his time of captivity that he was prepared not only to assume control of Egypt during the years of feast and famine but also to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery.  For those of us who find it exceedingly difficult to let go of or forgive hurts that have occurred in our lives, try to imagine the inner work Joseph had to do to become successful in defeating all his own inner demons.

     Following Jacob's death, his brothers came before Joseph, threw themselves on the ground and begged for their lives.  They honestly believed that Joseph was going to kill them once their father had died.  The author of Genesis described this event, 

Joseph said, Do not be afraid; I cannot put myself in the place of God.  You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good, in order to preserve the lives of many people who are alive today because of what happened.  You have nothing to fear.  I will take care of you and your children.  (Genesis 50:19f)    

     Joseph had developed these powerful, loving responses to his life experiences long before Jesus was born.  There can be little doubt that the Joseph story was rehearsed over and over again in Jesus' young mind as he was growing into manhood.  He resonated with the truth embedded in that story.  

     Did Jesus have concrete evidence that Joseph existed and that these events happened in the history of his people?  No. He only knew the story.  No doubt that story helped heal his own anxieties about the Roman occupation and about the legalistic rigidity that had calcified the faith of Israel. Jesus had learned about the possibilities for life when one trusts God for the outcome of all things.  

     "Not my will but thine be done" is what Joseph believed as a young boy.  While there is no written record of his ever praying these words, he did not have to.  He began living them soon after his brothers sold him to the traveling caravan of Ishmaelites.   

     There is plenty of room in our minds and hearts for doubting.  Our capacity to doubt helps us discriminate between values.  It helps us discern and separate the wheat from the chaff.  We must recognize, however, that doubting has its limits.  Sooner or later, we have to make a leap of faith. 

     We will hasten that leap when we recognize that a greater truth always lies beyond what is known.  Germs were present long before the microscope was developed.  Thousands of galaxies existed long before the Hubble Telescope revealed their presence.   

     The most powerful frontier yet to be explored by the colony of human beings on planet earth is the world of spirit -- that invisible world that governs our moods, hopes and dreams.  Actually, it is the only world of substance.  If we do not nourish and develop this world, we can easily be led to take many unhealthy detours demanded by the uninformed choices created by our logic and emotions.  Clearly this is what is happening today with many of our world's leaders.  The world will never be fixed until each individual yields to the power of their inner world.   

     Toward the end of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus described the challenge of entering the world of spirit. He said, "The gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are few people who find it." (Matt. 7:14)  He taught this long before he experienced his crucifixion and resurrection.  He was describing the world of spirit that Joseph had discovered centuries before.   

     The faith traditions of the world's religions clash only when the trust of their respective believers has been based solely on the accuracy of certain historic events.  The reality is that there is only one world of spirit that is universally accessible by all human beings.  Jesus understood such a consciousness before he preached his first words.   

     Many believers both past and present, on the other hand, have focused their energy on interpreting and re-interpreting historical events.  Again, is this step of refinement necessary before we love our neighbors? Our confusion is compounded each time a new theory, a book or a very financially profitable movie teases our personal belief systems with even more interpretations. 

     Each of us has to determine for ourselves, which is more important, the accuracy of how early writers perceived our faith history or rediscovering our ability to love one another every moment of every day.  Only the latter understanding will hasten the day when we stand together as one.            

     We can have doubts, but doubting that we can heal each other with our love cannot be one of them. The world's cultures are still fighting each other throughout the world.  Many of those struggles are based on religious beliefs.  Maybe it is time to doubt them.  Joseph and Jesus had a better idea and stood together across the centuries as one.  Do we have the courage to join them? 


    Merciful God, as we find ourselves refreshed by the sunlight of truth, surrounded by rays of assurance that your love can never be hidden, grant us renewed strength to remain faithful to our vision.  It is easy to know truth and not use it, to claim discipleship for ourselves while knowing our feet are clay, to sense the deeds we could have done and all the times "yes" would have been easy to say.  As we gather such thoughts about ourselves, help us feel the cleansing of your forgiveness.  Allow our response to your loving nature transform us into beings who radiate light in all that we do.  Amen.


     Be present with us this morning, O God, in a way that each of us can understand.  Even though we find ourselves in the afterglow of the glorious Easter message, we live with the reality that men and women in the armed services are spread all over Iraq and around the world.  They long to be reunited with their families and loved ones, yet the call to duty causes them to press on toward an uncertain future.  Surround them, O God, with peace. 

     As we enjoy these moments together, enable us to surrender our fears, doubts and confusion over exactly what to believe.   There is no need to struggle with anything when we teach ourselves each day how to trust you for the outcome of all things.  Fears do not serve us.  Doubts limit us.  Confusion over what is true cannot enhance our ability to be kind, considerate and generous toward others.  We follow Christ willingly in order for this world to become a more loving and peaceful place for men and women to live.  

    Guide our spirits today so that we uncover how to create with our thoughts and feelings as we interpret you to the world.  Because we are healers and bridge builders, let us unite with each other to hasten the day when "thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven" becomes the reality everyone will joyfully embrace.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught his disciples how to pray when they say . . .