"Graduating From Skepticism"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – May 1, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 16; John 20:19, 24-29

    This morning we are going to be talking about the emotional response from a young man that caused him to be unfairly branded by Christians through the ages. Christians attached the adjective “doubting” as a prefix to his first name.  The fact that Thomas doubted that the other disciples had seen Jesus alive gives further credence to the fact that no one had any prior knowledge that this would happen.  

    It is no wonder that Thomas doubted.  More than likely, many of us would have doubted. When people have told me about their out-of-the-body experiences during surgery, they often preface their description of what happened with, “You are the only one with whom I can discuss this.  Others would not believe me.  They would think that I was hallucinating from my anesthesia or the morphine, but I was watching my surgeon and listened as he described how his daughter wrecked his three-week old car.” 

    We all grow suspicious from time to time when people tell us something that sounds like a tall tale.   How about when a friend was shooting a practice round of golf and he hit a hole in one when no one else was around to see it?  Or, we question how BIG that fish really was that our friend brought along side the boat when the line broke.  

    Being skeptical of what others tell us is part of the human experience.  Jesus understood this when he said, “Thomas, do you believe because you see me?  How happy people will be who believe without seeing me.”

    One of the things over which we can remain absolutely certain is that our eternal life does not depend on our faith, hope, beliefs or acceptance of the fact that we do.  Creation is complete just as it is.  

    The task of humanity has always been to make new discoveries of the created order.  As we continue this process of discovery, we have learned that truth has never been dependent on what anyone thinks or believes during any given time in history.  Truth is a relative concept because it is constantly changing. 

    For example, during the 1300s one third of the world’s population died. People believed that these deaths occurred because humankind had been disobedient to God’s laws. There was another terrifying idea that the bodies of people were being taken over by demons.  Centuries passed before this myth about God punishing people could be dispelled. 

    In 1840, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis discovered micro-organisms.  Once he became the head of a hospital in 1847, he made it mandatory for his physicians to scrub their hands before going from one patient to another.  The doctors were skeptical and literally hated washing their hands in smelly chemicals.  Equally, they deeply resented being labeled by Sammelweis as the carriers of disease.

    Eventually, these physicians forced Dr. Semmelweis from his administrative post at their hospitals because of the unorthodox practices he instituted. When the doctors stopped scrubbing, however, babies and their mothers began dying once again at the same alarming levels they had in the past.  Very few in the medical profession connected the dots.

    This was akin to the practice of clergy and other religious leaders when they encountered those who departed from the orthodox interpretation of the Scriptures or who dared to translate the Bible into the language of the people.  Religious leaders, however, burned such heretics at the stake.  They never realized how much alike their response was to those who crucified Jesus.    

    With the creation of the microscope, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch found the bacterium that was responsible for Tuberculosis, Cholera and the Black Death.  The Black Death, that had been responsible for the deaths of millions of people during the 1300s, got its name because it was carried all over the world by black rats that had become infected from the bites of fleas. Think of how many people died needlessly because physicians, who took an oath to do no harm, failed to graduate from their skepticism.  Dr. Koch died only a century ago in 1910.

    Truth is out there and the more we learn, the more we discard the conclusions others had reached.  There is no other discipline on the planet that is slower to evolve in its thinking than religion.  Like the physicians centuries earlier, Christians will not relinquish their theological positions so that Spirituality can grow into a science.   Spirituality needs to be taught at every level of our education, but it needs to be free of the dogma that is frequently connected to it. 

    For example, last Sunday, I knew that I was treading on the sacred turf of some listeners while I was preaching during the Easter Sunrise Service at the Pink Beach Club.  I said, “There is a scripture that tells us that Jesus’ resurrection represented ‘the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.’”  (I Corinthians 15:20)  This meant that Jesus was the first person in human history to rise from the grave.  I told them that the statement was not true.

    You should have seen the looks on some of their faces after I said that.  I have no idea what Rev. Peet or Rev. Whalen thought.  I didn’t look at them.  This is a common response when believers hear something that appears different from what they have been taught since their childhood.

    After making my comment, however, I offered more information to support my claim. I reminded the congregation that the verse about Jesus being the first fruit was written by the Apostle Paul.  All of Paul’s letters had been written before the Gospels were composed. 

    It was Matthew, Mark and Luke that recorded the experience of Jesus and three of his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah appeared.  It was the Gospel of John that bore witness to the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus. Paul did not have this information that would have given him the guidance that resurrection is a universal experience for all human beings.     

    Many Christians still believe that the resurrection of our spirits is our unique treasure and that it can only be experienced by the followers of Jesus.  They need to graduate from their skepticism.  Since God is the creator of what happens to us and not our beliefs, God would not give the gift of eternal life to a small group of believers without also giving it to everyone who ever lived.   

    I gave last week’s Sunrise congregation several illustrations that appear to suggest that surviving the death of our bodies is dependent on only one thing – God’s Will and design for humanity.  Here is one of those stories.

    One of the most informed books on the process of dying is called, On Death and Dying, by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  This book describes the stages through which people emotionally pass when they learn that their death is imminently approaching.

    Elizabeth decided to move beyond this research and venture into an exploration of the mysterious experiences of those who had near-death experiences. Initially, Elizabeth confined her research to children who did not have any religious background.  She felt that children being reared in families that had no religious orientation would produce the best candidates for her research.  Such children would not flavor their experiences from religious teachings.

    A nine-year old girl had been involved in a very serious automobile accident.  During her interview she told Dr. Kubler-Ross that she found herself standing outside of a car.  She watched intently as men dressed in strange clothing removed the body of a young girl from the car using some kind of mechanical device much like a large can opener. 

    She saw many things that she could not identify.  She described fluffy pillow-like objects floating above her and tall trees.  She accurately described the intersection where the accident had taken place.  She saw big birds that were walking on the ground when she had been taught that birds fly in the air.  

    While she was watching these men work on the body of this young girl, she suddenly felt herself being lifted and carried until she hovered over the body.  She experienced the sensation of being lowered and that was the last thing she could remember. The girl remained in a coma from the accident for three weeks. 

    What makes this child’s experience so unique is that she had been born blind.  The pillow-like objects were clouds and the large birds were pigeons.  During Elizabeth’s interview the 9-year old was still blind.  Obviously what made her testimony so intriguing to Dr. Kubler-Ross was that she could see while out of her body.  During this episode the girl had not realized that the men were working on her body.  She did not know what she looked like.   

    What are we to think about her experience and scores of others that are equally compelling?  People can remain skeptical, but like Thomas, once they experience something quite extraordinary, suggesting they are already spirit-beings, no one can ever take that experience away from them. The 9-year old said, “I now know what it is like to see.  What a beautiful world we have!”  Jesus said to Thomas, “Do you believe because you have seen me?  How happy will be those who believe without seeing me.”

    Think of how differently we would greet each of life’s adventures and mistakes in judgment if we looked at every one of them as having the potential to refine who we are?People can remain skeptical all they want but such an attitude will not deny them their heritage as a spirit-being.  All of us eventually discard our bodies once our tour of duty here is finished.  Understanding Spirituality would help us interpret more creatively how our lives are unfolding.

    Spirituality is one of the least understood areas of our lives because the spirit by which a person lives comes from an area within them that remains as invisible as the bacteria was prior to the invention of the microscope.  To see spiritual energy, all we have to do is observe the attitude of people all around us.

    All of us prefer to be around others who are happy, enthusiastic, friendly, generous, and courteous and filled with ideas that are creative and wholesome.  Equally, we would prefer not associating with people who are always blaming others and their circumstances for their unhappiness.  We know the differences in people.  We recognize their spiritual qualities.  The shame is that we are not teaching others at every level of their education how to harness this remarkable energy so that the attitudes and thoughts they create will serve their future growth. 

    All that people need to do is graduate from their skepticism about their nature as spirit-beings.   Thomas graduated from his skepticism, have we?