Some Doubted

I was reading the other day from Matthew 28, after Jesus’ resurrection:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

Some doubted.

I love how bluntly that is stated. One might think that having been an eye witness to Jesus’ resurrection would be enough to dispel doubt. Here are Jesus’ closest friends. They travelled with Him for three years. They witnessed His miracles. They performed miracles themselves under His direction. At the end, they saw Him captured and put to death; some of them saw where His body was laid in the tomb. And now they were physically in the presence of His living, post-resurrection being. They could see him. But some still doubted.

Even in the very presence of the newly resurrected Jesus, some doubted. If that is true for some of Jesus’ closest friends, then how do we stand against doubt?

We might think, God if you could just…. then that would be enough. But I see Jesus shaking His head the same way I see Him shaking his head at Philip who said, “Show us the Father, and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). Evidence can support faith, but it cannot eliminate doubt. And that, my friends, is where this gets interesting. Read carefully:

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:7).

If I knew Greek I’d do a word study on this line, but even across several English translations the same picture emerges: The eleven disciples climbed the hill. They saw Jesus, and they worshiped Him.

It doesn’t say that some of them worshiped and some of them doubted. It says “they worshiped him.” Only then does it add that some doubted.

Doubt did not preclude worship.

Think about that. We can worship, even when we doubt.

The passage continues with Jesus coming and speaking to them. Not to “some of them.” Not to the ones who did not doubt, but to “them.” Inclusive.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” He instructed them.

All of them. Even those who doubted.

Satan would love for us to think that doubt is a stumbling block. He wants doubt to reduce our worship, sever our Christian relationships, and prevent us from telling others about God. But I do not see doubt as a stumbling block when I read God’s word. Instead, I see Jesus, coming to me, His follower who doubts. And He is saying: Come, worship me. Then go, tell others about me.

This is what I find so amazing about these simple lines:

Yes, some doubted.

So what?

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-19).

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Doubting Thomas Sunday

The Sunday after Easter is Doubting Thomas Sunday.

It’s true across multiple denominations, and it’s true whether you are on a one year lectionary or a three year lectionary. You may have heard Thomas’ story so many times you think you’ve heard it all.

Come with me anyway.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord (John 20:19-20).

All of the disciples that is, except for Thomas.

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20: 24).

Juxtapose this story with one that occurred earlier in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had just completed several miraculous healings and a second miraculous feeding – this time of 4,000 people with just 7 loaves of bread and a few small fish. But these miracles weren’t enough of a sign. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in His spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side (Mark 8:11-13).

Well, then. If that is Jesus’ response to a demand for a sign, what do you think He does with Thomas? Thomas, one of his twelve closest friends who had travelled with Him for three years and personally witnessed countless miracles – what does Jesus do with him?

One might expect a little exasperation. One might expect Jesus to say, “If you don’t believe in me now, after all you’ve witnessed, then you’re hopeless! I’ve given you all the evidence you need!”

But Jesus doesn’t respond that way, does He?

Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:26-27).

Here we have two stories, both with people demanding further proof from Jesus, and yet two very different responses from Jesus. What was the difference?

The difference, I believe, is that Jesus knew the asker’s heart. Numerous times throughout the New Testament we read how the Pharisees asked Jesus things to test Him, to trap Him, or to ridicule Him. They did not come to Jesus with sincere doubt; they came to Jesus with self-righteousness and hidden agendas. One more sign would not bring them any closer to God.

Jesus walked away.

But to those who sincerely asked – for those who wanted to believe but struggled – Jesus had a very different response.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

We know what happened next. Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)

Did Thomas ever doubt again? I don’t know. Based on my own experiences, I would say probably. But based on my own experiences, I would also say that wrestling with those moments of doubt ultimately led him (again and again) to a deeper exclamation of faith.

Doubt, while seemingly so opposite of faith, is often a catalyst that draws us closer to God. Doubt is not something to shy away from. It is something to grip with two hands and shake. It is something to hold out to God and say, “Help!”

Sometimes in order to be genuine in our faith, we must first be genuine in our doubt. And that, to me, is the lesson from Doubting Thomas Sunday.

Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

There Are No Losers Here

I have a tragic flaw.

Okay, so I have more than one, but this is the one I’m going to tell you about today. I love sports, but sports do not love me.

(Sigh.)

I’ve tried softball, but I tend to duck and cover when the ball comes my way. I’ve tried flag football, but I cannot catch a football to save my life. In middle school, I played basketball.  I loved basketball. Sometimes I even did something amazing, like make a basket. But in three years of playing, my team never won a single game. Not one.

I was thinking of this a few weeks ago as I was running past the tennis courts. (In case you’re curious, I took tennis lessons for two summers and still can’t hit the ball.) As I jogged past watching the players, I had the audacity to think: maybe running is my sport!

Keep in mind that even as I had this thought, I was wheezing and gasping near the back of the pack. Hope does not disappoint, Paul says (Romans 5:5).

And here’s the hopeful thing about running.  Running is the only sport where every person at the starting line could win. I don’t just mean everyone has the potential to win.  I mean everyone can actually win.  Simultaneously.

I realize only one person crosses the finish line first. And when the summer Olympics roll around there will only be one gold and one silver and one bronze. But the very heart and soul of running is not about besting the other guy; it’s about besting yourself. Running is about stretching, growing, pushing, improving. It’s about hitting that next personal record. Every other sport has a winner and a loser.  In other sports, even in the friendliest just-for-fun matches, one team can win only if the other team loses.

Not so with running.

One of the unexpected things I love about running with a group is the opportunity to cheer each other on. We each have different goals, but every week we all start out, and every week we all cross the finish line. It doesn’t matter who crosses first or second or last. Every week we are improving . We laugh in amazement, “I remember when I couldn’t even…”

There are no losers here.

Perhaps Paul knew what he was doing when he compared faith to running a race. After all, Jesus Christ came so that whoever believes in Him  – not just the ones who believe first or strongest or best, but whoever believes! – might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

 God wants all of us to win the faith race. This does not mean it is easy. Paul even says, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it (1 Corinthians 9:24). In other words, every one of us should train as though we are going for the gold, even though our true goal is far more valuable than that. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (1 Corinthians 9:25).

In this race we are running, we all have obstacles to overcome. Each of our races may be different, but the Bible tells us how we are to face them.  We are to run with endurance (Hebrews 12:1).  We are to run looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). And just like with my running group, we are to consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another… (Hebrews 10:24-25).

In this competitive world, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking someone else must lose in order for us to win. If we stop to think about it, we will suddenly realize we are actually all on the same team. The route ahead may look hard, but with Jesus as our Coach and God’s Word as our training manual, we can run our race knowing that every one of us will make it across that finish line.

High fives all around, my friends. And let’s keep running.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

The

Here’s an interesting game to play.  Someone shout out a word… what’s the first Bible passage that springs to mind?

Perhaps someday I’ll study enough Hebrew and Greek to attempt an original language word study.  But for now, here is a word study in English.  Stick with me here, this is cool.

When I think of “The” the first passage that springs to mind is John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” Every third word is “the!”  Is this repetition important?  Probably.

Jesus is claiming that He is not just one way to know God.  Jesus is claiming He is the way.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said.  And then He continued, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Definitive, declarative statements.

This was not the only time Jesus refered to Himself in such definitive terms.  Earlier, before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:27).  And before that, when Jesus was travelling with his disciples into Caesarea-Philippi after performing many miracles in the surrounding countryside, He asked his disciples, “Who do you say I that am?”  Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 15:15-16).

Did you catch that?  The Christ, the Son of the living God.

Peter’s proclamation is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  And it is at this point in the story that an important narrative turn occurs.  From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matthew 16:21).  Jesus repeats this lesson several times (e.g, Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-20).  But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him (Mark 9:32).

Throughout the rest of the story, the disciples struggle to understand what Jesus told them.  When He was captured in the Garden of Gethsemene, they scattered.  When He was put to death, they feared for their own lives.  Even after the tomb was reported empty, they hid behind locked doors.  They knew He was the Christ, the Son of the living God.  He was the way, the truth, and the life.  He was the death and the resurrection.  More than anyone else, His disciples should have understood.  But they did not.

Until Jesus appeared to them again.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).

My Bible then says the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  I can’t help but think “glad” is a bit of an understatement, but regardless, they were finally beginning to understand what it meant that Jesus was the Christ.  All except for poor Thomas, who had missed the visit.  The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe (John 20:25).

Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:26).  Jesus showed Thomas His hands and His side and Thomas no longer disbelieved.  “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.

Here is the most fascinating part of this word study.  The disciples knew long before Jesus’ death and resurrection that He was the Christ.  But simply knowing that He was the Christ was not enough.  It took a personal encounter for them to truly understand.  And it took a personal encounter for that tiny definite article “the” to transform into an even more powerful little word.  Did you catch that transition?

Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  But like the disciples, we can know all that and still not really know Christ.  The transition happens when we declare not only that Jesus is the Lord and the God, but that He is my Lord and my God.

Jesus will not be coming to each of us in the same manner that He came to Thomas.  After 40 days of teaching His disciples, He ascended into heaven and the Bible suggests He will come again only at the end of this world.  But Jesus also promised that when He went, He would send the Holy Spirit to abide with each one of us and draw us into a personal understanding of Him.  And in this way, Jesus does appear to each one of us.  To each one of us He says, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27b).

Jesus does not want us to respond with a definite article.  He wants us to respond with a personal one.  Because Jesus is not simply the way, the truth, and the life.  He is my way, my truth, and my life.

Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28)

Flying Sushi

The other night I went to a sushi restaurant with some friends.  We rode a motorboat across the lake to a giant floating raft that housed the restaurant.  We were ushered into a long rectangular room where we sat on low benches.  Japanese waitresses in colorful flowing gowns walked quietly among the tables filling plates from kettles they carried on towel draped arms.  I looked down the table and realized I didn’t actually know anyone there.  The whole experience suddenly took on a “Hotel California” feel.  And I don’t even like that song.

“What is this?” I asked, pointing to a platter that looked like a halved avocado covered in fish eggs.  They answered, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  Not because they were speaking Japanese; that would make sense.  It sounded more like pidgin or Old English or something that was almost comprehensible.  But not quite.  It was at that point that I realized the bench I was sitting on was actually a trapeze.  Yes, a trapeze.  I was hoisted into the air and began careening around the room, smashing my feet into the stucco walls hoping to slow myself down.  Each time I hit, I only seemed to pick up speed.  I hurled back through the crowded tables with people and bowls of food parting before me.  Flakes of stucco cracked off the walls as I rebounded.  (Someone was going to have to completely spackle that room by the time I was done.)  The last thing I remember was the terrified look on some newcomer’s face as I barely missed her head and found myself clinging, bat-like, to the corner of the wall.

Then I woke up.

Perhaps I should have started this blog post with a disclaimer.  Earlier this week I was having back spasms and was given muscle relaxers and pain killers that had me sleeping 19+ hours a day for four days straight.  Then my doctor cut me off.  The four days were rather uneventful, at least, as far as I recall.  (If any of you told me something important earlier this week, you better tell me again.) The return to non-drug induced sleep, however, has been a bit more memorable.  Not only am I having crazy dreams about eating sushi while on a flying trapeze, I wake up feeling as though I have been eating sushi while on a flying trapeze: pounding headache, churning stomach, sore muscles and all.

The other morning I woke up at 3 a.m.  I am typically not a nocturnal wanderer, but this night I needed a break from the crazy dreams.  I slipped from bed and made some toast and tea.  I pulled a Bible Study from my shelf that a friend had given me but which I hadn’t had time to use.  I read about Psalm 120:1 In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me. 

He answered me.

You know, people talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  I don’t always know what this means.  When I first became a Christian, it sounded a bit too… religious.  Sometimes I would just smile and nod and step away.  Except that in the last couple of years, I’ve seen it.  I’ve seen people that do have a relationship with Jesus.  They have that hope about which Peter says we should always be ready to give a testimony (1 Peter 3:15). They aren’t just Christians.  They are truly friends of God.  They have a relationship that makes me say: I want what they have.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have a relationship with God.  But it is qualitatively different than where I am headed.  I talk to God all the time.  What I don’t do very well is wait for His answer.  “Okay, God,” I say, “Here are all the things I’m thinking about today.  Got it?  Okay.  Catch you later.”  And I’m off.

In my distress I call to the Lord.  But I’m completely missing His answer.

Until He sits me down at 3 a.m. with a cup of tea.

I learned from my 3 a.m. study that the word translated as Lord in Psalm 120:1 is the Hebrew word Yahweh, which refers to God’s nature as a covenant maker and covenant keeper.  This makes the words of Psalm 120:1 that much more powerful to me.  The Lord answered the Psalmist and He answers us because He is the God who keeps His promises.  Promises like, I will not leave you nor forsake you (Joshua 1:5).  Promises like, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  Promises like, I have called you friends (John 15:15).

Friends.

We can be more than Christians.  We can actually have a relationship with God.  We can be a friend of God.  Have you ever paused to look beyond the jargon and think about what this means?

If not, a 3 a.m. cup of tea is a great place to start. 

In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me (Psalm 120:1).

An Important Theological Rambling

I used to think Christians believed this: God will cast into Hell anyone who does not believe in Jesus.

Wait, you might say.  That is what Christians believe.

Perhaps.  But there is a distinction that I think is critical. It’s not so much God casts someone into Hell simply because he or she doesn’t believe in Jesus.  God is not saying “Believe in my Son, or else.”  I think that’s sometimes the way the Christian message comes across.

What Christians actually believe goes something more like this.  We are already destined for Hell.  From the moment Adam and Eve went against the command of God, we have been separated from God.  There is nothing we can do to earn favor with God, to save ourselves, to make it into heaven.  For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  Even the tiniest sin separates us from God.  “I say to you,” Jesus said, “that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (James 2:10).  Is it any wonder that at one point Jesus’ disciples cried, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26)

Christians believe that because God is holy, He cannot be in the presence of sin.  Because we are sinful, we can never be in the presence of God.  There will come a time of judgment and every one of us – on our own – will be found sinful and be cast away from God’s presence.

But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  God did for us what we could never do for ourselves.  He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life and then sacrifice Himself for us.  God’s judgment and wrath were poured out on His Son when Jesus took our sins to the cross with Him.  On the day of judgment, Christians will say “God, I have sinned, but my sins have already been punished.  I gave my life to Jesus, and Jesus already paid for my sins.”  God will look and see that, indeed, Jesus already paid their price.  Their sins are forgiven.  Their debt has been paid.

But those who don’t accept Jesus as their savior will stand before God alone.  They will say, “God, here are my unpaid sins.”  And God will have no choice but to cast them away.

Belief in Jesus, then, is less like the ultimatum “believe or else” and more like a lifeguard casting a lifesaver to a drowning person.  The lifeguard is not saying “Take this lifesaver or I will drown you.”  No.  The person is already drowning, and the lifeguard is reaching out to save him.  Likewise, we are already drowning.  God is reaching out to us.

There is one problem with this analogy.  The best way for us to help a drowning person is to toss him a lifeline.  But God is omnipotent.  He doesn’t need to toss out a lifeline to save someone.  He could just snap His fingers and save them.  Why, then, doesn’t He just snap His fingers and save us all?  Why does He choose to send Jesus into the world instead?

The answer, I suspect, has much to do with free will and the presence of original sin.  But those are thoughts to pursue another day.  For now, the point remains, regardless of reason, that God did send Jesus into the world as our lifeline.  Jesus Himself declared, I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).

Yes, Christians do believe that those who do not believe in Jesus will be eternally separated from God.  But it is our sins – not our lack of belief – that originally separated us from God.  Sin is the punishable trait.  The lack of belief, or the failure to accept God’s Lifeline, does not initially separate us from God; it keeps us separated from God.

God has cast us a lifeline.  Grab hold.

God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

Upcoming Event: Is Faith in God Reasonable?

The Great Debate: Is Faith in God Reasonable?
Friday, February 1, 2013
7:00 – 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time
Online OR Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN)
FREE!

Next Friday, Purdue University is hosting The Great Debate: Is Faith in God Reasonable? This debate will feature Dr. William Lane Craig vs. Dr. Alex Rosenberg. Best of all (for anyone not living in central Indiana) the debate can be viewed live through a webcast! You can also sign up to host a live or recorded viewing for your church or other group. Attendance either in-person or online is free, but you need to sign up to view online.

I am not familiar with either of these debaters, but William Lane Craig is noted as one of the leading apologists and debaters for Christianity today. Alex Rosenburg likewise comes with an impressive resume filled with experiences related to the philosophy of science. Are you intrigued? You can learn more and sign up to view online at www.symposiachristi.com/?page_id=13.

Feel free to spread the word to anyone who may be interested!

Flyer for debate

Flyer for debate