June 11, 2017 - Sermon - Rev. Mark Simone

But Some Doubted

Scripture:  Matthew 28:16-20     (NRSV)

The Commissioning of the Disciples

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

          One of the reasons I love children and youth ministries is that you never know what a child or teen may say. There is so much still being figured out so sometimes the best replies are simply a matter of how the young person sees the world. These jokes are an example:

A kindergarten teacher was walking around observing her classroom of children while they were drawing pictures. As she got to one girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was.
      The girl replied, "I'm drawing God."
      The teacher paused and said, "But no one knows what God looks like."
      Without looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, "They will in a minute."      

A Sunday school teacher asked the children just before she dismissed them to go to church, "And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?"
      Annie replied, "Because people are sleeping"

It was Palm Sunday but because of a sore throat, 5-year-old Johnny stayed home from church with a sitter. When the family returned home, they were carrying several palm fronds. Johnny asked them what they were for.
      "People held them over Jesus' head as he walked by," his father told him.
      "Wouldn't you know it," Johnny fumed, "the one Sunday I don't go and he shows up."

          Jesus witnessed similar shenanigans from his disciples. Think about those who followed Jesus from the very beginning for a moment. They had it rough. They were taken by the words and the life witness and the miracles of this Rabbi Jesus. The followed him closely, many from town to town forsaking their daily lives to be with and work with Jesus. Imagine – no one had ever seen anything like this guy before. And over time, some of them began to figure out that he was somehow, the Son of God – whatever that meant.

          Really, put yourself in their shoes. They were not well off people, being mostly the lower, working class. They struggled daily to survive in a climate that was not hospitable. It was rough, and then came Jesus. And he illuminated their hearts and enhanced their lives. He made faith somehow more real, and he continually gave of himself for them. He lived for them and later, he would die for them and for all of us.

          To Jesus they must have seemed like little children. So he worked with them slowly and carefully and over time brought them to the place where they could go and minister in his name. Remember how he sent them out, two-by-two, into the communities to share the news of God’s love for everyone and that message that God’s care goes beyond law and into the core of our lives and being?

          And they said stupid things and they questioned and they were uncertain and afraid – just as we were as children and just as our children and grandchildren are sometimes today. Children need extra time and attention for, as the title of a book once proclaimed, Children are Wet Cement. It’s all about forming and shaping and bringing lives to places of growth and change.

          Jesus did not have forever with his disciples to accomplish all that he perhaps wished to complete with them. And now, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus throwing a Hail Mary pass with a command to Go. “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.” Jesus is giving them lots to do and using action verbs. Let’s spread the word – I love you all and I gave myself for you, that you might have forgiveness of sins and new life. It is the Christian message of hope.

          But let’s be honest. Most of us, at least some of the time, fall into the category that Matthew mentions almost as an aside.

          The scene is of the resurrected Jesus, standing on elevated ground in a mountain, and the disciples must have experienced wonder and thanksgiving and celebration and a long list of other emotions – and then Matthew mentions writes, “but some doubted.”

          In the larger story of this chapter, prior to today’s portion, we find Matthew in a bit of a hurry to complete the letter he is writing. He starts with the resurrection and the two Marys who came to the tomb. There is the earthquake, and the open grave, and the illuminated, vibrant appearance of Jesus. There are the guards shivering in fear and then, to top it all off, the angel who appeared to direct the women, “Tell the disciples that Jesus is risen.”

          But there is another story that is put into action to counter what the angel told the Marys. The chief priests learn of what happened and they pay off the soldiers and give them an alternative story of the disciples stealing the corpse while the guards slept in dereliction of duty. The money changed the narrative and the official story of Jesus was closed as a body snatching.

          And it is after these two stories are told that Christ assembles his disciples and tells them to go and change the world. But some, as Matthew tells us, doubted.

          It is embarrassing, as a Christian, to admit that we sometimes feel doubt. And doubt can come in many shapes and forms. Sometimes we can accept some of the story of Jesus – but these other things prickle with us. Or, as with one of our members with whom I am speaking recently, after a lifelong adventure in faith, none of it makes sense anymore. He is shaped by his doubt and has no idea what to do.

          But my friends, before I spin my wheels about doubt, the good news is that doubt is not a sin. And I must admit that there are times when I am a big fan of doubt. If we truly are supposed to go into the entire world and share the story of Jesus, it makes sense to me that prior to that engagement we personally prod and examine the Gospel story from all directions to make sure we understand what Jesus is saying and what that means to us.

          I have found in my ministry that my doubts help to make me relevant to others who are seeking to figure out this Christian life. My doubts help me to be compassionate and non-judgmental when someone comes to my office for counseling. In my doubts I think I am more accessible to the youth who frequently question me about issues of life and faith. I had a youth ministry friend who once wrote a brilliant article which he entitled, “To greatly doubt is to greatly believe.” I think my friend Ben is right. When we take the time and wrestle with our doubts, while remaining faithful to Jesus, we will emerge with a better understanding and a deeper faith. Be faithful and being doubtful are not mutually exclusive. I think it shows courage.

          Depending on how we handle our doubts, the doubt can either hinder our faith and growth – or it can be a springboard, of sorts, into a face-to-face life of increasing faith and growth. To face a doubt is to take the time to be in discussion with God about those things which we don’t understand. God loves these kinds of conversational prayer times with us. And my esteemed colleagues, when they have preached, have sometimes used the quote by Anne Lamott, “The opposite of faith in not doubt; but certainty” Meaning it is far better to wonder than it is to know in an inflexible manner.

          And in the honesty of the Bible, which is part of the reason I believe the Bible, we have Matthew sharing the three narratives in this chapter. First the resurrection. Then the deception. And now the Great Commission. And as a whole, it makes so much sense.

          The disciples saw the resurrected Jesus once again alive and standing before them, and some doubted. The ruling class and the guards may have seeded those doubts further, continuing the erosion of faith. Yet at the end, Jesus is sending out his doubtful followers to carry his message into a world filled with challenge.

          Even though they doubted, and questioned, and struggled, and even disbelieved, the historical record is that these original 11 disciples, minus Judas, along with other men and women who followed closely, did take that message into the entire world. The doubts continue, but so do the might works of God.

          You doubt is valid. Perhaps even healthy. The theologian Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” He also stated, “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”

          Finally, as we learned in our scripture reading, those who doubted knew where to be in their time of doubt. They stood at the foot of Jesus as he commissioned them to go and change the world. They took their questions and placed them before Christ, and then turned from that place and shared message of God’s love to all.