Doubt, Power, and Promise

by David Baer, April 12, 2015

Download: PDF


Text: Matthew 28:16-20

I remember getting my driver’s license, and all the hours of classroom and behind-the-wheel driver ed I had to do, and the test I had to take. It’s a serious responsibility piloting one to two tonnes of metal down a highway, and it made sense to me that they wanted to be sure I knew what I was doing and that I had a high level of confidence in my abilities. So it’s still a little shocking to me that, when we checked my wife into the hospital to deliver each of our two kids, nobody asked to see our parenting credentials. There you are, about to take round-the-clock responsibility for the welfare of a tiny, vulnerable human being, and there’s no licensing, no exam, no prerequisites. Apparently they let just anybody do it. Nobody’s going to give you a score so that you know how ready you are to be a mom or a dad. So there’s room to question whether you really are up to it—there’s room for doubt… right up until that moment when you hold that tiny child, and you know you’re going to figure it out somehow. The doubt doesn’t go away. It just becomes less important than the actual work of parenting.

The Sunday after Easter seems to be Doubt Sunday in the church calendar. A lot of other churches are reading the story of doubting Thomas today. The resurrection of Jesus would have no power to change us or our world if it weren’t so astounding and outlandish and unlikely as to cause doubt. I have to confess something, though. As much as I like the story about Thomas, I think the gospel lesson we read this morning is a better story about doubt. The Thomas story is about one person’s doubts being resolved in a way that’s unlikely ever to happen to us. But the story we heard today is about a people who continue to hold onto their doubts, even as they worship Jesus and live out the calling he gives them.

Last week we heard the story of resurrection. We saw that the tomb wasn’t where the road ends. It wasn’t a destination, even though it was supposed to be the end. His enemies were glad to bring Jesus’ story to an end. His friends were devastated, but they too accepted that this was the end. But when they came to see the tomb on Easter morning, the stone was rolled away, and they found God had transformed the end, had transformed the tomb, had transformed death itself into a new beginning. Jesus’ story didn’t end at the tomb. He was not only alive. He wasn’t even there anymore by the time his friends got there. He was already up and moving toward the next place he had to be. He’d left a message that said, “Meet me in Galilee.” So the women told the other disciples, and off they went to meet Jesus in Galilee.

That’s where we find them today. They’re on a mountain in Galilee. And we see that Jesus is there to commission them. He’s there to give them their marching orders. The story of Jesus isn’t over, because now it’s going to become the story of the disciples.

This story has a rough start. For one thing, only eleven of the twelve disciples have survived to meet the risen Jesus. But for another, not everybody is ready to embrace the good news. The gospel says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” One of the absolutely astounding things about the Bible’s resurrection stories is that, as often as not, people who are in the presence of the risen Jesus don’t recognize him. Jesus could be right in front of their faces, talking to them, and they don’t know it’s him. Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener, until he called her name. Cleopas and his friend, on the road to Emmaus, thought he was a stranger, until he broke bread with them. Doubt in the gospels doesn’t seem to be about obstinacy. The doubts these disciples have are not a stubborn failure to believe in the face of evidence. Something else is going on, because people don’t seem to believe the good news of Jesus’ resurrection on their own. Jesus himself, in his own good time, does something that finally gives the gift of faith, belief, trust. So, if some of these disciples doubt, if some of them still aren’t sure that Jesus is alive even when they’re in his presence, it’s not unique to this story. They’re in good company. And it’s not their fault. It isn’t yet their time to have their eyes opened, to hear their name being called, to recognize the risen Jesus as he is.

What’s new and amazing here is that the story says that the disciples worshiped Jesus. It doesn’t say that the ones who believed worshiped him, while the others held back. It says the disciples worshiped Jesus, even though some of them doubted. And nobody examined the doubters or called them hypocrites for joining in worship. The act of worshiping Jesus brought together those who believed and those who doubted as one unified community. “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

And what’s just as amazing is that Jesus treats this united worshiping fellowship of believers and doubters as equals. He commissions them all. He doesn’t tell the doubters to wait outside while he commissions the believers. He says, “I’ve got a job for you all.”

So the church is a home for believers and doubters. Everyone is welcome for worship. Everyone is welcome in the common work Jesus calls us to do, whether you believe in the depths of your heart that Jesus is alive, or whether for right now you only hope it’s true. If you are here to worship Jesus, to hear what he calls us to do, and to go out to do it, even while you hold onto your doubts, you belong here. Our doubts are not a problem that has to be solved before we can embrace a life of following Jesus. And they don’t separate doubters from the other Jesus-followers. Jesus himself treats us all without distinction.

So what is the job Jesus has in store for us? Jesus begins by telling us that all authority has been given to him. That’s another amazing claim, and ought to give rise to even more doubts! Remember, Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion wasn’t an easy or quick way to execute someone. The Romans crucified someone when they wanted to make absolutely clear that they were in charge. It was a painful, humiliating death, and by the end it was clear that the person being crucified wasn’t in charge of anything, not even their own bodily functions. So let’s be clear about what Jesus is saying. Having undergone a humiliating, painful death that made it clear to everyone who watched that he had no power at all, that he couldn’t save himself let alone anyone else, the risen Jesus is telling his friends that in fact, all authority has been given to him. That the well being and preservation and renewal of the whole world is in his hands. That in the new reality God is creating, authority comes not from violence or domination, but from submission, from willing sacrifice, from love. And it’s not just about Jesus, either. His disciples ought to recognize authority and entrust authority to those among them that set aside themselves, that gladly sacrifice their comfort, their desires, maybe even their lives for others. That’s what authority looks like in God’s kingdom, beginning with Jesus himself.

If you want to raise doubts about how effective, how powerful this kind of authority is in relation to other kinds of authority, just turn on a TV. Authority that comes from violence and domination looks to be alive and well. But I’ll bet if you think about it, you can come up with some counterexamples, too. The peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa, led by Christian activists and a process of truth and reconciliation is one. And no doubt in your own life, you can think of someone who changed the tone in your office, in your neighborhood, in your group of friends by setting aside their own desires for someone else. The kind of authority Jesus claims is real, but that it’s ultimate, that it’s finally triumphant, isn’t a slam dunk, isn’t a sure thing.

Jesus uses his authority to send his disciples out. Make other disciples, he says. Share the good news. Baptize and teach. This is the work of the church. This is what we do. If the world is going to be transformed, if it’s going to be saved by what Jesus did, it’s going to be as others come to believe (even as they doubt) that love wins, that the love Jesus showed on the cross finally triumphs over evil.

Finally, Jesus promises that he’ll be with them “to the end of the age.” The one other place this phrase appears in Matthew’s gospel is when Jesus explains the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The end of the age is the time that brings an end to hardships, to suffering, to the mixing together of all the good and evil on this earth and in the community of his disciples. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,” says Jesus. Maybe all remaining doubts too. But until that time, Jesus himself is present. He’s with us, to encourage us, to be a living presence, to show us by his ongoing life that love wins.

So may we worship the risen Jesus, even as we hold our doubts. May we come to trust, because of his story, that love wins. And may we be his church together, trusting his promise to be with us always. Amen.