Divine Doubt, Lasting Life

John 20:19-31  

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Let’s engage in a creative exercise, shall we?
If you’re willing, join with me.

Do you remember the first time you ever heard the story about Jesus of Nazareth dying on a cross and then rising to life? Were you a kid? A youth? An adult? Who told you the story? Did you read it somewhere or hear it told? Can you imagine the place?

Most likely, you didn’t encounter this story just by picking up a Bible one day randomly and reading it. It’s far more likely that someone else told you this story. Do you remember?
And now, let’s take it a step further.

Let’s imagine that this story was told to you, but you never, ever believed it. It was never accepted in your brain as a concept, an idea, or something real. In other words, you were given no reason to think that this actually happened.

Still with me?

Last exercise. Now, a larger step. I want you to imagine that this story was never told, you never heard [no one heard it], it just doesn’t exist. Jesus never died on a cross, never rose from the dead.

That being established, what has changed for you? Anything? Have you now made different decisions in your life? Do you look at yourself or others differently? What has changed? How do you feel, knowing that Jesus of Nazareth did not die on a cross and rise from the dead?

I hope you were able to participate in that with me. I don’t do this to belittle what you think or believe. The point of this is to get you [and me] thinking about what we think and believe, particularly about the central story in Christianity. Because let’s be honest—the majority of the time, this statement:

Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross and then rose from the dead….

Is stamped, sealed, approved, certified as completely true and infallible and the one thing that Christians must believe. I have been to countless conferences, events, worship services, meetings, etc. of an ecumenical nature, and nearly all of them centered around this idea that Christians are unified by this belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Now before you start yelling HERETIC and throwing things at me, remember that we’re still participating in this mental exercise of thinking that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection does not exist. Let’s stay in that space.

By doing that, we’ll be able to notice things we often do not. For example, if Christians are not unified by Jesus’ death and resurrection, what then makes someone a “Christian?”

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Eliminate that belief and what are you left with? What makes someone a Christian, literally, a follower of Jesus? Not death, not resurrection. So what then?

I’m guessing your answer to that did not involve belief in a doctrine or theology. I’m guessing that you came up with some actions that might define what a Christian is. What are those actions?

I hope you’ll write some of your answers in the comment section, if you don’t mind.

Thanks for staying in that space.

And now let’s talk about the word that is the F-bomb for most of Christianity.

DOUBT.

It’s actually a beautiful, human word, doubt. It means “to be uncertain of belief or opinion,” to “deliberately suspend judgement” and to seek more information. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

This of course is not to be confused with self-doubt, related to low self-image. That’s a whole different thing and is not healthy and can be very destructive and is sadly what oppressive expressions of Christianity use to marginalize, belittle, and guilt people.

No, we’re talking about doubt, which you could argue is the opposite of self-doubt, because doubt involves you feeling okay about asking questions, wondering why things are the way the are in the world, challenging certain norms of society, even raising major questions about religious teachings.

Healthy doubt asks questions and searches for evidence in a scientific manner, rather than being driven by anxiety or moods. When no solid evidence is found, skepticism ends and there is not an attempt to override it.  Healthy doubt is relaxed and reasonable.

And so, let’s approach this post-Easter story with this healthy doubt. And in doing so, let’s embrace a character in the story who deserves our attention: Thomas.

See, imagine you’re Thomas. Your friends are scared out of their minds because the Romans and/or the Jewish Sanhedrin could come at any time and arrest them and then what? So they locked the doors while you went outside, possibly to run some errands or to pick up some groceries because clearly, your friends were useless and they didn’t even have the wherewithal to order a pizza.

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So you finally get back and bang on the door for them to open it and when they do, they start acting all weird. “We have seen the Lord,” they say to you. What do you mean? The “Lord” as in Jesus of Nazareth? Really? So let me get this straight—you lock yourself inside the house and refuse to come out and then now you tell me that you’ve seen Jesus who died quite recently [too soon?] at the hands of the Roman Empire. Yeah right.

So logically, you tell your insane, hallucinating friends that the only way you’d believe it is if you actually saw Jesus of Nazareth with all the wounds from the terrible execution. You say this knowing that it’s a joke. Why would you believe a scared group of people who ran away when things got dicey?

This goes on for a week. It’s so annoying, because they keep telling you that they’ve seen the Lord and you’re like: “Yeah, I get it. So…where is the lord now? In the walls? Playing hide and seek?”

At the end of that painfully annoying week something interesting finally happens. You see Jesus of Nazareth, even though the doors are locked. Jesus actually comes to you. You get a “Shalom” which feels real nice and then this Jesus tells you to touch his hands and then also to put your hand in his side. Gross, but it’s kind of what you asked for. You’re told to not doubt, but to believe. You realize in that moment that your teacher and friend was only confirming what you wanted to believe—that resurrection/new life could really happen for everybody, that you didn’t have to feel dead inside, lost, isolated, scared all the time. You always felt that way before death and even after, but now it was affirmed. You didn’t even have to touch Jesus at all [and besides, that would be creepy]. Instead, you were touched by the freedom to ask hard questions and to discover that life was not limited to a binary system of rules or beliefs. Life was free, death was not even the end, but just a beginning.

You always knew that doubting led you to wisdom and an active faith. The old paradigms start to fade; you have more questions; you feel the most alive you’ve ever felt. 

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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