Sunday, April 03, 2016

Easter 2 - April 3, 2016 - God Blesses Doubters

I’m struck today by a particular line in our Gospel reading, where it describes the disciples meeting, after they’ve experienced the empty tomb and after Mary has seen the risen Christ in person, in a house that is “locked for fear.” I never quite noticed this before, I think because I’m always focused on Thomas and his doubt, but it occurred to me that Thomas was not the only one who doubted. All of the disciples seemed to be having their doubts, despite the proof of the empty tomb and Mary’s encounter in the garden––that’s why they were in a house with locked doors, afraid. They were afraid because they did not yet trust what Jesus had said to them. Jesus had told them that they would go where he was going, he said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” He told them, and so, to be blunt, the disciples––who had a legitimate fear that they might be crucified like Jesus––should not have been afraid, even if they were about to die. Jesus told them, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” They already had seen the miracles of healing and life that Jesus had worked while he was alive, they had already seen the power of God in raising Jesus from the dead––they ought not to have been hiding in a house with the doors “locked for fear.”

But they were. They doubted. They doubted the power of God in the face of death. Those very first disciples––Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved and James––and even, of course, dear Thomas - they all doubted the promise of God’s new life for them.

But don’t we all? We all doubt the promise of resurrection. We all hide in our houses and lock the doors for fear. When faced with a big decision, one that requires us to risk our future, more often than not we retreat and hide in a safe place and lock the doors against intruders. We hesitate. We decide what to do based on our fear and our doubt. We say, like Thomas, unless I see the undeniable and irrefutable proof of resurrection with my own eyes, I will not believe. Unless I see proof that things are going to turn out well, I will not act. I will not risk. I will not unlock the doors and go out into the world and leave this old life behind.

And yes, I’m talking about the decision coming up for this congregation about whether or not to sell this building. But I’m also talking about every decision we have to make in our lives that carries with it a life-altering change. It might be a decision to retire or change careers. It might be a decision to sell a house and move to a new place. It might be a decision to undergo a particular medical procedure, or a decision to stop treatment for a particular life-long illness. It might be a decision to end a relationship, or to begin a new one. Regardless of the decision, when faced with something so monumental, our initial reaction is to retreat to a safe place, lock the doors, and do nothing. 
Our comes from doubt and fear. Fear of death, certainly, but particularly when it comes to this church, fear of making the wrong decision. I will be honest with you - I am afraid that we will make the wrong decision. I am afraid that we will decide to sell, and that things won’t work out the way everyone hopes, and that ten years from now we’ll drive through Bridgeland and this building will be gone. I’m afraid that when I die and stand face-to-face with God, God will say, “Why did you let them make that decision? You, above all, were supposed to have faith that I would bring new life and yet you were too afraid to keep going until I brought it! What kind of Christian were you?” I am afraid of that.
But I’m also afraid of the opposite decision––that we will decide to not sell and to just keep going and hope for a miracle, and that the congregation will die one by one until there are only a handful of very elderly seniors here on Sunday morning and we will look around us and wish we had done something sooner. I’m afraid that when I die and stand face-to-face with God, God will say, “Why did you let them make that decision? You, above all, were supposed to have faith that I would bring new life and yet you were too afraid to die! What kind of Christian were you?” I am afraid of that.

And, along with the fear of making the wrong decision, is the guilt that maybe we are not trusting God enough. Maybe we are not living the Easter life enough. Maybe we do not have enough faith and trust and belief in the resurrection and in the glory and power of God. Maybe we are just like the disciples and just like Thomas and maybe we doubt too much and just don’t have enough faith. Maybe we’ve locked our doors for fear.

Well, as the kids say these days, “Duh!” Of course we don’t have enough faith! Of course we doubt! Of course we are afraid! In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In other words, God’s blessings are on those who do not doubt. God’s blessings are on those who have faith and believe in the new life that Christ brings. Blessed are they because God has blessed them. We have to be clear on the order here: they’re not blessed because they believe. They believe because God has blessed them. God has given them the power to believe and the power to have faith. Faith and belief and trust are not things that come naturally to us. Doubt and fear come naturally––that we doubt and are afraid is normal. It’s just what humans do. Doubt and fear are signs that we are human. God must bless us in order for us to have faith and trust. God must bless us in order for us to unlock the doors and go out and risk everything. God must bless us in order for us to be willing to die.

And God does. God does bless us, by sending us Jesus Christ, who bestows on us the Holy Spirit. God blessed the disciples by sending Jesus to them, who sought them out and found them behind those locked doors, came to them when they were hiding away, and, even when they were filled with doubt and fear, said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” God blessed Thomas, doubting Thomas who wouldn’t believe a word of anything, by sending Jesus to him, who said, “Peace be with you. Do not doubt but believe.” God responds to our doubt by sending us Jesus Christ, who gives us the Holy Spirit, who gives us our faith. We learned as much when we were in confirmation and memorized Luther’s Small Catechism. In the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” Luther writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.” Faith and belief are not natural to us––we are not born with them, we do not work for them or earn them or try hard for them. Faith and belief comes to us only through the Holy Spirit––we have faith and belief only because God wishes us to and only because God blesses us with them.

God blesses us with faith, and even more, God blesses us with the Holy Spirit so that we can trust that God is with us no matter what decisions we make in our lives. Jesus came to those doubting disciples and he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And then he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In other words, God gives you the Holy Spirit so that you might make the best decision you can and then God works with whatever you decide to do. (Of course, if we follow the story of the disciples in Acts, we’ll find that the Holy Spirit leads them out of their locked houses, and into the streets, and across the world, and even to death, which says something to us...) In the end, though, God turns all things to good, regardless of what decision we make, and never ceases to call us always towards new life. 

We all have doubts, and fear that comes from those doubts, along with a hefty dose of guilt because we doubt and are afraid. We doubt that God has a future for us, we doubt that God will give us new life after death. This is normal. This is why God blesses us with the Holy Spirit, to give us faith, to bless us so that we will believe without seeing. God sends the Holy Spirit to empower you to make decisions, and to trust that God is with you in those decisions. And so, blessed by the Holy Spirit, do not make decisions that allow us to hide, with the doors “locked for fear,” fear of the wrong decision and fear of death, but rather make decisions––big ones and little ones––trusting in God’s promise of new life, trusting in the resurrection and Easter, and trusting that, no matter what, God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.