June 4, 2023

"But Some Doubted”

Rev. Scott Landis

Matthew 28:16-20

On this Trinity Sunday all of our hymns highlight this great Doctrine of the Church that may help to describe our understanding of the magnitude of God to include: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” or if you prefer as I do to use the more inclusive language, “Creator, Savior, and Sustainer.” Even the scripture passages for this Sunday all have a connection to this theological concept of the Trinity in some way. Specifically, our gospel lesson from Matthew that includes the Great Commission is cast in Trinitarian language. Likely you’ve heard these words many times before: 

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.

I use Trinitarian language all the time – now in both Hawaiian and English when I offer my benediction at the end of every service.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
The love of God,
And the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
Be with you all, now and forevermore.

It just rolls off the tongue – but most of us haven’t a clue what is meant by all those deceptively simple words. And that may give you pause if we think about it long enough. We may SAY we believe it, but we probably don’t fully understand what we are saying. We may even say it is a mystery – something yet to be revealed. Perhaps something we will never fully understand in this life. 

But my hunch is – the Trinity is probably not something you spend very much time worrying about. You’ve got other things you are grappling with in your life. Our lives are complicated and filled with questions we encounter everyday. AND sometimes they seem to directly intersect with matters of our faith. We carry our beliefs alongside our misunderstandings and our doubts. While such misgivings may be expected in our everyday lives, they can constitute a crisis if those questions seep too deeply into our faith. [Pause]

I hope you listened closely to the brief bible passage we read today from Matthew. While it certainly affirmed this idea of Trinity there’s something much deeper going on here that I find fascinating. You may have heard the description of what was going on in the minds of the disciples as they received Jesus’ commission – while they worshiped him. Let me read it to you again, 

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, the worshiped him; but they/some doubted. 

I can’t believe, given the number of times I have read that passage, I never noticed those few but important words before – “but some doubted.” 

I love the fact the writer of Matthew seemingly got into the heads and hearts of these beloved men who had given their lives to Jesus. They left their families, and careers to serve this man who they believed was the Messiah. They watched him heal the sick, exorcise demons, bless children, and feed the multitudes. They watched him pray and suffer and love and affirm all those in his care – men, women, children, Samaritans, prostitutes, lepers – the list is endless. Yet here, just as he was about to commission them to begin their evangelistic mission – while they bowed before him and worshiped him, Matthew records, “some doubted.”

I love that about them. And I am so grateful for the honesty these words offer to us. They were simply being human. There was room for their questions, their skepticism, and bewilderment … their doubt. I believe these three words “but they doubted” were very intentionally included in the biblical text to remind us that belief is important, but doubt is what strengthens our faith. [Pause]

In doing some research on this phenomenon I discovered just how prominent and pervasive doubts are in the lives of those who claim to be Christian today. The Barna Group – which has been conducting research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors since 1984, did an extensive poll on the causes for doubt. Their constituents included: Pastors, Christians — both Practicing and Non-practicing, Persons of other faiths, and those who claimed no faith at all. 

They discovered that the three top reasons for doubt when it comes to those in the aggregate were: 

1. Past experiences with religious institutions including the hypocrisy of religious people.

2. Human suffering often referred to as theodicy or why bad things happen to good people.

3. Conflict in the world. The inference being, “why doesn’t God do something about it?”

But when they drilled down further among practicing Christians it was the hypocrisy, human suffering, unanswered questions, and unanswered prayer that fueled most of their doubts. [Pause] “And they came to Jesus as he had directed them. And when they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” [Pause]

It is vitally important for you to allow this space in your faith lives – a space for uncertainty and doubt. You should never buy into the idea that “unless you believe all that a creed says, or all that a statement of faith attests, or all that a hymn suggests, or even all that a mission statement affirms – i.e., unless you believe it all your faith is questionable, your commitment insincere. If I’d hear that, I’d run for the door. 

And those are probably just a few of the minor doubts. The biggies are much more frightening but equally legitimate to allow as part your faith. Your questions may involve the reality of the virgin birth, or the miracle stories in the bible, or the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or even whether God exists. Your doubts are not the problem. The problem is when you bury them or try to hide them, for fear others will think less of you for not being faithful enough. I’m here to tell you, they may be your gold. As you wrestle with them – like Jacob who wrestled with God all night long  – you may walk away broken and wounded, but you will have the strength of renewed faith to face anything that comes your way. Or as Jesus reminded us in another passage, “You will know the Truth – Your Truth – and the Truth will set you free. 

Sometimes folks get anxious when I say things like this. They may think progressive approaches like this may render ours as little more than “the church of what’s happening now” complete with a wishy-washy pastor who says anything goes. Not at all. I’m not advocating a flabby commitment in your search for truth. I simply want to allow the time and space you may need to process the pain that life throws at you on a regular basis. I want to allow room for genuine struggle and wrestling and doubt — even disbelief if that be necessary. In fact, I want to bless that kind of honest struggling as they become the roots that – one day – will manifest as the mighty oaks of your faith.

  That struggle may take time. That risk may take time. Those doubts may take time. Take all the time you need – because God’s love for you is eternal. God will give you that space. It’s high time the church will do so as well. 

Theologian Paul Tillich said that “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of it … Sometimes I think my mission is to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”

Author Gail Hyatt said, “People only lose their way when they lose their why.

And Pastor Rob Bell has said, “Faith and doubt aren’t opposites. In fact, doubt is often a sign that your faith has a pulse, that it’s alive and well and searching and exploring. Faith and doubt aren’t opposites, they are, as it turns out excellent dance partners. 

Mai kākou, l don’t need to tell you, life is hard. It beats you up from time to time. It leaves you wondering: Why? How come? Where are you, God? It can turn our strong and well-worn faith into a stream of unending doubts and questions. It may even necessitate your walking away from it all for a season. And there is nothing wrong with that. 

Take those doubts to the those who may be able to help: your spiritual ‘ohana, a trusted friend, your pastor, or go directly to God in prayer. There is no shame in any of that. 

Remember Jesus’ last line in offering his commission to those who were filled to overflowing with faith AND to those who doubted. It is the same promise for us today.

Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 


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