Courage to Doubt: Courage to Believe 2013 04 07 Acts 5:12-32; John 20:19-31
When Jesus announced he was heading to Jerusalem, his disciples tried to stop him because they knew the religious authorities were waiting to arrest him. Thomas was the one who was first to declare his willingness to go with Jesus, even if his life was on the line. In our reading for today, the only disciple brave enough to venture out of the room was Thomas. In any society, it is dangerous to offer questions or opinions that challenge the accepted beliefs or values of the society, especially in a time of great stress or if the authorities are struggling to secure control. After having their leader executed, it is hard to imagine a group under much greater stress than those disciples. It would have been easier and safer for Thomas to say something like, “Wow!. I am sorry I missed him.” and keep his doubt to himself. But he didn’t. And Jesus did not criticize him for his doubt Another important quality is to have a solid relationship with a group which translates into the readiness to accept their declarations about important issues. People who have not seen, but believe, are blessed to be part of something where they feel exceptionally safe and trusting. The courage to doubt, and express doubts, is a blessing that helps refine the group’s beliefs. The courage to believe brings its own blessing. A challenge for churches is nourishing both kinds of courage.
Together, these two kinds of courage help us make a difference in the world. Peter and the disciples, according to the gospels, struggled to understand what Jesus was saying and doing. In our reading from Acts, the experience of the Holy Spirit blended with their experiences of Jesus to give them the courage to speak out in the temple, accept arrest, and go back to the temple with their message.
When I went off to seminary, I learned that there were Christian traditions that I had not really thought about. I already knew I had problems with the Apostle’s Creed, but I had not really thought about other words we have said for many hundreds of years without really thinking about what those words mean.
The issue of Jesus dying to pay a price for our sins was one of those traditions, and we studied the history of the evolution of that doctrine. I realized that I could not understand the necessity for God to require a huge price be paid for the rebelliousness of Adam. After reading Augustine, Athanasius, and others, I came to see their arguments as just words based in human-derived philosophies that contradicted the actions and teachings of Jesus. The idea of humans deciding what rules applied to God seemed arrogant to me. I understood how important it was for some people to believe that God orchestrated the crucifixion to pay a price to redeem humanity, but that way of thinking about God does not work for me. This issue solidified my confidence in a loving God who works for our well-being.
Part of our calling as followers of Jesus is to develop our courage to doubt and our courage to believe. My physical health depends on exercises that develop flexibility, strength and endurance; healthy food; adequate rest; positive social relationships; and emotional well-being. Our faith-related courage depends on many things as well. We need spiritual practices that develop our sense of connection to self, to God, and to others. Our courage needs development through thoughtful practice, taking small risks first, and then moving on to greater risks. Finally, we need to be aware of what is being said and done around us and by us.
Why might we want to grow our courage for doubting and believing? The answer will be different for each of us. We are up to chapter 6 in our study group on Bruce Sanguin’s book, Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos. One story in this part was about the husband of Barbara Brown Taylor who took in a week long Sun Dance festival. At the end of the week, his body was haggard, but his eyes were on fire. He told Barbara that her church was too easy. Ballet dancers experience intense pain on their way to success in ballet. Marathoners live with pain. Our achievements that mean the most to us, that pierce deeply into our emotions and souls, almost always, if not always, include ordeal on the way. Coming to the edge of what we can do, the differences we can make, draws us into that zone where pain happens. To willingly go into such a zone requires courage.
It is this kind of courage that leads most couples into the hazardous world of parenting. This kind of courage propels artists and politicians, business people and athletes. The outcome is a sense of being more human, more real.
In our discussion yesterday, the issue of the United Church being criticized for being too wishy washy was raised along with the comment that, when we do make a firm decision, we are then criticized for saying something with substance. This congregation is still in a time of making and following through on a decision of whether to accept fading away, or taking action to become a church in the process of renewal. Choosing renewal will require taking all the risks that a new church takes, from alienating some members as it changes through financial challenges to the painful process of creating a clear sense of mission. This process contains pain in the need to choose to do some things, and not do others, to give up the freedom to wander for the discipline of working with purpose, and the need to compromise. Each person faces the responsibility of choosing to be loyal to the congregation even when we do not agree with some choices.
A Presbyterian congregation many years ago face an intense debate over the decision to stay with their old hymn books or go with a new one. They chose to go with a new one, and several members dropped their givings to the church. One of the people opposed to the new hymn book increased his support as a response because family came before getting one’s own way in his words.
As we consider options, each of us will need the courage to express respectfully our doubts about those options, and the courage to believe that choices made carefully and prayerfully by the congregation as a whole are worth our work and our sacrifices, even when we do not agree with them.
And the place we need to start is with a mission statement. The best mission statements are less than 20 words long, are easily remembered, and clear about the difference we want to make as a church.
You have already, in the past, chosen as a congregation to be courageous in advancing dangerous political points of view in working for a just society. I believe you have the courage to face the challenges as a congregation committed to recreating itself as a renewing congregation. May the love and grace of God be part of all we do in pursuing that future, and becoming even more real.