This morning, we're going to begin with a little bit of Show and Tell. This framed poster hangs in the foyer of our church. And it says Welcome to a Progressive Christian Community. Now, if you've been coming to our church for a while, or you've taken any of our new member classes, you have learned that our church has been a member of the Center for Progressive Christianity for more than 20 years. Now, for those of you who are watching from home, this poster is also on our church's website. I'm not going to read all of this to you. But these are the eight points of Progressive Christianity, meaning these are the eight beliefs or tenants – what it means to be a progressive Christian.
I share it with you this morning because there are two of them that I'd like to point out. One says that we welcome a community of people, including believers, agnostics, and questioning skeptics. And it says, we believe that there is more value in questioning than in absolutes.
We believe there's more value in questioning than absolutes. I love that. I love that we're a church that's more about the questions than the answers. And we let people know that right when they're coming into the church, that this is a place where they can bring their questions and doubts and skepticisms. Because that's what we're here to do each week, to explore the mystery.
You know, faith and spirituality is a mystery. That's why the holy men and women who came before us were known as the mystics, because they lived in the mystery. That's what we're doing here. Each week we're exploring the questions. It's why last Sunday, on Easter Sunday, our holiest day of the year as Christians, we in this church were able to explore the mystery of Jesus's resurrection. And to question whether or not it was the physical resuscitation of a body. We would not be able to do that in 99.9% of Christian churches in America. People come to church for the most part, because they want the answers. Pastor give me the answer.
And there are plenty of Christian churches, especially here in West Michigan, that'll give you answers. I told you before, and I'll say it again, I don't have your answers. And any pastor or spiritual teacher who tells you that they have the answer, I guarantee you they don't have the answer.
Now, in our bulletin every Sunday, on the inside front cover, we print our church's mission statement. This was a mission statement that was crafted by this congregation more than 15 years ago, when Andy DeBoer was the pastor. And among the statements in our mission statement, it says, “We are a church that values questions, more than answers.”
We value questions more than answers. Now, that does not mean that we at Douglas UCC are not a church of people of great faith. Other Christian churches might say that about us, they might say, if you have doubts about your religion, you are not a person of great faith. But actually, it's just the opposite. I shared in our church newsletter this week a quote from the contemporary Christian writer, whose name is Anne Lamott. I know we have a lot of Anne Lamott fans in our church. She said this, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”
The opposite of faith is certainty. And boy, isn't it true there are so many Christians in America today, who are so certain that they have the answer, not just for themselves, but for everybody. But that isn't faith. That's the opposite of faith.
In the New York Times recently, there was a wonderful editorial with a great title that got my attention. It said,” God is a question, not an answer.” And it was written by Professor William Ervin. And in that editorial, he said, “Belief without doubt would not be required by an all-loving God. And it should not be worn as a badge of honor. People who claim certainty about God worry me, Both those who believe, and those who don't believe – they do not really listen to the other side of the conversation. And they're ready to impose their views upon others. It is impossible to be certain about God.”
Some of the greatest spiritual people I know are people who express doubts about their faith. Mother Teresa, one of the holiest people of the 20th century – after she died, they published some of her journals. And in those journals, she expressed doubt towards the end of her life, whether or not God existed. That doesn't mean she wasn't a woman of great faith. It means that she was.
One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century was Paul Tillich. He said, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is an element of faith.”
In order to be a faithful person, doubt is an element of faith. And that's why I think the Apostle Thomas, who we heard about in our scripture reading for today, I always think he got a bad rap.
We always think of him as Doubting Thomas. Never in the gospels, does it use the term “Doubting Thomas,” but it's become part of our vernacular. And what Doubting Thomas means is someone who doesn't believe – as if that's something bad. I don't think that Thomas was the only one who had doubts. I mean, where are the Apostles in this story? Jesus, their friend, who they thought was the Messiah, had been crucified And now they're hiding in fear. And I guarantee you while they were locked in that room in fear, they were expressing a lot of doubts. Doubts like, “Gee, I wonder if we were right, about this Jesus guy?” “I wonder if I should have left everything behind to follow this guy?” So I'm sure Thomas wasn't the only one with doubts. But when Thomas comes in, they tell him, Thomas, we've seen the Lord! Thomas doesn't say, “You guys are liars.” What he says is, “Look, you had an experience of the risen Christ. And that's why you believe. I want to have it too. I don't want to have your second-hand testimony. I want to have a firsthand experience of the risen Christ.”
And because of that expression of his doubt, and his question, does Jesus punish him? No. Jesus rewards him. For his questions and doubts. Jesus appears to him and says, lovingly, “Thomas, come. Touch me. Touch my hands, and touch my side.” Such an intimate and beautiful thing.
Some of you may not know this, but there's actually a Gospel of Thomas. But you won't find it in the Bible. There were many gospels that the early church, when they were putting the Bible together, they decided not to include. In fact, there were several of them, like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, that they hoped would never be found. They hid them away. But they were found in 1945 in Egypt. That wasn't that long ago. Some of you in this room were alive in 1945.
But those gospels have been verified by archaeologists, by theologians. They are authentic. And those gospels have become known as the Gnostic Gospels,, and the word Gnostic means “knowing.” But it's not an intellectual knowing. It's an intimate knowing, a knowledge of the heart. The Gnostics, like Thomas, believe that every one of us can have an intimate knowing of the Christ firsthand, for ourselves.
I told you last Sunday on Easter Sunday, that I know for a fact that the resurrection is real. And the reason I know it is because I have a firsthand account of it. I don't believe in the resurrection of the Christ, because somebody told me about it or because I read about it in a book. But because I've experienced it. A man who died over 2,000 years ago is alive in me. In prayer and meditation, I have felt His presence, His power, His light and His life in a very real way. And I know that you have too, and that's why we're here every Sunday.
Now all of us are on a spiritual journey. And sometimes people instead of using the word “journey,” they use “quest.” And I like that better. We're on a spiritual quest, because quest is part of the word questioning. Part of our spiritual life is bringing our questions and our doubts.
I actually find one of the greatest stumbling blocks people have on their spiritual journey, one of the greatest stumbling blocks that keeps them from having that firsthand experience of the Christ, is their unquestioned beliefs, religious beliefs that they just inherited from childhood, from their parents, from their churches from their society. Beliefs they just unconsciously and unquestioningly took on. Scripture, in Romans 12 says, ‘We are transformed by the renewing of our mind.”
And that's why I always talk to you almost every Sunday, about the importance of prayer and meditation. You have got to get still, be still and know is what Scripture says. In the silence, we can bring our questions and our doubts. We can wrestle with them. I don't have your answers. But all of your answers are within you.
In the Gospel of Thomas, if you read it, Jesus says, If you awaken that which is within you, that which is within you will set you free.
So that's what I want to invite you to do. As we continue this Easter season together. Find time every day to be still and know, to bring your doubts and questions to the light. And may we, the people of Douglas UCC, be a congregation of people who humbly live the questions together, then arrogantly proclaim that we have everyone's answers.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Rev. Ian Lawton
I used to like the bumper sticker that says, “I used to be doubtful, but now I’m not so sure.” Doubt is something I am VERY sure about. It is important and healthy. Unfortunately, doubt is often seen as a weakness. In some religious circles, doubt is even seen as the opposite of faith. I once heard a televangelist say, “Give doubt an inch, and it will become your ruler.” I doubt it. Doubt is one of the ways you inch towards truth. Doubt is powerful. It is the way things change. Doubt is a personal invitation, a welcome sign that says, “Inquire within.” It is a massive question mark on the way things are, an invitation to reconsider the status quo. Doubt is a built-in lighthouse, warning you when religious beliefs, personal decisions or social perspectives are leading you straight on to the rocks of catastrophe. Doubt is important to question worn-out personal beliefs, such as self-limiting fear, and doubt is essential to question political and economic systems that are no longer working. Doubt is one of intuition’s most powerful tools. Use it wisely, not as the end point or a permanent posture, but as a spark to break the bonds of personal and social restraint. Both your mind and your experience, not to mention your underlying awareness, are powerful tools to test all that you hear and see and take you closer to the truth of your essential nature. So give yourself the benefit of doubt.
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