A Resurrection That Leaves Room For Doubt | 04.04.2021 | Easter Sunday
Every sunrise, as it first pierces what was once the dead of night
and then gradually overtakes the pitch black sky
with the brightness of its rays,
assures us the darkness is not permanent
– that the light of the sun has not left us forever.
So it was on the third day after Jesus’ death
as the sun rising on the horizon
illuminated the Son of God who had risen from the tomb.
Like the light of this universe’s brightest star,
the Light of the World, the Light of the life of all humankind,
refused to remain eclipsed by the shadow of death.
And so, Christ rose to conquer the grave. Christ is risen – He is risen indeed.
It is the dawn of a new day of hope for all creation
for the Light that is the Son, the Light of Jesus, has not left us forever.
On that first Sunday morning, the Sunday we call Easter,
some women had come
to complete the hasty burial begun on the eve of the Sabbath.
The ground shook as they made their way
to the place where Jesus had been put to rest.
But it was their hearts that quaked as they came to the gravesite
and found the stone rolled away,
the guardians of the tomb long gone, and the stunning emptiness within.
In the glorious symmetry of the Gospel,
the good news about Jesus Christ both begins and not ends
– but begins again – with an angel delivering astounding news
to a woman named Mary:
“Do not be afraid…He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”
The first witnesses and bearers of the announcement of the Gospel
are not those who first followed Jesus.
They are two women who proved themselves to be more steadfast
than the twelve men originally called by Christ.
On their way to share the good news with the disciples,
that “Jesus has risen!”
Jesus himself meets them and repeats the instructions of the angel
– for his followers to meet him in Galilee:
“Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said.
They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.
Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.
Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Then, as the disciples follow Jesus’ command
and meet him on a mountain in Galilee, one of the most incredible lines
in all of the Gospels is dropped on us.
Here at the end of the journey
that also marks the horizon of a new beginning,
Matthew shares words that none of us expected to hear.
No, I’m not talking about what is called the Great Commission.
I am pointing us to a single sentence.
Just 11 simple but important words found in verse 17:
“When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”
It is a stunning admission by Matthew,
who himself was one of the original twelve followers of Jesus,
that some in their company still had their doubts.
One that can’t help but raise many questions for us.
Namely, who were the doubters? What exactly were their doubts?
Why were they doubting? And when and how did their doubts get resolved?
Matthew doesn’t share the answer to these questions.
Instead he just leaves it there – the existence of doubt
in the midst of the celebration of resurrection.
In fact, if we look and listen carefully, all four gospel accounts
– Mark, Luke, and John along with Matthew –
record doubts about the resurrection.
Despite several encounters with the risen Christ over a period of forty days,
considerable uncertainty seems to be present among the disciples
as they come to terms with the reality of Jesus resurrected.
One of the things we have to respect about the Gospel accounts
is the honest and straightforward way they tell the story of Jesus
without massaging any tensions, leaving out any details, or altering facts
that might read as problematic or disconcerting.
It’s this kind of truthfulness that convinces me the Gospel of Jesus Christ
is not “a cleverly devised myth” – something the disciples made up
rather than being an authentic historical account.
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we told you about
the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power,
but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)
And if you don’t agree with me on this, if you still have questions, that’s fine.
Because as Matthew assures us, there is room for doubt,
even among the disciples.
To be clear, the doubt exhibited by the first followers of Jesus,
according to the original word in Greek used by Matthew to describe it,
is more about hesitation than outright unbelief.
It has the connotation of uncertainty or a wavering in one’s convictions.
Still, how could those who were with Jesus up close and personal,
every step of the way, – how could they possibly have doubted him?
After all, they had dined with Jesus on Easter evening
and then eight days after that before coming to this mountain.
And yet, even they could see Him with their own eyes,
some were still wavering – still uncertain, still unsure.
Truth be told, this is nothing new.
Before the resurrection, if we read through the gospels,
the disciples are notorious for their struggle with belief.
Repeatedly, those who first followed Jesus responded to his teaching,
his miracles, and even their very own experience of his power
with a mixture of confidence and yet uncertainty.
And now, likewise, as the disciples encounter the risen Christ,
doubt still lingers in their hearts and minds
even as they stand in awe and wonder.
Matthew could have mentioned this detail later
rather than to insert it into the middle of all the celebration,
right before the giving of the Great Commission.
But I think Matthew puts it here intentionally.
While testifying to the glory of the risen Christ,
Matthew is at the same time assuring us that faith
– believing in the resurrection isn’t easy.
Most of us, in these last twelve months, have certainly discovered
just how hard it can be to believe in resurrection
when all that surrounds us is sickness and death.
Many have struggled – continue to wrestle –
with holding fast to belief and hope in the risen Christ Jesus
in the midst of a broken, divided, and pain-filled world.
Faith is easy when life is good – when things are going our way.
But true faith comes at a premium when life is hard
when things are not the way we planned for them to be…
– when anticipating and celebrating the best things about being alive
birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, holidays, vacations,
are modified, postponed, or even cancelled by no fault of our own.
– when we are struggling to make ends meet and care for those we love
but find ourselves with little time to enjoy the fruit of all our efforts.
– when we continually find ourselves at odds, in argument, or perhaps
even indefinitely cut-off from those we consider family and friends.
True faith isn’t easy when things are not the way they’re supposed to be…
– when injustice is passively accepted even as equity is actively denied,
– when supremacy and privilege for the majority
become the basis of marginalizing and persecuting the minority.
When the championing of what is wrong
eclipses doing what is necessary and right,
true faith isn’t easy and it’s hard to believe love actually wins.
The faith of many is wavering in the aftermath of this last year.
Many people are having their doubts about Jesus
– as they have witnessed the bulk of the Church, the Body of the Christ,
those who profess to follow Jesus
being more animated and vocal in defense of
the exercise of their rights and their power
than they are in compassionately and sacrificially advocating
and serving those most in need.
A lot of people around us — maybe we ourselves —
have real questions and therefore honest doubts
when it comes to believing in Jesus.
How does one have faith in the resurrection of Christ
when confronted by a Church that is so afraid of dying to itself?
And when the Body of Christ looks more dead than alive,
how can one not have doubts that Jesus is risen, risen indeed?
But then again, maybe the wavering faith of the first disciples
had less to do with Jesus rising from the dead
and more to do with their ability to rise from the sting of death like he did.
I’m NOT talking about the disciples doubting that when they physically died,
they would rise from the grave and move beyond death into eternity.
I’m talking about the disciples doubting that
they could actually transcend the mistakes and brokenness of their past.
I’m talking about the disciples doubting that
they could truly rise above the limitations and liabilities
of their present bad habits and current prejudices.
I’m talking about the disciples doubting themselves
– being uncertain that Jesus could really change or transform them.
Fresh in the disciples’ minds was the memory of
their individual and collective denial of Jesus.
Surely they hadn’t forgotten how they kept silent and remained absent
when Jesus was arrested and falsely accused.
The hearts of the disciples were still aching from
their shared betrayal of Christ.
The wound was still raw from the moment they broke faith with Jesus
by running as far away from Him as they possibly could
– leaving him to carry his cross – to die in agony and shame alone.
And now, Jesus was calling them to follow him
in living out of this new, resurrection life?
Jesus was leaving the sharing of the Gospel
– commissioning them, trusting them to represent Him
to the ends of the earth?
Sometimes it can be easier to have faith that Jesus can resurrect us
when we physically die than it is to believe Christ can actually redeem
or reconcile – can breathe new life into the dead parts of ourselves.
Maybe the lingering doubts, the wavering faith of the first disciples
had to do with themselves – whether any of them was even
vaguely capable or competent to reflect Jesus to anyone,
let alone to become ambassadors for Christ to all nations.
This prolonged season of a global pandemic,
a highly contested election, and the increasing rise rather than fall
of hostility and violence among neighbors
due to politics, economics, race, and even health and safety standards,
has fostered more doubt than confidence not just with the Church
but for many within the Church.
I’ve had conversations over these last few months
with Christians of all stripes who, while they don’t doubt who Jesus is
and what Christ has done, have started to waver, to doubt themselves
– or more pointedly, Christ’s ability to work in and through them.
As they’ve experienced an already divided church
splinter into even more into factions,
as they’ve happened upon what fellow brothers and sisters in the faith
have posted on social media or worse, said out loud in mixed company,
as they’ve witnessed all the acrimony and division,
all this sickness and death,
throw individuals into suicidal depression,
rip communities of marriages, families, and neighborhoods apart,
and ultimately lead the next generation to come
not towards but away from the Church and by extension, Christ,
many Christians waver in their confidence, their effectiveness,
their ability to model and teach what Jesus taught
– love for God that is expressed by loving each other as we love ourselves.
For them, their doubt increasingly revolves around themselves
– their hesitation, their uncertainty, their self-questioning
in leading others to Jesus, in making a tangible difference
for the Kingdom of God.
And if I’m being honest, I share many of these doubts
– again not wavering about who Jesus is
but questioning if Christ can work in and through me.
I struggle with whether I am cut out for following Jesus.
I question sometimes whether the way I understand Christ is right.
I waver in my confidence in my call,
in my ability to point and lead others to Christ.
My intention in sharing these doubts is not to fish for any sort of pity
It is simply to be real and acknowledge the questions
bouncing around inside of me even as I continue to put my faith in Jesus.
I have my doubts and you may have yours too. And that’s okay.
Because we’re in good company.
We all have our doubts – including all the disciples.
Did you notice btw,I didn’t say “some” of the disciples like it says in verse 17?
This is because – get ready for it – the word “some” is not there
in the original language, Greek, in which Matthew wrote this gospel account.
The word “some” has been added by most English translations.
In other words, what Matthew’s Gospel literally says is
it wasn’t just some that doubted, they all doubted.
Despite how we as Christians often speak and act
– as if faith is simple and doubt is wrong
– reading the Gospels helps us to know we’re not alone in our doubts.
Even to the end – at the point of resurrection,
those who first followed Jesus wavered in their faith.
They had their moments when they just weren’t sure
and still were uncertain about moving forward with Christ.
And that means part of the good news of Easter is faith and doubt
are not necessarily opposed to each other.
The smallness of our faith and our own struggles to believe
– no matter what they are – don’t threaten or disqualify us
from receiving and sharing the resurrection life of Christ.
Because here’s one more shocker.
Even though his closest followers – people in which he invested three years –
waver from beginning to end, Jesus does not fault them for doubting.
Jesus does quite the opposite actually.
Jesus includes them all in his commission to go out and make more disciples.
Still, we might wonder, what do we do with all our doubts?
How do we live with them?
In a world that at times, prides itself on certainty – absolutes –
in the midst of a whole creation of universes upon universes
that often refuses to be painted as black and white,
how do we navigate the grey areas of what we believe?
Some might argue the best way to deal with our doubts
is to overcome them with evidence.
But doubt is not always overcome by evidence.
Clearly, the doubt of the disciples was not overcome by evidence
– even the evidence of their own senses.
The evidence before them — of seeing the risen Jesus with their own eyes,
of eating and drinking with him – was not enough
to convince them completely. The disciples still wavered.
Evidence cannot always overcome our doubts
because evidence can be denied.
We always can explain away what we experience
– even when the evidence is solid and real.
Others might suggest the best way to deal with our doubts
is through argument.
They might argue there are many logical and compelling reasons
to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.
We may have heard some of these reasons before.
Either way, I am not going to rehash them now.
Because doubt is not always overcome by argument either.
Good and strong as they may be, reasons and arguments
usually just lead to counter arguments – especially if
the one who is trying to convince you is being argumentative.
Consider what Matthew shares with us
– how the authorities in Jerusalem,
when they were informed by the soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb
of everything that happened, still published the story
that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body.
The force of reason, the truth of the argument,
did not lead them to believe. It led them to lie.
Doubt is not always eliminated by reason.
People are not generally argued out of their doubts and into faith.
They typically dig their heels in deeper in their resistance and uncertainty.
So, if we can’t necessarily deal with our doubts with evidence or argument,
what is left for us to do?
Matthew has told us plainly.
It is here right in front of us, in the very same sentence
that first caught us by surprise.
“When they saw him, they worshipped him…” (Matthew 28:17)
The disciples worshipped Jesus even while they were doubting.
Those who wavered in what they believed
still fell down and yielded before Jesus in reverence.
But hold on! How can we possibly worship Jesus if we have any hesitation?
How can this possibly make sense as the way to handle our doubt?
The disciples still had questions. They did not have all the answers.
The disciples continued to wrestle with uncertainty.
But even in the midst of all their questions and uncertainty,
they realized the truth they had,
the resurrection life they witnessed in Jesus
was greater than all of their doubts.
Another way of expressing this is, if faith and doubt are not opposed
to each other, then the disciples didn’t allow their uncertainty
to keep them from embracing all that Christ was offering to them.
The best way to handle all our doubts
about life, about ourselves, and about God,
are to bring them to Jesus
– not necessarily to let go of our questions and uncertainty
but not to let them get in the way of following Christ either.
The best way to deal with all our doubts is not to hold them back
but to give them to Jesus – to follow Jesus and see what He can do,
how He can still work despite all our wavering, despite our uncertainty.
Again, Matthew is openly revealing to us
that doubt is an integral part of faith.
And that means, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty.
When we are certain of something, we don’t really need faith, do we?
When we are absolutely and without question,
totally sure in our minds and our hearts,
then we don’t need to trust anyone else.
Jesus doesn’t call us to be certain about him.
Jesus calls us to have faith in him.
Jesus doesn’t tell us we can’t have doubts as we believe in Him.
Jesus just tells us to follow him with whatever level of belief we have.
In fact, Jesus says we only need a little bit of faith—a mustard seed will do.
That’s enough for him to work with.
By the way, according to Jesus, any faith we have – any belief in Him,
any conviction about what He has done, and any confidence
in what He can do in and through us – any faith we possess
according to Jesus is a gift from God.
So if faith itself is a gift, then whatever belief we have is on Jesus
to cultivate and grow – in the midst of our doubts.
We are capable of worshiping Jesus as well as wondering
about Jesus at the same time.
Our doubts do not necessarily prevent us
from taking the next step of faith with Christ.
As we read the Gospels and notice Jesus frequently criticizing
his disciples for their “little faith,”
it’s not that Jesus is rebuking them for not believing in him more;
It’s for not bringing the faith and the doubt they have to him
— putting the responsibility for their belief
and the working out of their uncertainty in his hands.
The real issue is not whether we can have any doubts
or uncertainty about Christ.
The real issue is whether we are willing to submit our questions,
our hesitancy, our wavering to Christ.
The problem is not in our mind or our heart; it is in our will.
Putting all our doubts in Jesus’ hands means
releasing control over all our uncertainties.
Questions born of uncertainty by themselves are not a problem.
But sometimes we wield the questions we have
as a way of actually avoiding the answers.
By yielding all our questions before Christ
rather than hiding from Jesus in all our doubts,
we open ourselves to the possibility that he will meet us
in the hesitations borne of our honest questions.
Sometimes it’s in the midst of our uncertainties
that Jesus shows up most profoundly and most powerfully.
It is doubt and not certainty that makes us vulnerable to grace.
On the other hand,
when we use our uncertainty to keep Jesus at arms length,
when we allow our hesitancy to keep us fixated only on ourselves,
we tend to end up stuck in our doubts
– running in circles and never moving forward.
Fun fact. The only other place in the Bible
where the word translated here as “doubt” appears
is in Matthew’s account of Peter walking on the water.
Do we remember that story?
Peter had enough faith to get out of the boat
and walk toward Jesus on the water. But then he wavered.
He became fixated on his doubts about being able to follow Jesus.
Peter took his eyes off Jesus in the midst of his hesitancy
and so his uncertainty was all he had left
— and thus he began to drown.
My doubts consume me when I remain focused on myself.
But when I look to Jesus with my mixture of faith and uncertainty,
I find the grace to move forward in the midst of my doubts.
The more I look to Jesus, my faith grows even as I have uncertainties.
Our faith grows even in the midst of our uncertainties
because the object of our faith – Jesus –
becomes bigger than our doubts.
Easter comes to us today as it did for the first disciples
– with a mixture of both worship and hesitation.
Like those who first followed Jesus, we carry to the tombs of our lives
the same jumble of doubt, fear, certainty, anxiety, hope, and joy
that they brought to the resurrected Christ.
Let us give thanks that part of the good news of Easter is
there is room for doubt.
There is room for our doubts because Jesus has no doubts about us
– about what He can, about what He will do in and through us.
We may be uncertain about the future.
We may waver in our confidence that we can become
all that Jesus calls us to be,
that we can fulfill the Great Commission given to us.
But Jesus had no doubts:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,
therefore go and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:18-19)
Jesus declares without hesitation.
In our tendency to focus and evaluate solely on the basis of
our own estimation of our strengths and weaknesses
or the successes and failures of others, Jesus calls us to look to
his ability and power: “And surely I am with you,” Jesus assures us,
“to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
All that Christ calls us to is all about him — working through us
— our faith and our doubt – every step of the way.
For trusting, not in the absence,
but in the face of our doubt, is what faith really means.
Trusting, not in the absence, but in the face of our doubt,
is what it means to follow Jesus.
As hard as it may be to believe, to comprehend, and at times, to perceive…
Christ is risen – risen indeed!
Full of faith and doubt, let us follow Jesus.
Let us not shy away from our questions but instead confess them
as part of our worship of Christ.
In the midst of the unknowing that is the reality of most of our lives,
let us bow down to the power of divine love that is stronger than death.
Instead of refusing to move until we are certain,
let us respond to Jesus’ call in the midst of our hesitation
– his call not to fixate on ourselves but to recognize his presence,
to embrace the power of his love in order to serve our neighbor
and to bless all nations.
And along the way, let us leave room for doubt — for our doubts
and the doubts of others – because despite our fear, our anger,
our disappointment, our grief, or even our uncertainty,
if we bring it all to Jesus, if we keep our eyes on Christ,
we can rise again.
For in the emptiness of His tomb is our assurance that with Jesus,
failure is never final – that all the death-dealing, soul-crushing,
and hope-destroying places in our lives and in this world
will be eclipsed by the dawn of a new horizon
– new possibilities and new dreams borne of
a new, everlasting life found in Christ alone. Amen.
For in the emptiness of His tomb is our assurance that with Jesus, failure is never final
– that all the death-dealing, soul-crushing, and hope-destroying places in our lives
and in this world can be eclipsed by the dawn of a new horizon
– new possibilities and new dreams borne of a new, everlasting life found in Christ alone.