I will presume that most of you have been seeking after God for some time. Or maybe you have not, or only have been for a short period of time. How has that time of seeking God been for you? Have you ever experienced doubt? Doubt about God being real? Or doubt about the God you heard proclaimed in the Scriptures? Or doubt about the sort of God proclaimed by Christians of one type or another? Maybe even your own priest?
In our gospel lesson from John this morning, we hear about St Thomas, or doubting Thomas as he’s often known. As we just heard, Thomas had not been with the disciples when Jesus came to meet with them and so when he arrives on the scene, the disciples rush to tell him, “Thomas we saw the Lord.” Thomas replies, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
Now doubt of course is not a new thing. We’ve encountered story after story of doubt through our Scriptures. Sarah actually laughs in doubt at God, when he tells her that she’ll have a child in her old age. Abram says to God, ‘how on earth could you give me a child God, I’m an old man well past child bearing years.’ Then of course as we heard over Lent, there were the Israelites in the desert who doubt God so much that they make a golden calf to offer to other gods in the hopes that they will be provided for when they doubt God’s provision of food, water and life for them.
There are the Israelites we hear about in the book of Judges who complain so mightily that they need a king to help lead and guide them because they cannot follow God loving him with their hearts and minds, they doubt in the midst of their struggles and do not hold fast to the faith. Of course God finally grants them their wish with the kings of Israel and ultimately with the King of kings, Jesus Christ. We also know of course about the disciples’ doubts: who will betray you Jesus, surely it is not I, I will not deny you Peter says to Jesus, until he hears that cock crow. On and on I could go in the Scriptures, and on into history books: doubt, fear, worry, struggle, for a whole host of reasons.
Each of us has likely faced a moment of doubt, or perhaps a long drought of doubt, even a loss of faith. Maybe you’re not even so sure now. Are you really there God? If I cannot see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my hand in there, and put my hand in his staff wound, I will not believe. In day to day lives where we measure most of the things of our lives by the ability to count, see, demonstrate, prove, show, confirm, how can we believe in the story of God come into the world, crucified for our sakes, resurrected three days later? How can we believe when we cannot see, touch, hold onto? How can we believe that God sent his Son into the world for us, to transform it completely, when the world still looks violent, when Christian faith seems to be in decline in the West? How can we believe God truly loves us when most of our lives are about navigating relationships where people leave us, get sick, fall apart, become angry with us or we with them so much so that there’s withdrawal, sometimes for good? How can we trust that God really has got us and isn’t going to let us go, when we experience nothing but that here on earth?
I know for me, I have come to doubt God’s existence at several points in my decade and a couple years of being a Christian. I’ve talked before about my doubt that came after I realized I had followed people and their ideology, rather than God. I wondered if there was a God underneath all their personal professions and characterizations, especially as these contradicted those of other Christians. Who had it right? Did anyone. Or was God simply an invention of people looking to control their own lives or the lives of others; to give themselves order and purpose in a world that can seem very much without either.
Then there was the doubt that has come with actually studying historical theology. Ironic hey? As folks in the Church have tried to work out what we call doctrine (or, central tenets of belief, doctrine of the trinity, how Christ can be both God and man, etc, how one is saved), not only has the Church split over and over again into different groups, but along with that came executions, murders, war, imprisonment, manipulation and violence. How many conceptualizations of atonement are there? Is it essential to hold to one? If so, am I not a Christian if I don’t hold to one? What if I’m wrong? Or is the Christian faith merely about vague sincerity: I believe in some concept of God and I try to be a good person in accordance with the Scriptures and at the end of the day, I rely on Jesus to get me there. Maybe that’s actually true. Personally, I’m too skeptical, I think too often about the worst possible case when plotting out my life, and try to avoid that. So I tend toward thinking I must actually ‘do the right thing’ for God to save me, which of course creates massive doubt because I can’t tell – amongst the myriad of ways the faith has been articulated – what the right way necessarily is!
For a variety of reasons, intellectual and quite pragmatic, I had to work out these doubts while going to church every week, not to sit in a pew, but to climb into a pulpit to preach faith, hope and love. In order to do this, I was forced to reckon with what John, in today’s gospel lesson, calls ‘signs.’ John says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” You see to preach, you cannot simply read the Scriptures and regurgitate them; you must determine where you, where your congregation; where your friends and family, where the people of this world past and present, are met by Jesus in the Scriptures. Where does he encounter all of us, each of us? The fact of the matter, is that he encounters us right where we are. And in his Spirit, he draws us into the world he has already created, and which he brings to an end, that is, into the world we find in the Scriptures.
The signs he does then, aren’t simply being done to or with characters that we find in Scripture. No. That’s not how it works. The signs we find in the Scriptures are being done to us and with us, and with our neighbors and our enemies. Those are the signs into which everything I saw in this world were being drawn every time I had to preach. And do you know what I discovered? Especially in the midst of doubt, doubt perhaps much deeper than Thomas’s?
I discovered that my doubt was actually fear. Fear that God did not come for me. Like you, I too grew up in a world that measures all things by Thomas standards: let me put my hands into you, right into your body, let me see, hold, count, be utterly certain of your presence with me. Only if I can hold, see and measure, can I know for certain that I am okay. Only if I know for certain that that I’ve got the right doctrine, that my grandparents who have died are with you, that you are going to make this world better than it is now, only if I know you will save me despite the decisions and choices I have to make in light of my body’s and my brain’s failures to be ordered rightly, only if I know I am wanted, safe, of value, only if I know that in my failures, you will still have me, only then will I believe, only then can I sustain.
Jesus says to Thomas and so to me and to you: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus isn’t actually asking us for a blind faith here. In fact, what he is saying is that in order to see me, first, you must follow me. I have often heard it said by older people that it is only in retrospect, looking back on their marriage, or looking back on their lives with their children, that they can truly say ‘what it is that they actually had.’ Any relationship – whether with friends, or co-workers, or with a spouse, or with kids and grandkids, or with neighbors or bosses, requires faith. Faith to sustain through periods of struggle, doubt, fear, frustration, boredom, loneliness, anger, bitterness, jealousy, envy, confusion, illness, disease, change, and decay. But faith over time reveals the signs that become interwoven pieces of the story of our respective lives together.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Jesus does not tell us this because he demands blind faith to him. Rather he tells us this because he knows precisely who we are: finite creatures who still live in and see the world through a glass darkly, as Paul puts it; people for whom faith is not about obtaining mathematical certainty. Faith is not perfect knowledge. It is following God, hearing his Word, the Scriptures. That Word, the whole of the Scriptures, made incarnate in Jesus Christ; the one who fulfils and makes them real to us as we are drawn into their times and characters and so into him by the Holy Spirit. Faith then is about allowing ourselves to let go of our present so that we can be caught up by these signs given to us in the Scriptures. For it’s just here that we encounter him and he encounters us. It is therefore simply following Jesus, attending to his Word with the kind of work we’d do in relationship with our friends or spouses, or that we’d do to work through new challenges in health, in living situation, in family situations, that sustains us through doubt. Why? Because when we look back at the path we’ve walked in this life through our Scriptures, there we might see the signs of God present with us. AMEN.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. We of course recite this in what we call the Sanctus – the part of our Eucharistic Prayer where we usually sing, ‘holy, holy holy.’ This comes right before the priest says the words of institution, or what’s better known as the part of the Eucharistic prayer where the bread and wine are consecrated; where we have present with us the body and blood of Jesus Christ who offered himself to us once and for all, which we recognize and receive most Sundays.
And where are these words from? Well they come directly from Jesus’s descent from the Mount of Olives as he prepares to ‘go to Jerusalem,’ to live in faith and love his Father to the very end of his own life where, before he dies, he is stripped naked, tortured, mocked, and mounted up on the Cross with stakes being driven through his hands and feet, and finally thrust through his side with a spear. But before this final day of all time which we will mark this coming Friday (and which I hope each of you faithful and thankful to our Lord for his sacrifice, will attend), there is much celebrating to be done.
You see Jesus’s followers anticipate something monumental happening. Our Gospel reading today tells us that they had seen his great deeds of power and they fully believed that he was their King, the one who came in the name of the Lord: God come to deliver them, to restore them to relationship with him in their land. There was a sense of expectation and of fulfillment: he is here they cry: it is coming, it is nearly here, peace in heaven; glory in the highest heaven, deliverance in this Jesus who has done great things among us is finally here.
And so in accordance with his command, off go some disciples to get him a colt as he asks, so that he can ride it into Jerusalem just as the Scriptures (what we refer to as the OT Scriptures) foretold. The owners say, ‘uh, guys, where are you going with my colt.’ And the disciples reply without fear they’d be charged with thievery, ‘the Lord needs it.’ And off they go placing their own cloaks on it as a saddle. When Jesus gets on and begins to ride, people start lining the streets and they lay down their cloaks to mark his way to what they believe will be his great triumph. Here we see that, at least at some level, they are shedding their own layers of clothing (the clothes God provided to Adam and Eve after their fall from relationship with him). They give back those clothes, in one sense, and in so doing they are offering up to God not merely their clothing which he provided as an interim, but their whole lives, which is what he actually wants.
Now just remember that these folks didn’t have a NT with the Gospels laid out in front of them. They knew only the Scriptures that you and I refer to as the OT. These were ‘the Scriptures.’ And it is these Scriptures that were and are to be fulfilled. So to them we turn to understand why they would shout out, as we hear in other gospel passages for this Palm Sunday, ‘hosanna in the highest, along with waving palm fronds. Blessed is he (Jesus) who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest. These words that make up what we call our Sanctus during our Eucharistic Prayer are a recognition of this moment, of this time of Jesus’s life, each Sanctus, (which is the Latin word for Holy), we proclaim, is a mini palm Sunday where we shed our own flesh and our own clothes, and prepare receive spiritual bodies renewed and made in the image of God, in the way and in the life of Jesus Christ himself: this one who comes in the name of the Lord.
So in our Sanctus, we join with all those Christians who have come before us, and all those Christians around the world who celebrate/have celebrated the real presence of Jesus Christ with and in us through the Eucharist. And I mean this. When we take of the body and blood of Christ after the bread and wine have been consecrated, when we say the Sanctus, we are not merely doing a ritual to mark something that has occurred; we are physically joined by God, with those Christians who have died and are with God, and those Christians who are all around the world. It is a fellowship, a moment of elevation to receiving the presence of God in us, uniting us to one another.
The Sanctus closes off that part of the our service that is referred to as the Preface which begins with the Sursum corda (when we say, "Lift up your hearts!"). This prayer prepares us for entering the Holy of Holies to worship God, the inner sanctum of the Temple which is Jesus’s Body.
Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
As I said, the words we pray, that we hear in our Gospel today, "Holy, holy, holy" are not those of ‘the NT, which was not yet in place in the disciple’s time. Rather these words come to us from the Scriptures they had, what we know as the OT, from Isaiah 6:3. In this passage, Isaiah tells us of his vision of the Lord in the heavens. These words are part of the heavenly refrain of the seraphim: "'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts! they cried one to the other. 'All the earth is filled with his glory.'" So what is going on here is a fulfillment of the promise God has made to his people: I will come amongst you and I will gather you from the four corners (N, S, E and W). And Jesus’s descent from the mountain, like Moses descent from the mountain, is the descent of the law perfectly fulfilled, coming into the midst of people who had gone astray in Israel and in the disciple’s day. Down the mountain, across and beyond all time and space, God comes in the Jesus Christ, He who comes in the name of the Lord, to reclaim us, to grab us, to hold us and secure us and conform us to God himself. We hear this testified to by John’s vision of the heavens (the fulfillment of all time) in Revelation, “holy, holy holy is the Lord God almighty who was and who is, and who is to come.
By these words we are not only recognizing or confessing our fallenness, but stripping away our on cloaks – the defenses we have of emotions, of possessions, of desire to control, of anger or bitterness or resentment – we are laying these things on the ground both as the impediment they are to us, and as the invitation to God we make to enter into us and draw us into his own mission, his own path from descent from God, to earthly life, to death, to resurrected or reconciled life with God. That is what those cloaks thrown to the ground mark: they mark our commitment to go from a life created by God, to one so often mired in the sin of this life and all the fears, defenses and blocks we put up to receiving grace, to a commitment to lay these things down, to give them up, so that we might follow the path and life of God himself revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
So following Jesus, shedding the confines of this world, we are raised, each Sunday, each encounter with Jesus upon which we can draw, into a world that is illuminated by his grace, rather than kept in the darkness of sin. We are invited then, by the grace first laid down for us in Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem we hear about here, into Jesus’s own life of righteousness as we hear in our psalm, psalm 118: vv 25-26 "Open the gates of righteousness; I will enter and thank the LORD. This is the LORD's own gate, through it the righteous enter.” Jesus is of course this very gate by which the righteous enter into the Holy of Holies, into a reconciled relationship with God, adopted as we have been.
And what is the proper response to receiving such grace? Well, let me tell you, I actually think that it’s something that can’t authentically come unless you’re willing to stick with, endure and persevere in the sometimes major struggle to live a life of faith in this world – to go out from here having received the body and blood of Christ – to engage the world in and with faith in God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, the proper response I think comes only when we actually find God present with us where we sustain in being faithful to him in our day to day lives. That proper response, at least for me, comes out much like this one we hear in psalm 118: "I thank you for you answered me; you have been my savior."
There’s no formula for getting to this point because I think it comes for each of us in such incredibly unique ways in such a variety of circumstances. But it is where all of these unique, sometimes complex, sometimes immediately recognizable and sometimes only recognized after many years or a whole lifetime events intersect with being taken up and into the life of God himself through his Son by his Spirit – that we are moved, I do believe, to give thanks. It just comes. And it comes because it is this moment of recognition: I am with my creator, my redeemer, the one who gives me purpose and eternal life. He has come, he is coming, he will come for me. And I endure here now – through all of this ‘stuff’ – in the light and because of the light of his presence: hosanna in the highest. AMEN.
Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone where you’re talking about faith and belief in God and someone says, “well, I know a lot of really crappy Christians, or look at how Christians did this or that bad thing in history, and you want to tell me that somehow belief in God makes you righteous, when my atheist friend is so much a better person than any Christian I know. My friend or my daughter or my nephew is much better person, much kinder, does more good, than any Christian I know. Go ahead and raise your hand if you’ve ever spoken to someone who’s said something like this.
If I were being really blunt (and frankly a bit of a jerk), I’d blurt out, “you’ve entirely missed the point of God’s relationship to human beings and of the Scripture’s testimony to this.” Fortunately, I generally catch myself before responding so insensitively. Paul provides a much more helpful response to the claim about ‘human goodness’ in our passage today from Philippians. He says, ‘if we’re going to go on about our own righteousness and the ‘goodness of our own works,’ here, I’ll lay mine out for you. You know that law that God gave to his people, well here’s are my credentials: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Here Paul defines what it means to be righteous: to be righteous, to be holy, is to fulfill the law completely, to love God and to love neighbor without fail; it is to have been born without sin. Oops. We have a problem: who of us has been born without sin? According to Scripture, ‘no one is good, no not one.’ That’s not a statement about whether we perform good acts that the Psalms make, that is a statement about the fact that every human being is born into the sin of Adam and Eve. If you are created, you are a sinner. Only a human who is uncreated, who is and was and always will be, before all things that were created (as John chapter one says to us), could be without sin. Only the one whom we call Lord, could be a human being without sin.
So Paul’s claim here then, is that if you were born through the sexual union of two human parents, or cloned from human DNA, or developed in a test tube, you are a human being born into sin. So whatever good or bad we do as human beings created in sin, even if we were to follow God’s law to a T, these acts do not make us righteous before God, because they cannot do so by themselves. Article 10 in our Book of Common Prayer, on Free Will puts it like this: “The condition of every person after the fall of Adam is such that they cannot turn and prepare themselves, by their own natural strength and good works to faith and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works … acceptable to God …
Of course we affirm this sort of thing in our liturgies all the time, ‘my works don’t save me or make me righteous before God, that’s why I need Jesus.’ Paul makes this bit pretty clear when he says, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Paul makes a pretty bold claim here that we might just take as zeal were we to hear him or anyone else say it: “I regard all the good things I have or do as loss, as rubbish even, in comparison to my knowing Jesus Christ, and being filled with his own will.” I’ve got to tell you that if I actually did hear this, I’d likely think the one proclaiming it was a brainwashed, zealous nut, or at best, a follower groupie who couldn’t think for himself, perhaps a man with serious personality issues and an inferiority complex.
But here’s the thing: I’d be halted in my thinking when I heard what Paul says next. Paul has said, I regard all my actions and my ways as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ; in order that I might be found in Jesus Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from me ‘doing the good’ i.e. doing the law, but one that comes through what: through the fact that my brokenness and sin, together with my faith, has been taken up, has been literally taken on by Jesus Christ, who offers every single human life to God unstained by sin, cleansed, washed clean, and reconciled to relationship with God. That’s quite a claim. It’s a claim about receiving the fullness of existence and of my own particular life, through this one whom I commit to follow. And this is why Paul says, “I’m willing to give my claim to ‘do good’ to ‘act well’ to ‘be holy’ to ‘be righteous’, because having known Christ, I recognize my sin, my weakness, my incapacity, my frailty, my part in sin and brokenness, and so my inability to actually fulfill the law. Everything I have that matters at all in God’s figurative eyes, “I receive as a gift, as grace, from God alone.”
This would fundamentally stop me in my tracks in thinking Paul to be a wild zealot groupie. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Umm, what, I might say. This is where the story turns. I want to know Christ and to be the recipient of the goods that come out of his resurrection. This of course implies that this one who Paul is following is going to die at some point, and then be resurrected or rise from the dead. This is of course a shocking enough claim – what could it mean? But Paul continues on, that he wants to “share in Jesus’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if he himself can obtain resurrection from the dead.” Paul isn’t suggesting that he’s going to become powerful, wealthy or famous, but more strangely, he is actually implying that by following Jesus in faithfulness to God, he will have to endure suffering, and struggle; this, we know from the Gospels, is the mission of going out into the world to live, through what we say, and how we act, our faithfulness to God. This is what Paul is saying, I want to live into this life of Jesus Christ, and I accept that to inhabit it, I will have to endure the things that come with sticking to my faith.
For Paul this meant enduring torture, imprisonment, snake bites, constant threat, fighting parishioners, breaking up immoral or unethical practices, calling people out on false proclamations of the faith. But potentially the hardest thing it required, was not just speaking with, but living with the humility of being a finite and sinful person. Acknowledging that, and acknowledging that it is solely by the gift of grace that he has life at all. But that this gift of life is given as God intended it, for a particular purpose: the exercise of loving God and loving one’s neighbors, including one’s enemies. Paul acknowledges this when he says, “Not that I have already obtained this [promise of resurrected life or the fullness of life with God] … but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own [because I must always remember that this is a pure gift from God]; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind (all those things that I once thought made me a good and righteous person, complete and satisfactory) and straining forward to what lies ahead (fully reconciled life with God), I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
This is a tremendous and many might think – were this to take place today – a foolish commitment of the fullness of one’s life. You see the thing about faith that we sometimes struggle to understand in North America, is that receiving grace doesn’t set us free to do whatever we please, and receiving grace often doesn’t feel pleasant precisely because as we receive grace – that is, as we come to know God through his Scriptural revelation to us of Jesus Christ – the following we do, the following of Jesus’s own life through all the characters and situations, the ups and downs that we find in Scripture, as we follow that life figured in all of the Scriptures, as we find ourselves into those characters and situations, our very following him strips away so many of the false idols we like to cling to that make us feel as if we’re safe (whatever that happens to be, whether that’s money, possessions, emotionally controlling others, gossiping about others, always walking around as if we can be righteously angry at the world, being moody or irritable, or self-righteous, or condemnatory, or self-righteously violent, or sustaining in ignorance, or hatred, or bigotry, or lacking in the willingness to step into the shoes of another, our impatience, our constant criticism or cynicism, or lack of kindness all exuding the fruit of defense mechanisms against real or perceived threats).
You see to follow Jesus where he has gone and continues to go in this world is to give up our claim to ‘be good or do good, with our self-perceived effort being sufficient.’ This claim is usually made by those who have underlying insecurity about their value and worth. To follow Jesus though is to step into a value and worth that is well beyond the value of any gift we have to provide God with, as our gospel reading makes clear. We can provide our finest oil to anoint Jesus, but we can also steal from him the very gifts, the common purse, that he gave when he created all human beings. We cannot, even at our finest, do works or provide gifts sufficient to reconcile every human being to God. This is something we can only receive. And our reception of this overflowing abundance, this overflowing gift of washing and cleansing from sin, this overflow of God’s love, well our receipt of it is a journey, a lifetime journey that takes guts, the kind of guts that arrogance and demand for certainty cannot foster. It takes the willingness to sacrifice the illusion that we are self-reliant, so we can let go and give ourselves to God for him to transform us in his love. AMEN
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during her childhood. She attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which she continues to do to this day.