Art: "The Great Commission" by Nalini Jayasuriya
Scripture can be found here...
“Call me Ishmael.”[i]
“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”[ii]
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”[iii]
“Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”[iv]
The wisdom about first lines is that they must be vivid, they must evoke a particular voice or mood that will capture the reader, make them care, draw them in, prompt a question in them that they are longing to have answered. The best first lines capture the essence of the novel. But last lines are just as important, perhaps even more important than the first—it’s an author’s last chance to answer those questions, or to give the reader a sense of what lies ahead for all, villain and hero alike.
“But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.”[v]
“But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing”[vi]
Gospel-writers and novel-writers have some things in common. Often the beginning of a novel tells you the entire story in miniature, and the beginning of a gospel can function in the same way. And at the end, the author of the gospel is giving us a glance, not only of Jesus’ future, but of ours, too.
The gospel of Matthew ends with one of the most beautiful sentences in scripture:
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” ~Matthew 28:20
We have the gospel summed up in Jesus’ promised presence, the risen Lord’s pledge to us to never leave us.
And yet, just a few sentences earlier, we encounter these words:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. ~ Matthew 28:16-17
Though I have been reading the gospel of Matthew (in what I thought was an attentive way) for about forty years, this is the very first time I have ever noticed this mention of “doubt.” And, though the creators of the Narrative Lectionary would strongly prefer that I focus on Jesus’ wonderful “Go” and “Make disciples” and “Baptize” command, I am absolutely captivated by the appearance of this word here. And my honest, from-the gut response? Relief. Joy. Gratitude. I wonder whether this might not be the most comforting sentence in all of scripture.
We do not know the nature of the disciples’ doubt. We do not know whether they doubted this was actually Jesus, walking among them again. We do not know whether they had heard the stories put about by the Roman soldiers, saying Jesus’ body had been stolen, and were wondering if that had really happened. We do not know whether they thought perhaps Jesus had only appeared to be dead, and was now simply feeling better. All we know is that, among the early followers of Jesus, in the days and weeks after the resurrection, doubt crept in, even among those who were there, and had the evidence of their own eyes, ears, hands, and hearts.
We walk by faith, as Paul has told us, and not by sight. So, for us, for Christians walking around in 2015, we don't receive the revelation at the tomb—we don’t walk there in the darkness, we don't get thrown to the ground by the earthquake, we don’t shield our eyes from the the snow-white, lightning bright angel rolling back the stone majestically and then plopping himself down upon it with his good-news words, "Do not be afraid." And we certainly don't get to see Jesus, dressed, perhaps, like a gardener, showing us his holy hands and side, and letting us cling to his poor battered feet.
So, for those who DID get to experience all these things... from the beginning… from being called to follow, to witnessing his teaching and preaching and healings and exorcisms and feeding and parables and confrontations with the authorities, etc. etc. etc... For these folks to see, and hear, and touch, and worship, and doubt, is a kind of gift to us, a kind of telephone line through time, telling us: it's alright.
We Christians don’t like to talk about doubt so much. In fact, aside from money, it may be the topic of conversation with which we are the least comfortable. It makes us squirm.
I wonder if we’re afraid to admit our doubts to one another? I wonder if we’re concerned that vocalizing them makes them a little too real, and sets us on a path we dread walking down? I wonder if we assume we’re the only ones who have ever had these thoughts and feelings?
There is encouragement to be found for those of us who have experienced doubts about our faith. The beloved Presbyterian writer, Frederick Buechner, says, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”[vii]
Doubt can help us. It can alert us to the fact that we have been settling for answers that are shallow, or otherwise inadequate to our real questions. It can lead us to deeper faith.
Another terrific Presbyterian, Brian McLaren, puts it like this:
Christians are committed to lifelong spiritual growth. That means that five years from now, your set of beliefs will hopefully be different from today’s… your beliefs will be more fine-tuned, more tested, more balanced, more examined. What causes you to examine a belief and test it—against the whole background of Scripture (not just a proof-texted verse taken out of context), against the wise thinking of the Christian community at large (both now and through history), and against the realities of your experience? It's that something inside you isn’t at rest about a belief—something in you doubts that belief. By doubting it, and then examining it, you can either call it a keeper because it passed the test, discard it, or adjust it.[viii]
In the last sentences of Matthew’s gospel, the risen Jesus meets with his disciples in Galilee, going back to the beginning, where it all started. And, we are told, “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Actually, that’s the English translation of a Greek sentence that says, “And seeing him, they worshiped, they doubted.” Not some. “They.” All Jesus’ beloveds. All who remained, all who traveled those many weary miles home in the aftermath of what was easily the most horrifying and devastating and now, maybe, confusing experience of their lives. They saw him. Their hearts went out to God in joyous praise and thanksgiving, and also in confused hesitation, in puzzled wonderment.
Jesus’ response? Jesus gives them their marching orders—all of them, not just those whose faith is unwavering. Jesus commissions his hesitating, worshiping, joyful, fearful, weary and yet strangely reinvigorated band to go. “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a).
Having doubts does not invalidate our faith. It does not mean that we are somehow lesser Christians. It does not mean that we are relegated to some group in need of remediation. It does not sideline us in the work God has set out for us to do.
At the same time, doubt is not something to be careless with. We can pray our doubt. (Probably we should.) We can speak with our doubt, invite it in and sit down to tea with it. And we can acknowledge that doubt is not the antithesis to faith, but a very close relation, a sibling, to be loved and acknowledged, and not chased away, but treasured, because doubt has the capacity to lead us even more deeply into faith. Doubt, like scripture, is to be conversed with, and struggled with, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, until it gives a blessing.
Doubt can give us a blessing.
Go, and do my work, Jesus says. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That is his promise, a promise to the faithful and the doubtful alike. His very last words to us, the sum and substance of the gospel, from the heart of God to the heart of each of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
[ii] Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
[iii] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
[iv] Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
[v] Jane Austen, Emma
[vi] A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner
[vii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 1993).
[viii] Brian McLaren, “Doubt: The Tides of Faith,” in Christian Single Magazine, 2008, http://www.brianmclaren.net/emc/archives/resources/doubt-the-tides-of-faith-written.html.