Always the Skeptic

Imagine trying to convince someone that you’re alive.  I’m not talking about trying to look alert to your pastor after you’ve fallen asleep during a sermon.  (We see everything up here, by the way…) No, I’m talking about the challenge of actually having to prove that you’re not physically dead.

This was the predicament a few years ago for Charles Hubbard of Austin, Texas.  This Vietnam Vet received a letter from the US Department of Veteran Affairs informing him that he was dead and that his family needed to return thousands of dollars in benefits.

Hubbard had been the victim of stolen identity.  His bank accounts had all been closed by the VA and they were in the process of notifying social security and other government agencies that he was deceased.  Of course, the problem was…he wasn’t.

Charles made lots of phone calls to try and sort it out.  Finally, someone at the VA said, “why don’t you just come in and we can meet.”  Fine.  Hubbard traveled to the regional VA office.

There, he made a pretty extensive case for being alive…he had is ID, his passport, medical records…anything one might need to prove to someone else that they are, in fact, alive.  No one in the office quite seemed to know how to handle the situation, and Charles’ case kept getting bumped up the food chain until finally he was sitting across the desk from the regional administrator.  The administrator listened to Charles Hubbard tell his story, carefully read through the file, and after giving it some thought, looked at him and said: “Well, Mr. Hubbard, I’m sure that you can understand our skepticism.”

“Skepticism?  I’m right here!”

Finally, and after further review, and VA informed Charles Hubbard that it would take eight months for him to be officially brought back to life.  That’s how long it would take to restore his pension benefits.

Skepticism.  Skepticism is, I believe, an almost natural condition for us.  We can’t help but be skeptical…and we live in a skeptical age.

  • It’s been interesting this week to watch what’s going on with Facebook.  People are now suddenly skeptical of the giant company’s motivations, forgetting that when any online environment is free, we are not the customer. Advertisers are the customer and we are the product for sale.  (Please excuse my skepticism)
  • We’re not certain if we trust government to look out for our best interests.
  • Data breaches shake our faith in banks…credit card companies…and other businesses.
  • People are skeptical of schools, political parties, pro sports teams, churches, the legal system…you name it.

But skepticism and doubt are not new to our generation.  Not by a long shot.

The resurrected Christ had his own problems convincing the disciples that he was alive and well…right there in the flesh with them.  They were, according to Luke, “scared and terrified,” fearful that maybe he was a ghost.

But resurrection is not a metaphor.  Spirits and ghosts don’t bleed.  So, Jesus takes his own blood-scarred hands and feet and puts them right in front of the disciples faces.  “It’s OK to touch me” he says.  But the disciples…they weren’t buying it…not at first.

Now really, you can’t blame the disciples for their initial skepticism.  No one had ever been resurrected before.  I mean sure, there was that whole Elijah never dying thing…but that was different.

Remember that just a few verses before this reading, Luke tells us that the disciples dismissed the testimony of the women who had been to the tomb as an “idle tale.”  That’s actually a watered-down translation.  The Greek word Luke employs here is “leros,” the root word of our word delirious.  So in response to the women who said Jesus was risen?  The rest of the disciples said: “You’re leros…delirious! You’re crazy! You’re out of your minds!”

So, the disciples remained skeptical that Jesus was really standing in the flesh before their eyes.  So, Jesus turns to a fresh tactic.  “Do you have anything to eat?”

Now, I love this image: Jesus, the savior of the world, in one of his first utterances out of the grave, asks for food.  No great pronouncement about the end times…or the nature of what it means to die and rise.  Not even a “Hey guys!  You wouldn’t believe where I’ve been!”  No, Jesus asks if there is anything in the fridge.

Now, it could have been that he was simply hungry.  He hadn’t eaten since probably the Last Supper.  But more likely, Jesus is determined to try and help these disciples know that he is not a ghost.  And even the most skeptical of the disciples wouldn’t think that a ghost would have a digestive system.  So Jesus eats.

Apparently, that did the trick, because in verse 45, it says that Jesus “opened their minds to the scriptures.”

I think it’s also worth noting that since Easter morning, this is the third story in a row that has dealt with issues of wonder, doubt and skepticism among the disciples and the other believers.  Clearly, it’s something to which we are intended to pay close attention.

Skepticism and doubt!  With Jesus standing there, showing them his wounds, they still have questions. So, 2,000 years later, without the benefit of Jesus physically standing in front of us, is it at all surprising that sometimes, we too have our doubts.  Of course, we do.  I talk to people all the time about their doubts…their fears and their skepticism.

  • Sometimes it caused by a feeling of being broken by life’s circumstances
  • Sometimes is caused by a broken relationship with an individual, or a whole community
  • Sometimes it’s caused by disappointment, or fear, or anger.

Whatever the reason, we doubt…and then we may feel this sense of guilt because we doubt, as in “I feel badly that I doubt…my faith should be stronger…”

But here’s the thing you need to know:  Doubt is not the opposite of faith.  I know…that’s what conventional wisdom says…but it’s not true.  Doubt is, in fact, a necessary ingredient to faith.  Hebrews 11:1 says that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith, by definition, is trust even with no proof.  Faith is not knowledge, and faith is not certainty.  Faith is living and trusting as if something is true even when you have no proof that it is.

It is ok to question. It is ok to doubt.  It is alright to be skeptical.  Honestly, in light of all of the death, trauma, disappointment and tragedy that we witness every time we see the news, if you don’t have some doubt and skepticism, you’re probably not paying attention.

I have a friend who is a pastor up in the Twin Cities. He told me about a member of his church, a man who had lost his wife after a long and challenging struggle with cancer.  They had been married over 20 years.  The man was, understandably, shell-shocked.  He told his friends “I don’t know what to believe…I don’t know if I can believe…everything is upside down.  Everything is backwards.”

  • “I don’t know if I can go to church.”  His friends said “we’ll pick you up.  We’ll go with you.”
  • He said, “I don’t know if I can pray.”  His friends said, “we’ll pray on your behalf.”
  • He said “I’m sure I can’t sing.”  His friends said, “we’ll sing for you.”
  • He said “I don’t even know if I can hear what’s being said.”  His friends said, “we’ll listen for you.”

And that’s what they did. For I-don’t-even-know-how long, they just accompanied him…faithfully…every week.  At first, he would just sit in church, emotionally and spiritually blank.  And they prayed for him, sang for him and listened for him; because that’s what friends in faith do.  And while this man’s heart-wound never really healed, gradually, over time, slowly, he was able to re-engage his faith.

This friend of mine, his pastor, was talking with him and asked him how he navigated the grief.  The man just said “I clung to my friends.  And I discovered when I clung to my friends that I was clinging to God.”

That’s us.

  • When we gather here for worship, we’re not gathering with all the answers, but with faith
  • When we gather here for worship, we are not gathering to sing, pray, and listen just for ourselves, but for each other
  • When we come together as God’s people, we cling to each other and through our clinging to each other we understand that we are clinging to God

I don’t know what your doubts, your skepticism or your wonderings are.  I’m sure you have them.  But I do know this:

When we stand here, in front of the altar, when we look upon the cross that reminds us of Jesus’ death, when we hear the Gospel story of The Resurrection, Jesus does more than just ask us for a piece of fish;  Jesus offers you and me a piece of bread, a cup of wine, and reminds us that he is risen indeed.

Together, we all cling to Jesus, because we believe…we have faith…that our Jesus…he clings to us.

Thanks be to God!  Alleluia!



* Thanks to Rev. Peter Marty, Rev. Dr., David Lose and Rev. Paul Amlin for insight and inspiration in today’s sermon.  

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