Sermon - 16th September 2018
Faith and doubt
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
With some of the gospel stories, unless we approach them with the mindset of those first followers of Jesus, we are likely to miss some of the background features which open up the story to a much deeper understanding.
In particular, when we hear the gospel-writer talk about miracles and unexplained events, we need to recall that the religious culture of Jesus’s time was full of competing claims about miraculous happenings, magical occurrences, demons and deities battling for power over peoples and places.
These things were the language and tradition of the many religions and cults which were active around the Eastern Mediterranean at the time of Jesus and in the subsequent decades when the gospels were being compiled.
And one of tests for being recognised as a particularly holy person - someone whom others might respect and perhaps even follow - was the ability to conquer these magical and demonic forces by means of your own personal spiritual power.
Generally, you could consider yourself safe from these dangerous and supernatural forces if you lived in a community, such as a village or a town, where the community would protect itself - perhaps by calling upon its own local god or goddess - and people would look out for each other. There was strength in numbers.
But there were three kinds of places where, if you ventured into them, you knew you were entering the territory of the wild, untamed powers of the world, and you risked having to do battle with the forces of evil. These places were: deserts or wildernesses; mountains; and the sea.
Even today, in a purely practical way, we would probably take special precautions if we need to travel across deserts, or through mountains, or over the sea. But those precautions would be based on physical forces and geographic factors that we understand and know how to handle. To the people of New Testament times, those wild places were not just physically challenging, they were the dwelling places of powerful spiritual forces which influenced the magical and occult powers which were thought to be the causes of so many of the random incidents of daily life.
Against that backdrop, Matthew is saying more than perhaps we realise when he tells us firstly that Jesus went into the mountains, alone, to pray - and stayed there a number of hours; and secondly that Jesus walked on the sea when he went to the aid of his disciples.
We are supposed to understand - as Matthew’s first listeners would have done - that by these acts Jesus is demonstrating his personal power over the untamed forces of the most dangerous places known to the people of that time. Here, in Matthew’s narrative, is the holy man without equal: here is the one who brings the power of God uniquely to earth.
How can you fail to acclaim him as the long-expected Messiah, Matthew asks, when he can walk fearlessly and unharmed across the whole of God’s creation, trusting in God to save him from harm?
And to press home the message, Matthew then tells of how a moment of doubt about Jesus’s power nearly ends in disaster.
When Peter tries to walk across the sea towards Jesus, his nerve fails him, his fears get the better of him, and he starts to sink. And here Matthew places on the lips of Jesus the question that has challenged every disciple since the first days of Jesus’s ministry: “Why did you doubt?”
For Matthew, the teaching point behind his story is not about expecting disciples to perform miraculous acts such as walking on the sea.
His point is that our faith enables us to share in the holiness and power of Jesus’s unique relationship with God; but if we find our faith being replaced by doubt, and if we lose our focus on Jesus, we are likely to fall away from that relationship as we sink beneath the waves of our own fears and preoccupations.
Sometimes, the gospel stories have quite an uncompromising message; and today’s message is quite tough in how it deals with our human tendency to doubt: it can seem to say, ‘sink or swim - it’s up to you’. But this section from Matthew isn’t everything the gospels have to say about faith and doubt.
As we engage with the gospels and other Christian scriptures in this community, week by week, we encounter a huge patchwork of stories, parables and commentaries which speak in various ways about faith and doubt.
People’s beliefs and actions seem to be constantly moving, changing and growing as they encounter Jesus on their journey between faith and doubt. Stories of active and positive faith crop up from the least likely characters in our scriptures; while examples of serious and paralyzing doubt emerge from some of Jesus’s most trusted followers.
And just like those first disciples - and the disciples of every age since then - we will have times of doubt, uncertainty, weariness and lack of focus, as well as times when we feel empowered and energised by Jesus’s call to us to follow him.
But doubt can be a cleansing experience. Many of us here will know that some serious questioning of our beliefs can often lead to a stronger confidence in the core values of our faith.
In my own case, I realise now that the more I am prepared to challenge the truth of certain ideas which have become attached to Christian teachings, the more clearly I can see the wisdom of other facets of my faith and the more easily I can experience and respond to new insights.
In my early years as a churchgoer, I absorbed everything I heard, or was told, or that I experienced for myself. But when the doubts set in, and the diversions and the temptations came along, I realised that the knowledge I had acquired was disorganised, and unstructured, and I struggled to know what to value and what to discard.
Today, I find that letting go of ideas and beliefs which are not at the heart of Jesus’s teaching enables me to see issues more clearly and to deal with doubt and confusion more confidently and progressively.
But what is it that drives us forward, that makes our discipleship dynamic and fruitful, that expands our knowledge and inspires us to learn and re-learn, that renews our faith, that energises our approach to the good news of Jesus?
Looking back over my own journey of faith, I have grown increasingly aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit of God moving me forwards into new understandings and wider perceptions of what the Christian faith has to offer to an inhabitant of the 21st century in a western culture.
I have a sense of experiencing growth, and a sense that something beyond my own intellect nurtured and guided that growth. I am convinced it is that forward momentum which prevented me from sinking beneath the waves of doubt which, at times, were very real.
It was Peter’s forward momentum, and his steady focus on Jesus, that kept him afloat. When he stopped in his tracks, he became overwhelmed by doubt and fear, and lost sight of his goal, and the waters began to engulf him.
The essence of our Christian faith survives to this day because we believe that the Holy Spirit is continually reforming and reshaping the followers of Jesus into communities which are fit for the needs of their time.
We are not a frozen people: we are - as one of our songs puts it - “marching in the light of God”, “living in the love of God”, and “moving in the power of God”.
But if we don’t engage with that sense of forward motion, then we may find that our discipleship and the good news we share will sink with us.
Standing still, and becoming more fearful with the waves of the world churning around us, is not an option. But only you can decide whether we shall march, and live, and move in the power of God.
I don't think you will ever be asked to walk on water. But you may be asked to go into the dangerous places of this world - the deserts and mountains and seas of today - to face forces of hatred, discrimination, exclusion, and even violence. The temptation will be to respond with hate, to practice discrimination and exclusion in return, perhaps even to meet violence with violence. Fear can make us do uncharacteristic things. But are those really the values that speak of who we truly are?
Our faith, built upon our dedication to the gospel of love that we receive from Jesus, may be the only thing we can call upon to deal with our fears, our doubts and our uncertainties.
And perhaps the only way to strengthen our faith and to deal with our doubts is to allow the Holy Spirit - alive, vibrant, and so clearly at work in this community of faith - to take hold of us, to open our minds, to educate us, to challenge us, reform us, to reform us again, and to slowly lead us closer and closer to the One who already walks towards us in the power of God: the One who says to us, “Why did you doubt?”