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Good morning. I just wanted to wish those who are celebrating a very happy lunar new year. And whether you are celebrating the lunar new year or not, I think we all have much to be thankful for and to celebrate together — every breath that we take, the gift of life and the people we love. We have entered the season of Lent and as we spend time in contemplation towards Good Friday and Easter, it might be an appropriate time to ask you this question: how do you faith?
Some of you who are English majors or teachers may be cringing as you hear that question and you’re probably thinking, “Pauline, don’t you know faith is a noun? You can’t use the word like that in a sentence!” Let me assure you that while my English is not excellent, I do know that the word ‘faith’ is a noun and I’ll explain later why I use it this way, ok? J In the meantime, as you allow that thought to sink in, let us read our first bible passage together, shall we?
This morning, as we ponder over the question of faith and doubt, we will be reading first from Mark 4:35-41.
Mark 4:35-41 (ESV)
Jesus Calms a Storm
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
The first question I want to ask you this morning is: why do you think Jesus seemed so impatient with his disciples?
His reaction seems rather harsh under the circumstances, right? After all, they were being tossed about in a huge storm and the thought that their lives were in real danger was probably flashing in their minds. That’s why they woke Jesus up in a panic and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus responded saying, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” We can almost feel Jesus’ exasperation towards them. So why was Jesus so exasperated with them?
Well, perhaps because his disciples’ lack of faith meant something deeper to him. It wasn’t just about an intellectual belief. Their lack of faith is a denigration of his relationship with them. If I say of another person, “I have faith in her,” I mean many things, including, “I trust her; I rely on her; I love her; I depend on her.” To have faith in Jesus then implies a whole range of ways one actively relates to him. It is the language of the relationship. Jesus is impatient with his followers’ lack of faith because it really comes down to a lack of trust. It’s personal.
Imagine you are in a situation where someone you love and trust lacks faith in you. Especially when you have been doing everything you can to earn his/her trust. How would you feel? Hurt? Frustrated? Well, that was how Jesus felt. Jesus obviously feels he has earned the trust of his disciples. If you have exhibited trustworthiness over time, it can hurt to realize that you are still not fully trusted. That’s what’s going on here. Jesus is not just frustrated with his disciples’ lack of faith. He is hurt by it.
So faith is not just about an intellectual belief, it is the reflection of a relationship. So let me ask you: you may have been a Christian for a long time or a short time but how is your relationship with Jesus?
As you ponder over that question, let’s read the second passage that is related to the first: Matthew 14:22-33
Jesus Walks on the Water
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Here in this instance, we see the same exasperation when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” We understand that this might have stemmed from how hurt Jesus was by the lack of trust on a personal level. But from Peter’s perspective, can you imagine what was going through his mind when Jesus asked him why did he doubt? He was probably thinking, “Because I was walking on water yo! Do you know how crazy and mind-boggling that is in the midst of the howling storm and waves?”
I wonder if the same thought has crossed your mind before? When you are going through the storms of rejection, pain and loss in your life or when you are experiencing waves of inner turmoil, have you ever thought, “God, how do I trust you in the midst of this situation? I can’t even make sense of it. I don’t even know what to believe anymore. How can you expect me to have faith when things are so crazy and mind-boggling in the midst of this storm?”
Let me ask you: is there a difference between faith and belief? If so, what is the difference?
William Sloane Coffin, a Presbyterian minister who was a peace activist and an ardent supporter of gay rights, said: “Faith isn’t believing without proof – it’s trusting without reservation.”
In the book, Jesus Is The Question, Martin Copenhaver gives this example. He says:
Imagine you are at a circus. A skilled high-wire artist has accomplished so many marvelous feats that the audience has come to believe that he can do almost anything. The ringmaster addresses the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, how many of you believe that this daring man can ride safely over the high wire on his bicycle while carrying someone on his shoulders? If you believe he can do it, please raise your hand!” If you were in the audience you might raise your hand along with all the others, a great silent chorus of belief. “Very well, then,” says the ringmaster, seeing an almost unanimous vote of confidence, “Now who will be the first to volunteer to sit on his shoulders?”
The difference between belief and faith is the difference between staying in your seat and volunteering to climb on the shoulders of the high-wire artist. Ultimately, faith is not about believing certain things; it is about placing our trust in someone. So belief can often be an intellectual thing but faith involves the placing of your life, your heart into the hands of another.
You know, English is the only European language that does not have a verb form of the word “faith”. We can’t say, “I faith you” or “how much do you faith?” So we are sometimes misled about the nature of faith. When translating the Greek word for “faith” in verb form, we settle for “I believe” (which is head knowledge) or we use it as a noun like “I have faith”, implying it’s a possession. The problem with that is we end up thinking we either have it or we don’t.Faith, however, is not a possession. It is a capacity. A capacity for trust. And this capacity for trust varies from time to time. Is that okay? Yes, that is absolutely okay.
Christians often understand faith to be a gift and that’s why the concept of having or not having faith. And on some levels, that is true. Faith is a gift. But the problem with that is we think we either have it or we don’t. But faith is not just a gift. Faith, properly understood, is also a verb. On some days, we live out the capacity to trust more completely than others. Faith is something we do. Faith is not something we have with certainty, once and for all, at all times, under all circumstances. Rather, it is something we do, sometimes more easily than others, sometimes more completely than other times. Human frailty rarely allows us more than that. We are all capable of acting faithfully but none of us is faithful always.
In Peter’s case, he faiths quite well for a while when walking on water towards Jesus, then fear takes over. And that happens to the best of us. The question is: how are you exercising the capacity to trust? How are we exercising the capacity to place our lives, our hearts in the hands of God moment by moment? Is there something that comes to your mind while we are talking about this capacity to faith, to trust? Is there an area in your life perhaps that you are struggling to trust God about at this moment? If so, what do you want to do? Do you want to exercise the capacity to faith in God today?
Perhaps it’s not always so easy because the faith journey is different for each of us. And we can see that in our third and final passage for today: John 20:24-29.
Jesus and Thomas
24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus appears to the disciples while Thomas is absent. Jesus gave the disciples the evidence they needed to see he was indeed real. He showed them his hands and his side. However, Thomas was not present so he has trouble believing their story. He wants proof. He wants irrefutable proof that Jesus is alive. For this reason, people call him “Doubting Thomas”. But we can look at things from another perspective too. Thomas put honesty above fake faith: he wasn’t afraid to express his doubt honestly and stand his ground: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe.” I know many church-people use this as an example of what not to do, but I kinda admire his honesty.
But the main point of this story is not Thomas or his supposed doubt and honesty. The main point in the story is the action of Jesus Christ. The action of Jesus is not to berate Thomas for his need of proof. The action of Jesus is to give Thomas what he needs to enhance and encourage Thomas’ faith. Jesus does not appear and chastise Thomas. Jesus offers himself to Thomas. Thomas has what he needs to believe and when he realizes that Jesus has truly risen from the dead, he falls on his knees to worship Jesus.
Now that we have looked at all 3 passages, let me ask you this question: what do you think is the difference between Peter and Thomas? Is there a difference in the way they faith and doubt?
We were talking about this during cg last week and one of my very astute cg members observed that Peter was more an ‘F’ and Thomas a ‘T’. J This refers to the MBTI personality characteristics and F stands for ‘feeling’ while T stands for ‘thinking’. So F people tend to base their understanding and decisions on feelings while T people tend to base them on thinking. Of course this is a very broad generalization and I must clarify that all of us access our feelings and thoughts when making sense of the world. Saying a person is more F or T just refers to our tendencies. All of us think and feel when it comes to faith but we are talking more about how we tend to make sense of things. But it does give us some insight into how all of us may deal with faithing and doubting differently.
For example, Peter saw Jesus walking on water and in a burst of emotion, he asks Jesus to command him to come to him on the water. And as he exercised the capacity to trust, he actually manages to walk on water for a while. That is, until he gets distracted by the storm and waves around him and probably thought, “What did I get myself into? What was I thinking?” And fear overcame him. In Thomas’ case, he refused to believe until he saw some visible proof. And when Jesus showed him, he believed and fell on his knees. The problem with that is sometimes there isn’t any visible proof and we find it hard to believe.
Who do you identify more closely with? Peter or Thomas? For me, I am an ENFJ and that means I’m an F. I was reflecting on my faith journey over the years and realized that even though I am an F, I had a lot of doubts and questions in my mind at different points of my life. I became a Christian when I was 13 but by the time I was 14, I was dealing with a lot of intellectual questions with regards to faith. I had questions like “Was Jesus really a historical person? Did he really die and resurrect?” Because if Jesus didn’t really exist, then what was I actually believing in? So I read a bunch of books on apologetics and that helped me understand a little more about the basis for my faith.
Then in my late teens into my twenties, I grappled with my sexuality and my spirituality. Throughout that time, through the ups and the downs, God somehow kept me close. Even though intellectually, I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile my spirituality and sexuality (this was the pre-Internet era), I somehow always knew that God loved me and God was okay with me. I can’t explain it but it was a deep assurance and peace in my heart. Going to bible school in my late twenties was also a turning point in my faith journey. I wasn’t sure what kind of experience it would turn out to be but I prayed that God would be the director of my curriculum. Serendipitously, during that period when I was in that bible school, they offered a module called ‘Authentic Sexuality’ which was taught by a visiting professor from Fuller Seminary. Amazingly, regarding the issue of homosexuality, he took a very progressive stand for an evangelical scholar at that time. That helped me a lot personally in my own reconciliation process. You know, it was the first and only time the bible school offered that module…and it was during the time when I was there.
More importantly, going to bible school helped me realize just how big God is. Before I went to seminary, I thought I knew a lot about the Bible already but once I started my theological studies, I realized just how little I knew. It humbled me to realize God is so much bigger than our human minds can ever conceive. That is why we can never fully grasp God’s thoughts, ways and plans. Understanding that fact really helps me during tough times when I can’t make sense of the surrounding storm and turmoil. I truly believe God answered my prayer and engineered a curriculum that was personally for me. And that is why I am here today.
My point is that while we may have a tendency to be an F or a T, our faith journeys are enriched and enhanced if we are able to tap into both our thinking and our feeling systems in the way we relate to God. What about you? What has your faith journey been like? Are you more of an F or a T where it comes to matters of faith? Are you honest with yourself and others about your faith and doubt? How does your faithing reflect on your relationship with God? More importantly, what do you want your faith journey to be like? How do you want to grow? Are there areas in your life right now where you want to exercise the capacity to trust in God?
How can we exercise the capacity to place our lives, our hearts in the hands of God moment by moment?
Just a shameless but relevant plug. J We will be having our church retreat in a few weeks and our theme is ‘Breaking Through’. If you feel the Holy Spirit tugging at your heart this morning and you desire a breaking through in your faith journey or perhaps in some other area of your life, I encourage you to sign up for the retreat and I pray that the God of our faith and our doubts will meet us at our points of need.