Presented on The Lutheran Hour on April 24, 2022
By Rev. Dr. John Nunes, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Listen (5-10mb) Download (35-70mb) Reflections
Text: John 20:24-29
Grace to you and peace from the One who is and who was, and who is to come. A reading from John 20.
Now, Thomas, one of the twelve, called the twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 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." Eight days later, His disciples were inside again and Thomas was with them, and although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Now 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." Thomas answered Him. "My Lord and my God!" And Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." The Word of the Lord.
Doubting was not Thomas' primary problem. That he doubted wasn't the real issue. Whom he doubted was. I mean, I don't fault anyone for having doubts in a world like this, on a planet that's as breathtakingly beautiful yet as devastatingly broken as this world that we inhabit. Doubting comes easily, naturally. And it's probably healthy. I think I'd worry more about people who swallow up uncritically everything they read or see or hear. They are gullible and vulnerable to deals that seem too good to be true. The promises of Jesus, candidly, seem just like this. He promises us that in the one holy Christian and apostolic church peace can be given and sins can be forgiven, peace that the world cannot give nor take away, and sins that the world would never, ever forgive, for free.
It does seem too good to be true that God sends us love in the form of His Son. That God gives life in that Son's sacrificial death, and that in the resurrection of that same Son, Jesus, God invests in us everlastingly. But without the intervention of the Spirit, without the breath of God, there's no way in the world anybody's buying that. So those kind of divine doubts, dear sister, good brother, those doubts would be a mistake, because if you doubt what God has done for you in Jesus Christ, your doubts are misplaced, but not if you doubt other people, including yourself. That might be wise. Too many people cannot be depended upon. Too many leaders seem to care more about power and politics and posturing than they do about doing the right deeds for the right reason. Too many times, those we love the most hurt us the worst. Too often, those who drive the economy undermine our investment strategy. Too frequently, even when we exercise regularly, even our own bodies eventually betray us. There seems to be nothing on earth you can count on 100 percent, so doubt in this world isn't entirely misplaced.
I recently experienced the trauma of the closing after 140 years of Concordia College, New York. So many students, faculty, and staff were impacted. So many alumni were crushed. As the president of that institution, I learned many lessons foremost in this, what you could call, "school of hard knocks," I learned about my own failures and limitations. I learned that even if you pray and fight and pray and work as hard as you can, sometimes the outcome isn't what you hope for. To be honest, I spent too many long, sleepless nights with nightmarish doubts about myself. And that's not all wrong. Doubts are a part of Christian humility. Doubts protect us from falling for that most murderous flaw of pride or arrogance or vanity, of seeking signs and wonders, as if mine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. While faith without works is dead, faith without some doubt in your own works is deadly to your faith and to the lives of those around you. So doubting in itself does not mean you aren't a Christian, because there's nothing new about Christians possessing a certain range of doubts.
Martin Luther, who lived 500 years ago, once quipped, "For although Christians continue to believe until they die, yet they often stumble and begin to doubt." One-thousand years ago, a church leader named Peter Abelard put it like this, "By doubting, Christians are led to ask questions, and from this questioning, we see the truth." We will soon see today that doubting Thomas finally saw the truth. Two-thousand years ago, there was a father who hoped with all his heart that he might see his son healed, his boy whom he loved, who suffered from chronic demonic convulsions. (Have you ever prayed and prayed for the healing of someone you love?) And finally, the day came when this child met Jesus face to face on earth: Jesus, the Word become flesh, Jesus, the healing Word for our frail flesh, Jesus, the walking, talking manifestation of God on earth, the one and only One who could say, "All things are possible for anyone who believes." But upon hearing these words, the desperate dad cried out with doubt. And if we are honest, we all have either thought or said these words that the dad said, "I believe. Help my unbelief."
That's where doubt lives, in the splice of space between belief on the one hand and unbelief on the other. Doubt grows in the gap between the things we hope for on the journey of life and things we will never see until we get to that destination called eternal life. Doubt lurks in the cracks between conviction on the one hand and cynicism on the other. Doubt exploits the opening we all know too well, that while we have been raised up to be saints on the one hand, we fall down as sinners on the other. Because being baptized does not mean that you're no longer human. It does mean that in the struggle of being all too human, you've been given a promise to hold onto, a baptismal promise that engulfs your doubts in three splashes of water in the strong Name of the Holy Trinity. Baptized Christian, you have a relationship with the Holy Spirit, who breaks into your life and mind to turn us around and to disrupt our lethal trajectory that will lead us, without a doubt, to death.
Praise God! We have a God who speaks life through Word and Sacraments. He says, "Do not disbelieve, but believe. Do not doubt what I have done for you," Jesus says. So friends, here's the one thing you can and should doubt for sure. You can doubt every doubt you've ever had about God's love for you in Christ Jesus. But Thomas' doubts, they were a bit different. "Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails," he defiantly proclaims, "Unless I place my finger into the mark of the nails and place my hand into His side, I will never believe." Now, you might not expect me to say this, but even this is not a totally unreasonable statement. Think about it. Thomas had missed the upper room meeting when the resurrected Jesus poured out His Spirit, and no one never in the history of humanity ever been resurrected before. Some people had been revived or resuscitated or CPR'ed back to life, but they eventually died again. No one had ever been raised from the dead on the third day with a glorified body like Jesus, never to reenter the grave again. So, the primary problem that Thomas had wasn't in doubting. It was that he misplaced his doubts. And so will we, without the Holy Spirit who creates and curates our faith.
Listen to Martin Luther again, "The Holy Spirit is no skeptic. What He has written on our hearts is neither doubt nor mere opinion, but His words on our hearts are more sure and certain than life itself." In this life itself, we will have trouble. In this life itself we will have doubts, but we also have a God who has overcome this life itself, and not only that, but he has made us overcomers. A God who conquered death itself, and not only that, but He has made us more than conquerors. Piercing the cloud of doubt, Thomas finally sees the truth and he confesses the faith exuberantly. With all his might, he exclaims, "Jesus, my Lord and my God!" And this same risen lord raises us by walking victoriously right into the middle of your skepticism and my cynicism.
In all honesty, I have struggled with doubt and I've needed to cling to these words from John 20. They are a relief for my sin-weary eyes, a comfort to lighten my doubts. They are the words of Jesus. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." And I'm sure that this God is far from done with good things for you and for me.
If you turn to the book of Revelation in the first chapter, we are given a little apocalyptic peak of this resurrected and reigning Lord. Close your eyes and imagine with me how He is depicted here. It says He was clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow, and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace. His voice was like the roar of many waters, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength. That strength is yours and mine, sisters and brothers in faith. So don't disbelieve. Keep believing. Keep walking the walk of faith. Keep talking the talk in your Christian witness. Keep telling people about Jesus. Keep singing with the hymn-writer, "Through the night of doubt and sorrow, onward goes the pilgrim band, singing songs of expectation, marching to the promised land," where Christ is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen.
Reflections for April 24, 2022
Title: Misplaced Doubt
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. We're joined now by our Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Today, I'm visiting with our guest preacher, Dr. John Nunes. Dr. Nunes, I could introduce you through a lot of different pathways, all the wonderful things you've done and people you've got to work with, but maybe I'll just say a husband of Monique and—
John Nunes: There you go.
Mike Zeigler: ... proud father of five daughters and one son. Is that a good introduction?
John Nunes: That's greatest achievement there could be.
Mike Zeigler: Amen. So, I really am grateful for your sermon. I appreciate the idea of misplaced doubt and well-placed faith. And I'd like to linger on one quote from the sermon. You said how this experience you went through recently, of the closure of the university that you were a part of Concordia College in Bronxville, how it helped you appreciate how well-placed doubt in yourself can protect us from falling for this "most murderous flaw of pride and acting as if mine is the kingdom and the power and the glory." And that's just such a gem of an insight, and sounds like one that was born out of a great deal of pressure and an excruciating experience. I just wanted to give you an opportunity to tell us more about that.
John Nunes: Thanks for the opportunity. The closure of Concordia was a painful and traumatizing experience for many people. Many people gave their entire lives and careers to that place. And after 140 years, its closure is a painful experience. And for me, one of my learnings for which I thank God is this sense that any capacity that I think I have, any confidence that I think I have, when the chair is pulled out from underneath me, it has to be placed only in the Lord. And we cling only to His promises. And in a certain sense, doubt helps us to do that. It helps us to know that the only Source of unfailing constant in our life is God's love for us. And so, for me, there was a great lesson in terms of where I place my confidence.
Mike Zeigler: And certainly, Concordia College-Bronxville is not alone. I looked at some statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and something like 579 colleges and universities have closed just in the last three years. And COVID really pushed a lot over the edge, more than a hundred, I think, just during the pandemic. So, this is a common experience that a lot of people have endured this kind of trauma of losing a very dearly loved institution.
John Nunes: It's a difficult time in higher education. Yeah, exactly. Praise God, our church body has done well though in terms of really investing well in Christian higher education. And even today, I'm on the campus of one of the Concordias talking to you, and they have a brand-new studio, and it's wonderful.
Mike Zeigler: You're joining us from Concordia University-Irvine on the other coast.
John Nunes: Exactly.
Mike Zeigler: Oswald Hoffmann, who was another Speaker for 33 years on this program, he was a professor there at Concordia Collegiate Institute in Bronxville. So a great heritage of graduates there just for our own program.
John Nunes: Absolutely.
Mike Zeigler: Another thing that I learned that Dr. Hoffmann did while he was there as a teacher was serve as the public affairs or public relations director for the college. As the public relations director, he wanted to try to help the image of the college in the local community. And so his message, and this is a quote from his biography, He wanted to tell the community that "Concordia is much more than the insular and rigidly Germanic school you may assume. We are thoroughly American school that offers the very best education under God, and you will be proud of your sons and daughters who graduate from here." And of course, this is 1942, right as the United States has entered into war with Nazi Germany. And so, there was certainly a drive to distinguish ourselves from our German heritage, but I just wanted to get your comments on that quote.
John Nunes: I think it's kind of connected to Lutheran Hour Ministries. Because Concordia College-New York historically always saw its place as a translating institution. And so, there was no majority student population. Every student on our campus by the time I became president was a minority. The campus was incredibly diverse, and it was always committed to this notion of getting the Gospel out in the language that people could understand.
Mike Zeigler: And this is a tension that you have dealt with very well in a recent book you published in 2020, right?
John Nunes: Meant for More: In, With, and Under the Ordinary.
Mike Zeigler: Very good. And you're using these three prepositions that Lutherans use often, "in," "with," and "under" to speak of how Jesus is present, truly present, with us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. But you're using them maybe in an analogous way of how we can be present in a culture. So talk about that.
John Nunes: Exactly. There is a sacramental, small "s" way in which I'm using the term. So, in, with, and under humans in the world. We're not of the world, but we're in the world. And we are invested in the world, invested in the lives of others. We care about other people as human persons, as human beings, not just as ticks we can get in converting them to Christianity. But they are ends in and of themselves. So, we are invested in humans as ends. We are with them; we walk with them; we work with them; we accompany them, and so we're with people on their long, difficult journeys in life. And then under, we provide support for people. We come under them and undergird them through difficult times, and they know that they have our care and our support. So, I think this is a great posture, these prepositions, for Christians to find themselves in the world, in, with, and under others in the name of Jesus.
Mike Zeigler: I think it reflects how Christians understand the core of reality that we believe in a God who is not alone, not singular, but Three in One, so three distinct Persons who are always in, with, under, in the presence of each other, always relating, and yet distinct. And so, we can embrace a world like that. We know that's the heart of reality.
John Nunes: Exactly. One of the things that it means to be made in the image of God is that we have a Trinitarian reflection, and the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit are in perfect relationship with one another. So, relationality or the sense that we don't do life singularly or individualistically, but we do life with others is part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Humans are made for other humans. It is not good for anyone born of woman to live alone. And so, community is a part of who we are. And I think there's a sense in which the image of God also means that we're built for community.
Mike Zeigler: So Dr. Nunes' book, Meant for More, he includes several prayers in the book, and so it's meant to be a devotional resource.
John Nunes: I kind of wrote for people who oftentimes see themselves on the edge of faith, so-called "Christian-ish" people. A lot of my students at Concordia New York found themselves in that place.
Mike Zeigler: So if someone were to pick up this book, maybe you're listening and that description fits you, maybe you're Christian-ish: you haven't been into the church for a while or haven't been around the church, but you'd be interested in maybe taking another look at it and see who this Jesus is—Dr. Nunes, how would you hope that a person like that would benefit from what they encounter in the book?
John Nunes: I think a lot about what it means to be unchurched, or what it means to be de-churched. And some of it is the fault of the church, candidly. There are those who are born again and there are those who have been burned again and again and again by the church. So I think what I would hope for would be that, in the best of circumstances, a person can find in the church a community of faith that will walk with them through the sorts of situations we were describing today in life. Life is long and life can be lonely. And we need one another. We're built for one another.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. I think you quote Martin Luther at one point, and he said that when the Holy Spirit brings us into the body of Christ, we're never alone. It's always a corporate faith, a corporate life.
John Nunes: So, the church is a family of faith, and there's a place in the church, I think, for everyone.
Mike Zeigler: John, thank you so much for being with us, for bringing God's Word to us, and for sticking around to talk. And we look forward to hearing from you again soon.
John Nunes: Thanks, Mike. And thanks for your ministry, for The Lutheran Hour now. This is fabulous. Thanks for the opportunity.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"O Sons and Daughters of the King" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"O Sons and Daughters of the King" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)