Worship and Doubt

Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Worship and Doubt
Rev. Doug Floyd
Matthew 28:16-20

Over the years, I have often dreamed of houses that seem small, but when I step through the door they seem much larger on the inside. There is no end to hallways and room and places to explore. I begin walking through the house and keep discovering new rooms, new doors, new stairways. As I walked across the basement of one little basement ranch house, I discovered a door on the end. When I stepped through the door, I was in a giant concert hall with a room full of people and a band playing.

C.S. Lewis captures this idea little big spaces in several of his books. In “The Last Battle” characters step into a small barn but once inside they realize they are in a vast land that stretches further than the eye can see. Upon entering this land, Jewel the Unicorn says, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!” “Come further up and further in” is an oft-repeated line that many people quote because it’s further up and further in, the mystery of God’s kingdom.

This magnitude is intimidating for the characters of “The Great Divorce.” They leave the “Gray Town” for a field trip to heaven. As it turns out, heaven is more real and more and more glorious than they are. It terrifies them. From the first lights of the land to the grass under their feet, everything is overwhelming and a bit terrifying. The narrator struggles to walk, fears the waterfall, and is intimidated by the glorious people who come to meet him and the others. This world is bigger than the imagination can grasp, and the characters are overwhelmed.

This idea of little big spaces is, might be like the disciples as they follow Jesus in ministry because he invites them into a world that’s bigger than they could ever perceive. When he says that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, he is calling them to a life, an encounter, a reality that will challenge them to the core. They continually misunderstand and yet they follow. As they walk in His grace, they are being enlarged inwardly even as they walk outwardly toward a larger life than they ever imagined.

Today’s Gospel story takes place after the resurrection and right before the ascension. The eleven disciples go to Galilee and to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. When they see Jesus, they worship Him. This word for worship is proskynesis and it means something more than lifting up their hands with warm feelings.

Proskynesis literally indicates a kiss. It speaks of bowing all the way to the ground and kissing someone’s feet or the hem of their garment. All through Scripture, when people behold the glory of the Lord, they fall down as though dead in complete obeisance, complete submission and adoration. The disciples fall to the ground before Jesus in an act that acknowledges His divinity, His power, His glory.

Matthew says something that tends to puzzle us, “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Mt 28:17). There is no indication that the text is creating two groups: some who worship and some who doubt. The idea of the text is that they all fell down in worship, in honor, in submission, but some doubted.

Some hesitated. Some wavered. Some struggled to grasp what was happening. Some doubted. How could worship and doubt co-exist? And yet, this is what Matthew appears to say. It’s not the first time he’s indicated an act of faith and an act, or a state of doubt can coexist at the same time. We see it several times in the life of Peter. We also see it in Thomas. Right after Peter makes his great pronouncement that Jesus is the Messiah, he instantly questions what Jesus says. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21).

In chapter 14, Matthew tells us the story of Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the wind and waves. At first, the disciples are terrified. Jesus calms their fears with a word. Then Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. (Mt 14:28–29). Before we proceed, let’s hear that again, “So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.” Peter walked on the water to Jesus. In this pre-resurrection story, Peter walks beyond what any of us have experienced or can conceive. He walks on the water to Jesus.

But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:30–31). Now we can say what we want about Peter’s doubt, Peter’s lack of faith, but we have just witnessed a disciple walking on the water. Suddenly his mind catches up with his body and he cries out in fear. In this story, we see faith and doubt at the same time in the same person.

Richard Hooker discusses this mystery of faith and doubt in his sermon, “A Learned and Comfortable Sermon of the Certainty and Perpetuity of Faith in the Elect.” [1] In spite of the wordy title, he is basically discussing the challenge of maintaining faith in the midst of doubt.

He speaks of a faith or certainty that grips our hearts because we’ve encountered the God who is good and faithful and true. Like Job, we know a deep unshakeable trust. And yet, we are weak. And we struggle. And there are times when we are unsure. He warns of those who claim to have perfect faith and no doubt, suggesting they are trusting in their own righteousness, their own confidence, and not in the grace of God.

He explains that there is faith to believe in Jesus Christ, which is a free gift of God. At the same time, we are growing up into maturity, learning how to trust God in all situations. He writes, “How true it is of our weak and wavering nature that we have no sooner received a grace than we are ready to fall from it” (p. 8). Like Peter, we proclaim, “Lord I am ready to go with you into prison and death,” but then “with what small provocations we fall away when we are left to ourselves.” He suggests that some of the reasons for doubt include a direct testing by Satan, forgetting how God has delivered us in the past, asking for the wrong things (we may ask for a snake when we really desire a fish). We may suffer doubts because like Habakkuk we struggle with the horrors we have seen in this world. We may even doubt our faith when other people challenge us or reject us.

He writes,

“Although God’s goodness to us in reconciling love is so great that we cannot measure it by the number of hours, days, and years of our lives, if we put all these acts together they lack the force to overcome the doubt that comes from the fear of losing a tiny transitory favor from our fellows, or some small calamity. We immediately imagine that we are cross clean out of God’s book, that He favors others, does not love us and passes us by like a stranger who no longer knows us.” (pp. 10-11)

he continues,
Then, as we look at other people and compare them to ourselves, we conclude that their tables are richly furnished every day whereas ashes and dirt are our daily bread; they sing happily before the beautiful music of the lute and their children dance for them, whereas our hearts are as heavy as lead, our sighs are thick and our pulses too fast, our tears wash the beds in which we lie. The sun shines on them whereas we are hung up like the wineskins blackened in the smoke, cast into corners like chards of a broken pot. Do not tell us about the promises of God! Tell those who reap the fruit of God’s love. The promises of God belong not to us but to others. God, forgive our weakness, but this is the way it is with us.” (p.11)

This makes me think of a song I used to sing as a child,

“Nobody loves me
Everybody hates me
Going to the garden eat worms.
Big ones, little ones, fat ones, skinny ones,
Going to the garden eat worms.”

I’ve always been good at feeling overlooked, abandoned, forsaken. I acted like it was God’s choice to make me a martyr in life. I went on a mission trip to Mexico once and was rooming with a guy that got on my nerves. I thought he had none of the fruit of the gospel of Christ. Every time he opened his mouth it offended me. I thought, oh if others could see how much I’m suffering having to room with this guy, but I will keep my mouth shut because I am a righteous man. Nobody even knows my sacrifice! Lord have mercy on my selfishness!

That kind of mindset can follow us around, where we feel that others have been blessed, others have been prospered and we have been sort of cast aside. Those aren’t the only kinds of doubts we can experience but there are doubts where we experience God’s goodness or God’s faithfulness or even the meaning of what God’s called us to do. How many have doubted our own sense of calling. What am I supposed to do in this life? Dallas Willard once suggested that if you have a workshop or a retreat on the will of God it will always be packed because everyone is wondering what is God’s will for me?

I did a retreat years ago on hearing the voice of God. It was the biggest retreat we ever had. Everybody came to that. Because everybody wants to know, what is God telling me? Because we struggle with that. Sometimes because of that we may feel self-pity or confusion or we may question what God’s calling us to do. In John 17, Jesus prays for the disciples and he prays for us who will come to believe. He prays at least five things. He prays that we’ll be kept in his name, that we’ll be kept from the evil one, that we will be sanctified by his word, that we would become one, perfectly one and that we would know the love, the same love that he has shared with the Father.

He still prays for us and my hope and confidence is in His prayer. He is faithful and true even when I am weak and frail.

Earlier, I left the doubting disciples on the mountain. We return to the Gospel and behold Jesus addressing these worshipping, doubting disciples. He doesn’t even address their doubt. He simply says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:18–20).

He is calling them into a way they have no known. The kingdom of heaven is not simply Jerusalem, not simply Israel, but it extends to the whole world and even all of the cosmos. He is calling them into a power and authority that have not fully grasped. He is calling them to proclaim a truth that they still do not fully understand: the mystery of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the holy communion of love that proceeds all things and leads all things to fullness.

He is leading them beyond all that they know and into the dark mystery of what they don’t know. This will feel disorienting, confusing and may even lead to doubt. But he hasn’t abandoned them.

The disciples have been caught up into the communion up of the Triune God, into the communion of love between Father, Son and Spirit. Every year the church celebrates the feast of Trinity, the Holy Trinity, the mystery of the Father, Son and Spirit. There is much we can say about it and much that might seem abstract but one thing we can emphasize is the Holy Communion of love that we see demonstrated in Jesus, that he talks again and again about. This is the love that he shares with the Father, this love that is revealed fully in John 17. This love that he speaks of in John 5 and 6, that he can do nothing without this communion of the Father. This love that he calls the disciples to in John 13, 14, 15, 16, 17.

Jesus doesn’t lead his disciples into the mystery through abstract ideas but through communion, through a meal, through fellowship. That’s how they’re led into the mystery. So on this holy mountain, after his resurrection, right before his ascension, they’ve already been caught up into this love, even in their doubts. They’ve already been caught up into the communion of love between Father, Son and Spirit. It’s almost like the stable in C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle. They stepped into a stable and it turns out they’ve entered a home. With Jewel the unicorn, they can proclaim and we can proclaim, “I’ve come home at last. This is my real country. I belong here. This, this is the land I’ve been looking for all my life, though I never knew it til now. Come further up and further in.”

In a sense that is the mystery of following God, following Christ. It is going further up and further in. It is constantly being challenged by a God who’s simply bigger than we can understand, bigger than we can grasp. A God who always pushes us to our very limits. Often it will feel like doubt or struggle or questioning or wrestling but always he’s expanding us, expanding us to know him more deeply, to know his love more fully and along the way, as he calls us into this love, it will expose our frailties, our weaknesses, our doubts, our fears.

As I follow Christ, I’ll discover that this kingdom, this house is filled with more rooms than I could ever imagine. Sometimes the rooms will feel like suffering or pain or long waiting or struggle. Sometimes the long halls of this house of love will feel disorienting. In fact, we may even question his love as we stumble through this incredibly large house. But we never forget that because of Christ we’re already in the house of love. We’ve already been caught up in it and our life is discovering all the nooks and crannies of this love. We are literally growing up into the glory of his love.

The disciples grew up into this love, and they would change the world. They would shake the very foundations of Rome. They would reveal his love and Good News everywhere they went. Sometimes gently, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in power and in miracles and sometimes in simple acts of obedience.

As we grow up in this communion of love, we will discover his healing for broken places. We will spend our lives exploring his love and let it flow through us. We’ll bring his healing to the world around us.

Thank you Lord Jesus that you have caught us up and that you are bigger and greater and more awesome than we could imagine and yet you have revealed yourself in a way that we can know you and can love you and can follow you. So we commit ourselves to follow you this day. Have mercy on us, we pray. And it is in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit that I pray. Amen.

[1] Philip Secor, The Sermons of Richard Hooker (SPCK, 2001), pp. 1-11.

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