Pastor of Decatur United Methodist Church
Easter is a great day filled with bunnies, and family, and church, and food. Easter egg hunts, pastel colors (for some reason); candy; Easter baskets. Perhaps the biggest question of all on Easter is, Chickens lay eggs, so what does a bunny have to do with eggs? Truth be told, I’ve never understood the bunny.
Whether we are talking about bunnies, or the other reason for Easter, Jesus—that is, Easter is full of questions.
At the beginning of worship we read about what happened in the early morning on the first Easter. It was still dark this morning. Those closest to Jesus were mourning his loss, because on Friday Jesus was executed. These people that followed him around for three years; now they were without their friend, the teacher, their savior. Their whole world is destroyed. After Jesus is killed, he is taken and placed in a tomb. And on this morning, one of his disciples – a woman named Mary, comes to check on grave. Maybe she is coming bring flowers, or just to sit at the grave, thinking this will bring her closer to lost friend.
The questions she must have. What are we going to do now? Jesus promised us a new life, what are we going to do now that he is gone? Or maybe she second guesses everything that has happened over the past week. Maybe we could have persuaded him not to travel to Jerusalem at this time, then instead of coming to the grave, they could preparing to eat breakfast with Jesus. Maybe she is experiencing the question of guilt at not doing more to stop the execution of her Lord? Maybe she is experiencing doubt? Was Jesus really who he said he was? He promised so much, but he has let us down so big. So she makes her way to the grave -- full of questions, full doubt.
You see, Jesus was buried in a tomb that had a stone rolled in front of it. And in what we read earlier, we find that “Mary came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” Now Mary runs to Peter and another disciple to tell them what she has found. At this point, it is easy for religious people fill in the gaps – to jump to the end of the story. It is easy for us at this time to be excited. We easily imagine that Mary knows that Jesus has risen from the dead and that he lives. It is easy for us to fill in the gaps with what our traditions tells us about Easter.
But Mary has no idea of the resurrection. Instead of thinking that Jesus rose from the dead, Mary is confronted with more questions. So runs to Peter and the other disciple and lets them what she thinks must have happened. She says: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.”
When a dead body is missing, someone has moved the body. So now, Mary is faced another question, another doubt, where is his body. Someone has robbed Jesus’ grave.
Then Peter and the other disciple they run to check things out as well. They see the empty tomb, and they believe that someone has stolen the body. I wonder what questions they have. I’m sure they have many of the same doubts that Mary was dealing with. After all John, who is writing this account, tells us that once they see that Jesus’ body is gone they return home and they don’t understand what is going on. –doubt, questions.
Later that day, full of questions and doubt, Mary makes her way back to the grave. At this point, she is overcome with grief. We read in John 20:11 that – “11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb.” Maybe by looking in the tomb she could find another answer to her doubt, perhaps a clue to what has happened.
As the story continues to unfold, though, she doesn’t yet find an answer. As she is looking in the tomb:
12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.
13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
So full of doubt and question, she sees Jesus, but doesn’t recognize him.
Doubt and questions surround so much of what happened on that first Easter. So too, do doubt and questions surround much of our lives and faith today.
Doubt is tricky thing. In many church circles doubt is something that is looked down upon, something that must be avoided, something that indicates a weak faith. I was once in a community worship service and the preacher was speaking about doubt and salvation. He said something that has stuck with me ever since. Speaking about salvation, this preacher said that to be saved to have unquestioning faith, you have to know that you know you are saved. In this thinking any evidence of doubt meant that your faith was in question; it meant that you might not really be saved. In this thinking, doubt is opposed to faith; to this preacher, doubt was the enemy of faith.
You might have been in a church or been taught at some point in life that you just need to believe and not question anything about faith. Often such a stance is taken that makes faith opposed to science. Science asks question, so many will say that faith is about accepting things without questioning—so you just believe.
Often when people have grown up with this kind of faith they find it really difficult if they go to college. In college you are exposed different ways of thinking and different ways reading. And for most young people of faith, these new things raise questions about faith. And many were taught that questioning one’s faith is bad thing. Eventually they think that they have to choose. Either they must accept the faith of their youth blindly, or they must reject faith completely, because it doesn’t hold up to questions.
Even if one doesn’t go to college, often life can get in the way of faith. Tragedy in life also causes people to question their faith. There likely comes a time when simplistic answers are no longer good enough. Maybe you have always believed that God was in control. This is simple belief; it is something that many people will say in one way or another. But then, your child dies from cancer--and people might say, “well, she is in a better place.” And though they are trying to make you feel better you just can’t believe that God would want that. So where does that leave your faith?
You will quickly find, that a faith that doesn’t allow for questions or doubts can only carry you so far. A faith that doesn’t allow for questions or doubts won’t get you through the loss of a child. It won’t get you through college. It won’t get you through a terminal illness. If we look at this Easter story, though, we find that a faith that doesn’t allow for questions or doubts doesn’t even have room in the Easter story.
After all, we have already seen the doubts and questions of Mary and Peter and the other disciple. These are people that were the closest of close to Jesus, yet they had their doubts and they had their questions.
Closer to our own time, we have example of Mother, now Saint, Teresa. During her life, she was held up as a pillar of faith for people around the world. She devoted her life’s work caring for people that were suffering and completely forgotten about. Always she was held up as an example of someone of deep faith, who deeply connected with God. But Saint Teresa too had doubts and questions. In fact, in her life, there was a period of nearly 50 years where she felt disconnected from God. If faith didn’t allow for doubt or questions, someone such as Mother Teresa could not be considered a person of faith.
Something that Saint Teresa, and Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and the other disciple knew is that doubt and questioning is just a part of life. Those things that are of most importance and that hold the deepest mysteries are always open to doubt.
Things that have life changing meaning are never sure bets. Things that can change the course of world history and change your life are never a sure thing. Those first disciples that encountered that empty tomb, they had nothing to hold on to that was a sure thing. They didn’t know where Jesus’ body was. They didn’t know what they were going now that Jesus was gone from their lives. And if they had been taught that doubt was the enemy of faith, they would have given up—they would have had nothing else to live for.
If Mother Teresa had been taught that doubt was the enemy of faith she would have given, instead of continuing to share the healing and caring ministry of Jesus with others.
When we look back at the Easter story. We left Mary at the empty tomb of Jesus and she is crying. She is doubting; she questioning what to do next.
She encounters a man she thinks is the gardener. We, the reader, are clued in that this man is really Jesus. She questions the man she thinks to be gardener: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” – you can hear her pleading, the questioning in her voice.
Then in verse 16:
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
When this man, Mary thinks to be a gardener speak her name, she freezes, realization covers her face, she turns, and says, “teacher.” It is Jesus. What questions she must have. But in this moment, she is with Jesus again. It is in the midst of Mary’s doubt that Jesus comes to her.
One biblical scholar tells us that this thing called Easter has throughout history been the occasion of the greatest doubt and also the source of the most profound faith.
Friends, doubt is not the enemy of faith. Instead, throughout our lives, the things that hold the deepest meaning are also the things most open to doubt.
Who has ever been in love? Love is this thing that afflicts humans beings towards one another. It is a bond that deeper than the deepest. It is a bond that bridges sickness and health, wealth and poverty. But it is also a bond that is open to doubts. After all these years, does she still love me? When the children are gone, will he still want to be married to me? If I get sick as we age, will she stay by my side? Even in this love that provides deep meaning – we still find doubt.
Faith … Faith is no different. The Easter promise is that in doubt we can glimpse Jesus. Even in doubt, even in questions, Jesus came to Mary, and Jesus comes to us. Faith in Jesus is something with deep meaning and connection, and as such it will always be open to doubt.
If we try to pretend that doubt can’t coexist with faith, or that people aren’t allowed to question their faith or the bible, then we setting people up to lose their faith. Then we aren’t giving faith enough credit in our lives. Then we aren’t giving Jesus enough credit.
Perhaps like love and doubt, faith and doubt are held in the deepest regions of our hearts and minds. And, as such, we can’t really have one without the other. In this Easter miracle, in the Easter promise—we see Jesus coming to us in our faith and in our doubt. Will you be open to it?
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.