24 Apr, 2017

From Faith to Faith

24 Apr, 2017

From Faith to Faith

By guest speaker Rev. Ethan Raath, ThD.

Do you still believe?

That was a question that Thomas faced. That is a question which many of us face from time to time.

Thomas has been maligned as the doubter. I come in praise of Thomas for acknowledging his doubt and setting an example for us for growing from faith to faith.

I’m sure Thomas wasn’t alone in his doubts and even his fears. What the disciples had lived through in such a short period of time was traumatic. For years they had followed Christ. Their appreciation for his wisdom kept growing. Their belief that he was the Messiah kept growing. Their hopes for the coming Kingdom of God kept growing.

It must have been a heady time as they accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd. And then it all fell apart. Where were the hosts of heaven that were to come and save Israel?

Instead, the one in whom they had place their trust had been humiliated, scourged, and put to death like a common criminal. I imagine the disciples huddled in fear, dazed and confused. “Are they coming for us next?”

And then, the biblical narrative tells us, Jesus appeared to calm their anxieties, to remind them again that his Kingdom was found in loving God, neighbor, and self – a Kingdom of justice and restoration, of peace and wholeness of life, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of servanthood and kindness given in his name.

Thomas though, like many, needed more than the affirmations of others. He needed to see for himself.

Think about it. Thomas was already a believer. He had the foundation of his Jewish upbringing. That faith may not have been enough to answer his questions. Following Jesus had taken him to a new dimension of understanding. And seeing the risen Christ for himself, was the next step in his faith journey. He grew from faith to faith.

Do you still believe?

That question came to me in a pub on a Saturday morning. What was I doing in a pub on Saturday morning? It was the season of World Cup Rugby, and I gathered with other South Africans for breakfast and libations to watch the games.

Gathered at a table with some strangers, introductions were made. In conversation it came out that I am a minister. A women confronted me immediately with the question, “Do you still believe?” The question was so unexpected that I fumbled my response. It triggered in me all the doubts and questions of faith with which I have wrestled, and in that moment, I said, “No.”

That brought forth a level of condemnation from the questioner and comparison with her own minister. Thinking back, maybe she had her own doubts, and needed someone to look up to answer her questions.

But I was in defensive mode. I stumbled saying that with my background I knew too much about the development of Scripture and theological theories not to have doubt.

As I have reflected on that experience, I realize what I was trying to say was, “No, I don’t still believe the way I did but through my experience have come to new understandings and appreciations of faith that are relevant to me.” I had grown from faith, to faith, to faith.

I grew up in a very legalistic religious environment that placed emphasis on being saved and going to heaven. Everything we did, was an attempt to please God so we wouldn’t be “left behind” if Christ returned unexpectedly. We are admonished not to smoke. Drink, dance, go to the movies, and devote ourselves to attending church and witnessing for Christ.

A turning point came for me when attending seminary. In an introductory theology class I discovered the richness of grace – good will and favor extended to one undeserving. It was if a burden of shame, guilt, and fear rolled off my back. I realized that God loves me for who I am, knowing what I can become in the strength of the Spirit. In that moment I grew from the faith of my upbringing to a new vision of faith. The theme of grace has been at the heart of my ministry for forty years.

There are many obstacles to growing in faith. One is that we live busy lives in a fast paced world that often leaves little time or energy for reflecting on faith and practicing spiritual disciples.

The wonders of scientific discovery challenge the literal interpretations of Scripture and there are many competing philosophies trying to answer the meaning of existence and the purpose of life.

As with Thomas, our personal life experiences bring challenges of faith.

Last year I received an email from a congregational member from over twenty years ago. She said I had come to mind and she looked me up on Google and found the listing for my leadership consulting business. She especially thanked me for my ministry and how much it had meant to her.

I responded, giving news of the family as she requested. What followed was a reply in which she poured out her heart about her life challenges, trying to stick with a marriage until she could no longer do so, and personal experiences that challenged her faith. She wrote: I have always believed in a loving God, but it’s hard for me to reconcile that with all of the awful things that go on in the world. I’ve heard the clichés that people use such as, “It’s a test of your faith,” or “We don’t know God’s plan,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t buy it. How can God’s plan include my best friend dying from cancer at age 51 or my mother’s friend losing both of her daughters to cancer? And how can God’s plan include ISIS? 

Yet we can also grow from faith to faith through the challenges of life. A student of mine wrote:

I seek and find guidance through the immense power of prayer. Personal meditation has seen me through many of life’s obstacles. It helped me cope through my grandfather’s death and the feelings of anger towards the God who took him away from me. Last year I was involved in a serious accident that caused a brain hemorrhage leaving the left side of my body paralyzed. It was through prayer that I found strength when the doctors questioned if I would ever be able to walk again. Through prayer and therapy the Lord has placed me on the road to recovery. My eyes have been opened to all the opportunities and gifts that God has bestowed upon my family and me and I am more thankful than ever. I can see His majesty in everything around me; my parents, brothers and sisters, nieces, my education, and everything else that was so wonderfully granted to me.

Thomas faith grew into new dimensions. Tradition says that he carried the gospel to India. Today there is a Christian denomination called the Mar Toma Church in India that claims its heritage from Thomas ministry. And if so, Thomas ministry continues today in Denver, through Saint Thomas Indian Orthodox Church on Kipling Avenue just north of 6th Avenue.

Following the example of Thomas, I offer three ways to grow from faith to faith.

  • Accept your doubts and questions as an opportunity for growth. Don’t try and rush to an answer but allow the Spirit to lead you from faith to faith.
  • Stay connected to community that is supportive and open to growing from faith to faith. Find a friend you can talk to. My friend is not in community but is finding support in one-on-one relationship as we continue to stay in touch. When we gather in community, we trust Christ’s Spirit is with us. Christ’s presence is made know to us in worship, fellowship, sharing, and our personal encounters with fellow believers.

Once when I was going through a challenging time in my life, I told a friend I was finding it hard to pray. I still cherish her response when she said, “Don’t worry. I’ll pray for you until you can pray for yourself.” Try asking someone, “How can I pray for you?”

  • Keep serving, loving God, neighbor, and self. The Spirit of God that is in me is also in the one I serve. You will meet the risen Christ in the wounds and needs of others. And together, we can grow from faith to faith.

I Peter 3:9

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Amen.

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