A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
A Place for Doubters
April 27, 2017
In each of the four Gospels, Jesus’ disciples respond to news of his resurrection with skepticism. Apparently Jesus had trained them well not to be gullible. They were all dubious, not just Thomas. They didn’t believe the reports of those who first saw him, and were slow to believe in the resurrection even after seeing him for themselves.
Luke indicates that even after he showed them his hands and feet, “In their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” (Luke 24:41) Matthew reports that as Jesus prepared to ascend, bestowing on his disciples the Great Commission to go into all the world with the good news, “They worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17) Mark’s account of what happens to the disciples following Jesus’ resurrection is fragmentary and incomplete, but even the broken fragment indicates that the disciples didn’t believe the reports of those who claimed to have seen the risen Lord.
John’s stories of the disciples’ struggles to believe are especially well-developed. Twice Jesus offers them an unsolicited look at his crucifixion scars to prove that it is he who has been resurrected. He breathes on them the power of the Holy Spirit, sending them into the world even as the Father had sent him. (John 20:19-29)
Freshly buoyed up in their faith, they go straight out and do great things for Jesus. Well, not exactly. According to John 21, they decide instead to return to their old livelihood. Peter, ever the ringleader, rounds them up with the announcement, “I’m going fishing – anyone care to join me?” However confident they may have become of Jesus’ resurrection, they revert to their former ways rather than moving forward in faith. The Lord told them at the outset of his ministry to abandon their nets and fish instead for people. But now here they are, fresh off seeing the risen Lord and being sent by him into the world – headed back to where they had started.
Going back to old ways is a natural reaction to being dislocated and uncertain where we are going next. When doubt assails us amid an uncharted path, we all tend to revert to the world with which we are most familiar. Intellectual doubts are one thing, but practical doubts run even deeper. They lead us back to the old and familiar, when we have been called to risk traveling a new way.
So, of course, who should they run into while they’re back to fishing but Jesus. It’s been a frustrating fishing trip – they’ve gone back to the security of what they know and can manage, and it has failed them. Farther pastures look greener not only in the distance ahead, but also in the distance behind. Perhaps their first thought on seeing Jesus on the shore was to recall his words, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and turns back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) But rather than lecturing them over failing to keep faith with him, Jesus calls out to them to try casting the net on the other side of the boat. They do, and they have a record haul of fish. It is the only miracle attributed to Jesus after his resurrection. It is a miracle of grace being extended to doubters and quitters.
Once they make shore, they discover that Jesus has already been fishing himself – at least he has already cooked up some fish for their breakfast. He bears them no recrimination, only blessing amidst their faithless struggles.
I find great comfort in this story. Sometimes my commitment to fulfilling my Lord’s calling is strong and solid, but other times it wavers. Some days I feel like Peter, “Lord, I will lay down my life for you” – and then like Peter I fail miserably in staying true to my promise. (John 13:36-38)
I am not alone in needing our Lord’s grace to pick up and get going again when I stumble. Truth be told, we all need it, both individually and as the church. No matter how far it wanders from its calling, the risen Lord meets the struggling church, blesses it amid its faithlessness, and prepares a table for it. Like the disciples of old, our capacity to fulfill our Lord’s mission rests not in the irrepressibility of our commitment, but in the gracious persistence of his calling. Thanks be to God that the risen Lord keeps faith with us no matter how much we struggle in keeping our faith with him!
Grateful for mercy,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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