“They Worshiped and Doubted”
“They Worshiped and Doubted”
Dr. William C. Poe
June 4, 2023
Do you know the name “Sam Hopkins”? The name “Lightnin’” Hopkins might be more familiar. He was one of America’s greatest Black blues singers, and a native Texan. Betty Anne and I were privileged to hear him in concert at the University of Texas some 57 years ago. His music evoked the pathos, the pain, the irony, and the spiritual perseverance that the blues are all about. When he sang, you had the feeling that he had been there.
He was born into the harsh life of an impoverished sharecropper’s son in deep East Texas not long after the beginning of the 20th century. He fled as a teenager to the equally harsh life of Houston’s Fifth Ward; he spent time at the County Prison Farm; and he learned to sing the blues as only one who has lived the blues can.
He hit it big during the 60’s and 70’s, at least for a Black blues singer. Close friends say that he was really a jovial person, full of laughs and amiable humor. Photographs of him show a man with a big, contagious smile. Once someone suggested to him that he could write happy songs as well as blues. But he replied, “No, my style is stamped now; when people come to hear me, they want sadness and blues and I can remember how to sing that.” Then he said with a smile, “But now I don’t live as sad as I sing.”
Martin Luther once made a strange assertion, and he followed it with an amazing admission. When Luther’s friend, Justus Jonas, lifted up St. Paul as an example of faith, Luther said, “I don’t think St. Paul believed as firmly as he talked. I can’t believe as firmly, either, as I can talk and write.”
Is the blues singer phony for “singing sad” and “living happy”? Is Luther a fraud for “singing” faith and “living” doubt?
The end of Matthew’s Gospel holds a powerful message for us, where we live in the space between belief and unbelief, at the crossroads of worship and doubt, the friction point between “singing” and “living.”
The tomb had been empty, that much was clear. The rumor, the scandal, the hope, the fear that Jesus was alive again was spreading in whispered tones. He appeared to the women, and then to the men. And they worshiped him, something they hadn’t done before. Before they had followed him, marveling at his teachings, watching his healings, taking note of his wisdom, suffering his rebukes, trusting him as Rabbi and master, even hoping that he was the promised Deliverer. But now they fell down and worshiped him as Lord and Savior.
“But,” Matthew tells us, “some doubted.” That shouldn’t surprise us. My guess is that some of them doubted openly, staring in slack-jawed disbelief even as they kneeled to worship. I am sure that all doubted at least some. And yet, Jesus came to them, as he does to us — to worshipers and doubters, all one and the same — and he says, “Go, baptize, teach, obey what I have commanded you, and I will be with you, always.”
Notice what Jesus did not say. He didn’t say, “You worshipers rise and go and do and I will be with you – but you doubters repent, go back and study and think and try to resolve all your questions and doubts and only then may you be commissioned to do my work, and only then will I be with you.”
You see, Jesus knew that the opposite of faith is not doubt, because doubt still implies engagement and struggle with the mystery of God. God works tirelessly and lovingly in that struggle. No, the opposite of faith is apathy, cynicism, disengagement, no longer wondering or caring.
Certainly Jesus had some negative things to say about doubt and disbelief, because he knew just how troubling and demoralizing doubts can be. So he pushes us toward the ideal of total faith and total commitment, but he doesn’t wait for us to realize that ideal before he comes to us and calls us into the service of his Kingdom. To us, the worshipers and doubters, he says, “Go, make disciples, baptize, teach, observe all that I have commanded, and I will be with you.” And, as we go and serve, he empowers us to follow his way of love and justice and mercy.
Almost 70 years ago now, the Supreme Court handed down a decision called “Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.” If you were living at the time and during the years after, I don’t have to tell you what a bombshell that ruling proved to be for many communities. I was in Cunningham Elementary School in Houston at the time, and I can remember wondering what kind of difference it would make in my school. I remember also one of the segregationist rallying cries of that time, which went: “You can’t legislate morality!” Of course, the fact of the matter is that you can legislate morality, you can regulate behavior. What you can’t legislate is the way people feel in their minds and hearts.
Whether we realized it at the time or not, our nation decided to try to change people’s behavior before everyone’s hearts and minds were changed. We made a decision, consciously or unconsciously, to proceed from hope rather than fear, from faith rather than despair. At the minimum, some of the negative effects of bigotry began to lessen. And who knows? Perhaps, by the grace of God, someday the reality of bigotry in people’s hearts will be changed.
But if we wait to try to follow Jesus until we are absolutely convinced, or until we have resolved all the intellectual and spiritual issues that trouble us — in other words, if we give our doubts the upper hand and let them control us — then all we will succeed in doing is maximizing the negative consequences of our doubts.
There will be less love and hope in the world, and, make no mistake about it, there will be more hunger, poverty, war, oppression, loneliness, and pain.
But, on the other hand, if we gather up our strange bundle of worship and doubt, belief and unbelief, hope and fear, and move out in service to God, then the consequences of faith will abound. We will discover that Christ is with us, as he promised, for as long as it takes. But, how will we know what we believe until we try to live it?
One of the hardest things in the world for modern people to say is, “I don’t know.” I think it is especially hard for us who stand in the Reformed tradition of educated, professional clergy to hear our minister say, “I don’t know.” But for you and me both, that admission can be the beginning of the road to faith.
“They worshiped and doubted.” And so do we. To all of us Jesus states the truth about himself and about us: “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”