Second Sunday Of Easter April 15-16, 2023
“Faith” John 20:19-31
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Losing faith is a terrible dilemma. People lose faith in people. They don’t know if they can trust them anymore. Some lose faith in those they once respected. A spouse, a friend, a teacher, a pastor. One of our former members told me that he had struggled with organized religion for many years. And then he just gave up on it. He hasn’t been back to church since.
Losing faith in God is probably the worst feeling that a believer can have. It leaves you wandering with nothing to hold to. Drifting. I lost faith when I was about 19 years old. I was a sophomore in college, studying to be a pastor, and it hit me – “What if none of this is true?” “What if everything that is in the Bible is just made-up, a bunch of stories?” “What if there was no resurrection of Jesus?” Boy, those were some serious doubts and at 19 years of age I didn’t know how to answer them.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever wondered if the people who wrote the Bible just filled us with a fairy tale? Did those miracles really happen? Is what we talk about really true or do we simply wish for them to be true?
My buddy and our Director of Music Ministries here at Ascension, Mike Zehnder, has quite a story about his spiritual struggles. His unbelief began in his first years of high school. His high school science teacher told him that God didn’t create the world like it said in the Bible. He told Mike that God didn’t do it in six days by a miracle, but it happened with a huge explosion and then some 13 billion years later man evolved from lower life forms until we got to where we are.
With that kernel of doubt Mike said, “Considering myself an intellectual I began to view the Bible as a collection of myths and contradictions and thought it my job to sort out what was real and what was made up.” But Mike had a problem. It was called his dad. Mike’s dad was Pastor Bob Zehnder, the senior pastor of one of the largest Lutheran churches in Colorado. 14-year-old Mike Zehnder tried to talk to his dad during a Bronco game (Mike’s first mistake that day) and after hearing Mike talk about all the things he didn’t believe in anymore, Bob Zehnder pounded the table in the living room and said, loudly and clearly, “You don’t believe? Well, you better just START believing.” That settled things, right? That set Mike Zehnder straight, right?
No. Mike’s unbelieving heart only got harder through high school. When he went away to St. John’s College in Winfield, Kansas when he was 17 years old he said he was the only unbeliever at St. John’s. He considered the other students as those “brainwashed and duped into believing by well-meaning parents and mentors.” Mike Zehnder had lost his faith and he was in a bad place.
But Mike Zehnder is not alone. And John Larson is not alone. And you are not alone. Thomas joins us. Thomas was not with the 10 other apostles when Jesus showed up on Easter evening. Though they told Thomas that they had seen Jesus, alive, resurrected, physically among them, his unbelief only grew stronger. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” (John 20:25) I guess in the words of Mike Zehnder those 10 who were saying such things about seeing Jesus were “brainwashed and duped into believing.”
People can struggle with faith and they can lose it. Me. Mike. You. Your kids. Your friends. And Thomas. It was just a few weeks before this that Thomas was willing to die with Jesus. Jesus spoke about going back to Jerusalem, where just recently Jesus just about was stoned to death and Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) But now his faith began with though awful words, “Unless I see…”
But I’m not here today to talk about people losing faith. I know too many stories of people who have lost faith. I’ve had too many members in churches where I have pastored who left faith and God and church behind and never came back. No, I’m here to talk about folks finding faith. So, how does that happen? How does one come back? It comes the way that faith was started. God comes looking. God comes seeking.
Look at the prodigal son. The father looks for his son, runs to his son, and restores his son. Peter, the one who lost courage and confession and faith, during his continued denials was told by Jesus, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. But when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)
You’ve lost your faith? You struggle with believing? God has not lost you. Jesus is busy bringing you, or them, back. Our account of Jesus doing what He always seems to do, caring for the one, seeks out the hard heart of Thomas. “A week later His disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked. Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” (John 20:26-27) The lost sheep was carried on the shoulders of the Shepherd to safety.
My account from doubt to faith when I was a 19-year-old wasn’t dramatic. Though I remember the pain of doubt I remember the persistent truth spoken to me by teachers and friends that led me back to a foundation that was solid – faith in Christ Jesus and the truth of God’s word.
But Mike Zehnder’s journey back to faith was Damascus Road stuff. It was like Saul becoming Paul. I asked Mike to put on paper how God brought him back. This is what he wrote,
One day I was having a discussion with a strong believer named Conley on a sidewalk in front of Baden Hall. He said to me, “Michael, you say you don’t believe but I’ve never met anyone who talks more about God than you.” I responded, “that’s because all of you are so brainwashed and I’m trying to help you see that you are wasting your lives by believing these myths when you could be free- thinkers and having a good time.” He said, “I don’t think so. I believe that the Holy Spirit has one foot in the door of your heart and He’s trying like crazy to get in the rest of the way.”
I immediately shook my head and responded with “No” but as I did so I felt something start at the top of my head that was similar to the feeling of the tingling of a foot when it falls asleep. I felt this strange sensation begin to grow throughout my scalp. It became much bigger and moved down through my shoulders and quickly through my entire body. Even my legs and feet were tingling. I felt like I was on fire and I couldn’t speak anymore, so I ran quickly away thinking I was having a medical emergency. As I did, I passed the chapel on campus where the students were singing, “He’s everything to me.” They had just come to the line which states, “Till by FAITH I met him face to face, and I felt the wonder of His grace, then I knew that He was more than just a God a way up there, who really didn’t care and now He walks beside me day by day helping me to find the narrow way…”
A little bit later he talks about the futility of trying to know God simply on an intellectual level and then adds, “I had not realized the role of FAITH and TRUST in a good God, thinking that belief was some kind of intellectual activity and accomplishment of getting all the facts straight.” “Over the years and months, that tiny spark of faith grew [and] became an avalanche of conviction by the power and grace of God not only in Jesus, but in the trustworthiness of the Bible in all its parts.
God did this. He took that man, young at the time, and brought his baptismal faith back into flame. Jesus came to Thomas and told him to look, see, touch and feel and the result was the word from Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28)
And God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, leads people to Jesus. Peter, once struggling, would tell us, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (I Peter 1:23)
To all of God’s people who have struggled along the way – you have a great God, the crucified and now living Jesus Christ. He will bring us again and again to a living, vibrant, saving faith. Amen!!