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Fleas of Faith

John 20:19-31


2469 words


I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of John, chapter 20, and follow along as I read verses 19-31.  Hear what the Spirit says to us.


19  When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

20  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

21  Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

22  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.

23  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

24  But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

25  So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

26  A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

27  Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."

28  Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

29  Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

31  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.





Once a Sabbath School teacher was teaching about the destruction of Sodom and Gomaarh.  She said, “The angel of the lord told Lot to take his wife and flee from the city.  His wife looked back and was turned to a pillar of salt.”  Whereupon one serious child asked seriously, “What happened to his flea?”

Then the teacher had to spend some time discussing the problem in the English language of having words that sound the same and are spelled differently, and mean something entirely different, and that to flee (F-L-E-E) a city is not the same as that little animal that we call a flea (F-L-E-A).

But lets talk about fleas.  It has been said, [see David Harum: A Story of American Life (Edward Noyes Westcott, 1898)]: "A reasonable amount o' fleas is good fer a dog - keeps him from broodin' over bein' a dog" (284).  Sir Francis Galton, the great English scientist of the 19th century wrote, "Well-washed and well-combed domestic dogs grow dull; they miss the stimulus of fleas."  The characteristic of fleas that David Harum and Francis Galton are speaking of here is that tiny creature's ability to take a comfortable canine and irritate it to attention.

We all need fleas of that sort: small agitators that keep us from becoming predictable, complacent and plodding.  We need "fleas" to nip at our conscience, to irritate our assumptions, to disturb our expectations. One of the primary areas of our lives that should be well-infested with fleas, figuratively speaking, is our faith. Too often, we are content to let our faith become a matter of just going to church on a Sabbath.  We need some fleas to irritate us to spiritual attention.


The Flea of God

The first flea of faith is, we might say, built into the system.  Thomas Merton wrote his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain (Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York) back in 1948.  He says: “There is a paradox that lies in the very heart of human existence.  It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of a man.  The paradox is this: man’s nature, by itself, can  do little or nothing to settle his most important problems.  If we follow nothing but our natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell” (169).  Merton’s point is that human beings are hardwired for God.  We are created for the fellowship and love of God, and when we do not have that fellowship, then there is always something wrong with our lives.  We may be successful in some ways, we may have family, job, money, but we always feel that something is not right.  Our lives are out of kilter, out of joint.  It is almost like there is this flea that we need to scratch, but this is a spiritual flea.  God created us with a soul, and it is the soul’s nature to seek God, to live by faith in God. 

Thus people who try to live without faith and without God are in fact crippling their own nature.  They are like a person who says, “I have two hands, I think I will tie one hand behind my back and only use one hand.”  Or they are like a person who has a great artistic gifts, and they arbitrarily decide not to use those gifts.  You might say, “That is absurd.  Why would someone not use talents and abilities they have?”  Exactly.  Why would someone not use the talent we have for living with God?

Think for a moment about stained glass windows, when it is dark and gloomy outside, the panes of glass seem dull and gloomy, but when the sun comes out and light shines on the glass then the colors come alive, and we say, “Wow, that is beautiful.”  It is that way with the soul.  Without God, the soul is dark and gloomy, but when the light of God’s love shines on our soul, it comes alive and becomes a beautiful thing.  Thomas Merton says, “So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes  transfigured and transformed when the love of God shines in it.” (170).


Fleas of Doubt

That then is our first flea, we need to believe in God.  However, having scratched that flea, having turned to the light and love of God, we find other fleas—fleas of doubt.

Some folks think that if we have faith, we will not have any doubts.  Actually the Bible does not teach that at all.  God's most faithful servants have also been the most doubtful.  Abraham was incredulous and Sarah laughed with disbelief when God promised them a son in their old age.  Jonah's faith was so doubt-infested that he tried to run away from his mission to Nineveh.  Jesus' disciples were constantly doubting. Despite the fact that they were witnesses to the remarkable powers Jesus commanded, they still did not entirely believe.  Thomas was not worse than the other disciples, just more outspoken.

In our scripture lesson today, the disciples are a pathetic, thoroughly dispirited, little group.  Then Jesus suddenly appears.  His first word to the disciples - "Peace" - is familiar and comforting. 

Jesus has two purposes in appearing to his disciples. The first is the assurance of his abiding peace. This peace is to engender confidence and clear-headedness among this downhearted and despairing band of believers, to encourage them to open themselves up to God.  Jesus' second gift to the disciples is a new purpose for their faith.  In verse 21, Jesus proclaims, "So I send you."  He gives his disciples not just a missionary task, but a lifetime commission.  As God had breathed life into Adam at the time of creation, Jesus now breathes life back into the faith of his disciples.

Then, verses 24-29 provide us with the remarkably story of the disciple Thomas. We sometimes call him “Doubting Thomas,” and yet there are a number of positive things we can say about him

First, he was there.  If Thomas had no faith in Christ at all, he would not have been there at all.  He would not have remained among the followers of Jesus.  He had missed the first resurrection appearance of Jesus.  He had missed the personal commissioning of the disciples and the reception of the Holy Spirit.  Think how left out Thomas must have felt when he returned to that locked room and found his friends celebrating instead of mourning.  But Thomas, despite his new role as outsider, does not give up the faith.  Instead, he expresses genuine, deep-seated doubts while remaining a part of his faith community.  The other disciples do not toss Thomas out for his skepticism.  They try to convince him of their claim's truthfulness while keeping him in their midst.  Surely this is a lesson to us when we try to witness to people who have doubts.  We welcome them among us, while maintaining our witness.

When Jesus himself reappears a week later, he also takes the doubts of Thomas seriously.  "Go ahead and touch me," Jesus says to Thomas, thus dealing with his doubt.  But Jesus' appearance before Thomas instantly overcomes all his misgivings.  Despite his earlier demand, when confronted by Christ, Thomas felt no need to touch the wounds. Instead he blurts out a confession of faith: " My Lord and my God."

As Christians, we tend to wary of doubts and look askance at a “doubing Thomas.  But as Christians we are led to doubts about many things.  A Christian is by nature skeptical of human solutions and human certainties.  Christianity casts itself on the truth of God in Jesus Christ, and looks with a suspicious eye on anything else.

Malcolm Muggeridge says; "It is one of the fantasies of the 20th century that believers are credulous people, sentimental people, and that you have to be a materialist and a scientist and a humanist to have a skeptical mind. But of course exactly the opposite is true ... I believe myself that the age we are living in now will go down in history as one of the most credulous ever ... The truth is that the farther our faith reaches, the more doubt it encompasses, as from the highest hills there are fullest vistas." [The End of Christendom (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980), 4-5.]

True doubts grow naturally out of true faith.  Here is the problem.  We cannot prove God.  If we could prove the existence of God, we would not need to have faith in God, we would know that God exists.  Unfortunately, it seems to be the nature of things that we can never have absolute proof of God, at least proof in any scientific or rational sense.  Thus we must live by faith.  Understand this is not a mistake on God’s part.  The universe is not poorly designed because it does not prove God to us.  This is the way God intended it to be.  We are intended to live by faith, not by fact.

And because we do not have proof, there will always be some fleas of doubt in our faith.  This can be good.  Doubt can move us to think about our faith and to grow a deeper faith.

Now I should explain what I mean by doubt.  There is a difference between doubt and disenchantment, between wrestling with faith and giving up on faith.  If we lack a core commitment to Christ then that is not just doubt, that is a disbelief that leads to destruction.

But honest doubt should not be suppressed. Thomas voiced his doubts about Jesus' miraculous return.  But he continued to remain in the midst of the company of the disciples.  Even so we should not be afraid of being honest with God, even as we continue in the company of God’s faithful people..

Martin Luther is generally thought of as one of the staunchest defenders of true faith that ever lived, yet Luther wrote: "Nobody in this life is nearer to God than those who hate and deny him, and he has no more pleasing, no more dear children than these " (Weimar edition of Luther's works, 5:120, lines 25-26.)

Will Herberg is a religious historian.  He has this to say about Luther’s insight: "Luther's statement, however shocking and extreme it may sound, points to a profound truth: Unless God matters infinitely, he does not matter at all. There is something absolute about faith which demands everything or nothing. Faith is not just one more interest or attachment in life, side by side with other interests or attachments ....This is what Luther was saying. The passionate unbeliever who 'hates' and 'denies' God may be all wrong in his ideas, but at least he takes God seriously. This kind of believer is no mere unbeliever: He is rather an anti-believer whose life is a wrestling with God ... he does not take God for granted. For that reason, Luther insists, he is near to God and dear to him."  {As quoted by Walter R. Wietzke, The Primacy of the Spoken Word. Redemptive Proclamation in a Complex World (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 112.]

Luther and Herberg say that a passionate atheist, even if she is wrong, spends more time thinking about God, and is therefore nearer to God, than some smug church-goers who never think about God at all outside of church.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson said much the same.  He said:"There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds."  [In Memoriam (1850)]

The conclusion is that we need not get excited about a few fleas of doubt in the faith.

I doubt many things.  I doubt that ghosts exist.  I do not believe in UFO’s, nor in crop circles.  I do not believe in Tarot nor in Astrology, nor in spirit-channeling, nor reincarnation.  Every a few years or so, the church gets excited about somebody’s predictions about the Second Coming of Christ.  Back in the seventies, we had Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (Pub 1971).  Now we have the fictional Left Behind series.  I have a lot of doubts about such so-called prophecies.

But ultimately my doubts are founded on faith.  I say with Thomas: “My Lord and My God.”  My faith in Jesus requires a lot of doubt about a lot of things.  Such fleas of doubt are not bad.  They are good.  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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