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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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 7th Sunday of Easter

1 John 5:9-13

 In Whom Do You Believe?


A Saint's Doubt

Two years ago the private letters and journals of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta were released. The publication of her innermost thoughts surprised many. Most expected the confident reflection of a faithful Catholic who was secure in her beliefs. Instead the reader found the agonizing reflections of a person struggling through terrifying periods of darkness. Blessed Teresa's journey of doubt began a few years after she founded the Missionaries of Charity. She wrote to the archbishop of Calcutta in 1959,

I find no words to express the depths of the darkness

Another entry reveals her that her struggling was not just in asking why God seems so distant to the plight of the poor but in the very existence of God.

In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not existing.”

These are rather incredible statements not only from someone who worked so diligently in Christ's service but who had some rather unique and divine encounters. One such mystical experience occurred after she had been teaching in Calcutta for 17 years. She had worked herself sick and her superiors ordered her to take a retreat at the foot of the Himalayans. On the train ride from Calcutta Jesus spoke to her and called her to abandon her teaching and serve directly the people who were living on the street—the poorest of the poor.

You are, I know the most incapable person—weak and sinful but just because you are that—I want to use you for my glory. Will thou refuse?

With this mystical encounter Blessed Teresa began her Missionaries of Charity order. It was a very bold, even audacious crusade. She did not have any funding nor permission to raise the money and she was proposing to care for the poor through individualized but very costly service to the most desperate of the poor. Within a year she had gained permission but almost immediately the light of that earlier vision was extinguished and the darkness enveloped her. For the next

Struggles of faith are not unusual in the spiritual life. Most believers experience a time when God seems very distant or virtually absent from their life. A Spanish mystic called it, the Dark Night of the Soul, when a believer feels completely abandoned by God and even begins to doubt the existence of the Eternal. However these periods are usually short in duration. She would live in that darkness for the next 58 years except for a brief five week period.

Blessed Teresa's struggle with doubt make her life's accomplishments even more impressive. She served God from a true sense of calling. She was not looking ahead to her final reward. She was walking the streets in the morning so that she could enjoy moments of divine ecstasy in the evening. God had called her to serve and she could do no less even if she struggled to know if that God really did exist.

Doubt and faith are more often present than most people are willing to admit. Faith cannot exist without some element of uncertainty or doubt. Red Wings fans have faith that their team can win the Stanley Cup but where would the excitement be if you already knew the conclusion. The possibility of defeat and the sprinkling of doubt gives flavor to each goal and every victory. However, changes in the situation and circumstances may start to erode even the truest believer's faith. In the scorching winds of persecution, suffering and continuous defeat, confident faith may succumb and doubt may grow. Having lost sight of the goals, the vision of faith is overwhelmed by the darkness causing us to question our faith and divine presence. The passage before us offers some helpful advice on how to keep from letting the doubt overwhelm our faith. However it does have a slightly different twist.

The Doubt of Distortion

The author of 1 John was writing to people who were in danger of losing their faith through the doubt of distortion. They had been listening to a cacophony of teachers who were saying different things about Jesus. Some were saying that Christ-Spirit came on Jesus at his baptism but departed from him before his death. This group could not believe that the Christ could actually suffer. Another group may have believed that Jesus was like the Olympian gods who had in place of blood a watery substance. This group would have overemphasized his divinity at the expense of his humanity.

To refute these misguided teachers, the author uses an example from everyday life. He tells his listeners, “we accept man's testimony.” This saying refers to the law from the OT. In the book of Deuteronomy we read:

"On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness."

(Deuteronomy 17:6, NIV)

" One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses."

(Deuteronomy 19:15, NIV)

The testimony of one person could not convict a person of a crime. The ancient Hebrews carried this practice into their business life. Ancient documents reveal the signatures of several witnesses to authenticate a sale. The author is essentially saying if you are willing to believe “man's testimony” that is authenticated with just two witnesses, then you should be willing to believe God's testimony because he has authenticated his testimony with three witness.

6 This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

1 john 5:6-8

—the Spirit, the water and the blood.

Three Witnesses

These three witnesses are shorthand for the author. He did not need to elaborate on them in this letter because he had explained them so thoroughly in his gospel account. The Spirit refers back to all the events surrounding Jesus' baptism. The author included John the Baptist's testimony previously.

"Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”"

John 1:32-34, NIV

The story would have been well known to these Christians. The account of the Spirit coming down on Jesus would have been delivered by more than one witness. It would not hold up in a court of law because it would be considered hearsay evidence but the author of 1 John still considered it valid. All that he needed was for John himself to retell the story. The testimony of John the Baptist was proof positive. Jesus experienced it and John saw the dove and its descent. It was so moving that both never forgot that moment. It changed Jesus' life forever. But never are we told that the Spirit ever departed from Jesus. Even while hanging on the Cross the Spirit of God was upon him. John never mentions that the Christ-Spirit ever departed from Jesus after his baptism.

The importance of Jesus' baptism is emphasized again in the second coded message. Not only does the Spirit bring witness but so does the water. It was through the water that Jesus was revealed as the son of God. Something happened to Jesus the moment he emerged from the water. His baptism was not like all the others. It was more than the pouring of water over his head. It was more than the refreshing splash. That water was really very, very wet and very convincing.

The third element of confirmation that the author of 1 John uses is the blood. If anyone questioned if Jesus was a man all that they would have to do was re-read the story of his crucifixion. The droplets upon his head that he sweat were not dyed liquid. The blood that flowed from his wound was not imaginative. Jesus was just as human as any man or woman. He shed his blood so that we might have life.

The author of John uses familiar images to remind the church to hold onto their faith and do not let the distorted messages of false teachers create doubt in their minds. That is good advice. There is nothing that can convince a person to believe in the Christian message. In part we will always have some doubt. As I previously said without the doubt there can be no faith. That is why the font, the table and the cross should always be prominent in church. They are symbols of what God has done for us. They remind us to believe in the unseen. They cannot prove the existence of God. They cannot prove that God answers prayers. They cannot prove Jesus rose from the tomb. However, they serve as symbols to the reality of that message.

I am really not sure why Blessed Teresa could not rest in the certainty of God's existence. Someone who analyzed her letters thinks that God may have had to humble her because she was so talented. That is a possibility.

I use her story to remind us that none of us are exempt from doubt. None of us are exempt from believing a distorted message. But God has given us three witnesses. The Spirit that came upon Jesus at his baptism and upon us when we first believed in the Christian message. The water that was poured upon him at our baptism, and the blood that was shed on Calvary.





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