In the name of God our creator, Christ who makes way, and the Holy Spirit our companion. Amen.
Confronted once again with the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, my mind turned this week to the play, turned film starring Meryl Streep, Doubt. It is the story of a nun in a parish and school, Sr. Aloysius, who comes to believe that a priest in the parish has abused a child in the school. She confronts the priest, who denies the accusation vociferously.
As the story is told, it becomes clear why the title word is “doubt” and not “guilt”. There are certainly aspects of the priest’s behavior that suggest guilt. But there are aspects of his explanation of the circumstances that make sense. And while the nun is fervent in her belief that the priest is guilty, it becomes clear that her only “proof” as it were, is her own certainty – hardly a reliable source.
But what really came to mind for me this week was the final scene of the film. The priest has resigned his position out of fear of the nun’s threats, but he went on to a more prestigious position in another parish. Sr. Aloysius, in a conversation with one of her sisters, admits that a key portion of her threat against the priest was based on a lie. Her sister was shocked to hear this, but Sr. Aloysius replied, “In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God. Of course, there is a price…” Through barely restrained tears, she cries, “I have doubts. I have such doubts.”
In the Christian faith, a subtext so often seems to be that doubt implies a weakness in one’s faith; or perhaps more accurately, a failure in one’s faith. But I really don’t think that’s true. Part of the sin uncovered in the story of Doubt is that Sr. Aloysius ignored her doubt in favor of her assurance of her own certainty until it was too late.
Doubt is an integral ingredient in discernment, and discernment is one of the central vocations of Christian life. Discernment is about seeking to understand the will of God. It’s how we inform our decision-making through the lens of our faith. Lacking doubt is not a feature of a strong faith, but an impediment to an honest faith. Lacking doubt suggests a belief in one’s own infallibility, but infallibility stands against our need to grow. To assert infallibility is to insist that we don’t need to grow, but we all do. We all are called to grow in our relationship with Christ. We all are called to grow in our relationships with one another – to more perfectly form the body of Christ. And even the Body of Christ is always growing. Today, with the baptisms of Joe & Pat, the Body of Christ moves a bit closer to the vision God has always had for what we could be. We are growing into that vision. And we can’t grow without doubt.
Part of why doubt is so much on my mind this week is because today is Trinity Sunday. It is the day when we, as the church celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity – the doctrine that God is one being in three forms. God is the creator. God is the Christ. And God is the Holy Spirit. The three together are the one God. It’s a subject that has often baffled and perplexed both preachers and laity. I’ve spoken before about how I make sense of the Holy Trinity – how I tend to see it as a metaphor for the complexity of a God who is both intimate and beyond our knowing.
But it is a mystery. And the Christian faith doesn’t shy away from mystery. Mystery is the dance that happens between doubt and faith. It’s not a problem in search of an answer, it is finding beauty, perfection, and joy in the un-answerability of some of life’s questions.
So much of our practice of faith is designed around the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Each week, the first way that we respond as a community to the word of God as we’ve heard it read and expounded is by reciting the Nicene Creed, which defines our belief in terms of the triune expression of God. And even today, as we prepare ourselves to celebrate baptism, we will do so by reasserting our covenant, which begins with the recitation of our common beliefs in the Trinitarian formula of the Apostles’ Creed.
That’s another good reason to talk about doubt. Creeds, with their “I believe” statements, almost naturally point out our doubt to us. The ongoing joke in the church is about how often many of us have to cross our fingers behind our backs during the recitation of the creeds.
But to me, the creeds we say aren’t so much like a contract, where we’re holding ourselves to every letter that’s written on the page. Instead, it’s more about sharing a broad belief in the inherited wisdom of the faith that has been passed down to us. It’s about recognizing that there is more to the practice of this faith than our own, discreet experiences represent. The structure and spirit of believing is far more important than the specifics of belief. It’s okay to doubt individual bits. In fact, I would argue that that is a sign of a healthy, growing faith.
We so often get lost in the weeds. But the idea of the Trinity helps even the creeds to make more sense. Think about it this way. Though the ideas are extrapolated, the basic foundation of belief explored in the creeds is this:
I believe in
Jesus Christ lives.
Come, Holy Spirit.
I shared that last line with you last week as a “powerful prayer” – but it’s also a powerful statement of belief. To pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit is to affirm belief.
But hopefully, these three lines are open enough to welcome all of our faith, to open all of our discernment, and to feed all of our growth. That’s the purpose of creedal faith, and that’s the gift of the Holy Trinity.
“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.”
In Matthew’s gospel, those are Jesus’ parting words to us. Words of instruction and words of assurance. And they were said to the disciples, even in the midst of their own doubt. Today, hear them through your own doubt, knowing that even in doubt, Jesus is speaking to you. Amen.