The Devil's Peak in the dusk, 2014, looking south from the Hawker Road.

Proving Belief

Bible Reading: John 20:11-31
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?' She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.'

When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?' Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.' Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!' She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!' (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." ' Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord'; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

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.' After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'

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

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.' 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.' Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!' 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.'

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

An ancient Rabbi called Simon once wrote these words:

The (convert to Judaism) is dearer to God than all the Israelites who were at (Mt) Sinai. For if those people had not witnessed thunder, flames, lightning, the quaking mountain, and the trumpet blasts, they would not have accepted the rule of God. Yet (today's convert) who has seen none of these things comes and gives (themself) to God and accepts the rule of God. Is there anyone who is dearer than this (person)?
(The Gospel According to John, The Anchor Bible, Raymond Brown vol 2 pp 1048)

Notice how this man says accept the rule of God, not believe in God. We have all sorts of misunderstandings in our culture about the biblical word believe, which meant something different in the time of John's gospel, so I am not going to use it. I will say, "follow God" or "accept the rule of God."

It is sometimes hard to follow God. Currently, it's not a popular idea in our culture.

Do you wonder sometimes how we can claim to follow a loving God, (let alone Jesus risen from the dead,) when we see all the pain of the world? There seems to be so much wrong, and so much suffering. Just being alive means witnessing a constant parade of wrongs and suffering.

How can we have faith in the reality of God? We didn't see the thunder and lightning with Moses at Mt Sinai. We never saw Jesus and his miracles, let alone Jesus risen from the dead.

John's gospel is written for a painful time when people really wondered about questions like these. God's holy city of Jerusalem had been destroyed decades before, in a time of terrible suffering. In the place where John's community lived, the Jewish religious leaders hated Christians with a passion. Christians had also been subjected to persecution, in some places, by the Roman authorities. The tiny, lonely churches, spread out across the empire awaited Jesus' return; he had not come yet, and life for many, was getting worse.

It's doubtful if there was anyone alive who had actually met Jesus in the flesh.

At a hard time in history, life was often even harder for Christians.

How easy it would have been to say, "If only we had seen him! How much easier it would be to have faith and be a Christian, if we had met him in the flesh!" It's exactly the kind of thing you and I might say today!

Let's imagine that we are in a darkened theatre, watching John's gospel as a play, or movie. It's near the end. We've just seen Thomas doubting, and telling the others he won't believe until he can touch the wounds. And sitting there in the dark we feel a bit like Thomas: "How can I believe? I'd believe it if I saw him!"

Then, in the next scene, we see Jesus come back the following Sunday.
"My Lord and my God!" says Thomas.

"If only that would happen to us!," we think wistfully in our seats. The security of actually seeing Jesus!

And on the stage, Jesus says to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me?"

He pauses, and looks out into the darkened theatre, right at you and me. And he says to us, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Blessed are we who have not seen and yet have come to believe. God sees our belief, and our struggle to believe. It is not un-noticed. It will be rewarded. "Do not doubt, but believe, " Jesus said.

But how? How can I believe? The gospel gives us some hints.

The first thing to say is that in our culture, belief means to accept that a statement is literally true. Faith means to accept a statement without proof is true. In fact, for many people, faith means to believe something which is not true.

And in all of these cases, belief has little or nothing to do with action. We can believe Mt Everest is higher than Mt Kosciusko, and say, "So what?" I can believe that our legal system is unjust; I can even show you proven examples of this, but I can believe it and do nothing about it." Yet we say I still believe it.

This is not the understanding of belief in the time of John, or Jesus. Belief and Faith come from the same Greek word, pistos. While belief in God might mean to accept the rule of God, as we have said, faith means to prove our belief in God's rule by living it out and by experiencing it.

I'll repeat that.

While Belief in God might mean to accept the rule of God, as we have said, Faith means to prove our belief in God's rule by living it out and by experiencing it.

In other words, we are asked to put our money where our mouth is. And we are told that we will then experience the reality of that rule.

Faith and Belief are two inseparable aspects of an experience of the reality of God.

Let's look first at Thomas. Our reading begins on the first day of the week; Sunday. The second appearance of Jesus, is also a Sunday. The disciples are gathered together, away from the Jews, when Jesus comes among them.....

What we are meant to understand from these little details, is that it is in worship as the gathered community that Jesus appears to the disciples, and will also appear to us. When we act out our faith, we find the experience.

Do you notice that Thomas was still going to church, despite his doubts?

Back when Lazarus is sick, in John chapter 11, Jesus decides to go to him. The disciples say to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?"

Jesus would not be deterred,  and Thomas said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." Thomas believes by being faithful and going on through the times when his faith doesn't seem to make sense. Despite his doubt, he is also believing by going on in his following of Jesus. Let us do likewise, for then we too will find Jesus standing before us one Sunday.

What I am saying is that belief is not trying to convince ourselves of those six impossible things before breakfast! Faith-full belief is about living out life the way Jesus would. It's about going on, like Thomas. Then we find Jesus in our midst!

Second: In the story in today's reading Jesus shows the disciples his scars when he appears. This is saying to us that we can only meet a crucified Christ. Don't look for an easy faith and a beautiful Jesus. The Jesus we meet is one full of love.... but also a Jesus who is scarred. If we wish to meet and know and follow him, we too must risk some of those scars. If we want to have a safe faith, we may not meet him. A safe faith that says, "I believe," but does nothing, is not faith.

Following on from that there is a third thing: Jesus breathes on them. "Receive the Holy Spirit."

Here is a promise for us. Jesus will come to us as we persist in worship and following him. He will give us the Spirit, again and again. The Spirit will sometimes blow all doubt away from us.

But.... remember John Chapter 3: "The Spirit-wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

We cannot decide when and where the Spirit will ease our doubts and fears, or when and where Christ will be more known to us. But we can continue to follow, and God will be faithful, even if we are not. And the certainty of faith will slowly grow.

Finally, there is a key point. "Don't touch me," Jesus said to Mary when she met him in the garden. We can't have the old Jesus. He has to "ascend to the father."

And do you notice that despite his doubt, Thomas also believes, in the end, without touching? Despite all that stuff about 'unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails....' he did not touch. And he, of all people, made the great declaration of faith: "My Lord and my God." Thomas, Doubting Thomas, makes the highest statement of praise and faith in the Gospel of John! No one praises Jesus more highly. As people who struggle to believe, maybe there is some hope for us in that!

But ... more importantly: "Don't touch me!"

The great sin in our age is to seek scientific proof where it is not to be found. We know we can test for disease, and we can in a fashion prove a chemical equation. We improperly carry that over into faith, and think that we should be able to prove resurrection, the Christ, and God... even though such proofs are outside the competency of science. We cannot touch Jesus. We can only risk following and finding, or not finding, the experience.

Trying to prove God is the hallmark of fundamentalism. It destroys faith. It removes us from the enlivening, grace filled experience of the resurrected Christ, and the beginning of our resurrection now. We can only truly believe by following. That is, we believe by living life the way Jesus would if he were here in our shoes, and by being faithful in our worship. And THEN we will also meet the risen Christ.

But if we seek to touch him, to prove him by some argument, and to have total certainty before we follow, we will take ourselves far from him, and belief will be all the harder. Indeed, certainty is not faith, is it?

So, if we will go on like Thomas, despite our doubts- if we will maintain the discipline of worship, and live as a Christian from day to day, we will find Jesus comes to us. The Spirit blows where it will; we won't be able to prove Jesus, or produce Jesus on demand, but he will come to us. There will be small moments- and sometimes great times- when we will say "My Lord and my God!- you.... have touched me!" And we will know and THEN believe that he has risen indeed.

© Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

 


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