Something for Sunday

This is one from my personal archive but I thought it could do with another airing.

John 20:19-31

Now Jesus did many other signs that 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.

This is perhaps the key verse in the whole of St John’s gospel. It’s a kind of preface or introduction even though it comes at the end. Here’s a book of stories, signs and scenes the author says each one written down to help you believe in Jesus and reveal something of the truth about him. By believing in him you will have life in his name. That’s the promise-the sales pitch if you like.

So in this story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to doubting Thomas what is being offered to us? How is this story a clue to the new life we might have in Jesus’ name? Where are we in all this? What I see in this is a warning and an encouragement.

But first a word about Thomas himself. Thomas comes across in the gospel as simple, devoted and straightforward. When Jesus sets out for Bethany putting his own life in danger Thomas says: Let us go that we may die with him! Later in the upper room it is Thomas who asks a clear and simple question: We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Like us he really wants to believe more strongly. This realism and simplicity has its down side though as we are about to see.

Thomas sounds very modern. Just like us. He wants to know the facts. He will only believe on the basis of the evidence. It’s got to be good evidence too. And what’s more he’s got to test it all personally. He won’t accept anything on the basis of someone else’s testimony still less on the authority of his community. The Bible can say what it likes and Ministers and Priests can say what they like but he’s got to know it for himself. A rational, evidential approach confirmed by personal experience.

Many people at this season begin their thinking about Easter by asking: What really happened? The belief that God raised a man from death seems improbable but if we could only collect some more facts we might get to a decision as to how improbable it might be. Facts that’s what we need, more and more of them, scientists, archaeologists, bible scholars, questers for the historical Jesus-they can all help-but only give us more facts and then we might believe.

I’m sorry Thomas. This isn’t going to work. The truth is that you and I make sense of our experience by applying to our experience our beliefs. Our ideas about the world determine what we see and experience within it. It is the mark of a successful politician or spiritual leader that they can persuade us to change our beliefs. Once our beliefs have changed the facts will soon fall into place.

Many casual readers of the New Testament assume that if only they had direct access to the experience that were vouchsafed to the first disciples they could believe as they did. A closer reading of the texts show that many of them were as sceptical as we are. Thomas we have already referred to, Matthew records that some doubted when the risen Jesus appeared before them. Mary Magdalen thought the risen Jesus was a park attendant, the travellers on the Emmaus road didn’t recognise the stranger and so on. The truth is that there never was a privileged moment when a favoured few saw face to face and believed while the rest of us have to make do with seeing through a glass darkly. All of us see in a glass darkly- all walk by faith and not by sight.

That’s the warning. Now for two words of encouragement.

Belief is formed within a community. It is the community that believes and so our creeds begin with the words: we believe. You can’t be a fully integrated member of any club or group unless you learn its language and share its values and assumptions. So the road to belief begins by simply being there and being together. This is what the risen Jesus tells his disciples to do. Wait together and be together.

But notice. Thomas was not there when Jesus made his first appearance to the disciples. Consequently he finds belief in the risen Jesus difficult. He cannot see or know as the others know because he was not there with them.

Clearly the message for us is be there. Be with other followers of Jesus, share their vision and receive Jesus’ peace. You came to-day on a Low Sunday. Congratulations. This is the place to be and you are in very good company.

Thomas recognises his Jesus and then makes a good confession and then Jesus addresses a question to him and a word of blessing and encouragement to us.

Have you believed because you have seen me? Thomas answer must surely be yes. But there’s a hint in Jesus question that this might not be the best way to come to belief. Then Jesus says to him and to us. Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe.

I used to love that verse because it encouraged me to think that belief without sight constituted some sort of achievement. How wise and spiritual I am and we are if we believe notwithstanding the absence of some special experience. But that may be a misunderstanding. You have not seen nor have you had a special experience but that is to your advantage –true faith is not based on an accumulation of knowledge, facts or special experiences. Such things can easily mislead you. How easy it is to have an experience and miss its meaning.

True faith tends not be based on research or the accumulation of data as Thomas mistakenly imagined. It isn’t ultimately a matter of knowing it’s a matter of unknowing-a matter of unlocking the capacity of the deep mind to receive and believe something new. My best ideas tend to come to me in the silence of the small hours-not when I’m sitting at the desk with half a dozen books around me. In a similar way it is at such moments that I remember the name that was on the tip of my tongue earlier in the day, the phone number or address I couldn’t remember. People who tell stories about their conversions often describe them in terms of a moment of surprise. True faith isn’t simply the fruit of study it’s a gift.

This gift of faith comes from God whose nature and name is love who made us out of love and dwells within us. He is closer to us than the very air we breathe as St Augustine says. Our discovery of faith is a discovery of our true selves-the spirit of a loving God active in our hearts and minds but we must learn to be open to that.

Where then do we go from here?

Not in a fruitless search for more and more facts. No amount of data can ever provide final satisfaction and true faith. To advance down that road is simply to end up in the hands of Richard Dawkins.

Rather the way to a true faith in the risen one lies in being with his disciples and being open to an acknowledgement that the risen Jesus dwells within our hearts. It is there that we must behold him and it is in our hearts that we must welcome him in.

The old chorus has a lot going for it I think. Remember it

He lives, he lives

Christ Jesus lives to-day

I know he lives today

You ask me how I know he lives

He lives within my heart.

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