Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sermon for April 11th: John 20:24-31

Faith and Doubt

When I was seventeen I moved to Toronto to attend the Church Army training college, so that I could be prepared and sent out as an evangelist. I’d had a very clear-cut conversion experience in my early teens, in which I’d made a definite commitment of my life to Christ. My teenage faith had been nurtured in a church that was experiencing a very lively life in the Holy Spirit, with people coming to faith in Christ, lives being changed, sick people being healed, close small group fellowship and all sorts of exciting things.

But I remember that in the weeks before I left for Toronto for my training, I began to get an uneasy feeling. I was going to be working as an evangelist, sharing the gospel with people and trying to help them come to faith in Christ. I had no problem with doing this in a relational sort of way, but my problem was I didn’t really have a strong intellectual foundation for my faith. In other words, if someone asked me, “Why are you a Christian?” I could tell them the story of how I had given my life to Christ, but I couldn’t tell them why I thought belief in God made sense in a rational and intellectual way.

Fortunately for me, God guided me to C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. This book is a series of radio talks that Lewis gave on the BBC during the Second World War, and it started off at exactly my point of need: what are the arguments for the existence of God and for the divinity of Christ? Lewis wrote in a very clear way and he laid out a good rational case for Christian belief. It was exactly what I needed. I devoured that book, and I’ve read it many times since then.

I also read many other things that Lewis wrote, and many years later I made an interesting discovery. Lewis spent a lot of time arguing for the Christian faith and defending its doctrines against atheism and unbelief, but in letters to friends he admitted several times that he didn’t always enjoy this work and that he sometimes found it dangerous to his faith. “You see”, he said, “I’ve found that no Christian doctrine seems less probable to me than the one I’ve just successfully defended in an argument!” In other words, Lewis, the great defender of the Christian faith, continued to struggle with doubts!

All Christians struggle with doubt, even the ones we think are the strongest in their faith. I know I certainly do. Journalists were shocked to discover from her private letters and papers that Mother Theresa of Calcutta went through dark times and wrestled with doubts all through her life, but to honest Christians this came as no surprise. I’m reminded of the words of the Christian writer Madeleine L’Engle who, when she was asked “Do you really and truly believe with no doubts at all?” replied, “I really and truly believe with all kinds of doubts!”

Thomas the apostle has come down to us in Christian tradition as ‘doubting Thomas’, although the Bible doesn’t give him that name. He’s mentioned a couple of times in the Gospel of John, and we get the sense that he was the kind of guy who tended to see the cup as being half empty rather than half full; he seems to have had a pessimistic view of life, and faith and understanding were a struggle for him. He couldn’t just say “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” and pretend that everything was wonderful, and he couldn’t just dismiss the difficult questions. He had to look doubt full in the face. I’m sure Thomas longed more than anything else to be sure of what he believed; he just didn’t find it easy. Personally, I’m glad his story is in the Bible. His story assures us – if we didn’t already know it – that the early Christians were not all strong in their faith and firm in their commitment to Jesus; they were human beings like us and they had the same struggles we do. Thomas speaks for many of us when he voices his doubts and asks for evidence. Let’s see what happens to him in the Easter story.

In the first part of our gospel reading the apostles are together in the upper room where they had shared the last supper with Jesus. The doors are locked, but somehow the risen Jesus isn’t stopped by those locks. He comes and stands among them, shows them the marks of crucifixion on his body, and says, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, so I send you’. He then breathes on them and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit to do their work.

But Thomas isn’t with them. We’re not told why he wasn’t there, although people have speculated about the reason. William Barclay thought that Thomas loved Jesus so much and his grief was so deep that he just couldn’t force himself to be with the others; he wanted to grieve alone. We know that some people are like that; when they’re sad and grieving, the last thing they want is to be around others, and that may be what Thomas was experiencing. Or perhaps, with his absolute honesty, he was simply the first of the apostles to admit to the hard truth: ‘Jesus was crucified, so he can’t have been the Messiah, or God wouldn’t have abandoned him. We may as well give up and go back to Galilee’.

We don’t know for sure why Thomas wasn’t there. What we do know is that the other apostles were excited after their meeting with the risen Jesus and they told Thomas all about it: “We have seen the Lord!” (20:25). But Thomas wouldn’t buy it: “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”.

And Jesus, amazingly, met Thomas exactly where he was, and fulfilled his conditions to the letter. The next Sunday the apostles were all gathered in the upper room again, and Thomas was with them. Again Jesus appeared to them and gave them his peace. He then spoke directly to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put in it my side. Do not doubt but believe” (v.27). Significantly, we aren’t told whether Thomas actually did touch Jesus’ wounds. What we are told is that he made one of the strongest statements of faith in the gospels. Unlike Mary Magdalene in the garden when she met the risen Lord, he didn’t just say, ‘My Master!’ He said, ‘My Lord and my God’ (v.28). He gives Jesus the name above every name, the name that belongs to God alone, and Jesus doesn’t refuse it. Rather, he says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v.29). And so Thomas’ doubts are taken away when he sees the risen Jesus, and he puts his faith in Jesus as Lord and God.

Now you might be thinking, “That’s all very well for Thomas; he saw the risen Jesus with his own eyes. If I could see Jesus as he did, my doubts would all be taken away too!” But you know, seeing Jesus with their own eyes didn’t always take away the doubts of the early Christians. Matthew tells us in chapter twenty-eight of his gospel that after his resurrection Jesus met with his apostles on a mountain in Galilee, and we read that ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted’ (28:17). Doubting Thomas believed when the risen Jesus stood before him, but not all the disciples found it that easy! Some of them even doubted when the risen Jesus was standing right in front of them; they quite literally couldn’t believe their eyes.

Seeing is not necessarily believing. Jesus did all kinds of wonderful healings and miracles in full view of the people of Galilee and Judea, but what was the result? John says ‘Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him’ (John 12:37). On the other hand, after he turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, we’re told that ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him’ (2:11). Evidence doesn’t necessarily lead to faith; sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. What makes the difference? John would seem to be teaching us that often it’s discipleship. In other words, those who have already committed themselves to following Jesus and learning to live in obedience to him find their faith strengthened by signs and miracles. But those who refuse to follow him are not usually persuaded by signs and miracles; they can always find an alternative explanation for them.

The fact is that faith is always about far more than intellectual proof; it’s also to do with our attitude and our commitments. In Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’, a man named Iago plants suspicions in Othello’s heart about the loyalty of his wife Desdemona. There is absolutely no sound evidence that Desdemona has been unfaithful to Othello, but once the suspicion has been planted Othello just can’t get it out of his mind. He chooses to believe it, and so continues to find evidence where in fact there is no evidence. The result is disaster for him and for his wife.

Doubting our faith is often like that; it’s less about intellectual evidence and more about suggestions and attitudes and commitments. There are many reasons why we go through times of doubt. Some of us experience disappointment with God; perhaps we’ve prayed for something that we really wanted and it seems to us that our prayers have not been answered. Perhaps we believed that God always heals the sick, but we’ve gotten sick with a chronic illness and we go through continual suffering, and God doesn’t seem to send any relief. Or perhaps the people of God have disappointed us; we thought the church was going to be a community of love, but it turned out that there were just as many sinners in the church as anywhere else. Or perhaps we have stumbled on the intellectual problems of faith in God and in Christ: If there is an all-powerful God of love, why is there so much suffering in the world? Is there a God at all, and if there is, is Jesus really his son or is he just a great religious leader? Did Jesus really rise from the dead, or are the resurrection stories just fanciful legends?

What do we do with our doubts? I think the story of Thomas would tell us not to try to hide them or deny them. After all, God isn’t fooled; he knows what’s in our hearts. And in many cases, doubt is an important milestone on the journey of faith. Many people are taught the Christian faith in childhood, but it’s not yet their faith – it’s the faith of their parents, or their Sunday School teachers, or their ministers. They can only make it their faith if they start to question it, if they start to have doubts about it, and if they then examine their faith carefully to see if it really is reasonable or not.

So however it happens that doubt comes our way, we shouldn’t try to pretend it isn’t there. We should look it full in the face, we should pray about it, and we should work through it with God and with his people. And I think there are some steps we can take to deal with it.

First, like Thomas, we can ask for evidence. Of course, it’s up to God whether or not he gives it to us, and we need to keep in mind that if a husband is constantly asking his wife for watertight evidence of her faithfulness to him, something’s deeply wrong in the marriage! We can’t completely remove the requirement for trust and faith in Christianity, but there are in fact good rational reasons for believing in God and in Christ. Many excellent books summarise those reasons; I’ve already mentioned Lewis’ Mere Christianity; there’s also Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, George Carey’s Why I Believe in a Personal God, and many others. And there are writers who have focussed on particular issues, such as the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus or the problem of evil and pain. So we shouldn’t be afraid of intellectual doubts; God gave us brains and expects us to use them, and there is plenty of help available.

But as I’ve said, doubt is rarely just an intellectual issue. A friend of mine used to say that if a clever argument can talk a person into becoming a Christian, a cleverer one can talk them out of it again! Christianity isn’t just an intellectual belief in God; it’s also a personal relationship with that God and with his Son Jesus Christ. That’s what Thomas experienced; the fact that in his case it was a visible encounter with Jesus is beside the point. That’s what Jesus says to Thomas in verse 28: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. And in the following verses the author of the gospel adds a comment: ‘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’ (30-31). In other words, a person who comes to faith in Christ experiences far more than the satisfaction of winning an argument about whether Jesus rose from the dead. What Jesus gives to us is life – life in all its fulness. Once we begin to receive that life, it’s not just strong arguments that are keeping us in the faith; it’s our experience of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit as well.

So we should not allow our doubts to keep us from prayer; whether we feel anything or not, we should continue to be faithful in daily prayer and in reading the scriptures, looking to God and trying to deepen our conscious contact with him. And we should continue to practice the teaching of Jesus to the best of our ability, living the life that he taught us. Sometimes this can be the very thing that helps us find the answers to our doubts. It may be true that you can think yourself into a new way of living, but it’s also true that sometimes you can live your way into a new way of thinking.

And one more thing: do not let your doubts stop you coming to church. Thomas missed out on an encounter with the Risen Jesus because he wasn’t with the disciples in the upper room on the Sunday evening when Jesus appeared to them. The upper room is the place where Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples and gave them the sacrament that we call Holy Communion or the Eucharist. Since the earliest times it’s been the practice of the Christian church to gather together on the day Jesus was raised from the dead and share that Holy Communion in celebration of his death and resurrection for us. We believe that he has promised to meet us when we gather together to break the bread and share the wine. We don’t always experience this in a tangible way, but we often do have a real sense of his presence here with us as we worship.

Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples on Sunday evening, so he missed out on a meeting with the Risen Lord. Don’t do as he did; don’t miss out on a meeting with the Risen Lord! Be regular in your participation in our gatherings for worship. Come as you are, doubts and all; ask the Lord to help you with your struggles and to find the answers to your questions, and meanwhile, continue to worship with your fellow-Christians and to put into practice the stuff you do believe. Many of us can identify with the man in the gospels who cried out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” In time, the Lord will answer that prayer, but while we wait for his answer, our place is here, with our brothers and sisters, around the table where Jesus has promised to meet us.

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