Sermon: Beyond Belief


An Ohio colleague tells the story of driving through Pennsylvania Dutch Country with his daughter and her seven-year-old son. And when they passed an Amish horse and buggy, his grandson’s curiosity was stirred.

“Why do they use horses instead of cars?” he asked.

His mother explained that the Amish didn’t believe in automobiles.

After a few moments, the little boy asked, “But can’t they see them?”

Thomas was apparently the only one of the disciples who was not in the room that first Easter night. Thomas was an independent thinker; so maybe he went off to grieve by himself. Thomas was also a practical man; so maybe he went in search of provisions for the sequestered little band of grieving, frightened disciples. Maybe Thomas could no longer stand the oppressive gloom that must have permeated the room they’d been hiding in for hours and days.

Whatever the case, when he finally returned the others all rushed to tell him about their encounter with the Risen Lord. Thomas, ever the realist, might have well thought that the other disciples had been so traumatized by events of prior few days, they were now getting as hysterical as the women had been that very morning.

Scripture presents Thomas’ response as firm and pragmatic (emphatic in the original Greek) “No. No way. Not ever. Not unless I see his hands and his feet and can touch his gaping wounds. Otherwise I will never believe.”

When my ever-pragmatic-fiercely-independent niece Emily was a little girl and her know-it-all big brother would tell her some dubious fact, her favorite response was always, “I’ll believe that when pigs fly!”

Thomas wanted absolute proof. And after what he’d been through, who can blame him?

Last year during the season of Lent and Easter, CNN aired an original series called “Finding Jesus.: Faith, Fact, Forgery.” Based on David Gibson’s popular book by the same name, it’s a six part series that promotes “exciting insight into archaeological artifacts supporting the gospel story, as well as telling the story of the life of Jesus through relics such as the Shroud of Turin, the burial box of Jesus’ brother James,” along with the skeletal fingertip of John the Baptist, and wooden shards venerated as remnants of the True Cross of Christ. The series also examines the life and character of Mary Magdalene, as well as the Gospel of Judas in that pursuit.

“It’s a show that aims for a wide audience,” Gibson told one interviewer. “It’s for believers who want to widen their faith as well as unbelievers. It’s a rare patch of common ground. So many critics like to use sensational archaeological discoveries to say that the Bible isn’t what you say it is—to disprove it.”

The two creators of this television series, David Gibson and Michael McKinley, maintain that their agenda is not to prove any faith, but rather use modern technology and forensic science to present archaeological evidence, along with expert testimony and historical context for the Bible, and then allow viewers to decide how to interpret the results for themselves.

However, Gibson does hope that the series will, as he put it, “. . . promote a greater respect and adherence to religion. If faith can be seen as reasonable,” he said, “that’s good for both religion and the culture. We have a problem with fundamentalism: believers always want to prove the faith, but faith by its nature isn’t going to be proved or disproved. We need to recover the idea that religion is a combination of faith and reason.”

But, if you watched the series, you discover that none of these holy relics, as highly venerated as they might be, under scientific examination, necessarily give proof of anything.  The results tend to raise more questions than answer them. They become like a Roche inkblot test, whereby people tend to see that which affirms what they already believe.

The most powerful fact of all about this series, in my opinion, is its ratings. “`Finding Jesus’ made its debut at No. 1, soundly beating every other television offering in its prime Sunday night time slot, and averaged well over a million viewers throughout the series.”[i]

All of which suggests to me there are virtually millions of people out there who are massively interested in reinforcing their Christian belief; or who perhaps want to start their own investigation of Christian assertions.

The dilemma, of course, both for the viewers of this series and for us is that there is absolutely nothing reasonable or rational about the resurrection. Hence Thomas’ doubt.

Reverse wind for a moment: The ambiguous little scene we read a few moments ago “is our snapshot of the early church’ upon which the entire testimony to the resurrection would depend.

As Thomas Long put it, we see “a church with nothing. No plan, no promise, no program, nothing. A terrified little band huddled in the corner of the room with the chair braced against the door. This is a church that will turn out to have only one thing going for it. It will have the risen Christ. . . This is a story of how the risen Christ pushes open bolted doors of a church with nothing. How a risen Christ enters the fearful chambers of every faith community [and every human heart] to fill them with his own peace, his own life, and his own spirit.”[ii]

Let’s be clear here: Honest doubt it not a sin. Most of us, along with Thomas, have a bit of the cynic within us. Jesus understood that. “Doubt is not the opposite of faith,” the great theologian Paul Tillich once said, “it is an element of faith.”

On that Easter night, Jesus made his first appearance to the heartbroken disciples. And that was all it took to transform their grief into joy and their fearful doubt into a powerful, enthusiastic witness.

Now fast forward: One week after Easter, Jesus comes mysteriously among the disciples a second time, this time Thomas is with them. Jesus immediately encourages Thomas to inspect the physical evidence.

“See the holes in my hands and my feet,” Jesus says. “Go ahead and touch them, Thomas. Now put your hand in this gaping wound in my side.”

Did you notice? The Risen Jesus was not given a brand new perfect body. The body he was carried into the grave with was the same body he walked out of that grave with.

Jesus carried the wounds of his passion – the wounds of the sin of the world – with him into the resurrection.

Preached Elam Davis, “[This] story means that you’ll never meet a God that doesn’t have nail prints in the hand. And you’ll never meet a God who doesn’t have a wound in the side. You’ll never meet a God who doesn’t know the depths of human suffering and the human condition.”[iii]

“My Lord and my God!” Thomas proclaims upon his inspection.

Jesus then appraises Thomas in reply, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

With that beatitude, Jesus is not only speaking to Thomas, he is speaking to us as well; to those who will never have the opportunity to inspect Jesus’ body; who have only ancient relics and writings of long dead apostles to bear witness.

And the ambiguous evaluations of scholars who incessantly pick over the bones of belief for whatever physical evidence they can dig up throughout the generations to assuage their nagging doubts.

But, also, along with that somewhat cryptic blessing, Jesus gives something more. Jesus breathes his own Spirit upon every human heart that would be an open vessel to house it, so that we would have something beyond belief upon which to base our faith.

Jesus came to stand with the disciples in that locked room to offer his risen presence, to help them overcome their fears, and to then draw them out of hiding and into the world again.

Barbara Brown Taylor, world renowned episcopal preacher, now professor, wrote a book a several years ago called, “Leaving Church.” After decades of serving local churches as a pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor had had enough; she was fed up with the petty politics and the infighting and the continual conflict and the stubborn complacency. She left the church despondent and discouraged, her faith in crisis.

In her book, Barbara shares her anguish about a Church she felt had somehow lost its way; had become so caught up in professing what it [said it] believed, that it had neglected becoming what it was called to be.

Subsequently, Barbara locked herself away in her home for a season, and hid herself in her journaling. As she worked through her own fear and disillusionment, she examined the `faith, facts and forgeries’ of her own religious convictions:

“The parts of the Christ story that had drawn me into the Church,” she wrote, “were not the believing parts, but the beholding parts:

”Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

”Behold, the Lamb of God.”

”Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

“Christian faith seemed to depend on beholding things that were clearly beyond belief,” Taylor wrote. “I wanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business. I wanted to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything.”[iv]

“The point isn’t that you believe in the resurrection,” refrains Diana Butler Bass. “Any fool can believe in a resurrection from the dead. The point is that you trust in the resurrection. And that’s much, much harder to do.”

In other words, it’s one thing to proclaim Jesus Christ as our resurrected Lord from behind closed doors. It is a much, much harder thing to move out beyond these doors—beyond belief—into an uncertain world, trusting that God will catch us when we – eventually, ultimately – fall. That’s true faith. Living and breathing faith which is confirmed only by the risen presence of Christ through the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit.

Do you want your disbelief to be transformed into powerful faith?

The poet Kate McIhagga, challenges Thomas, and us, to come out of our hiding that we might find proof of such faith:

“Put your hand, Thomas, on the crawling head of a child imprisoned in a cot in Romania.

Place your finger, Thomas, on the list of those who have disappeared in Chile.

Stroke the cheek, Thomas, of the little girl sold in prostitution in Thailand.

Touch, Thomas, the gaping wounds of my world.

Feel, Thomas, the primal wound of my people.

Reach out your hands, Thomas, and place them at the side of the poor.

Grasp my hands, Thomas, and believe.”

 

If we are willing to take up Kate McIhagga’s challenge – Christ’s clarion call to be his disciples, active in the world – we won’t need any other evidence to convict us of what we know. We will know the real truth of the resurrection and its power to move us beyond mere belief toward a liv

[i] Gibson, David, McKinley, Michael, “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact Forgery,” www.cnn.com.

[ii] Long, Thomas, Whispering the Lyrics: Sermons for Lent and Easter, CSS Pub. 1995, p. 90.

[iii] Davis, Elam, as quoted by Calum MacLeod in his sermon “The Peace of Christ,” April 27, 2003.

[iv] Taylor, Barbara Brown, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Paw Prints, 2008.

 

 

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