zthe Cross

Sermon: The Need to Believe

A little boy went to Sunday school on a day when his class was studying Moses. After church, as they were riding home in the car, his father quizzed his son about what he learned that morning in Sunday school.

            “We learned all about Moses,” said the little guy, “and about the Exodus and how Moses freed his people from the Egyptians.”

            “Oh, good!” his father said. “Tell me about it.”

            “Well,” the little boy replied, thinking about it for a second and then went on. “It was great, Dad! You see, Moses crept behind enemy lines at night and sneaked his people out under the barb wire past the searchlights and out into the desert. Then they got to the Red Sea and kind of got stuck. The water in front of them and the Egyptians were coming up fast from behind in the tanks. So, Moses ordered the Engineering Corps to build a huge pontoon bridge over the Red Sea. The people all crossed safely. But, when the Egyptians started to cross the bridge in their tanks, Moses called in an air strike. Jet fighters swooped down and destroyed the bridge with smart bombs!”

            When the little boy finished his story, his father was astonished, “Is that what your teacher told you?”

            “Well,” hesitated his son, “Not really. But, you’d never believe her story!”

Generally speaking, human-type-beings seem to be a whole lot more comfortable with facts and figures than with simply taking things on faith. We want to corral reality into a perspective that corresponds to what we already know; based on past experience.     We want proof, evidence.

We want to have something in hand that will give our lives meaning.

“Thomas wasn’t a doubter,” as one parishioner said to me. “He was a pragmatist.”

Thomas just wanted the same kind of evidence the other disciples had had. Thomas only needed the same assurance of hands and side—even if he was a bit more graphic about the need to put his finger on the actual nail marks of Jesus’ hand and to put his hand in Jesus’ side. When Thomas had heard the disciples’ testimony, his response was basically: “Show me.”

My mother was always proud of the fact that she was born in Missouri, the “Show Me State”, and would often use that heritage as a way to bring an abrupt end to contentious debates with her children. The “Show Me State” was a nickname coined in the late 1800s by Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, who, concerning the validity of an opponent’s remarks, once said, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs, and Democrats and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me!”

A philosophy professor who hailed from the eastern part of the country offered additional testimony with his observation: “Midwesterners are not good at abstract thinking. You tell stories around the fire. You figure out the wisdom of the world through family narrative. You fight for next year’s crops to come through. You prefer solid evidence. You’re pragmatists!”

Well, I didn’t know I’d come from such a noble lot.

With that in mind, I find that I like Thomas. I like him a lot.

And not just because I’m named after him. I can relate to the guy.

Now I tend to sort of think that Thomas must have been a Midwesterner, too. It may have been the midwestern part of the Middle East…but just the same. If Pragmatic Thomas hadn’t pushed the point some two thousand years ago, we wouldn’t have this story to tell around the fire today—to rouse our imagination and to challenge our faith.

Thomas was not a doubter, nor a scoffer; any more than any of the other disciples. There was something else going here.

Two weeks ago, on Holy Monday, Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire and for several hours was in grave danger of being burned to the ground. And, in my sermon last Sunday, we talked about the fact that, due to the brave efforts of some 500 firefighters, the vital structure of the Cathedral was preserved. And that, even as flames were consuming the roof of the Cathedral and raining debris around them, a human chain of firefighters – led by a their fearless chaplain – formed to extract numerous priceless works of art and several holy relics—including the venerated Crown of Thorns, believed to have been worn by Jesus as he was crucified. The very Crown of Thorns placed upon Jesus’ head by Roman soldiers to add to his suffering and mock his kingship.

Now, one might ask, why in the world would a group of people so risk their lives to save a bramble of thorns? I mean, how can we even know for sure if it’s authentic or not? What proof is there that this is the Crown of Thorns that Jesus actually wore at his crucifixion?

So I Googled the question of authenticity regarding this holy relic. And Wikipedia leads you through a rather convoluted history which maps out the roundabout path the Crown of Thorns took to get to – what was – its current home of Notre Dame Cathedral.

And to make a very long story short, along the way reports and rumors abound of the Crown being transferred from one Emperor to the next; from various emperors and kings to various Bishops and Popes and Anonymous Pilgrims, and back again. Individual thorns were given as tokens of esteem, wedding gifts, and even collateral for a state loan.

While various parts of the Crown are apparently still distributed throughout the world, eventually, the circlet of rushes known as the Crown of Thorns, made its way – somehow miraculously intact – to France, whereby, after surviving the French Revolution, it finally comes to rest in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Whereby, some two thousand years after the fact, it barely escaped destruction on Holy Monday, 2019.

Now, do we view all of that as a miracle, or meshuggah?

What makes such a – sometimes tenuously sometimes tenaciously – preserved biblical relic so invaluable to so many countless people throughout the ages?

Surely, it’s not about `proof.’ I have never seen the Crown of Thorns myself—have you? Not that I necessarily doubt it exists—in theory that is. I’ve just never seen it for myself. But, you know what—I want to believe. You might even say I need to believe. And maybe that’s what makes the difference.

The great American Quaker theologian, Elton Trueblood, once said, “Faith is not belief without proof, but rather trust without reservation.”

You see, I’m not even sure that `clinical proof’ was ever really the issue for Thomas. His need went much deeper than the religious skeptic’s demand for factual verification. Thomas was already a devoted disciple. He’d made a heartfelt commitment to Jesus. He had traveled with his Lord for three long years, sharing meals, sleeping in the same quarters – sometimes on the ground next to him; trudging from town to town over the rugged backroads of ancient Palestine.

He was one of the bewildered twelve whom Jesus said goodbye to the night they shared that last meal together, and Jesus had washed all their feet. When the other disciples were trying to talk Jesus out of going to Martha and Mary’s house where their brother Lazarus lay dying, Thomas was the one who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16).

Over the eons of preaching, I think old Thomas has gotten a bad rap. He was no slouch of a disciple. He had followed Jesus to the bitter end; and now stood ready and willing to take that bold step with him beyond the grave.

You see, Thomas wanted to belief—he needed to believe.

            `Let me see that it is indeed my own Savior,’ Thomas wanted to know. `Let me be sure they are the same hands that have touched, and healed, and blessed; the same hands that broke the bread and gave it to me, the hands that washed the dust of the road off my tired, swollen feet.’

            Thomas was simply saying: `Don’t give me false assurances. Don’t deceive me about something that is more important to me that life itself. Don’t tempt me with something that will not satisfy. I must see him for myself. I have to know it is him for myself. O, let me salvage this one thing that I might fan the embers of a smoldering faith! Let me lay my hands upon him one more time, because everything else in my life depends upon that! I need to believe again!’

Thomas Moore wrote: “It is a fatal error to mistake mere historical belief for saving faith. A man may firmly believe his religion historically, and yet have no part nor portion therein practically and savingly. He must not only believe his faith, he must believe in his faith.”

Miracle or meshuggah?

I know which one it is for me.

Do you know which it is for you?

Consider the following newspaper article:

Dateline Jerusalem—On the eve of the annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the one million inhabitants of this city were shocked by the announcement that a body, identified as that of Jesus, was found in a long-neglected tomb just outside the boundary of the city. Rumors had been circulating the last week that a very important discovery was about to be announced. The news, however, far outstrips all of our wildest dreams. The initial reaction of Christians here and around the world has been one of astonishment, bewilderment, and defensive disbelief. We will have to wait and see just what effect this discovery will have on the 2,000-year-old religion. To the mind of this unbelieving writer, it appears that Christianity will have to take its place on the same level with the other religions of the world. No longer can its followers claim that, unlike other religions, the tomb of its founder is empty. Evidently, a 2,000-year-old life has come to an end.

The question is: Would you believe that story if you heard it for real? I wouldn’t. For, if it were true – as the Apostle Paul wrote 2,000 years ago – then our faith in Christ is worthless and we’re still under the curse of sin.

But, if you are here today as I am—then too you have a need to believe. Because our faith in Jesus Christ begins where fallen proofs of religion end: with a resurrection unto new life.

And if you have experienced the Risen Lord in your life – his peace, his power, his hope – then no amount of evidence to the contrary could ever dissuade you from believing. And, if you don’t have a personal relationship with him, then all the clinical evidence, all the television specials, and all the newscasts in the world will not convict you of his existence.

One of the earliest attestations concerning the authenticity of the Crown of Thorns was offered in the 6 century AD by the Roman statesman Cassiodorus, who spoke of those holy relics as being the glory of the earthly Jerusalem: “There,” he said, “we may behold the thorny crown, which was only set upon the head of Our Redeemer in order that all the thorns of the world might be gathered together and broken.”

It is not the corporeal reality of the Crown of Thorns that provides indisputable evidence, which in turn yields to faith. The power of the story of the Crown of Thorns comes through our fervent desire – our deep need – to believe with unreserved trust in its truth.

A very learned man once said to a young girl who said she believed in the Lord Jesus, “My poor little girl, you don’t even know whom you believe in. There have been many christs. In which of them do you believe?”

“I know which one I believe in,” replied the child. “I believe in the Christ who rose from the dead.”