Sunday, April 3, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "These Things Are Written"

John 20:24-31

Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” 

26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” 28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” 

30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.  (Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week One

Across the country, from New York to California, lighthouses built upon concrete arrows arose throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, and it was for a pretty simple reason, really.

We had finally figured out how to fly.  What we hadn’t figured out yet, in typical human fashion, was how to know where to go next once we actually got airborne.

Which, when you think about it, really was a stumper of a problem, because this was well before the electronic revolution that gave us the navigational tools we take for granted today like GPS, Google Maps, or even the universal use of radar.

But the fine folks at the US Postal Service of all places (yes, the USPS—we make fun of them now in the age of email and text messages, but they used to be cutting edge) came up with, in true USPS fashion, a profoundly technologically basic but still effective solution: they would install these lighthouses—these bare-bones towers with lights, really—across the country, enable them to emit light in different colors, and then set them upon giant concrete arrows that pointed pilots towards the next concrete arrow and tower, and then the next, until they finally reached their destination.

(And as it turns out, you can even still visit a few of them today.)

That wasn’t enough to ensure their pilots’ safety, though—after all, aviation was barely twenty years old at this point, not even old enough to get past the bouncer at a club, and so the government also laid emergency landing fields—basically just a strip of concrete in the ground in some places—every 25 miles along the aviation routes.

So if you could imagine essentially flying blind by contemporary standards in that you have no electronic instruments at your disposal, and you had to rely on glimpsing these concrete arrows on which was a blinking beacon atop a tower…that’s a pretty remarkable act of faith to be willing to do that job, even with an emergency airfield every 25 miles.

And I use that word on purpose, because while the pilots, the USPS itself, and the country believed in this rudimentary system, it took faith to actually adhere to it, to put it into practice.  And that is what we’ll be talking about today, and for the next six weeks: the difference between belief and faith.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter—that’s right, a season, not just a holiday.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.

And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe the sky is blue, or that the Royals will win another World Series title (reality, right?!).

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

That tendency is on full display in what we label today’s passage as: it’s the story of who?  Doubting Thomas.  Except that isn’t who Thomas is.  The Greek word that John uses—and while Greek is clearly a second language for John, he is also able to adroitly use it to create humor, double meanings, and other literary motifs that can be easily lost in translation—is apistos, which doesn’t mean “doubt,” but “unbelief.”

Okay, why does this matter, though?  What’s the difference between doubt and unbelief?  Well…that’s like asking, what’s the difference between belief and faith?

Jesus tries to parallel Thomas in His words in verse 27—which reflect Thomas’s own in verse 25—such that He is trying to create a mirror antithesis for Thomas rather than simply an opposing view.  He is trying to bounce Thomas’s words back to him, so that Thomas can move 180 degrees.

Why does this distinction even matter, though?  To borrow from John scholar Gail O’Day:

Jesus offers Thomas everything he asked for, so that Thomas can move from unbelief to belief…This story is not about Thomas’s doubt and skepticism, but about the abundant grace of Jesus who meets Thomas’s demands point for point in order to move him to faith.  Notice that John does not narrate that Thomas actually puts his finger in Jesus’s hands or side.  The story moves directly from Jesus’s invitation to Thomas’s confession of faith.

It’s a very simple pivot-point story: Thomas starts at one end, is guided to the other end by Jesus, and reacts accordingly, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God,” and worshiping Jesus.

Thomas is able to move spiritually from one to the other despite not actually using what was put in front of him—the very wounds of Jesus.  He is, then, a little bit like those pilots of yesteryear who moved from one place to another without all the navigational tools we place in front of ourselves.  They each moved, from our modern perspective, on a considerable amount of faith.

Thomas, then, really does get a bad rap for “doubting.”  He had enough cojones to actually voice his doubts in the first place when he alone was the dissenting opinion by this point (although it was because the other disciples had already encountered the risen Christ previously, with Thomas absent for some reason—maybe he was working on his skee-ball game.  We’ll never really know for sure).

But this is a story that should reflect well upon Thomas, because it is in Thomas that John’s audience—us—is meant to find itself.  We are that person lost in apistos, in unbelief, not doubt, but simply an absence of belief, and to whom Jesus reaches out to and speaks to in order to invite us once more into faith.

The title of this sermon series, “Help in Unbelief,” comes from the series’ final story from Mark 9, when the father of a stricken child hears Jesus say to him, “All things can be done for someone who believes,” and cries out in response, “I believe, help me in my unbelief!”

We begin this series, then, with an instance of such help, and such grace, from Jesus to one of His followers, Thomas.  Thomas, I think, wants to believe.  Nowhere does John say that he does not, and if Thomas were some halfheartedly committed, fairweather follower, he would have probably jumped ship long ago, because in John, the opponents of Jesus—the chief priests, the scribes, and the teachers of the law—are out for him from the start as a result of John’s placement of the cleansing of the temple at the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry rather than at the very end like in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Thomas has seen and believed, as Jesus says, and he has seen it all: the betrayal, the arrest, and now the resurrection.  Blessed is he who has seen and believed, indeed. 

But so too, Jesus says, is the person who did not see and live through the Passion.  Blessed is the person who has not seen, Jesus says, yet still believes.

I wasn’t there, in first century Jerusalem, for the Passover.  I know of no one else who has.  I haven’t been there, I have seen those sites now, but not then.  But like Thomas, I long to believe.

And so, John says, these things have been written so that a latter-day Thomas can believe.  So that someone like me can believe.  So that someone like you can believe.

Even if you do not entirely know in which direction your life is going.  Even if you cannot completely see where you are going next.

Thomas, were he one of our early pilots, would finally have seen the light flickering out from one of the towering beacons, lighting the arrow showing the way forward.

Maybe that is what we need as well, a giant arrow pointing the way forward for us.

It would certainly make a lot of things much easier.

But even with those arrows, the pilots still faced a huge challenge.

Knowing the way forward doesn’t mean the path is walked for you.  It only means that you have faith that the path should be walked.

May that faith you have in your hearts and in your souls be renewed, then, in this story of one disciple caught in the throes of unbelief named Thomas.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 3, 2016

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