Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Do Not Doubt, But Believe: A Sermon on John 20:19-31

[This is the manuscript of a sermon I delivered at the 5:00 pm service at St. Barts tonight. Unusually, I went a bit off-text on this one, as I thought the text was a bit too academic for a sermon. So this is more an essay that was extemporized into a sermon, and hopefully none the worse for that.]

Poor St. Thomas. Seriously, I mean it. There's a lot of theological meat in today's Gospel, but I can never resist speaking up for St. Thomas. St Thomas the Apostle, forever known as “Doubting Thomas,” gets a raw deal, I think.

Ok, sure—after Jesus’s death, he doesn’t believe the other apostles when they tell him that, when they were hiding in a house in Jerusalem, Jesus appeared to them.

But all they tell him is “we have seen the Lord.” It’s not like they give him a lot of detail.

Also, let’s point out that Thomas has been out and about, while they’re all hiding.

Thomas may not have been the most spiritual of the disciples, but he’s got courage. And in fact he’s pretty bright. Because when Jesus tells the disciples about the death of Lazurus, and that he is going to Lazarus’s family and then back to Jerusalem, Thomas is the only one who knows what’s coming next.

Grim but loyal, Lazarus says only, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11: 16)

So Thomas is skeptical of his ten friends, who are still hiding away, while he’s doing whatever needs to be done in the city.

And Thomas’s courage, and his loyalty, are rewarded. Jesus comes back for him, to make sure that he doesn’t miss out on the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, like any teacher, he answers Thomas’s challenge. He says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas doesn’t take him up on the offer. Instead, he answers him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus then says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That, in case you haven’t worked it out, is us. You and me.

We haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. We’re two whole millennia removed from anyone who has.

So Jesus is holding out to us the hope that we can be blessed in a way one of his most loyal, brave disciples was not, simply because we have come to believe.

What does that mean?

In Alcoholics Anonymous, “come to believe” occurs in the Second Step -—we “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

But that belief isn’t just an abstract proposition. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we are told that “coming to believe” requires more than that; prior intellectual embraces of God fail because “In no deep or meaningful sense had we ever taken stock of ourselves, made amends to those we had harmed, or freely given to any other human being without any demand for reward. We had not even prayed rightly. We had always said, “Grant me my wishes” instead of “Thy will be done.”

In other words, “coming to believe” means trying to live in accord with what we believe, not just holding it in our minds.

Ah, but what is it we must come to believe?

Well, we say the Creed every week. Is that what Jesus is referring to here?

Hard to believe. For one thing, it doesn’t actually tell us very much, does it? As Charles Gore pointed out ninety years ago, the Creeds aren’t actually a summary of what Christians believe, they just knock out, one-by-one, all of the early heresies that tried to downplay either Jesus’s humanity or his divinity.

Not either or, the Creed insists, but both. Always both.

So, no. Not the Creeds, then. Or, at any rate, not just the Creeds.

So we just believe in the name of Jesus. It’s an intellectual proposition—Jesus equals the Son of God, therefore we are saved.

We-ell, I certainly don’t disagree with that statement, but I have to tell you, a lot of people have adhered to that abstract article of belief, and done terrible things with it.

And on the flip side, many people who have never heard the name of Jesus, or who have encountered it only through the distorting lens of those who use it to justify the sort of domination system that crucified Jesus, may exemplify the sort of love Jesus taught and lived.

My go-to source for old-school Anglican orthodoxy, C.S. Lewis, wrote that “every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. . . . In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.” [1]

So, I can’t help but think that there might be a little more to it than just intellectual adherence to the name of Jesus, or any intellectual concept for that matter.

No, I think we have to go all the way back to the very beginning of this Gospel to see what it is we must come to believe. Or, just maybe, how we must come to believe.

In the very first chapter of this Gospel, we are told that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1: 12-13)

Right, that’s not exactly self explanatory, is it?

Maybe we need to dig just a little deeper.

The Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, is sometimes a very challenging one. It has dense, theologically rich discourses by Jesus about His role as the Bread of Life, or the vine to which we—that’s right, you and me—are the branches.

John’s Gospel demonstrates what’s called a very high Christology, by which we mean it depicts Jesus as one with the Father, more consistently and more often than any other Gospel.

Add to this that it has been considered “the charter of Christian Mysticism.”[2] In saying so in his classic lectures on mysticism, W. R. Inge explained that “Christian Mysticism, as I understand it, might almost be called Johannine Christianity,” or rather that “a Johannine Christianity is the ideal which the Christian mystic sets before himself” or herself.[3]

This sounds pretty daunting, especially if when you think of mysticism the first thing that comes to your mind is Doctor Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, who is always battling all kinds of supernatural threats when he isn’t busy solving mysteries with Bilbo Baggins.

But that’s a movie, based on a comic book written in the trippy 1960s. What Inge means by mysticism is what he calls “the raw material of religion,” the experience of the immanence of the temporal in the eternal, and of the eternal in the temporal.”[4]

Or, put another way, it’s what some people make of those fleeting experiences we all get of the presence of God. Abraham Maslow documented them, and called them “peak experiences.” He described them as sudden “feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe.”[5]

Mysticism isn’t about power, like Dr. Strange—it’s about perception. Openness to the fact that life isn’t just getting and spending, but, ultimately, about love, and that in the experience of love is the ultimate truth about not just our own lives, but the nature of God.

And how do we make this a part of our lives?

First, what we are called to believe is, as Jesus summarizes it, as we heard throughout Lent, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But how can we love on command? I’ll steal a sentence from Steven Moffat: “Law isn’t an emotion—it’s a promise.” Like it says in the Second Step, we act lovingly—we try to walk in the path of Jesus. Always remember that the early church didn’t see itself as a structure of belief but as a way—it’s even called The Way, in the Acts of the Apostles.

And there is, I think, where we find the ultimate clue to what it is to come to believe.

This too:

Believe that you are loved. Don’t doubt it.

When you doubt it, because you will, don’t let that tear you down.

Coming to believe doesn’t mean perfect certainty. In AA, coming to believe can be pretty shaky, and still get the job done.

When you doubt it, because we all do from time to time, remember that when Thomas was too skeptical to believe the Good News at second hand, Jesus came back, just for him.

If and when you can make some quiet space to be silent in the presence of God, be open to those peak experiences. If they come on you on their own, remember it. Don’t dismiss them, let them reassure you when you’re depressed, or feeling isolated.

Because they are part of our experience, and, as the novelist CP Snow wrote, “it’s impossible to regret one’s own experience.”[6] So too we should be very reluctant to doubt our own experience.

So embrace that experience.

Most of all, if you haven’t had such experiences, if you are unsure, don’t be afraid you’ll be left behind.

Jesus came back for Thomas; he won’t forget you.

NOTES:

1. Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy at 244-245 (2007).
2. William Ralph Inge, Christian Mysticism 44 (1899).
3. Id. at 44-45.
4. Id at 5.
5. A. Maslow, Religions, Values & Peak Experiences (1964).
6. C.P. Snow, The Sleep of Reason 149 (1968)

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