Do you believe?
Do you believe President Obama was born in the US?
Do you believe in climate change?
Do you believe “fracking” is good or bad environmental stewardship?
Do you believe in trickle-down economics?
Do you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead?
How do we come to belief in anything? I would say anything that we cannot see with our own eyes, but that’s not such a strong argument these days; perhaps it’s easier to believe in the atom, which we cannot see but which is morally and politically neutral, than in something that contradicts other beliefs that are more central to us (and perhaps more hidden). So how do we come to believe in things—what we can see, and what we must take on “faith” or on the testimony and witness of others?
John’s gospel is quite concerned with being perceived as “true”. John at the end of the Gospel stresses again and again that this his testimony is true because he has seen it… “You can trust me” he says again and again. And he has Jesus declare himself to be “The way, the truth, and the life” and later has Pilate ask, despairingly, of Jesus, “What is truth?”
The disciples and Thomas today are confronted with truth in every sense of the word: Jesus is in front of them. The disciples are not heroes in the believing-without-seeing category; part of the reason they’re hidden in the upper room is no doubt that they did not believe Mary Magdalene when she told them that she had seen Jesus outside the tomb that morning. But finally, 10 of them see Jesus on Easter evening… and Thomas does not, and he does not choose to be swayed into belief by their testimony.
If ten of the people closest to you, with whom you had lived and worked for 3 years, told you they had seen something—even something impossible, and I don’t know how much more impossible you can get than being raised from the dead, but something—a UFO, let’s say—would you believe them if you didn’t see the evidence yourself?
The only way we can believe in the resurrection is hearsay—the testimony of others—and yet most of us here this morning do believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. We are like those to whom Peter writes in the epistle this morning: “Although you have not seen him, you love him.” Thomas doesn’t even believe his friends when they tell him they have seen Jesus… why does he not believe them? Why else would the 10 other disciples tell Thomas that they had seen Jesus than that it was true? Were they playing a joke? Trying to start a concoct a conspiracy theory to make themselves feel better? Having some sort of mass delusion?
Matthew, whose gospel we heard on Palm Sunday and Easter, is so concerned that people believe the truth of the resurrection that he includes the background behind the Chief priests and Pharisees establishing a conspiracy theory to explain away the resurrection—they post a guard at the tomb for otherwise, “his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people he has been raised from t he dead, and the last deception would be worse than the first.” And then, when those guards have been shocked by the angel and the resurrection, according to Matthew they go back to the priests, who pay them off to say that the disciples came and stole him away in the middle of the night.
And you thought conspiracy theories were a modern invention.
Belief isn’t enough. The disciples today become apostles, become those who are sent into the world to testify to what they believe through words and actions. Do you live according to your beliefs? Or do you believe according to your life? In other words, when we believe according to your life, we take on beliefs that match the rest of our lives—our jobs, our families, our cultures, our convenience. When we live according to our beliefs we change our lives to reflect our belief when they conflict with what is convenient, what is considered proper, what is expected of us by our friends, families, bosses, etc. We do both, of course—some beliefs we hold because they validate other parts of our lives, and some ideals we believe in even though they don’t mesh with our lives, but there’s always a gap between our ideals and the reality. We are sinful human beings, after all. Like Paul, who says in Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Sometimes we don’t know how—or don’t choose to make the sacrifices—to follow through with living our belief actively.
Thomas is living according to what he believes when he denies the reality of what his friends have told him… but when what he believes changes, when he is confronted by the risen Christ, his very life changes. Thomas lives according to his beliefs, not the other way around. He, of all the disciples, hears Jesus’ sending message because he gets all the way to India… further than any of the others, where the church he founded in the first century continues today. (and I’m skeptical about most early church myths, but the Mar Thoma church in India really does extend back to the first century, so it’s not unlikely that Thomas got there.)
Now if only we lived according to our beliefs. We did an exercise at a conference I went to last year that was very illuminating in discerning where our beliefs and our lives are at odds—and by illuminating them, giving us the tools to begin to bring them in line.
Column one: What sort of things, if they were to happen more or less frequently, would contribute to my growth as a person of faith?
Column two: I am committed to the value or the importance of what (or, what do I believe?)?
Column three: What am I doing or not doing that is keeping my aspirations from being realized?
Column four: Given number three, I may also be committed to the value of…. (I may also believe…)
Column five: If I did not do my number three behaviors, what (horrible) things might happen?
A friend told me recently that when she was learning to work with young children, she was taught to always put instructions in a positive tense to get the kids to listen. So instead of saying “Don’t run”, which would inevitably cause the kids to do exactly what you were saying not to do, she would say, “Walk”. Angels in scripture always say “Do not be afraid.” Which probably didn’t comfort anyone too much who heard it. Jesus doesn’t say “Do not be afraid” even though he’s just walked through a wall on the day he was resurrected from the dead, and if the disciples were hiding in terror before he arrived, I’m sure they were only more terrified when Jesus appeared. But he doesn’t tell them not to be afraid, he puts it in the positive way: “Peace be with you.”
Peace be with you. Don’t negate or deny your fear. But have peace. The fifth column need not rule our lives—Jesus has breathed the holy spirit upon us all and sent us out to do his work—and if we really do believe that, then our fears do not have the last word.
Our collect this morning asks, “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.” The collect is reminiscent of the General Thanksgiving, which those of you who remember Morning Prayer used to say each week: “And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days…” Not only with our lips, but in our lives. Let's stand and pray the General Thanksgiving--it's Easter, and a time to give thanks.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving‑kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.