StJohn&StStephens-logo

Belief & Doubt

series-g

easter2-1Last Sunday was Easter, when we emerge from the reflection and mourning of Lent to the celebration of the resurrection. I was down in Cornwall, at the Lookout on the cliffs at Boscastle at 6:30am, which felt like the middle of the night with the clocks having gone forwards. We arrived in complete dark, in a stormy night, and during the ‘dawn service’ we did not see the sun, but the scudding clouds slowly got brighter until, by the end, it was day.

easter2-2[2] The celebration of Easter is of Jesus rising from the dead. Not just a teacher who leaves his teaching, but God’s Son who changes the nature of death for ever, who is raised and gives us eternal life. Our gospel reading today recounts two of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples, first without, and then with, Thomas.

[3] The post-resurrection sections of the gospels are comparatively short, only twenty verses in Matthew and Mark, and just over fifty in Luke and John, but they are quite similar. They all have the story of the women visiting the tomb, as in these paintings by Fra Angelico. Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus is in Mark and Luke (Caravaggio) [4]. Jesus appears to the disciples, as in today’s reading, in all the gospels, though only John has the story about Thomas. Then just gives his commission to the disciples to go out into the world in Matthew, Mark and Acts, and the Ascension is in Mark, Luke and Acts. John has an additional story about Jesus appearing to the disciples in Galilee (Duccio) [5].

  easter2-3
3
 easter2-4
4
 easter2-5
5

Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 repeats what many take to be an early creedal statement:

I passed on to you what I received, which is of the greatest importance: that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures; that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later, as written in the Scriptures; that he appeared to Peter and then to all twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of his followers at once, most of whom are still alive, although some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterward to all the apostles.

easter2-6[6] We think of Thomas as ‘Doubting Thomas’, which may be a bit harsh. Mark and Luke both say that the disciples did not believe the women when they came back from the tomb, Mark says they did not believe the two disciples from the road to Emmaus, and Mark recounts Jesus rebuking them when he did appear to them all for their lack of faith. But poor Thomas missed the first appearance to the group, and that story now appears in the Bible.

easter2-7[7] Jesus tells Thomas to stop doubting, and believe, and then he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” There would have been very few people to whom this would have applied when Jesus said these words, but they do apply to us. Thomas actually had proof in front of him to overcome his doubt. He thought Jesus was dead and gone, defeated, but here was Jesus, gently and patiently allowing him to place his hands on the wounds. Jesus’ reprimand is quite gentle too. Jesus understands doubt, even if he asks Thomas to overcome it. (Caravaggio again.)

Unlike Thomas, we do not have proof. It does not mean that our faith is unreasonable, or blind. There is plenty of good evidence for Christianity, and for the resurrection. Just think of our first reading, from Acts. Peter and the other apostles are pretty convinced about Jesus, despite having seen him die. Just on a human level, their work in establishing the church would be difficult to explain if they did not actually believe in the risen Lord they were proclaiming.

But you cannot control doubt. Telling yourself off or making yourself feel guilty because you do not have 100% certainty about your faith is not going to help. Nor should it; doubt is perfectly natural. Christianity makes claims which make sense of the world, give purpose to our lives, give us individual value, promises us life after death, but we cannot prove it. All Christians wonder sometime or other whether they might be deluding themselves. The church is generally bad at dealing with doubt. It is not mentioned that much, and tends to be denied. After this sermon we will say the Creed together, and there is not much room for debate or questions in the wording. Doubt is a wobble that you have to get over when your faith returns.

While you cannot stop doubting, you can decide what you will do with it. We have to balance doubt with faith, and with the reasons for faith. As I mentioned, there is historical evidence for Christianity. There is far more documentary evidence for Jesus than for many other historical figures we accept without question. There is also the evidence of the work of Christians over millennia. Yes, bad things have been done in the name of faith, but Christians have been at the forefront of establishing health and care systems, working quietly in charitable work all over the world, working for justice and peace.

More personally, I think of people I have known who demonstrate Christ’s love. Some extraordinary people, though not famous, and you will never have heard of many of them, but they have been an example of what faith can produce. There is this community of faith which, through all its imperfections, supports people and reaches out to the community.

We were talking in our homegroup about the cheerful subject of death this week, following John Pritchard’s book Living Faithfully. One of the questions was about whether not having faith, not believing in life after death, would affect us. One person said that, if they lost their faith, they would not want to give up on the church and their friends within it because it was such a wonderful community. I know what they mean. But you can also take that as a pointer to the truth of faith, that it does engender good things.

I also look back on times of worship, times of study, times of prayer when God has been there. On times when I have known his presence, a sense of not being alone that is precious, and the significance of which we can forget. I may be a Doubting Jeremy, but Jesus invites us to believe anyway. [8]

 

Jeremy Thake
St. John and St. Stephens.

 

 

John 20

Jesus Appears to His Disciples

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Jesus Appears to Thomas

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The Purpose of John’s Gospel

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Acts 5

27 They brought the apostles in, made them stand before the Council, and the High Priest questioned them. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in the name of this man,” he said; “but see what you have done! You have spread your teaching all over Jerusalem, and you want to make us responsible for his death!”

29 Peter and the other apostles answered, “We must obey God, not men. 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from death, after you had killed him by nailing him to a cross. 31 God raised him to his right side as Leader and Saviour, to give the people of Israel the opportunity to repent and have their sins forgiven. 32 We are witnesses to these things—we and the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to those who obey him.”

RESURRECTION APPEARANCES

Matthew

Women in the garden

Appearance to disciples

Great Commission

Mark

Women in the garden

Road to Emmaus

11 disciples- rebuked for unbelief

Commission

Ascension

Luke

Women at tomb

Road to Emmaus

Disciples

Ascension, also at the start of Acts

John

Women at tomb

Disciples

Disciples + Thomas

Galilee

Reinstatement of Peter

 

1 Corinthians 15

Peter

Disciples

500 brothers

James

All the apostles