Psalm 16, John 20:19-31
March 30, 2008
I don’t want this to be a sermon about Thomas, today. I talked about him a little bit last week. I reminded you about some of my feelings about him. In brief, I said that I don’t believe Thomas was any more of a doubter than any of them. He just happened to be the one who was not there the first time Jesus appeared!
The “problem” with Thomas was not about his psychological makeup, it was about his physical location when Jesus appeared. I believe this story is more about Jesus than Thomas. It’s more about the nature of faith and belief. This thing called the Resurrection was so amazing, so unexpected, and so unbelievable, that none of them were prepared to believe it that day. And neither would we have believed it if we were there!
That’s what I want us to focus on today. I want us to focus on Jesus. And I want us to focus on this thing we call “belief.” That is one of the main theme’s of John’s Gospel. In the 20th chapter he wrote, “But these [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name..” (John 20:31) Belief and Life – those are the two main themes of this book.
Years ago, when I was at the Neshaminy Church, I had a Bible study going with a bunch of young people, and for a while we were studying the Gospel of John. And in it I emphasized those two things. After a while, it got to be a kind of joke with us. I had them trained so well that when I would say “The Gospel of John” they would repeat in a kind of robotic voice, “Belief and Life.” It was fun. But they learned those things as the focus and purpose of this book! And that has to be the background for us as we look at these stories. They were written so that we the readers may believe.
Do you like to watch a good magician? I know I do. Magicians can be very entertaining. Sometimes they can be mesmerizing. But when we watch them, unless there’s some power we can’t explain going on, most of the time they’re just tricking us, aren’t they? They’re toying with our minds. They’re fooling our eyes. They’re distracting us with one kind of movement designed to divert our attention away from something else they’re doing that is to be seen as “magical.” They’re daring us to figure it out, aren’t they?
Often magicians would use this old line that I’ve started with today. “Seeing is Believing.” And I’d like you to remember that line because I want us to see how Jesus took it a step further. He said to Thomas, “Have believed because you have seen me. But blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” (John 20:29) Isn’t that true? Aren’t those who have not seen the risen Christ, yet believe, even more blessed? That includes us, you know!
If you think about it, these disciples had quite a task ahead of them. They were privileged – the were blessed – to be the ones to whom Jesus appeared personally. Now, they were to give that good news to a world that had not seen. Sure, Jesus could have appeared to the whole world. And according to the Bible, the next time he comes, he will. But this time he chose to appear to some, giving them the task of giving that vision to others. But how were they to do that? Because seeing is believing. Isn’t that true. Don’t we have to see in order to believe? And how is that different from faith? Paul told the Hebrews that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Think about it. Vision is a powerful thing. I heard once, and I believe it’s true, that something like 80 percent of all of the inputs to our brains come through our eyes. Think about it. The other four “senses” are wonderful miracles, as well. But sometimes I don’t think we appreciate how incredible is this thing called sight. It’s a constant 360 degree camera on the world, with instantaneous focus, and automatic aperture adjustments.
I knew I gained a wonderful new appreciation for the sense of sight back in 2001 when I had my lasic surgery. The way it worked out, I had the “slice and burn” one week after a good friend of mine in Kansas. And I’ll never forget how incredible that was and still is. I remember saying, “Hey Earl, let’s go drive around and look at stuff!”
The sense of vision is an amazing thing! And if that magician is good, he will attempt to will “fool” our eyes. And when he does, his ultimate goal is to make our brains “believe” things. And we love that kind of thing, don’t we? We love the trick house that’s built crooked so it looks like the water pours on an angle or that place on the road – and there are a number of them in the country – where it appears that your car rolls uphill. We love that interplay between the eyes and the mind, don’t we?
However, as I said I want to talk about belief today. Because that was so important to John in writing this Gospel, and it is so important to us. And I want to remind you of something I said very quickly last week. If you remember, I said this. True belief takes place in our hearts. Thomas is a great example of that. I think of old Thomas as a positive character! Not all this “skeptic” nonsense! When he finally saw what he said he needed to see in order to believe, he didn’t just say, “Oh. Ok, Jesus, now I believe. You convinced me.” No! He cried out, “My Lord and my God.” He fell to his knees. Well, the Bible doesn’t say he fell to his knees. But it doesn’t have to. Because this is real “fall to your knees” kind of stuff! Isn’t it? This is heart stuff!
Paul would agree wholeheartedly with John. Listen to what Paul told the Romans. He said, “…If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And just in case we didn’t get that, he goes on, “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)
Sometimes we don’t remember that, do we. Sometimes, when it comes to sharing the Good News, we feel like we only have to “convince.” We concentrate on giving evidence. We feel like we have to back up the story with fact. And don’t get me wrong. That’s all wonderful! And thank God that archaeology is backing up the Bible more and more all the time. But that’s not the only thing. It’s not even the main thing. Because even though convincing the mind may be what leads to belief, that’s not where true belief takes place. Again, true belief takes place in the heart! That’s where we have go!
Later, Paul told Timothy, his young “padawan” learner, “Preach the word. Be urgent in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, and exhort.” (II Timothy 4:2) Paul knew that, while convincing and rebuking was good, it was about training and correcting the mind. Exhorting meant reaching the people’s hearts. It’s great that Paul said it that way. He knew! He understood! In the end, this stoic, grizzly old Pharisee, was a real “heart guy!”
Sometimes I think we Presbyterians aren’t so good at the “heart stuff.” We’ve always been very proud of our learning and our “academics” – and rightfully so. Learning and study has been an emphasis for us for a long time! We used to joke about it in Seminary. We’d say “A Presbyterian is a Methodist that wend to college.” Learning and study are wonderful things. But sometimes that translates into “we don’t do the heart stuff very well.” Too often, when we Presbyterians can’t explain something or understand it fully, then we don’t emphasize it very much. There’s even a trend in our denomination that people are even a little “suspect” of things that they see as being “too spiritual.” or “too much ‘emotion driven.’”
I have to tell you that I’ve been seeing that more and more over the years. And interestingly enough, it’s all been taking place in the context of a “Post Modern” world. And among other things, the Post Modern world is a world that wants more spirituality. It’s a world that wants more “belief.” It’s a world that wants us to reach their heart!
That’s one problem with denominations. Many of them – including ours – haven’t come to grips with a world like that. They haven’t come to grips with a world that is seeking the experience of God. The world doesn’t want just to be convinced and rebuked. The world wants to be exhorted. It’s not just “tell me about God.” The world is crying “show me God!” The Church has a wonderful opportunity in this new millennium to reach the hearts of people. But it has to get past the convincing and rebuking. We’re very good at that! But we need to get on to the exhortation! And the denominations aren’t getting that yet. I hope we do!
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. (And again and again!) We may feel good about our faith, in a congregation where we are convinced in our minds that Jesus is who he said he is. We may feel we are challenged and perhaps even “enlightened.” But, nothing can stop a congregation of people whose hearts are on fire for the message of the Gospel!
Thats what happened to Thomas here. That’s what happened to all of them. And again, this story wasn’t so much about convincing the mind! This was about reaching their hearts. The place where true belief takes place!
So ask yourself, do you believe? Do you believe in your heart?
Eternal God, touch our hearts and make them burn within us with your spirit and your love and your joy. Help us to reach out to a world that is hurting, a world that is aching to know you. Help us to be ready at all times to give answer to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that lies within us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.