Sermon for April 28th, 2019
It is one thing to have sincere doubts and questions about one’s faith; it is quite another to take pride in disbelief.
On the one hand you have someone that is genuinely unsure, looking for answers and open to truth; on the other hand, you have someone that is closed off, unwilling to question themselves because they are convinced that they already have the truth.
Thomas crosses that line in today’s gospel.
All of Thomas’s friends have testified to him that they have seen the risen Lord. They have seen the resurrected Jesus. They had an experience that Thomas didn’t have and they share with him the good news. And Thomas’s response is revealing. He doesn’t say “could it be?” he doesn’t say “maybe” or “how is this possible?” He doesn’t for a moment question himself or his understanding of the world or reality. Instead his response is “I will not believe.” Unless I actually see his wounds, unless I actually touch his body, I will not believe. His closest friends have just testified to something they know to be true, and Thomas cannot for a second question himself. He can’t let himself be wrong, not even for a moment. We often refer to Thomas as “doubting Thomas” but the truth is Thomas has a tremendous amount of faith…in himself. Thomas only doubts others…he doesn’t doubt himself. He doesn’t believe and that is a matter of pride for him. He doesn’t want to believe, because if he did believe this unbelievable tale he might start doubting himself. He might have to doubt his ability to understand the universe and his role in it. He might have to doubt his social standing or his intellect. He might have to doubt his understanding of life and death. He might have to doubt some of the limits he has placed on God’s power. Thomas doubts others because he can’t bear the thought of doubting himself.
Thomas is forced to question himself though. He has an experience of the risen Lord that shakes him to his core. Jesus stands before him, in the flesh, wounds and all, and Thomas is invited to touch him. And all Thomas can muster to say is “my Lord and my God.” Thomas’s whole world, a world that had been propped up by his own phony self-confidence, just came crashing down. And while I am sure that there was tremendous joy in Thomas at seeing his resurrected friend, I am also sure that that joy was mixed with fear and trembling and angst, because Thomas’s whole world has just been turned on its head.
“Do not doubt but believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. Or maybe to put it another way: “be willing to doubt yourself, in order to believe in something greater.”
You Thomas, have come to believe because you have been given no choice, but blessed are those that choose to believe.
Choosing to believe the gospel can come at a great price though; a price that even many who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus are still unprepared to pay. Choosing to believe the gospel can mean sacrifice. It can mean sacrificing the idea that we fully understand the world around us. It can mean sacrificing our confidence in our own intellect. It can mean admitting that we are not quite as smart and evolved as we like to think we are. It can mean admitting that we are not better than other people, like we secretly like to tell ourselves that we are. We do that too, we pride ourselves on not being like those people, those ancient people, those superstitious people, those tacky people, those poor people, those people without multiple letters after their names. Admitting that the gospel might be true, means choosing to let go of a lot of myself, and that is a price that even some people who truly love some of the things that Jesus had to say, struggle to pay. They, like Thomas, are more comfortable with Jesus as a dead teacher than as a living Lord and God. This is not new.
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?
If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”
That is what Paul had to say in his first letter to the Corinthians. Now, that’s not one of our readings this morning, so you won’t find it printed in your bulletin. But it is a word I think we need to hear this morning.
You know, the Apostle Paul was one of the first people to put pen to paper and write about this man named Jesus. And Paul didn’t have a nice leather-bound bible with the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in it. The gospels, the books of the bible that tell the narrative story of Jesus’s life and teachings, they weren’t written yet, or they were just starting to be written, but Paul didn’t have copies on his desk. And the church in Corinth, they didn’t have copies of the gospels yet either. What they had was the tradition that Paul proclaimed to them. The good news that they knew, was the good news that had been handed on to them by Paul, which was the good news that he received from the other apostles. And the essence of the good news, the gospel, the most important thing that Paul wants to share with them, is that last sentence I just quoted a moment ago:
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”
You can accuse Paul of many things, but you cannot accuse him of doubting the resurrection. But that was not always the case. Paul, like Thomas, began as someone brimming with self-confidence that doubted everyone but himself. Paul also had an encounter with the risen Lord, that shook him up, knocked him off his donkey and made him realize how bind he had been all along. Paul needed to be shaken up, he needed to doubt himself in order to truly understand and appreciate who this man Jesus really was. And Paul’s letters, the first written documents we have about Jesus, they are all about how Jesus rose from the dead and subsequently what that means for how we should live in the world. That is the message that Paul wants to convey: Jesus Christ is alive and now what are you going to do about it. Paul does not spend a lot of time talking about everything Jesus said or did during his life. Paul doesn’t record Jesus’s teachings. Paul begins with the most astounding, unbelievable, reality shattering and doubt provoking proclamation about Jesus Christ. Paul doesn’t let you wade into the water with something non-controversial and benign like “do unto others” he throws you right into the deep end with “Christ is risen.” Think about that for a second. If you had ten seconds to tell someone the most important thing about Jesus Christ, what would you tell them? Paul can do it in less than ten words…Christ has been raised from the dead.
Before we talked about the Golden Rule, before we had the words of the Sermon on the Mount, before we had “love your neighbor”, or “forgive your enemies,” before we have any words he spoke, before we have any records of miracles or healings, before we are allowed to form an opinion of this man…we are told that he was raised from the dead. The hardest thing to believe is the first thing we are told. Why does Paul do that? Well, maybe it is because Paul knows all too well just how dangerous too much self-confidence can be. We talk about self-confidence nowadays as if it were only a virtue, but it isn’t you know. It is entirely possibly to be completely confident and completely wrong at the same time. Many of history’s worst figures were brimming with self-confidence. When Paul shares the gospel, he begins with the Resurrection. It isn’t some extra bit that is tacked on by a later generation of believers, it is right there from the beginning. Paul begins with the part of the story that turns your world upside down and forces you to doubt yourself and your understanding of the world around you. Paul’s Jesus, the first Jesus we ever hear about, is not just some rebel rabbi put to death by the Romans; he is a resurrected Lord that forces us to choose between putting our ultimate faith in ourselves and our own understanding of the world, our putting our faith in a God that is more powerful and more mysterious than we could ever imagine. Choosing to believe in that kind of a God, and choosing to doubt ourselves, is a powerful choice; it is a difficult choice, but it is the most important choice we can ever make. Blessed are those who choose to believe.
We are in the midst of our Easter season, the time of the year when we very boldly proclaim Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Now the truth is we are always proclaiming Christ’s resurrection from the dead, but in Easter we do it in a big way. And just about every year the media finds someone they can trot out, usually some clergy person, to question if Jesus actually did rise from the dead and if that is really important. This year, was of course no different.
There was an opinion piece in the New York Times this past week, which was so unoriginal that I don’t suggest you waste your time reading it. Basically, the head of a prominent seminary in New York, and a Christian Minister of some variety, was interviewed and proclaimed that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ was really not that important to her faith. I think it’s sad, but it’s not news. Since that first Easter Sunday there have always been some people that have taken some measure of pride in disbelief, even among the followers of Jesus. There have always been, and probably will always be, people that value every type of doubt but self-doubt. I’m sure that Jesus loves them as much as he loved Thomas or Paul. I must admit though that I don’t get it. If I didn’t believe in all of this I would go and find something else to do. I could be a person of faith, but it wouldn’t be the Christian faith. Sure, Jesus was an excellent teacher, and a brilliant and compassionate man, but that is not why his teachings were recorded and that is not why we are called by his name. John our gospel writer this morning, like Paul, makes it very clear why he is telling the world about Jesus and why he is sharing his words: “these [words] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Blessed are those who choose to believe.