Tag Archives: Thomas

What Does It Take For Us To Believe?

'This is impossible' said Alice

‘This is impossible’ said Alice

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19 – end

On the second Sunday of Easter we find out that not everyone was yet ready to believe the incredible Easter news that Jesus was alive. Some people still had their doubts, including the apostle Thomas. We also hear how another apostle, John, was persuading a group of Christians that what he had witnessed first hand was the truth. Put that alongside the growing number of believers who were learning a new way of living as a community and suddenly the question of what it would take to enable us to believe is one that we might ask; which is exactly what I did in my sermon this morning

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

If you don’t mind I’d like to start by conducting a straw poll with a show of hands. There are two main choices, but possibly an infinite number of circumstances and experiences that could fall into either of those categories.

I want you to think about your journey to faith, from when you first took an interest in Christianity to a point when you knew you believed. I wonder whether this was a sudden and datable experience or whether it was more of a gradual process, where you can perhaps remember a time when you didn’t believe and now you do but you don’t know exactly when that happened. Perhaps you’ve always believed or maybe you’re still on that journey.

None of these choices are better than the other, but it would be interesting to know, if you’re willing to share. Put your hands up [Reader, you too can join in, although remember that statistically the result will be 100% for whichever choice you raise your hand to] if your belief followed a sudden, ‘Damascus road’ type experience…… and now if your belief has been more gradual…… We’re actually quite representative of the average, which is about three-quarters describing it as gradual and a quarter as sudden.

I’d actually quite like to stop and hear from some of you about your journeys but I suppose I better carry on… because the really interesting bit might not be when it happened for those already there, but what it takes for us to believe.

The Incredulity of St Thomas blog

The Incredulity of St Thomas, Benjamin West (1738 -1820)

For Thomas it was the sheer physical proof of placing his hands on a man with whom he had spent the best part of the last three years and who he knew had been crucified, had died and had been shut up in a rock tomb and was now according to his friends and fellow disciples very much alive again; a man who was speaking to him and asking him not to doubt but to believe. This apparently indisputable proof led Thomas to publicly declare that Jesus was indeed ‘My Lord and my God’.

Where then does it leave those of us who will probably never have the opportunity to physically encounter Christ, at least not in the same way that those first disciples did? We are told that we are blessed more if we come to believe without seeing. Do we, therefore, come to belief because there are first-hand witness statements available to this event?

The First Letter of John

The First Letter of John

We don’t know for sure who the author of the first letter of John was, but from the very earliest of times it was believed to have been written by John, the fisherman and apostle of Jesus and bears striking similarities to the Gospel of John. Here is someone writing to one of the first group of Christians, who are somewhat unsure as their faith is being tested by spurious claims about whom Jesus really was; that he wasn’t actually human and didn’t really suffer on the cross; that he only ‘seemed’ human.

John writes to reassure these believers, that as a first-hand witness of Jesus’ ministry he and his friends saw and heard and touched Jesus when they became his disciples and shared his life. In this way their testimony is very convincing – they believed that Jesus was none other than the ‘Word’ of God – the source and meaning and purpose of life.

Even so, an eyewitness account is not quite the same as having concrete facts and figures, to inform our belief. Now before you get too excited I am not going to pull the ‘white rabbit’ of incontrovertible evidence out of my theological training ‘top hat’ but in amongst the minutia of historical data plenty of scholars and historian have investigated what might be myth and what could be reality.

WDITFUTB_Lament over the Dead Christ blog

Lament over the Dead Christ, Giovanni Bellini (c1432 – 1516)

We know that without a resurrection Christianity is counterfeit. As the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless’ 1 Corinthians 15:17. Accordingly, since a resurrection requires death, Jesus’ death by crucifixion has to be regarded as true. This ‘fact’ is attested to by a number of ancient sources, including the non-Christian historians, Josephus and Tacitus, who were therefore not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events.

We know that the chances of surviving crucifixion were very bleak and no evidence exists that Jesus was removed whilst still alive. The unanimous professional medical opinion is that Jesus certainly died due to the rigours of crucifixion, and even if he had somehow managed to survive, it would not have resulted in the disciples’ belief that he had been resurrected.

Il Precusore,

Il Precusore, Giulio Aristide Sartorio (1860 – 1932)

What about the empty tomb? Well its location was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. So if it hadn’t been empty, why would the chief priest have devised a plan to give a large sum of hush money to the guards, telling them to say that ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’ Matthew 28:12-13. It would also have been pretty impossible for the large group of believers to have suddenly sprung up in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed just a few weeks before and for those same believers to have been willing to die brutal martyr’s deaths if they knew this was all a lie.

Were people hallucinating when they encountered the risen Christ? Well, usually hallucinations are something that happens in an individual’s brain and not repeatedly on separate occasions and certainly not to groups of up to 500 people! 1 Corinthians 15:6 Even if they were visions, brought on by the apostle’s grief over the death of their leader, surely the body would have still been in the tomb.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal’s Wager

Convincing facts and figures? Well maybe. Or perhaps Pascal’s Wager might be the reason why people believe. Pascal was a seventeenth-century philosopher who theorised that humans live their lives by wagering that believing in God is a good bet because if when they die he does exist then they have gained the best of everything, on the other hand if they don’t believe and then find out he does exist then they made the worst choice and will have lost everything. However if they were to discover after death that God never existed then it didn’t matter what you believed.

So by believing, you are in a win-win situation. This sort of hedging my bets is just one accusation made against Christians who assume that because they believe in the right God, they are automatically good and have a one-way ticket to everlasting life. However, it also assumes that God would always reward blind faith above living a conscious Christ-centred life and all of the obligations that that might bring.

WDITFUTB_Belief is truth blogPerhaps belief and faith are different then… that belief is something that our logical, human minds hold to be true whilst faith is something that is felt deep within our hearts. Or could it be that faith is based on belief and that is why faith alone is not possible because belief always brings about actions and reactions?

Some people might even say that faith is truth held in the mind and that belief is a fire in the heart. Perhaps we just can’t separate the mind and heart, because as we heard ‘The community of believers were of one heart and one mind’ Acts 4:32

I hope you’ve been aware that I’ve been careful to never actually define what it is exactly that we understand and count as belief. Some might say that’s a cop-out; that the church is forever allowing so much laissez-faire around declaring what it believes and stands for that it nullifies any claims it might have to the truth. Well, I’m sure that for the majority of us it will include the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected in order that we might ‘have life in his name’, but that for each of us that might mean something slightly different depending where we are on our journey of faith.

As we walk together in fellowship with each other and with God, let’s make sure that we’re not only helping each other to increase in faith, but that we are sharing our beliefs with others so that God’s joy may be complete. After all didn’t Jesus say ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. So let’s go and open a few more eyes to the truth of what we believe.

Amen

John 20:29

John 20:29

Changing Doubts Into Hope

Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit

Baptised with water and the Holy Spirit

It’s not often that you start a talk in church with a piece of music. However last Sunday, the second of Easter (yes we are still celebrating Easter long after the chocolate eggs have been eaten and the hot-cross buns finally toasted) I decided to see if the congregation were up for a bit of ‘Name that Tune’ The piece in question was the theme tune from Star Wars, Episode 4, ‘A New Hope’

We were celebrating a Eucharist, made all the more special because it was to include a baptism. Our readings included the story of Thomas meeting the resurrected Jesus and it was, looking to the future we are being offered, that we hopefully were to discover that morning

First though I want to ask you a question… Is it just me?? Or do we all have moments of doubts? Doubts about whether we are capable of doing something – if we have the ability or the strength? Doubts about whether we can trust others to carry out the things they have promised to do. Doubts about what the right thing to do is? Doubts about what our purpose in life is? Doubts about where God is in our lives? Is it just me??

Everyone doubted that Noah could build an ark – and yet he went on to achieve this incredible feat of engineering; Sarah doubted that she would ever have children and even laughed in God’s face and yet she went on to be the co-founder of a great nation Moses doubted that he had the articulate skills to face up to Pharaoh, yet with the help of his brother Aaron he went on to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Elijah doubted that God was with him when he fled in fear for his life to Mount Horeb and yet it was there that he encountered him in that ‘still, small, voice’ guiding him as to what to do; Peter doubted when he walked on the water and yet there he was at Pentecost speaking out boldly and clearly, and of course the eponymous Thomas

So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ John 20:25

So it certainly seems that God has no problem with us having doubts from time to time, after all we’re only human and we’re very often not in a position to see the bigger picture or what the future holds for each of us. What is it that we need to turn those doubts into belief I wonder? What proof will be good enough? For Thomas it was physical proof that the man he had been following and believed in had truly risen from the dead and was very much alive and standing in front of him. Maybe the only proof we’ll accept is when something we’ve doubted would happen has actually happened then we’ll believe it, or maybe if something didn’t happen when we feared it might. Good concrete evidence is often what we seek to allay our doubts and fears

Doubt often comes about because of a fear of failure; fear that we will let people down; fear that what we desire won’t come about. And maybe it won’t – not in the way we think or hope it will… and that I think is the key. The need to change our outlook from negative to positive, changing our doubts into hopes, putting our faith in God not in ourselves. All the while we hold on to our doubts then we are stopping ourselves from believing that things are possible.

Psalm 16 is sometimes translated with the subtitle ‘the hope of the faithful, a prayer of trust and security in God’ and it’s a beautiful lament from David which contains the following lines,

I praise you, Lord, for being my guide. Even in the darkest night, your teachings fill my mind. I will always look to you, as you stand beside me and protect me from fear. With all my heart, I will celebrate, and I can safely rest. I am your chosen one. You won’t leave me in the grave or let my body decay. You have shown me the path to life, and you make me glad by being near to me.’

Appropriate words as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but also appropriate for our own lives, as Peter in his first letter tells us, ‘By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ – a living, breathing hope that has been placed in all of us.

Font blog

The waters of baptism in the font at St John the Evangelist, Hedge End

And this morning we witnessed that hope being placed into a young child, Noah; whose baptism symbolised a new birth, not of water but of the Spirit. A hope that will be new and vibrant, a hope that will be reflected in the love and example that he receives from his parents, grandparents and godparents; a hope that Noah will need to have reaffirmed from time to time not only by his family, but by the whole family of Christ.

Because it’s all our responsibility to look to the hope that has already been placed in our own lives and to remain steadfast in trusting that God knows what he’s doing and all will be well.

Regrettably, as we’ve already seen, there may still be creeping moments of doubt. Again as Peter puts it, ‘even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.’ And let’s be honest, all of us have and may be having to face various trials, some more than others, some harder to bear than others. Maybe our faith has been tested to the limits, but, if through it all, we don’t lose hope and believe that we will be given the strength to endure it, then just like metal that when it is tempered by fire is made stronger, so our faith will emerge with genuine hope for whatever the future may bring; and just like Thomas we will be able to declare, ‘My Lord and my King

Jesus tells his disciples, standing there right next to him, that they are blessed because they have seen for themselves with their own eyes and have no reason to doubt only to believe. How foolish we must seem to others to believe in something we’ve never seen, yet we have all come to or are coming to faith in so many different ways. What is it that convinces us that we should believe? Is it a personal encounter with Jesus; is it the love shown to us by those around us; is it an example of a friend, or was it that we just couldn’t believe that our lives are nothing more that this brief span of time. Whatever it was that started you on your journey of faith, be hopeful and hold on to it and remember how blessed you are.

The promises we make to the newly baptised, to support them in prayer, example and teaching we should also make to each other. We should push all of our doubts to one side as we are welcomed into the fellowship of faith and remember instead the one hope to which we are all called

Let’s celebrate that hope, and as always, may Christ’s peace rest in you…Amen

Expect the unexpected in our font!

Always expect the unexpected in our font!

Seeds of New Life

Seeds and Bread

Seeds and Bread

Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, 
it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit’
John 12:24

 On Monday in Holy Week our church holds an informal communion and this year we were reminded of the seeds of hope and the bread of life through the beautiful liturgy of Dorothy McRae-McMahon from her book Liturgies for the Journey of Life published by SPCK

This simple and reflective service allowed us space to offer our prayers where we believed we saw the signs of the seeds of new life, however small, by placing the single seeds we had been given at the beginning of the service onto Christ’s table, where seeds are turned into bread, as we named the sign we saw and the hope we have

Also to quietly listen to Psalm 42:1-9 and to hear the Gospel through a meditative reading I had prepared based on John 12:1-11.

 Seeds of New Life

It seems incredible that we’re all here together again. It fact it is far beyond incredible and yet I must somehow believe it. Look at them all – relaxing and enjoying the meal that Martha has prepared for us. My wonderful, hardworking sister Martha – not at all as bossy as she appears but kind-hearted and generous, and so very grateful to the man who is our guest of honour this evening.

An honoured guest indeed, and yet he has become one of the family, certainly no airs and graces, just a gentle and humble presence. As I catch his eye, he smiles at me, a look of genuine love – and yet just a few weeks ago it could have been so very different.

Silence

Then I was aware that my illness had taken such a grip on me that my family was beyond hope, and yet they still had faith that he would come. They had tried to hide their tears from me, but I still heard them sobbing as the night passed and I felt myself slipping away to death and to nothingness. ..

… That was until I heard his voice, telling me to come out; but out from where? Everything seemed muffled until I realised that my whole body had been wrapped in cloths for my grave, yet the insistence in his voice gave me a sense of urgency and so I stumbled into the bright light before falling at his feet.

As I said, beyond belief… and yet I do believe.

Silence

Many of his travelling companions are with him tonight. They’ve stopped here in Bethany on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. I can hear Peter, with his loud, gruff voice cheerfully retelling stories of what they’ve been up to since we last met, and Thomas – careful, thoughtful Thomas – listening intently, and occasionally interjecting to correct some small inaccuracy of what Peter is saying, which Peter takes in good humour.

On the other side of the room, I can see Judas, looking as if he’s brooding about something. I often wonder what it was that Jesus saw in him when he called him to be one of the disciples. They say he’s good at making the small amount of money they have stretch just that little bit further, although they often seem short of cash. Still God provides for them somehow.

Silence

And at least we’ve been able to provide some warm food and plenty to drink; and Martha hasn’t had to scold Mary too much to get her to help get things ready. I can see Mary now, sitting right in amongst those nearest to him. She been so excited since she knew he was coming, full of smiles as if keeping a secret but trying not to let it burst out.

Suddenly it’s as if the room has been transported to the middle of Solomon’s garden of delights; the air heavy with a strong fragrance, familiar and yet unfamiliar. Of course… it’s nard, that purest of perfumes and also one of the most expensive. That must have been what Mary was hiding and it must have cost her a great deal, at least 300 denarii – a most precious gift indeed.

Silence

A gift that she has broken open and is now using to anoint his feet; an act of pure devotion, yet one which I can see is making her sorrowful as tears roll down her cheeks and fall on his feet, and which she wipes away with her beautiful long hair, her own glory.

The smell has obviously reached Judas’ nostrils as well, and he seems incensed, querulously asking why so much money has been wasted; that she would have been better of giving it to help the poor or maybe he wanted it in the common purse for another purpose. My dear friend was having none of it, rebuking Judas and pointing out that regrettably there would always be poor people among us, and what she has done was simply what she would do on the day of this burial. Instead we should be more worried that we might not always have him.

Silence

I wonder what he means. Perhaps he’ll soon be moving on again. Things have undoubtedly become a little more difficult. Ever since he miraculously restored me to life I have noticed that people are very confused, several of them shy away, ducking into doorways and crossing over when I walk along the streets. Still more though want to see for themselves and vast crowds of people are starting to visit our village. They too are discovering how incredible the things that he does are. It’s certainly rattling the chief priests; they don’t like to see their authority threatened.

Perhaps it’s best then that he goes away, and Mary can save the rest of the perfume till much later… Cheer up Judas, your teacher knows what he’s doing.