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Sermon: Doubting Thomas, Growing Faith

John 20:19-31
Doubting Thomas: if ever anyone got a bad press from a pithy nickname, it’s Thomas. Today I want to join his rehabilitation campaign, and suggest to you that we might see some positive approaches to faith in the story of him coming to believe in the Risen Christ.

Firstly, we need to remember his context. There are a couple of previous references to him in John’s Gospel. In chapter 11, he shows himself to be a disciple who is doggedly committed to following Jesus. He encourages all of them to go along with Jesus to Jerusalem, if necessary to die with him. This is not a coward or an unbeliever: this is a courageous disciple. Let’s remember that when he is cheaply vilified.

Not only that, he was a disciple with honest question, as we see in chapter 14. Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for his friends, and Thomas honestly says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Lord, if you don’t give me the destination, how can I sort out a route? I need the address, Lord! I think you have to applaud a man like Thomas who has the honesty and integrity to ask Jesus the question that perhaps was in other disciples’ minds, but which they didn’t have the courage to voice.

And we should be glad he did, because it leads to Jesus’ famous reply, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” Would we have heard those words, but for the honest, questioning faith of Thomas?

As well as these two previous references to Thomas in John’s Gospel, one other piece of context is to compare him with the other disciples. It’s all very well that the others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” (verse 25), but it isn’t that long since they too doubted. When the women returned from the tomb, the male disciples didn’t initially cover themselves in glory. Why believe a woman? But they had had a personal encounter with the Risen Christ, just as Mary had in the garden, and just as Thomas is about to have.

So setting everyone else’s faith against Thomas’ doubts is unfair. He simply hasn’t had the experience of meeting his risen Lord yet that they have had. Perhaps today we can appreciate a dogged, honest disciple. It isn’t enough to say to some people, ‘Be quiet and just believe’. God is big enough to cope with our questions. We have a Bible filled with books like Job, and with plenty of Psalms where ancient Israel sang her painful questions in worship. If Thomas is an example to us, it is about church being a safe place for people with their questions, not one where they are shouted down.
In suggesting this, I’m not advocating unbelief, because unbelief is very different from doubt. Unbelief is a refusal to believe at all, but Jesus says Thomas was ‘doubting’ (verse 27). Os Guinness has a helpful definition of doubt: he calls it ‘faith in two minds’. Doubt isn’t the absence of faith that unbelief is, it’s faith in two minds.

There’s one other context to Thomas that I haven’t mentioned, and it’s not in the Bible. There is a strong early tradition that Thomas is the apostle who took the Gospel as far as India. There is even a Christian denomination in India called the Mar Thoma Church, which claims to trace its founding to him. If that is the case, then is it not a good thing to give someone the space to wrestle with their questions? If like Thomas they come through to a deeper faith, who knows what they might achieve in the name of the Risen Christ?

Secondly, then, I invite us to remember his questions.

“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.” (Verse 25)

What is Thomas’ problem, apart from the fact that – unlike the others – he hasn’t yet met the Risen Christ? As I said, he isn’t an unbeliever. He is far from being a sceptic. In fact, you could say that he was deeply biblical. Like most pious working class Jews (but unlike the wealthy Sadducees) he believed the ancient prophecies that one day, at the Last Judgement, God would raise all people from the dead – some to the reward of eternal life, and some to judgement. He would likely quote Daniel chapter 12 in support of this view.

What they didn’t expect was that God would interrupt the middle of history with a resurrection. You get a flavour of that in John 11, where Jesus turns up at the tomb of Lazarus, four days after the death, and speaks with Mary and Martha. They say they are waiting for the great resurrection at the end of time.

However, Thomas’ willingness to state his question baldly sets the stage for another appearance by Jesus, this time for his benefit. John sees this next appearance, a week later, as a follow-up by Jesus. Again it is in the midst of locked doors because the disciples who are so full of enthusiasm about the Resurrection are still nevertheless afraid, so this isn’t just for Thomas. This is to bless them all.
But in Thomas’ case, his devout biblical faith is now stretched and expanded by meeting the risen Christ. And often, that is what God wants to do through an experience of doubt. It’s not there to destroy our faith, but to expand it. In a profound talk he gave last year on the place of doubt in Christian faith, an American Old Testament scholar called Peter Enns said this:

When you go out into the world and say “it’s not working,” maybe that is a signal. It’s not God who no longer works, it’s your idea of God that needs work. Maybe you are for the first time being called, as C. S. Lewis put it so well in the Narnia books, to go “further up and further in.” That’s where doubt plays a powerful role.

But where does Thomas have his doubts expanded into greater faith? It’s in a context of fellowship. He is with the other disciples this time, and I think that makes a difference. Classically, one of the ways Christians have defended the truth of the resurrection against charges that the disciples experienced hallucinations is to point out that hallucinations are rarely group experiences. They are more commonly solitary in their nature. So by Thomas having his experience of the Risen Christ in the presence of the other disciples there is an assurance here that this is real and true, not a fantasy.

And in doing so, I believe it points up the importance of fellowship when we have our doubts. What do we do when we face a crisis? Some of us, like me, restore our energy from within ourselves. Others gain energy from being with others. However, much as I renew my energy from within and generally alone, if I spend too much time just on my own at a time of doubt, it can all become morbid and increasingly negative. It becomes a downward spiral.  I have seen people facing a crisis of faith take a major step away from church and fellowship for a period of time, and all that really happens is that the negative thoughts are reinforced.

Now, granted, the other disciples may not be the most helpful to Thomas in his doubt, but the fact that they had met the risen Jesus and that he appears to them in that context, is a sign, I believe, that it is worth persevering with Christian fellowship when we have our doubts. Our faith is not solitary. It involves being part of God’s people. Even if at times all our brother and sister Christians give us is a set of trite answers to our questions, nevertheless that is a major arena where we experience Christ.

So I would counsel people facing doubts to stay within the fellowship of the church, to find it a safe place to ask the hard questions, and to be encouraged that in that very place God may well expand and deepen your faith as a result.

Thirdly, I invite you to remember his confession. The other disciples had to see Jesus alive before believing in the resurrection. Thomas wanted that, and more: to touch the wounds. And Jesus offers Thomas what he says he wants. I think he just wants to know for sure, and he expresses it in this black and white manner.

But when the risen Lord stands in front of him, I’m not sure Thomas takes him up on the invitation to touch his hands and his side. Just meeting Jesus is enough, and he says to him, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28)

‘My Lord and my God.’ That’s the point to which Jesus wants to get Thomas, and us. And yes, this is one of those Bible verses the Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t explain, because Thomas clearly attributes full divine status to Jesus.
But it probably also had huge implications for the first readers of John’s Gospel. If, as most scholars think, John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century AD, then it is quite possible that the emperor ruling the Roman Empire was Domitian. He wasn’t the nicest of chaps. He may well have been responsible for the persecution of Christians that is reflected in the Book of Revelation. And what did he require of his subjects? That they worship him as ‘Lord and God’[1].

The confession of the risen Lord at which Thomas arrives through his doubts is not just intellectual. It is one that has practical consequences for daily living and, indeed, dying. Later followers of Jesus who read these words will be those who have sufficiently come through their doubts that they are prepared to make a confession that puts them in opposition to the prevailing values of the society in which they live.

And perhaps this is a major reason why Jesus wants to meet us with our doubts and expand our faith – to make us strong in faith to stand against some of the major forces at work in our world today.
Last week we sang Stuart Townend’s Resurrection Hymn, ‘See what a morning’. It contains the lines,

One with the Father, Ancient of Days
Through the Spirit
Who clothes faith with certainty

Do we have certainty – a certainty with which to face the world? We have a certainty that Christ is risen. We have an assurance of God’s love. To quote U2 for a second consecutive week,

It’s not if I believe in love
But if love believes in me
(from Moment Of Surrender)

Whatever our doubts may be, the Resurrection means that love believes in us. And in the light of that, our confession of faith in our risen Lord and God can be a rock to stand firm in the face of a world that is devoted to values vastly different from his.
Perhaps one of the most notable Christians for steadfastly not bowing down to the values of the world in the last century was Mother Teresa. Her care for the poor and those generally thought not worth bothering with and her freedom from wealth and acquisition made her admired by many, as we well know. After her death in 1997, reports emerged about the severe doubts she expressed in her personal journal. In the lecture on doubt by Peter Enns that I mentioned earlier, he quotes this story about her:

There is a wonderful story of Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh. In 1975 he went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer about how best to spend the remaining years of his life. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. And he answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

Jesus brings us to a confession that may or may not have clarity. But at its heart is trust. That, it seems, took Thomas to India, and the effects of his faith are still felt today.

What if we had trust – deep trust – in our risen Lord? Would he take us ‘further up and further in’? Where might the effects of our faith be felt?

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Sermon: Cleopas On The Emmaus Road (People At The Cross And The Tomb)

Luke 24:13-35
This morning we have heard a Bible passage for a wedding service – the Emmaus Road.

What – not 1 Corinthians 13? No. The Anglican Rector friend of mine who preached at our wedding nearly ten years ago chose the Emmaus Road story as his text. He relied on an old tradition that Cleopas and his companion on the journey were a married couple, and proceeded to make five points about marriage from the account. I can’t tell you what those five points were, though, because we never did receive the recording of the service that we were promised.

But today we come to this famous Easter story with a more conventional agenda. What does the experience of Cleopas and his companion of the Risen Christ tell us about true faith? Here are three aspects I have noticed:

Firstly, their experience tells us about the importance of revelation. Faith in Christ is not simply about our free will decision: it requires a revelation from God to understand the truth.

If you come into my study, you will find not only my books but my CD collection. Much as I would like it to be in the main family living space, if I put the shelves of CDs in the lounge, there would probably be no room for the three-piece suite.
Among my large assortment of music you will find plenty by U2, led, of course, by Saint Bono. Their most recent album, No Line On The Horizon (not one of their best – known to some as No Tunes On The Album), there is a song called I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.

It contains this line, which is pertinent to the Emmaus Road story:

How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?

That seems to be the predicament Cleopas is in. He and his companion don’t just stand next to the truth, they walk next to the truth and just don’t see it. They are trapped in their old way of thinking that Jesus was supposed to have redeemed Israel (which I take to mean they thought he would overthrow the Romans) and that all those hopes were dashed in the conspiracy to have him executed (verses 19-21).

Now you know and I know that they were wrong. We know with hindsight and with faith that the reality was different. But what changed it for them? It comes with the response of Jesus:

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Verses 25-27)

They needed a word from the Lord. They needed revelation. An encounter with the Risen Christ brings that.

And we need revelation, too. Whatever our human skills and talents, whatever decisions we are capable of making, the life of faith does not start with us. It begins with God revealing himself to us. In our context, with Christ ascended to the Father’s right hand, that means the work of the Holy Spirit.
What implications are there here for us? It reminds us that for anyone to find faith in Christ, there must be revelation from God. Christian witness cannot be reduced just to us saying the right words or doing the right things so that people will come to faith. Think of John Wesley having his ‘heart strangely warmed’. Or hear this testimony from the former pop star Yazz, famous for The Only Way Is Up:

Her life and career had fallen apart after her two or three big hit singles. What was going to heal her life? She says this:

At that point, I’d tried everything to fill this ache inside except Christianity. One evening I asked Mum for a Bible. I didn’t understand what I read, but as I laid the book down next to me I was filled with something that felt like warm peace flowing through me.[1]

So in our witness we rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ and God’s love to people.

But it isn’t purely about the call to conversion. It’s about every aspect of the Christian life. Always we need the revelation of God. However much I study a Bible passage, I need the Holy Spirit. We all do.


Secondly
, Cleopas and his companion discover the importance of a Christ-centred interpretation of Scripture. If there is one thing that non-Christians perceive about Christianity and the Bible, it’s the thought that you can make it mean whatever you want, by picking the bits that suit you. So, for example, the broadcaster Jon Snow, who is the son of an Anglican clergyman, when asked in an interview, ‘Is there anything in the Bible that has particularly resonated with all you have been witness to?’, replied:

‘Yeah, I think treating your neighbour as you would have them treat you is a pretty good idea. I think that turning the other cheek is a pretty good idea. I think there’s a fair amount on conflict resolution in the Bible. But the problem with the Bible, as is well illustrated in Middle America, is that it’s very open to a pick’n’mix approach.’[2]

I’m not about to suggest that I can solve all those problems in one fell swoop, nor resolve all the differences between Christians of various persuasions both presently and throughout history, but the experience of Cleopas does show us one vital, central approach to interpreting the Bible: it all centres on Jesus. It all revolves around Jesus. He is the centre of the Bible, he is the aim of the Bible, he is the key to interpreting it because he is the ultimate focus of it. Hence Luke says,

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Verse 27)

Is it any wonder, then, that our High Church friends often stand for the reading from the Gospels in a communion service, and in some traditions also parade the Gospel into the middle of the congregation before the reading? They are proclaiming in a liturgical way their belief that Jesus is at the centre of the Scriptures.
What will it mean for us to interpret the Scriptures in the light of Jesus at the centre? It’s rather more than might be popularly imagined. You will remember that only a few years ago one Christian fashion accessory (how did we get ourselves in such a state?) was a bracelet with the initials ‘WWJD’ – What Would Jesus Do? That’s a good question, but even that is not enough for what I am suggesting here.

Rather than just woodenly thinking of an appropriate Bible text from the life of Jesus, we do something bigger: we ask, how does this fit in God’s great plan of things? How does something fit in God’ grand scheme of salvation in history? Most specifically, how does it read in relation to the story of God taking on human flesh, living among us, dying for our sins, being raised to new life, ascending to the Father’s right hand in glory, sending the Holy Spirit and promising to appear again? How does the Scripture we are wrestling with point to this great narrative of divine blessing?

True, there have been some fanciful Christian approaches to this over the centuries, wanting to see the minutiae of salvation in the prescribed details of Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness, and so on. But we are less about the minutiae and more about the big picture. And front and centre of our picture as we read the Bible is Jesus, because he is alive.

Thirdly, Cleopas and his companion discover Jesus in the midst of everyday life. He comes alongside them on the road (verse 15), he accepts their offer of hospitality at their home and he eats a meal with them (verses 29-30).
Here is a text where I have changed my mind about its meaning in recent years. I remember preaching on this as a young Local Preacher and making the point that Jesus’ rôle at the meal table in Emmaus foreshadowed Holy Communion. He took the bread, blessed it, broke it and began to give it to them (verse 30). The taking, blessing, breaking and giving were the same four actions as he performed at the Last Supper. Therefore the Emmaus Road story prepares us not only for remembering Jesus at the Lord’s Table, but for recognising his presence there, too.

It’s a popular interpretation. It’s one we sing, when we use the communion hymn,

Be known to us in breaking bread,
But do not then depart (James Montgomery)

But it’s wrong. We too easily ‘churchify’ our interpretations. Those four actions – taking, blessing, breaking and giving – were the four actions that were performed at any standard Jewish meal two thousand years ago. This is a normal family meal at Emmaus.

What we celebrate here is that the Risen Christ joins us everywhere in life. We meet him as much in everyday life as in church. Indeed, much of his public ministry was not conducted in the synagogues but in homes and outdoors – rather like the meal table and the walk in this story.

I am not saying that gathering together in church and in fellowship is unimportant – this is not a variation on the ‘You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’ nonsense. Many of the ways in which we encourage one another and strengthen each other can only be done by coming together physically.

But I am saying this: we should be open to meeting Jesus in the world, and this has huge implications. It means that our daily working life is important to him. We can do it to his glory, and we can expect to find him there, helping us. I know churches who put a segment into their Sunday services called ‘This Time Tomorrow’, where congregation members talk about what they will be doing not on Sunday morning at 11, but on Monday morning at 11. They then receive prayer – because it’s daft to think that the only people we pray for are ministers, preachers, Sunday School teachers, and doctors and nurses. Jesus is with each one of us in our daily tasks.

It means also that just as Jesus took the initiative to come alongside Cleopas and his companion to explain the Gospel to them and lead them into truth, so he is also coming alongside people to do that today. In other words, it’s a question of how we understand mission. In seeking to take the love of God to people in word and deed, in evangelism and social action, it doesn’t all depend on us. Jesus goes ahead of us and accompanies people. Our job is to join him where he has already been at work in people’s lives before we got there.

So don’t just proclaim – listen to people’s stories. You will find spiritual yearnings, religious questions and even experiences of God in their lives, because Jesus is going ahead on the road to meet them, speak to them and work in their lives in order to draw them to him. He then calls us in as his junior assistants to be the ones who are used by his Spirit to bring people to a point of saving faith in Christ.

In conclusion, then, Cleopas finds the meeting with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus completely transforming. It requires revelation. It leads to seeing the Scriptures in the light of Christ. And it involves expecting to meet Christ everywhere in daily life.

The experience led to a revolution in the life of Cleopas and his companion. May we too meet the Risen Christ and have our lives turned upside-down.


[1] Interviewed in Q Magazine, June 2008; quotation via Tools For Talks (subscription required).

[2] Interviewed in Third Way magazine, Winter 2004; quotation again via Tools For Talks.

Happy New Year

In come the New Year’s Resolutions over the next twenty-four hours. None from me, though. I see them as a form of legalism doomed to failure.

I noticed the nihilism of a non-Christian friend on Facebook this morning, who wished everyone a happy 2011 with the words, ‘Same old sh*t, different number.’

However, as a Christian, I look forward to the Great New Year one day. That makes it worth ‘working for the kingdom of God’, as Tom Wright puts it. Cue U2:

(Link courtesy of the weekly  Mojo email.)

Authenticity And Creativity

Having just quoted in the last post from An Hour On Sunday by Nancy Beach, there is a quote from that book I have been meaning to post for reflection for ages. She includes it in her chapter on authenticity. It would also fit with what she says about creativity.

She tells on page 186 of how a friend had drawn her attention to an article in GQ magazine that was painful reading for Christians. Walter Kim, not a Christian disciple, had chosen to immerse himself in the evangelical subculture for a week – music, videos, even an exercise régime. His words were damning:

‘[Evangelical Christianity] is mall Christianity. It’s been malled. It’s the upshot of some decision that to compete with them – to compete with ‘N Sync and Friends and Stephen King and Matt and Katie and Abercrombie and Fitch and Jackie Chan and AOL and Sesame Street – the faithful should turn from their centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music … and head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off, on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale. What makes the stuff so half-assed, so thin, so weak and cumulatively so demoralizing … has nothing to do with faith. The problem is lack of faith.’

(Walter Kim, “What Would Jesus Do?”, GQ magazine, September 2002, p 496.)

Well, where to begin? Mall Christianity? (Love that ‘It’s been malled’ pun, by the way.) Yes: so much evangelical Christianity is consumerist, and thus in denial of the Gospel. What a tragedy when you think where the contemporary Christian music scene started out from: the revolutionaries of the Jesus Movement around the late 1960s and early 1970s who were committed to a radical lifestyle. Now it only matters if it sells. No wonder the likes of Larry Norman never fitted in with it.

The quote is also the best piece of writing for making me reflect on why the wider world has despised contemporary Christian music. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t get played on grounds of prejudice, and I don’t doubt that is partly true – the deliberate snubbing by the media of bands like Delirious? is a case in point. But what Kim makes us forcefully see here is the sheer problem of a lack of originality. You can read reviews of Christian music and there is a need to compare the sound with something on the ‘secular’ scene that readers may be familiar with (I know that, I write reviews myself for Cross Rhythms) but sometimes it’s a sad expression of the paucity of artistry. Although too many of the American artists are certainly not working ‘for scale’: some command enormous fees. Material poverty isn’t absent from the US scene, but it’s far more common this side of the pond.

But what has stuck with me most since I first read this a few weeks ago is the way Kim latches on to the positive regard he and others have for our ‘centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music’. I knew ‘the world’ liked our ancient paintings, sculpture, stained glass windows and classical music, but I had assumed that was a spot of traditionalism. I knew there was a fondness for gospel music, but had assumed there was a certain stereotyping going on. (Think Kenny Everett and the large hands.) What Kim is saying here is that these art forms were original. Perhaps that’s why there is an innate respect today for U2, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, et al. Integrity and authenticity require honest creativity.

Kim’s writing leaves me wondering whether to label him what I have called elsewhere in a sermon on the arts and culture one of God’s unwitting prophets. We certainly need to hear his voice.