Saturday, April 22, 2017

April 23, Easter 2, Believing is Not Seeing

Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:91-31

St. John is very helpful when he tells us exactly why he wrote his gospel: “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.”  In other words, the Apostle John wants you to have the new life that comes with the name of Jesus, and you get that new life by believing in Jesus as the Messiah—so here he is for your belief.

Believing in Jesus is what makes you a Christian. And then the combination of what things you believe about Jesus is what makes you one kind of a Christian or another. What we believe about Jesus is what we repeat every week, as part of our worship, when we recite the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed. Every week you say it—either “I believe” or “We believe.” It is worth noticing what we take for granted, that believing is central and even pivotal to the Christian faith.

It is less so for other religions. The ancient pagan religions were not about belief. The ancients believed in their gods and goddesses no more than you believe in the Internal Revenue Service or the Port Authority. Their gods were simply powers in the world to be both feared and satisfied.

Neither is Judaism based on belief, but on birth and observing the procedures, apart from whether you believe in God or not. All the disputes and divisions in Judaism are over the procedures, not God.

Nor is Islam based on belief, but on submission. Islam was spread in the world by military power and not by missionary appeal. If you were conquered, you submitted, whether you believed or not.

Islam is not congenial to a premium on belief, because belief implies freedom to believe or not. For Islam it is an insult to the majesty of God that God should be subject to our belief or not, that God should be judged by us in terms of credibility. The God of the Holy Koran would never offer himself to human subjectivity in the way that the Lord Jesus offers himself to Thomas. The gospel, with its premium on belief, elevates human beings relative to God to a level that Islam finds arrogant and offensive. Who do we think we are?

The premium on belief that distinguishes Christianity you can chalk up largely to the Apostle John. I did a word count on the verb “believe”. In the Gospel of Matthew, the verb “believe” occurs ten times. In the Gospel of Mark, it appears ten times. In the Gospel of Luke, nine times. In the Gospel of John, ninety-eight times, ten times as much. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is one theme among others, but in John, it’s the main theme. The author tells us as much. These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.

So the Apostle John is inviting us to believe. What’s more, he’s inviting us to believe without seeing, even though all of our human experience reinforces the cliche that seeing is believing.

In a courtroom trial, the jury wants to know what the witness saw, not what the witness believes. If the witness says what he believes the judge rules it out of order. It’s up to the jury to decide what they believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, and they base their belief not on what they saw for themselves, because they were not there, but on the testimony of the witnesses. Just so with the Christian faith. You may consider the Christian church to be one huge jury, sitting through the centuries, hearing and depending on the testimony of witnesses under cross-examination by advocates and adversaries in order to determine its belief or not. That it works this way is the legacy of the apostles to the church, and “Blessed are you who have not seen, but yet believe.”

The apostles are the witnesses. They were the original witnesses right after the fact, and ever after they remain the witnesses, by means of their testimonies written down for us. The apostles were first-hand believers because they actually saw it, and we are second-hand believers who believe what they testify they saw.

Thomas did not want to be a second-hand believer. In the week between the first and second appearances of Our Lord, the disciples told Thomas that they had seen him alive again. It was only because they had seen him that they believed, and Thomas wants nothing different for himself. What he’s asking for is nothing untoward, though I am not sure why he’s so adamant about it.

Then Thomas ends up making a great leap of faith, jumping out in front of the other disciples, and out of his mouth, not Peter’s, comes the claim which is the pointed climax of John’s Gospel, “My Lord and my God.” Nine years ago I preached about this intuitive leap by Thomas and its significance.

Today I want to stay with that response of Our Lord to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” He’s talking about us, you, the second-hand believers, who depend on the witnesses. Apparently we are blessed in a way that first-hand believers are not. To believe in what you have not seen requires more of you, it raises you to something, to a level of risk and initiative, to become a greater soul, and live at the level of hope instead of mere possession. Blessed are you who have not seen but yet believe.

Believing the witnesses is parallel to believing the promises, which also you cannot see, not yet. We Christians believe two kinds of things: witnesses and promises. We stand between the witnesses of the past and the promises of the future. From the witnesses you can believe something to be true about the past. And from the promises you can believe something to be true about the future. You believe the witnesses of his resurrection and you believe the promises of your own resurrection, and the one guarantees the other.

Our resurrected Lord is keeping our future inheritance safe with him in heaven until he comes again to rule the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the wonders of his love, into which we will be resurrected, soul and body, as he was. He holds the promise and he is the living witness. Both witness and promise are held together in him.

We have just now moved from the language of the Gospel of John to the language of the First Epistle of Peter, from the resurrected Jesus in the experience of the first-hand believers, there, in that room, to the resurrected Jesus in our experience as second-hand believers, removed from us in heaven but still present to us by his Word and Holy Spirit. Our relationship with him requires more of belief than was required of his disciples, because we do not see him, and we have to depend more on the promises, and even him we experience as a promise.

He is both the living witness and the living promise. And because he personally is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, so is your inheritance, the inheritance that you are promised. Not only is your inheritance imperishable, but St. Peter goes further to claim that the genuineness of your faith is imperishable, even when it’s tested and tried by suffering and opposition or your internal doubts and hesitations.

It’s imperishable because it’s grounded not in your own ability to believe, but in the objectivity of what happened to Jesus in history, as attested by witnesses. It’s imperishable because no matter how weak you might feel within your faith, the written testimony of the apostles does not change and the living testimony of the resurrected Jesus is undefiled and unfading.

The benefit of this, in the words of St. Peter, is the salvation of your souls. This terminology is easily misunderstood if you think of your soul as that ghost inside your physical body. The Greek word for soul can also be translated as “life,” your full life, your human life, and your fully real and human is what is being saved.

This is not a final escape, but the rescuing of your life right now, the rescuing of your life from frustration, from nothingness, from the shadow of death. It saves your actions in the world from emptiness, it rescues your witness in the world from nihilism, it saves your good deeds, your social witness, your service to the poor, your speaking up, your resisting violence, your marching in Washington, your reading books, your raising kids, your sacrifices of time and energy and money for the congregation you belong to, all that gets saved, it is not wasted, it does not get lost. That’s the promise, and of that you yourselves are witnesses.

And this is how you may feel the truth of that ecstasy of St. Peter’s epistle: “Although you have not seen him, you love him, and although you do not see him now, you believe in him, and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

Old First said...

I received a comment that is worth considering, that I was overly broad in what I said about pagan religions, and the relative absence of belief. The commenter appeals to an ancient Egyptian hymn. But I will not publish the comment because it is anonymous.