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Does It Matter What We Believe?

John 20:19-31

 

The Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Duluth Congregational Church

 

Susan Boyle’s appearance on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent is already known throughout the world.  It was on TV just a week ago, and it has, as the phrase goes, gone viral.  People are emailing the video clip to one another because it’s amazing.  She is a 47-year-old dowdy-looking woman with an amazingly beautiful voice.  If you haven’t yet watched the video of her appearance on the show, find it and watch it – it’s just beautiful.  She’s a single woman, never been kissed, who lived with her parents and took care of them.  Her dad died ten years ago; her mother died two years ago.  She lives with her cat Pebbles and sings in church choir.  And she believed she could sing.  When she came out on stage, it was clear that the rest of the world didn’t agree with her.  The judges rolled their eyes, the audience laughed out loud when she told them of her dream to be a professional singer.  Much of her life experience had told her that her peers, her society, didn’t believe she had much to offer the wider world at all.  Something in her heart, deep in her soul, told her differently.  She believed, that is, she knew to be true, that her voice, her gift to the world, was worth something, and she persisted in believing that even though others disagreed.  That’s the power of belief – not just a good idea, but something that we know to be so true that it changes our actions and our lives.

 

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these 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.

 

I appreciate this addendum, this explanation of why this writer took the time to create this document we know as the gospel of John.  These stories were recorded for us, and for readers centuries before us and centuries after us, that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name. This comes directly after the involved story, with exquisite detail, of Thomas’ week-long journey to belief in Jesus’ resurrection, in large part because he, like most of us, believed what his eyes and his senses told him.  He had seen Jesus alive, he had seen him arrested, and he had probably watched most of his trial and crucifixion, if at a safe distance in order that he didn’t follow Jesus to the same fate.  We aren’t told why he wasn’t with the others that first Sunday night, on the third day after Jesus’ death.  Maybe he had another commitment, but it seems likely that he simply had had enough.  Jesus was gone and he didn’t feel like dragging this out.  The dream was over, and he’d rather not go over it all again with the rest of them.  So he missed Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples; he missed the ‘Peace be with you,’ with its overtones both of “Don’t be afraid because it’s me” and “It’s all going to be ok from here on out because I’m here.”  He missed Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to his followers and his commissioning of them, “as the Father has sent me.”  And when his buddies search him out during the week and tell him about what happened, he is adamant that he’ll have none of it.  “Oh, baloney,” he says.  “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  But he is willing to gather with them the next week.  He’s willing to entertain the possibility that Jesus is actually alive enough to rejoin the community of his friends, just in case.  I think that willingness is big.  If he hadn’t been there again, he would have missed his moment.  But he came to the upper room the next week.  He opened up his mind and heart just enough to let God work.

 

You know the rest of the story.  Thomas is there, Jesus shows up, greets them again in peace, and turns immediately to Thomas – “here, touch my hands, feel my wounds, indulge your senses, let my being convince you that I’m alive.”  And then the text surprises us.  It does not report that Thomas touched Jesus at all.  It does not report that Thomas even took note of the wounds he had insisted on seeing just days earlier.  Instead the story goes immediately to Thomas’ declaration, “my Lord and my God!”  This is, in fact, the first confession to Jesus since his resurrection that he is Lord and God.  Mary called him ‘Rabboni,’ teacher, when she saw him in the garden, and no-one else in the story has said a word to Jesus since he rose from the tomb.  Thomas responds in faith, naming aloud what he understands to be the significance that Jesus is alive and not dead.  “You are who we always hoped you were – you are Lord and God, my Lord, my God.”  It’s Thomas’ heart, touched by Jesus’ willingness to come back for him, that ultimately convinces him. 

 

Jesus then says, as much to the other disciples, and to disciples for the rest of time, as to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  That would be us, wouldn’t it?  Christians since those forty days between the resurrection and the ascension are those who have not seen the risen Jesus with our own eyes, have not had the opportunity to touch the wounds in his hands or in his side.  And yet we are blessed because we have come to believe. 

 

All of this points to the question, ‘what does it mean to believe?’.  Jesus looks for disciples to believe down through the years, the gospel declares its own purpose ‘that we might come to believe and through believing we might have life.’  Life, that which Jesus comes to offer – ‘I came that you might have life and have it abundantly,’ says John 10:10b – that life is available through believing.  That’s John’s primary point.   That’s why he goes through the effort of putting together this story we have.  But what is belief?  We use it as if it’s a synonym for thought.  It stands in contrast to action.  We believe with our minds; we act with our bodies. 

 

Christians have argued for centuries about which is more important, what we believe or what we do.  There are many Christians whom I deeply respect who are tired of the emphasis the tradition has placed on belief.  Stop arguing about the picayune details of exactly how atonement works or precisely why God becomes incarnate!  Get out and feed the poor and heal the sick; love your neighbor as yourself; do justice and love kindness!  Stop talking and get moving; live your faith instead!  Yet here in John, where Jesus so emphasizes love that he summarizes all his teaching to his disciples at the last supper with “love one another as I have loved you,” the question of belief is central to the storyteller’s notion of all he’s got to say.  It matters that we know as utterly true that God doesn’t simply offer us ideas for discussion, but offers us love, power and purpose for our lives precisely because Jesus is alive.  “I came that you might have life through believing, through owning as foundationally true, that Jesus – and all that he’s about – is the Son of God.”

 

Because belief isn’t just thought.  It’s the bedrock foundation of what makes us move.  We each live with many beliefs, some of which we share with others, some of which are ours alone.  I’m impressed here in Duluth with the almost universal belief that Lake Superior is a treasure, a treasure to be loved and cared for and protected.  That belief guides many decisions about what happens here – from our sewage system to the Duluth Shipping News to the Lakewalk and the tourists we hope will come and enjoy it.

 

A belief is a thought or an idea held firmly enough that it is truth for you.  When you hold something to be true, it affects how you live your life and how you make your decisions. 

 

Sometimes we can articulate these beliefs; sometimes we hold them so deeply we don’t even know it until they’re challenged.  It mattered to Thomas when he believed that Jesus was alive; believing changed his world, refocused it completely on the power of God made real in Jesus, solidified his life in serving the gospel because now he grasped what really mattered.  In the resurrection he saw that all that Jesus had said wasn’t just a nice idea, it was the will of the God whose power was ultimate.  Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to Thomas, but there’s a strong tradition that he went east, arriving ultimately on the shores of India where, centuries later, European traders arrived to find a community of Christians with ancient roots who called themselves the Mar Thoma Church, a church which continues its worship and traditions to this day, claiming a million members worldwide. Thomas lived out the words he proclaimed to Jesus that Sunday night.  His confession of faith to Jesus – my Lord and my God! – formed the rest of his life. 

 

Congregationalists pride ourselves that we are gathered not by belief but by covenant, that what binds us is a promise of relationship with one another, walking together to discover what God asks of us.  Too often, however, this has been an excuse to ignore belief, to belittle it as unimportant.  We act as if it doesn’t matter what we believe.  It has to matter what we believe, since our beliefs shape all that we do.  We may not always agree about belief, but it is of utmost importance that we are honest about what we believe, so that we can be aboveboard and clear in our discussions about what we do and why.  Particulars about the atonement needn’t trouble us, it’s true.  But we clearly all believe that this gathered community is important, and our experience of the power and love of God is real when we gather here.  We agree to walk in God’s ways as he reveals himself to us.  The obvious foundation of such a statement is that God still reveals divine intentions and guidance to God’s people.  Like Thomas, we claim our foundation as God’s power and love, not anything else.  There were a lot of people in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection – only Thomas headed off to the shores of India with enough conviction to influence people to adopt completely new ways and ideas which would remain for hundreds of years.  There are a lot of people in Duluth today, but we are those who know God’s presence and power here at Duluth Congregational Church.  We live out our conviction that God’s power and love are the foundation of life through our witness, our hospitality, our caring, our music, and our gracious welcome for all those who come in our doors.  We believe that Jesus sends us out, just as he sent the disciples so many years ago – to feed the poor, to tell the story, to live the love that we know rules the world.  Our lives are built and sustained on what we believe.  May our conviction that living in God’s love together leads to life guide us today and tomorrow and for all our tomorrows.  Amen and amen.


Acts 4:32-35

32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

 

Psalm 133

1How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

2It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.

3It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

 

1 John 1:1 - 2:2

1We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

 

5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

 

2My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.


John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”

 

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these 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.

 

 

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