That through Believing You Might Have Life

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, April 24, 2022
John 20:19-31

    My doctor does not believe in God, but he is a religious Jew.  He attends shabbat services regularly and likes to complain to me that his rabbi is boring because he doesn’t preach on difficult topics like, “Does God exist?”  These are the fun conversations I get to have with unexpected people when people, like my doctor, ask what I do for a living!  I like having conversations with atheists in particular, because it helps check my own assumptions and understandings.  For me, “Does God exist?” is a question that almost doesn’t make sense, like questioning the existence of gravity or oxygen in the air we breathe.  I can’t see God, but I experience God at work through my life in such a regular way that people who only believe in God’s absence perplex me.  And so I have heard arguments like, “I can’t believe that Jesus would walk on water, because that’s physically impossible, and I just can’t get over that.”  Or, “prayer is just wishful, magical thinking,” and I feel sad, because there is so much more to a life of faith than intellectually understanding or agreeing with certain aspects of religious belief.  Faith includes our mind but also our heart – we don’t just believe in God, we experience God.  I am sure many of you can relate to me when I say that I am a person of strong faith, but I also have questions. The questions, though, may be different than those without faith.
    Belief is mentioned six times in our gospel passage for today.  Belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God, is central to the story.  And poor Thomas, of course, doesn’t believe – at least that Jesus has risen from the dead.  Who can blame him?  Everyone else was there and got to see Jesus that first Easter evening, but for whatever reason, Thomas missed it.  He was not there to see Jesus face-to-face like everyone else.  Note that Thomas is not an unbeliever, completely.  He is not an atheist.  He is one of the twelve closest followers of Jesus, actually. He is a faithful Jew, a believer in God.  He comes back to be with the other disciples a week later so that he can see the risen Jesus for himself, and very quickly proclaims a powerful message of faith, “My Lord, and my God!”  It’s just that Thomas, like most of us, I would guess, struggles with certain aspects of his faith.  Does God exist? Thomas would probably say, “Without question.”  Is Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah, the son of God?”  “Yes, he is,” Thomas would probably answer.  After all, at the death of Lazarus in John 11 it’s Thomas who encourages the other disciples to stick with Jesus, following him even to death, “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” Thomas says.  But now, post-crucifixion and fresh after that first Easter morning, when asked if Jesus is risen as he said, Thomas is not so sure about that resurrection part.  Until he sees the marks of the nails, puts his finger in those marks and puts his hands in Jesus’ wounded side, he cannot believe that he who once was dead is alive again.
    What aspects of our faith do you struggle to understand or believe?  Thomas’s example gives us permission to ask hard questions.  Many wise spiritual leaders over the centuries have reminded us that doubt is not the opposite of faith.  In fact, we cannot grow and continue to be open to spiritual transformation if we are already certain about everything!  And like Thomas, we may have an easier time believing some things than other things.  You may have read about the rapid decline of regular church attendance and affiliation in the United States.  The pandemic has exacerbated this trend.  But surveys show that the majority of people still have faith in God.  Many people identify as Christians even though they do not claim membership in any church.  As we also hear the Holy Spirit call us to bear witness to our faith in the risen Lord Jesus today, we might want to listen to the stories and questions of the doubters among us.  The ones who believe but also struggle to believe.  And we also might want to consider what is most important for us to believe.  Because while I can understand how some may struggle with believing in anyone walking on water or raising people from the dead, it disturbs me more that there are too many people who doubt their God-given inherent worth or other people’s worth and value to God.  It saddens me that too many people, including some of us here who call ourselves believers, may not question the resurrection but question God’s radical grace and love to send Jesus to die and be risen for us while we were still sinners, even though we didn’t deserve such a gift.  Too many people do not have enough experience of gracious, generous, nontransactional and unconditional love.  Too many people do not have hope of a life that is better than what they currently have.  Too many people struggle to believe in much of anything at all.
    In this conversation with Thomas in the midst of his doubts, I imagine Jesus walking into the room and embracing Thomas so that first and foremost Thomas knows the great love of God for him in Jesus the risen Christ.  “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus tells Thomas.  “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”  Jesus gives Thomas what he needs to continue to believe.  Another word for belief or faith is “trust.”  We can have doubts and yet still trust in Jesus, trust in God that at the end of the day, our life and love is in his hands.  Before this powerful encounter with Thomas, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and sends them out to continue the sharing of faith, to call others to put greater trust in God and his Son, Jesus.  To offer peace and forgiveness in a world too deprived of both.  To share the ways that we have been powerfully transformed not just by intellectual ideas and good theology but by experience and encounters with God in our daily lives.  The Holy Spirit helps us find the words to say and gives us the courage to not only share our faith but also trust when we have doubts and be honest with our questions.
Through believing, through trusting in him, John reminds us, we have life in Jesus’ name.  This is the point of faith – that we live the life that really is life. Christ’s resurrection calls us to new life in his name.  That we know we have life eternal and life to the fullest in Jesus, our Messiah, the Son of God and our risen Lord.  Just as God sends Jesus, now God sends us to share this good news.  Amen!