Saturday, May 07, 2011

Finding Faith
Jn. 20:19-31[1]
Faith is not easy. I think we can all agree that we as people of the 21st century have some challenges with our faith. In the midst of our skeptical world that demands proof for just about everything, faith is something inward, subjective, mystical and mysterious; it is something impossible to get a firm grip on faith.[2] As a result, it can easily seem like the life of faith leaves you feeling like you’re hanging in mid-air at the end of a rope and you have no idea what that rope is attached to![3] At the end of the day, how can we be certain about things like God and redemption, the afterlife and ultimate destiny? As the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it, for every proof there is some disproof”.[4] Faith is not easy.
And yet it would seem that, like the other Gospels, John’s account of the resurrection attempts to do just that. In our lesson for today we are told that the “signs” Jesus did are recorded here “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” (Jn. 20:31). Unfortunately, that’s just restating our problem, isn’t it? For us as people of the 21st century, we are just not moved by the “signs” that moved people in the First century. Miraculous events simply don’t command the same kind of faith in us as they did for people of ancient times. But it’s not just a modern versus ancient problem. To a great extent, this problem of “verification” is built into our search for faith. If it’s faith, we can’t prove it, can we? And if we can prove it, where’s the need for faith? I guess that’s why many of us find our Gospel lesson for today so appealing. I think we tend to resonate with Thomas’ doubts. As people of our day, we don’t want a faith that consists of “wishful thinking” or “smoke and mirrors.”[5]
This problem gets a lot of attention when it comes to Easter and the resurrection. Even St. Paul recognized that “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). It would seem that there is a lot riding on whether something actually happened on that first Easter Sunday. Somehow, if Easter was merely a symbol or a vision or some kind of spiritual experience that had no correspondence in this world, then the victory we proclaim over death seems less than real.[6] Without Easter, what is there to distinguish the death of this one Jewish man from the countless other deaths at the hands of cruel oppressors?[7]
While it does seem important that our faith rests on something more than wishful thinking, I’m afraid that all efforts at demonstrating exactly what that “something more” is fall short of being convincing. When it comes to faith, we just cannot present an airtight case that demands a verdict! [8] It’s just not the way faith works![9] At the end of the day, when we approach these matters solely with our intellect and our logic, it would seem that the doors to faith are permanently closed and locked shut.
So how do we find the faith to go out and live in light of the hope that God is working in this world to bring grace and mercy and peace and justice and love and joy and life to every life? Ironically, Easter gives us some help here. Or perhaps we might say that the risen Christ gives us some help. In some way that we simply will never be able to sufficiently explain or concretely prove, we continue to have the experience of the living Christ.[10] The same Jesus who surprised the first disciples huddled behind locked doors out of fear, also surprises us behind locked doors of doubt.[11]
Faith is not easy. The truth is that it never has been easy. In some respects, we only find faith by having faith. It’s very much like setting out on a journey without even knowing where you’re going, like Abraham and Sarah. But the question we face is how do we who seem to be so full of doubt set out on that journey? I would say that the answer is to pursue our doubts. It seems to me that genuine faith (1 Pet 1:7) always has generous helpings of doubt.[12] I think that if you are honest enough and courageous enough to face your doubts squarely, you will wind up with a faith that works for you. I think we’ve all seen through the myth that if you want to have faith you have to banish your doubts. Most of us have had the experience that pursuing our doubts proves to be the path to deeper faith. The questions raised by our doubts can provide the guidance and the motivation to set out on our journey of faith, even when we don’t understand what we’re doing, even when we don’t know where it will lead us.



[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/1/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 15 where he says, “To have a religious sense of life is to long with a restless heart for a reality beyond reality.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Dogmatics 2.1:159, where he says that the life of faith involves a feeling of as if we are “suspended and hanging without ground under our feet.”
[4] See Charles E. Moore, ed., Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 256.
[5] Cf. Suzanne Guthrie, “Cousin Thomas (John 20:19-31),” The Christian Century (March 22, 2002): 10.
[6] Cf. G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ, 190, 196-97.
[7] Cf. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics II:337: “Apart from the Resurrection Christ’s death on the cross is a catastrophe.”
[8] Even one so astute and erudite as Karl Barth failed (in my opinion) in his attempt to argue that the resurrection of Jesus was something that “actually happened among men like other events. Even he acknowledged that in this matter we are dealing with “comprehending the incomprehensible.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2.143-44.
[9] Ernst Haenchen, John 2, 211: “There is no verifying evidence (miracle!) by which we can be convinced of God’s reality with objective certainty.”
[10] As Kierkegaard also pointed out, despite all our questions and quandaries, as “Christ enters through locked doors.”
[11] Cf. Susan R. Andrews, “Jesus Appears,” The Christian Century (March 24-31, 1999): 341 : “The truth of Easter is that all of humanity is blessed with a God who defies the locks of logic and grief and prejudice and fear, a God who blesses us and then sends us, fresh and filled with hope, back into a hopeless world.”
[12] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 33-34: “faith cannot be insulated from unbelief; it is co-constituted by unbelief, which is why faith is faith and not knowledge.”

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