Monday, April 16, 2012

Leaping into the Everlasting Arms
Jn. 20:19-31[1]
I never cease to be amazed how people on the extreme opposite ends of just about anything look so much alike. They seem to be almost indistinguishable except for the fact that they take opposite viewpoints. In terms of faith, this applies as well to dogmatic Christians and convinced Atheists. They both operate from the same basic premise—without sufficient evidence, they will not believe. The only difference is that dogmatic Christians believe they have the evidence, and Atheists believe there is no evidence. You may be surprised to hear this, but I find it amazing the evidence some people think proves beyond doubt that their faith is true. Don’t get me wrong—I believe, and I do so joyfully. It’s the “proving beyond doubt” that I don’t get.
Some people point to supernatural, miraculous experiences as their evidence. And, in fact there are shrines all over the world that claim to house the evidence that proves faith beyond all doubt. Others point to a higher, infallible authority; sort of a “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” approach. For some this infallible authority some resides in a particular church. For others, infallible authority resides in the Bible as God’s word. But at the end of the day, in my opinion, all these efforts at establishing faith on the basis of some objective proof fail.[2] Faith isn’t something you can verify in a test tube, any more than love or hope or mercy or compassion.
As I said last week, embracing faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is challenging. It was challenging even for Jesus’ disciples, even for those who were closest to him! In our Gospel lesson for today, Thomas, one of Jesus’ hand-picked apostles, refused to believe without proof. No matter what the others told him, he simply would not believe. In fact, he refused to believe without the evidence. Unfortunately, this incident has earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” But Thomas was by no means a “doubter” in his relationship with Jesus. Quite the opposite was true—he was one of Jesus’ most diligent and devoted followers. When it became clear that Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem to die, it was Thomas who said to the others, “let us go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16). So we shouldn’t assume that Thomas had a character flaw that prevented him from believing.
But that leaves me wondering even more why Thomas didn’t believe the unbelievably good news that the others were telling him? It’s hard to say. Perhaps the intensity of Thomas’ devotion to Jesus made the pain of his death particularly difficult to move past. Perhaps he had seen some of the others waffle in their faith, and wasn’t prepared to put his faith in their word alone. Maybe he was simply one of those people who look for evidence in order to confirm their faith. Whatever the reason for his refusal to believe, a week later, Jesus appeared to the apostles again. This time Thomas was there and Jesus invited him to prove for himself the good news of what the others had claimed to be true. He let Thomas see the very wounds that he still bore on his body. And in response, Thomas made one of the most exalted confessions of faith in this Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28).
But Jesus’ approach to faith was not one that endorsed seeing the evidence in order to prove it for oneself. In fact, he said “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed” (Jn. 20:29).[3] This is consistent with what we know of him elsewhere. The multitudes kept coming to him and asking him for some kind of miraculous sign in order that they might believe that he was who he claimed to be. But Jesus refused. I think he knew that faith that depends on some kind of proof or verification constantly has to be re-proven and re-verified. Those who look for evidence are always looking for evidence, and never really take the leap that faith entails.
In a very real sense, faith is a choice; a choice to look at reality from the point of view that God is making all things new rather than that death is the ultimate reality. [4] But that kind of choice isn’t something you can prove or verify. Faith is also a response; a response to our experience of something beyond us, something that perhaps even strains our ability to understand or even imagine.[5] Again, that’s not you can prove with objective evidence.
Whether we sense God’s presence in a special way or feel that Jesus is calling us by name, the experience that serves as the basis for our faith cannot be proven to anyone—not even to ourselves.[6] Making the choice of faith is not something you do once and then you’re done with it. Like any relationship, “the decision to trust … has to be made again and again.”[7] But I think that when we have these kind of experiences, we find ourselves entrusting our lives—again and again—to the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We find ourselves leaping into the everlasting arms of God!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/15/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Søren Kierkegaard observes that in matters of faith, “for every proof there is some disproof.” See Charles E. Moore, ed., Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 256
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 226, where he points out that even those who had seen had to make the transition to believing without seeing.
[4] Cf. Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 209, where he defines faith as “committing ourselves to the continual possibility of goodness.” Cf. also Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 222: “the hope of resurrection is a hope against death.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 108-9, where he says that the gospel is something “so unheard of, so unexpected” that it can only appear to us as something “incomprehensible and meaningless,” as a “vast impossibility.”
[6] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 2, where he says that faith a matter of “hoping like mad” in something. Cf. also Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 223: “As long as the facts that determine this world are the facts of violence and suffering, the world is not able to furnish proof of the resurrection of life and the annihilation of death.”
[7] Douglas John Hall, “Faith: Response in Relationship,” in The Living Pulpit 1 (April-June 1992):14-15.

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