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This Too Shall Pass

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Always Uniting…

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Are you ready for harvest?

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Don’t Blame it on the Snake

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Faithful Doubting

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God became human so that we could become divine!

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Wind of the Spirit

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That Humanity should become Divine

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Joy is for Everyone

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The Mingling of Water and Spirit

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Persistence and Justice

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Gratitude and Thankfulness

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Rich Man, Poor Man

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The Gift of Freedom

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A Hidden Wholeness

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Thank God for St Thomas!

03 April, 2016 John 20:19-32 Easter 2 By Rev Dr Christopher Page


Some years ago Anne and I were visiting a friend of Anne’s in Perth.  In the conversation she asked me what I believed about prayer – how does it work, or rather does it work?  She had said she had always prayed, but lately it didn’t seem to work for her and she wondered why.

After explaining my views on prayer; the theology of prayer and the nature of God, she said, “Well, now I know what you don’t believe, can you tell me what you do believe?”  I can tell you it pulled me up and made me think.  I realised that I am better at “deconstructing” Christian faith than I am at constructing or “reconstructing” it.

I did feel a bit like doubting Thomas with more questions than answers.  Of course Anne’s friend did have a point.  Like many things in life, it is often easier to say what we don’t believe than it is to say what we do believe.

Scholars and commentators of the Christian faith say that we are no longer in what has been called “The Age of Belief”.  In fact it would be more accurate today to say that we live in “The Age of Uncertainty”.  Listing one’s beliefs can engage us in a discussion, but more often it easily becomes an argument about what I believe or what the other person believes and it doesn’t take long to see that the old certainties really don’t hold the way they once did.  In the 21st century we don’t have the commonality of belief that we once had.  And there is little point pretending that we do.

A New Age of Believing:
And yet we know that we can’t exist in the world without beliefs.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American poet, said, “We are born believing.  A person bears beliefs as a tree bears apples.”  And while we may never have certainty in our beliefs, about life, relationships, faith, nature and so forth, we nevertheless need a degree of confidence in order to act and that means we have to have a sense of what we do believe in; what is of value and what we believe to be true.

What is perhaps different today from centuries past is that we have a stronger sense that we must experience something before we believe it to be true.  The role of authority was central in Christian faith throughout most of its history.  The priest, the minister, the church, laid down a set of beliefs that one should give assent to, and on that basis you were in or out.  But I think today we want more than that.  Today we want to engage with our beliefs in an open and life-giving way.  

We know that all beliefs are not equal.  Philosophers have tried to help here by suggesting that there are what we call enabling beliefs and also what we call limiting beliefs. So here is a question we can ask ourselves. “What are the beliefs I hold that limit my life and truncate my best experience of life and the world around me?” It’s not an easy question to answer.  The reason it is difficult to answer is because most often we don’t hold beliefs unless they are purposeful.  Even the most outrageous belief still finds a place in our lives because it is “meaningful” for us and it achieves something in our lives and confirms who we believe ourselves to be.

At the end of the Woody Allen film Annie Hall, the main character Alvy sits in a café and, looking into the camera, tells a story about the man who goes to the psychiatrist to talk about his brother, who believes he is in fact a chicken or a hen. After listening to the man tell how his brother acts like a chicken, the psychiatrist says, “I can cure him. Bring him in on Friday.” “Would you mind making it Monday, you see we need the eggs for the weekend!” says the man.

Our beliefs provide us with the eggs we need.  

And beliefs are not just rational.  We don’t believe things just because of the evidence or that we are logically convinced of something.  What we believe has a significant emotional component that supports our understanding of ourselves and our world view.

Someone once said, “It is impossible to get a person to believe something if his or her paycheck depends on not believing it.” It is not only the intellect and emotion that are involved in our believing, it is in fact a web of interconnected factors that shape and form our beliefs.

Belief and Faith:
Regardless of the philosophical/sociological aspects of belief, we in the Christian Church and religions in general have a lot invested in belief and believing.  We can talk about Christian beliefs, or Muslim beliefs, or Buddhist beliefs (although many Buddhists are not supposed to have beliefs as such) and when we do, we most often point to the differences in the beliefs we hold, rather than the similarities.

Christians believe that Jesus is THE Son of God, some will say.  Muslims believe Jesus was a great prophet and a messenger of God…and so forth.

I became aware of the central place Jesus plays in Islam when I visited the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The Muslim guide was keen to tell us that not only is Jesus important in Islam but that he sits at the right hand of God on Judgment Day.  But that doesn’t stop Christians and Muslins killing each other over their different beliefs.  It should remind us that beliefs can be both helpful and also very dangerous.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose work is on display at the NGV, was recently imprisoned not primarily because he was a political activist but because he was a political thinker and held the “wrong” beliefs.  So we shouldn’t underestimate the power of beliefs and believing.  Our beliefs have an enormous impact on us and those around us.

Thank God for Saint Thomas
Which brings me to Thomas. St Thomas is often seen as the patron saint of doubters. I hope we all see him as our patron saint. What we know of Thomas comes mostly from the narrative Milton read earlier.  The story is formed around the experience of  Thomas the Twin, one of Jesus' disciples. One of the Twelve. The story has Jesus appearing, passing through doors and being present  not only in an ethereal way but also with recognisable physical characteristics.  The mood of the disciples is somber – even fearful.

Nevertheless there is a community here.  A group of followers huddled together for comfort and support.  They have moved their meeting time from the Sabbath to Sunday, the first day of the week, and the author of John’s gospel places the blame for this disillusionment on the Jews – something that has haunted Christianity for centuries.

Jesus appears with a familiar greeting, “Peace be with you”. The wounds of his tragic execution are seen on his body. Nevertheless, there is a joy at being reunited with their leader.  And in some mystical way Jesus breathes upon them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  In this closed room, in the aftermath of fear and flight, the life force that possessed Jesus of Nazareth is passed on to his friends.

Ahh! but one member is not present.  Thomas was somewhere else and when told of this encounter he is incredulous.  “Impossible!” he says.  But the author is going to move beyond Thomas’s unbelief - his doubt - and illustrate two important aspects of believing.

Seeing is Believing or Believing as Trusting
First is “seeing is believing”: you see it, it is obvious and you say it happened, it is true!  Your believing comes first-hand – “I was there and I know what happened”.  Now surprisingly, when it comes to the most important beliefs in our lives, they are not of this type.  We weren’t there, we didn’t see it with our own eyes; we have to trust others that they are truthful.  Just think of all the beliefs that tumble into a child’s life.  They all come from on high; from an authority figure. For example an enabling belief like, “this world is a good and welcoming place”.

The child is not “seeing as believing” – it is rather believing as trusting. Thomas, for whatever reasons, needed some proof – something tangible.  He needed to see with his own eyes – touch with his own hands.

In a rather harsh tone, the writer of the gospel has Thomas say, “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the work of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so Thomas becomes not only the patron saint of doubters but also a materialist. “Only believe what you can touch with your hands – only the physical, what you see and feel, is real.” Now there is nothing wrong with a healthy scepticism and real doubt is a vital part of the journey of faith. It is not the opposite of faith.

Of course this story is written with the future generations of those who will become followers of Jesus in mind.  The author is writing in the 2nd century CE, perhaps 70 years after the death of Jesus.  His audience never met Jesus, in fact it’s possible that his audience didn’t even know much about Jerusalem or Palestine.  They may have heard of the great disciples but only as figures of history; they had never met any of them.

So Thomas becomes the one who will illustrate that you don’t need to be there to experience being a part of the event.

“Thomas,” says Jesus, “You believed because you have seen me?  How blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

The author of John’s gospel wants us to be clear that you can believe the witnesses, you may not have seen physically, but you can see with the inner eye of the Spirit; the inner eye of faith as trust and belief.  By being drawn into the story you can be shaped and formed by it.  The narrative told by generation after generation carries an authenticity – an inner truth that even transcends the “being there” experience.

But what is also important here is that the beliefs that come from a story of Thomas’ encounter with Jesus are not static – they are dynamic. In fact, your experience with the story will change and you will change.  The beliefs you hold will change – everything will change and that’s how it should be.  That’s growth; that’s maturity and that’s life itself.  Just as was mentioned on Easter Day that contradictions, inconsistencies, ambiguities and paradoxes are woven into the fabric of life and faith, so too are doubt and uncertainty.

As St Thomas has shown us, doubt is not the enemy of belief – it is rather the “eternal companion”, testing and questioning easy and static believing.  Doubt is a vantage point on the journey of believing.  A place where one can stop, rest and take a look around.  And, from that place, decide which is the most life-giving way to proceed.


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