Monday, 9 May 2011

Believing without seeing

John 20:29

I would like to talk this evening about the last beatitude: in many ways it is the great beatitude.

The beatitudes are those words that Jesus speaks when he calls certain people blessed: the poor in spirit, those who hunger for righteousness, the peace makers, those who are persecuted for the sake of Christ. You can find them in Matthew 5.

But this beatitude is different. Jesus says to Thomas: “You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”

I guess that in the early church one of the divisions might have been between those who had seen the risen Jesus and those who had not. You can imagine in the very early church - in Jerusalem - people telling stories about Jesus. ‘Do you remember when he ..’ And for those who had not been there, you could have felt a bit left out. The others were there. They were the special ones.

I wonder if we have ever thought: “If only I had been there. If I could get in my tardis and travel through time. I could see and hear him for myself. I’d have seen him after the resurrection. Then I would be released in my Christian life. I wouldn’t doubt. I’d do anything for him.”

But Jesus, as always, turns things on their head. And here is no different. He says that it is those who have not seen but believed are the ones who are blessed.

Why? Why were they, why are we, why are you so blessed?


1. Because we have to depend on the word of God

John 20 tells us about the morning of the resurrection. Mary has come to Peter and John and told them that the stone has been moved and that they (whoever ‘they’ are), have moved the body. Peter and John run to the tomb. They see it is empty and they also see the shrouds in which the body was wrapped. The main shroud and the head shroud. And, we are told, John sees and believes. He believes on the basis of an empty tomb and two pieces of cloth. It is not much to go on. 

Having said that, the evidence for the resurrection is pretty convincing. ‘Who moved the stone?is a book that started out when its authors decided to write a book to prove that the resurrection did not happen. It ended up becoming a book which argued why the resurrection had to happen.

Lord Darling,  a former Chief Justice said, ‘There exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true.’

Wolfhart Pannenberg says: ‘The evidence for Jesus resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: first it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live’. 

But if the evidence for the resurrection is the basis of our faith, we are resting our faith on human reason – and it is a shaky place to rest our faith.

And this is where v9 is fascinating, because we are told that John “saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead’.

In other words John is implying that even though he saw the evidence of the linen, the stone and empty tomb, the most convincing reason for believing is not the physical evidence of the resurrection, but what the scripture, the Bible said, and what Jesus said.

It reminds us of another verse: In John 2:19-22, we are told

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”


The arguments for the resurrection are important. They show us that you do not need to kiss your brains goodbye if you become a Christian. But the main reason that John should have believed, that Mary should have believed, that Thomas should have believed is because Jesus said it.

A person who believes without seeing is blessed because they have begun with God and with Jesus.

This is a radical God centred, Word-centred vision of reality.

John’s gospel begins: ‘In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God’. John is saying, ‘I’m going to start with God’.

Karl Barth - one of my theological heroes - said that he did not believe in an objective world out there because he experienced it. His experience could be all wrong. It could be a dream. (Martin Luther King had a dream; Leonardo DiCaprio had a dream of a dream in a dream. I watched Inception last week). The reason he believed in an objective external creation was because his starting point is the Word of God, and God had revealed himself as a creator. And if God reveals himself as a creator, then there must be a creation.

That is the heart of saving faith. It is about putting our trust in God and in the Son of God.

One of our ladies is in the hospice. She is the same age as me. She has a malignant brain tumour. Over the last few weeks everything has been stripped from her: her strength, her ability to do anything, the memories of her experiences and her reason.  The cancer has even eaten away at the part of the brain where her feelings are. She is a believer, and someone has given her a holding cross. And she has taken hold of that cross. And when you go to see her, all she does is stare into space. But she also grips that cross.

If we begin with God, and with the Word of God, we are standing on the only solid ground that there is.

Isaiah 40:8, The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”


2. We are blessed because we have to trust others.

John 20 is fascinating. Look at how the word see is used. Mary sees the stone is moved; Peter and John see the linen cloths; John sees and believes. Mary then saw the Lord. She says to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’. The disciples saw the Lord. They say to Thomas, ‘We have seen the Lord’. Thomas says, ‘Unless I see ..’

Jesus, when he appears to Thomas, rebukes Thomas for not only not believing the word of God - which said that Jesus would rise from the dead, but for not believing his mates.

The greatest command that Jesus gives us is the command to love God and to love our neighbour. He calls on Christians to love each other. And in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul describes a bit of what this neighbour love is all about: ‘Love .. believes all things, hopes all things’.

In other words, Thomas’ refusal to believe is actually evidence of a lack of love.

What Thomas could have said is, ‘You say that you have seen the risen Jesus. I find that very very hard to believe. But I trust you. I trust you that you are not trying to pull a fast one on me. I trust you that you really think that you have seen the risen Jesus’.

We live in a cynical society. We do not take what the other person says at face value. We operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion. That is a posh way of saying that if what someone says something does not fit in with how we see reality, we question their motives or their sanity.

In the beginning of the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, Lucy and Edmund both find themselves in Narnia. They come back and Lucy speaks of Narnia. Edmund, out of spite, ridicules his sister. Peter and Susan come to the Professor with whom they are staying. They’re worried about their sister. The Professor asks them which of the two, Lucy or Edmund, is usually the most truthful. Peter says, ‘Lucy’.

"Well," said Susan, "in general, I'd say the same as Peter, but this couldn't be true - all this about the wood and the Faun."
"That is more than I know," said the Professor, "and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed."
"We were afraid it mightn't even be lying," said Susan; "we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy."
"Madness, you mean?" said the Professor quite coolly. "Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad."
"But then," said Susan, and stopped. She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn't know what to think.
"Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth."

I’m not saying that we must believe everything that we are told. We do need to test all things. But if I love someone, in 1 Corinthians 13 terms, then I will trust them. And I certainly need to trust them when they talk about what they have seen, done or heard. And I will go on trusting them for as long as I possibly can - even if it means that I might be gullible.

Our faith depends on the testimony of other believers who have gone before us. What Mary tells us, what John tells us, what Thomas tells us – is that the promises of God came good. What the writer of John’s gospel tells us, and we have no good reason for not believing this as a real record of what they experienced – apart from the fact that it is astonishing, is that they saw the stone moved away, they saw the grave clothes and no body, and they saw the risen Jesus.

They saw and believed. We believe because they saw

In other words, a person who believes without seeing is blessed because they are someone who is prepared to trust another person’s witness.


3. We are blessed because we are beginning to live by faith and not by sight.

We are called to live by faith not by sight. We are called to live by putting our trust in the promises of God.

Of course experience is essential. Our experience both can lead us to faith, and can confirm our faith. But we must not base our faith on experience.

You can have the most profound faith. But if your faith is not based on something solid, you are in trouble.

There is a story told of a man who climbed buildings. He made it his aim to climb one of the tallest buildings in the world. He was almost at the top when he fell to his death. When they examined his shattered body they discovered that his fist was gripping something. They prised it open and discovered a cobweb. What had happened was that he had seen something that he thought was solid, something that could hold him. He reached out to grab it, and it was a cobweb.

I’m sure you know about the three cats: Promise, Faith, Experience. They’ve been to the pub; and they’re walking home along the wall. Promise is stone cold sober. She has had coke. Faith has had a little to drink. Experience has had a bit more, and is definitely woozy. It is a narrow wall. If Faith follows Promise, then she stays on the wall. If Faith however turns round at looks at Experience – who’s wobbling all over the place – she’s going to fall off the wall and so is Experience.

We are called to look not for the visible, but to the invisible. We are called to look to the promises of God – more than that, to live by faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Not sure if you are a Christian? Jesus has said: John 6:36  - Have you come to Jesus? Thank God that he has given you life and begin to live that life.
(It is like the sign given to Moses: God says to him, ‘When you have done what I have said you will worship me on this mountain’.)
Not sure that you are forgiven? 1 John 1
Not sure if you have the Holy Spirit? Jesus has said that if we ask our Heavenly Father for the HS he will give it to us?
Not sure if God loves you. You’ve been told you are a nobody. You’ve been through dreadful experiences. ‘God shows his love for us in this. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us’. There is someone on your side – someone rooting for you. He is there interceding in heaven for you
Not sure that you have a hope - have a destiny and a hope. If you let him, he is changeing you, transforming you from one degree of glory to the next. Sarah as she lies in that hospital bed has the most glorious destiny. You have the most glorious destiny. We are citizens of heaven.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will never let us down. He is no cobweb. 

This is the faith which means that we can be like Habbakuk: ‘Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruits be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD…’

This is the faith which means we can be like Job:having everything stripped away from us, even – it seems – our relationship with God. And yet he can say, ‘For I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God’

This is the faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego: (it is one of the most remarkable confessions of faith in the Bible). They are about to be dropped alive into the incinerator. And yet they say  ‘Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But if not, be it known to you O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up’

This is the faith which meant that the men and women of faith of the OT were tortured, mocked, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, executed. Why? Because even though they did not see it in their experience, they put their trust in the promise of God.

I love hearing testimonies of healings, of great and wonderful works done by God. But the testimonies I really treasure and respect are those of people who have suffered dreadfully, and yet who still trust God.

We live by faith not by sight.


In the end Thomas gets it.

What Thomas sees is the risen Lord Jesus standing in front of him. That was quite remarkable.

But then many people saw Jesus and saw him do remarkable things. They saw dramatic healings, water turned into wine, 5000 fed from a few loaves and fishes, a man blind from birth given sight, Lazarus raised from the dead.

They saw. It was remarkable, quite wonderful. This man is clearly the next big thing. When he fed the 5000, they follow him across the lake. They want an encore. This was great entertainment. Free food. Knocked the stuffing out of the X factor.

But  Jesus says to the crowd, after the feeding of the 5000, ‘You have seen me and yet you do not believe’.

In one sense they did believe in Jesus. Or they did believe that Jesus had done and could do remarkable things. They believed something about Jesus, but they did not believe, put their trust, in Jesus.
They saw the sign, but they did not see to whom the sign pointed. They were like a dog when you point a dog to the stick: 'it’s over there'. And the dog comes up and licks your finger. They did not recognise that he was the Son of God; they did not put their trust in him.

When Thomas saw the risen Jesus he could have said, ‘I believe. I believe something quite remarkable about you. I believe you rose from the dead’.

But when Thomas sees the risen Jesus, he realises that this is the last great sign of John’s gospel. And Thomas realises who the sign points to. And Thomas does believe.
He falls down at Jesus feet, and he makes the most dramatic confession of the Bible, ‘My Lord and my God’.

Thomas gets it. Faith in Jesus does not simply mean that you believe something about Jesus. Faith in Jesus means that you put your trust in Jesus.

Jesus says to him, ‘Thomas you’ve got here eventually. You didn’t believe my word about the resurrection; you didn’t believe your mates about the resurrection - but you do believe now. But more than that, you have finally realised who I am, and you have put your trust in me.

Blessed are those - you - who have not seen but have believed’

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