Seeing is believing – or is it? Do we believe everything we read in the newspapers or see on television or on film? Not always and rightly so. You only have to see what can be done to a digital photograph using the latest computer technology to know that the old adage “What can’t speak can’t lie” is no longer true.
More frequently than ever we are having to prove who we are – a plane trip to America demands a passport and an esta, which involves filling in an online questionnaire about yourself. Recently, applying to renew my clearance to work with children I had to produce a passport, a driving licence and a utility bill – the latter was the most difficult as for some reason our utility bills are in joint names and they would not do. But I eventually realised that the council tax bill was in my name. Don’t ask me why.
The powers that be at Church House accepted I was who I said I was – although Peter Reiss was standing next to me at the time and could certainly have vouched for me. But his word was not enough – it had to be in writing.
Our younger daughter lives near Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market and the day after the terrorist attack on the market she was returning from a trip abroad and on arrival close to her flat she had to go to the police cordon and produce identification to prove who she was and that she actually lived in her flat. As she was on her way home from Bangkok she had her passport with her but the police insisted that they accompanied her to the flat and that she had a key to open the door.
Not only proving who she was but where she lived.
In the age of Fake news – something that’s recently entered our vocabulary – and identity theft, it is obvious that we have to be careful what we accept as true.
Why do we believe?
Why do we believe something to be true? Some months ago I asked the people at a family service at Christ Church if people believed certain statements. The first one that Dave was the Vicar was accepted by all. They had seen him wearing his dog collar and he had been in church. I asked if they thought Mrs Bamford taught at Springside school (she did at the time) and those who attended Springside believed it and those who didn’t, asked their friends and then they believed it.
On an earlier occasion, when I had asked the young people if they believed that Mrs Spencer was married to Mr Spencer, it brought forth some fascinating reasons. One youngster eagerly said he believed it because he’d seen us coming out of the same house. Good job I wasn’t coming out of the vicarage. Another because she had seen a photograph of the wedding in our house and one because his great grandma had told him that she had watched the wedding! That did wonders for me on a Sunday morning!
I challenged them that perhaps the photograph was a fancy dress, that great grandma had made a mistake. Suddenly one girl in exasperation said “Oh stop it Mrs Spencer, you are married to him. Everyone just knows that.”
Reasons for belief: direct experience, hearing from someone you trust, seeing the evidence or simply just knowing.
The risen Christ
The disciples came to believe that Christ had risen through all these ways. The disciple whom Jesus loved when he saw the empty tomb – direct experience that the body was not there. Mary Magdalen when she heard Jesus speak her name. Those on the road to Emmaus when he broke the bread before the meal. And then disciples when they met Christ in the upper room.
In a locked room, Jesus appeared to them and greeted them in the traditional Jewish way “Peace be with you.” Our reading tells us that the disciples were overjoyed to see Jesus; I think that may be an oversimplification of their emotions. Yes, they would be pleased but wouldn’t there be amazement, bewilderment, questioning? How could this man they had seen crucified on a cross be here with them? He showed them the marks on his hands and on his side and said again “Peace be with you” – which means not simply may you not experience trouble but also “May God give you every good thing”.
And then Jesus tells them that as God sent him so he is now sending them. He breathes on them and says receive the Holy Spirit. I wonder how they felt at that moment? Commissioned by Jesus to carry out his work – a group of frightened people – people who had been through a life shattering experience, a group of people with probably little idea of how to fulfill the task Jesus gave them. They must have been amazed, perplexed, questioning, doubting their ability , afraid possibly terrified. After all they had seen what happened to Jesus. Was this what they had signed up for?
You cannot be serious
They were probably still pondering all of this when Thomas arrived and they told him “We have seen the Lord. “
But Thomas, was sceptical , the Victor Meldrew of his day. I don’t believe it. Or John McEnroe “you cannot be serious”. But Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks and put my hand into his wounds, I will not believe.” Thomas doubted; and ever after had a bad press. Forever to be known as doubting Thomas. An unfair epitaph, for Thomas was a loyal friend of Jesus, a brave friend. When Jesus wanted to go to Bethany even when it was obvious that to do so was dangerous, it was Thomas who said “Let us go and die with him”
But Thomas was never one to blindly accept, not one to rattle off a creed without believing it, nor to say he understood when he did not. It was Thomas who asked “Lord, we do not know where you are going – how can we know the way?” Thomas who provoked the reply from Jesus “I am the way, the truth and the life”. If Thomas was uncertain he asked. He had to be sure. But once convinced, his commitment was total.
Place your hands
Why was Thomas slower than the other disciples to believe? Initially, he was not with the other disciples in the upper room. Perhaps he had taken himself off after the crucifixion, fearful, his expectations shattered. Experiencing guilt that Jesus had died alone, when he had been the one to say “let us go and die with him”. Perhaps he simply dare not raise his hopes. He was, after all, a bit of a pessimist.
And when he encountered the risen Christ, what happened? He did not have to tell Jesus his doubts, Jesus knew. And Jesus did not deride his questioning, did not condemn him for it, did not say he was wrong to have doubts. Jesus challenged him, presented him with the opportunity to relieve his uncertainty “Place your hands in the wounds.” Yes, Jesus knew exactly what would reassure Thomas.
Theologians may argue whether Thomas actually put his hands in the wounds – most think that he did not. It was enough that Jesus provided the opportunity. Jesus said, here I am, turn from your disbelief to belief. And Thomas did.
My Lord and my God
And then what? True to form, once convinced, Thomas was wholehearted. He made that great statement of faith “My Lord and my God.” What an acclamation from a Jew. A Jew brought up to accept that there was one God who did not and could not exist in human form. Before, Thomas may well have called Jesus, Rabbi or teacher. But on meeting the risen Christ he became his Lord and his God.
And what of each of us? Jesus told Thomas that he was blessed because he had seen and believed. But he added “how blessed are those who have not seen – yet believe.” That’s us. You, me.
We have not seen the risen Christ in physical form, yet we believe. But sometimes, like Thomas, we may find it difficult. Occasionally we are less certain, have doubts, when we are afraid, when things seem topsy-turvy, when events and situations cause us to question. When illness, pain or distress cloud vision, impair hope, distort our feelings we find it more difficult to have faith, to believe.
Yet as Jesus understood Thomas’ doubts so he knows and understands ours. And as he did for Thomas he will provide the answer if we ask. Provide that certainty which will enable us to proclaim “My Lord and My God.” And strengthen us to go out and carry on the work of Christ.
Today’s gospel reading has brought to mind some words which were found scratched on a destroyed cellar in Cologne in Germany after World War 2.
I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
and I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
and I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial
there is always a way
What powerful words, written at the height of the bombing, when believing in light, in love and in God would have been very difficult.
And, perhaps, if we are to know the certainty of the writer of those words and of Thomas, the certainty that comes not only from academic study, or from evidence, or from hearing from others but from direct experience, then perhaps we should say that prayer which to me as a child made no sense, but now certainly does: “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.”
[This sermon was preached by Margery Spencer at St John with St Mark’s in Bury on 28th April 2019. It’s based on John 20:19-31. For other sermons by Margery please follow this link to our sermon archive.]