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.
Why do we believe something to be true? One Sunday morning some years ago in Junior Church, I asked the young people if they believed certain statements. The first one – that tomorrow would be Monday was believed by all – because Monday always follows Sunday. Next that Mr Wright was the headteacher at Springside school at the time, was easy – those who went to the school believed it and those who didn’t asked their friends and then they believed it.
The next statement that I, Mrs. Spencer was married to Mr. Spencer 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, the 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
Reasons for belief are: direct experience, hearing from someone you trust, seeing evidence or simply just knowing.
The disciples came to believe that Christ had risen through all these ways. The disciple whom Jesus loved when he saw the empty tomb and Mary Magdalen when she heard him speak her name. Those on the road to Emmaus when he broke the bread and more of the disciples when they met Christ in the upper room.
But Thomas, was not there in the upper room. And when the others told him that they had met Jesus he was sceptical: “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”
To be sure
If Thomas was uncertain, he asked. He had to be sure. But once convinced, his commitment was total.
Why was Thomas slower than the other disciples to believe? He was not with the other disciples in the upper room. Perhaps he had taken himself off after the crucifixion, fearful. Perhaps his expectations had been shattered. Or perhaps he felt guilt that Jesus had died alone, when he had been the one to say: “let us go and die with him.”
Perhaps, it was simply too good to be true and 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.
Here I am
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.
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.
What of us?
And what of each of us? How would we have reacted if we had been there with Thomas when the disciples told him that they had met the risen Christ? Would we have been like John McEnroe when he thought the umpire had made a wrong judgement: “You cannot be serious”. Or like Victor Meldrew so often said: “I don’t believe it“. And in today’s post-Trump era would we have said: “Fake News.” We have the benefit of hindsight but would we have been a little sceptical, a little doubting, if we had been there at the time? Would it have been outside our expectations, beyond the realms of possibility? Would we have wanted, like Thomas, to see hard evidence?
And when Thomas saw the evidence Jesus told him that he was blessed because he had seen and believed but added, “How blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.” Us. We have not seen the risen Christ in physical form, yet we believe. But sometimes like Thomas we may find it difficult. We are less certain, have doubts. When we are afraid. When things seem topsy turvy or when situations cause us to question. Or when illness, pain, Covid 19 or other distress clouds vision, impairs hope, distorts 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 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 bomb shelter in Germany after World War 2.
I believe in the light when the sun does not shine
I believe in love even when love is not given
I believe in God even when his voice is silent.
What powerful words written at the height of the bombing when believing in light, love and God would have been very difficult.
And perhaps if we are to know the certainty of the writer of those words and the certainty of Thomas, the certainty that comes not only from academic study, or from evidence, or from hearing from others but from direct personal 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 though my unbelief.
‘Why do we believe?’ was delivered by Margery Spencer to St John with St Mark’s Church on Sunday 11th April 2021. It was based on John 20:19-30.