What We Mean by “Faith”

Sermon on John 20:19-31 for April 8, 2018, Easter 2B

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I was watching the videos of The Science Network’s Symposium called “Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion & Survival”.  Several of the “new atheists” gave thoughtful lectures, quite critical of religion.  One of them said that he thought religions were problematic in general because all of them asked people to believe things based on faith, and not on facts and reason.  Often religions ask people to believe unreasonable things, to deny facts, and to be unreasonable about it. 

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In my opinion, that is at least partly true.  I think it is part of the situation we Christians wound up in when, in the fourth century, the Roman government forced all the bishops to agree on one single creed.  Christians had a variety of ways of understanding their faith before that. 

The biggest problem that came from that time, from my perspective, is that afterward, Christians got the idea that the creed was the main thing Christianity was concerned about.  They started thinking that faith meant believing the right set of religious ideas expressed in the creeds.  That was a major change, and, according to my understanding, a mistake with tragic consequences.

But once you define faith as belief in certain ideas, then if those ideas seem unreasonable to you, you experience doubt. And most people operate on the assumption that doubt is the opposite of faith.  That too, I believe, is a mistake. 

John’s Parable of Jesus

Today our text is about the famous “doubting Thomas” so it is a perfect time to talk about the nature of faith and how faith is related to doubt.  First, a word about this Gospel text.  All scholars of the historical Jesus agree that Jesus told parables.  Jesus’ parables are stories that teach the truth by means of a short narrative.  The church continued this practice, telling parables about Jesus.  I take this text is a parable. 

The Gospel we call “John” was written many decades after Jesus life on earth.  Jesus had not been around to listen to or to observe for many years.  One of the reasons for this parable is to speak of what it means to be a person of faith, that is, trust, without the benefit of Jesus’ physical presence. 

In other words, this text acknowledges that doubt is part of the life of followers of Jesus.  If not, there is no reason to tell this story. But here it is.

Thomas famously will not believe that Jesus can be present unless he sees him; in fact, he wants to touch him.  But in the end, seeing Jesus’ wounds is enough – in the story, we are not told that Thomas did, in fact, touch Jesus.  All of this leads up to Jesus’ climactic statement which is addressed to all the people, like John’s community and afterward, all the way down to us, who do not have the benefit of seeing Jesus:

 “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What Is Faith?

So what does it mean to have faith and how does faith relate to doubt?  According to theologian Paul Tillich, faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.  He explains it by pointing out that we all have many things we are concerned about, like food and shelter, things we depend on for survival. 

We also have other concerns we could call “spiritual concerns” because they are not about the physical life, like social and political concerns, concerns about beauty, art, music, literature, and concerns about truth, justice, and morality. 

Some of these concerns strike us as urgent – even extremely urgent. We can say we are grasped by them.  Any of these concerns could claim to be ultimate for us.  We identify a concern as ultimate because we believe that our fulfillment depends on it. This is what we mean by being grasped.  Once we identify a concern as ultimate, it demands total surrender. 

For example, some people have identified their concern for success or social standing as ultimate – their fulfillment depends on being successful.  They will sacrifice all other concerns for success: their family, their health, their concerns for justice, and even life itself. 

Now most of us here would think that identifying success or social standing as an ultimate concern is a mistake.   Since success itself is not ultimate in any sense, it cannot bear the weight of delivering on the promise of ultimate fulfillment. 

Uncertainty and Faith

This shows the problem: when you make a concern your ultimate concern, and surrender to its demands, you do so without certainty.  Ultimacy is about being infinite, and we, as finite people, cannot grasp the infinite.  So we identify our ultimate concern, not by being certain, but by faith.   

People have misplaced faith in many concerns that are not ultimate.  Think of all the people who put their faith in Germany’s Third Reich as their ultimate concern, and what they were willing to surrender to its demands. In fact, all nationalisms are examples of misplaced faith, since no nation is truly ultimate. 

Our films, novels, plays, and songs are full of the struggle, which is part of the human condition, to know what it is we are supposed to be living for – what to identify as our  ultimate concern; what will deliver on the promise of ultimate fulfillment and be worth surrendering to its demands.   

After all these years you would think that we all knew that romantic love could not bear the weight of ultimacy, but we seem to never tire of stories about trying to make it so, and stories of the pain in the discovery that it is not.

Faith and Doubt

So faith is the state of identifying a concern as ultimate, which we cannot know in advance is the right choice, so doubt must be involved.  If you cannot be certain, then you have doubt.  Doubt is not the enemy of faith.  Doubt is entailed necessarily in the faith we put in any concern we consider ultimate. 

So where does God come into this question?   We should ask, what do we mean by “God”?  Here Tillich reminds us that the core meaning divinity is that which is unconditional and ultimate.  So, in that sense, whatever we identify as ultimate has become god for us.

The God of the Hebrew Bible is presented precisely as that which is ultimate and unconditioned.  God is “I am that I am” as the voice proclaims to Moses from the burning bush.  We are not to think of God as a being so much as the ground or possibility of being itself; the source of all being.

So, if we are finite, and yet we feel grasped by the infinite, which we can only know symbolically, how can we live as people of faith – that is people who make God our ultimate concern?  Tillich would say it is a risk, and therefore requires courage.  We do not have certainty, but we are willing to risk everything that there is an ultimate source of meaning, of justice, and of love. 

One person has described the risk this way: we are willing to “risk paying the universe a compliment it may not deserve”, but we have been grasped, and so we have the courage to take the risk.

Faith and Wounds

I think it is intentional, in the Gospel story, that Thomas is able to have courage enough to take the risk of faith when he sees Jesus’ wounds.  When we are grasped by the ultimate, which we call God, and hence, come to believe in the reality of justice, of meaning, and of love, or we could say of goodness, truth, and beauty, we become sensitized to suffering. 

Instead of suffering as evidence that there is no god, as atheists claim, God as our ultimate concern, opens our eyes to the wounds on the hands and in the side of humanity.   We see the living presence of Jesus when we see the wounded; the hungry, the homeless, the abused, the despised people of the world. 

So the courage to take the risk of faith is the courage to act, to do, to participate in the world, with God as our ultimate concern, just exactly like Jesus did.  Jesus did not teach from a professor’s lectern, he taught on the side of a hill.  And when he was finished, he sat the people down, saw, with compassion, that they were hungry, and organized the disciples to feed them. 

To be a follower of Jesus, then, is to risk living as Jesus lived.  Jesus’ ultimate concern was in the Unconditioned Ultimate on which he risked everything, even his life.  Jesus understood this Ultimate to be personal.  Jesus called the personal Ultimate by the familiar name “Father,” or literally, “Abba”, or Daddy. He spent time in prayer and meditation, and taught us to pray “Our Father.”  Of course, we recognize that Father is a symbol for an un-gendered God.   We could just as easily say, Mother.

So the life of faith is not a life of certainty without doubt, but a life of courage in the face of uncertainty and doubt.  It is a life of risking that ultimate fulfillment does indeed come from being grasped by the truly unconditioned Ultimate and engaging that ultimate in intimately personal ways – prayer and worship.   It is a life of risking ourselves on behalf of the wounded world, which is what this congregation is so committed to doing. 

This is what we call covenant-faithfulness, the beloved community of the risen Christ.  I love the way Walter Brueggemann, who was a professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary says it:

“I invite you to keep this question before you: What are you after? [we could say, what is your ultimate concern?]  And what would it mean to eat the real food of covenantal faithfulness, to receive and accept it, to live it and give it, to be transformed and weaned away from the stuff that only makes you more hungry?” (A Gospel of Hope, p. 1)

Misplaced faith makes us more hungry.  But there is ultimate fulfillment in a life of faith, a life of trust, a life of courage to take the risk, respond to the wounds with compassion, and to live centered on what is truly ultimate, to whom we pray in the most intimate of ways.   

As people of faith and of doubt, of courage and action, of prayer and service, let us receive the blessing of Jesus:

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 

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