Faith—The story of doubting Thomas
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
11 April 1999
I don't know if you have seen Groundforce the gardening programme, I actually enjoy watching it Friday evenings especially the delightful, Alan Titchmarsh. But they have started doing something much more fun recently - that is going back to the gardens after a year, to see how well the gardens which they transformed have fared after a year. This week the garden was in Milton Keynes, personally I thought the woman didn't deserve to have her garden done up in the first place, she was so ungrateful. Anyway Charlie Dimmock goes back after a year with the cameras and they look to see how everything is growing. They knock on the door and the woman comes
'O it's a bad time, she say's, you've caught me out, I
haven't been doing the gardening.'
'We have come to see how you have been looking after that beautiful garden which we entrusted to you'
Inside the lovely gazebo which the Groundforce Team had built is a pile of sand dumped in a corner. The borders haven't been cultivated since the previous autumn and everywhere is a mess. Unlike the feigned surprise on the faces of people when they come home to discover their new garden, these return visits really are a surprise. We know this because if she had known that they were coming, she would surely have done her hair, let alone cut the grass in the garden which looked equally a mess. Caught out she was, surprised!
The resurrection of Jesus, we are told, was equally a surprise for his disciples. They were not expecting him to return. They were caught off their guard and instead of being prepared and ready for Jesus they had let everything go. Even worse when Thomas got the tip off to say that Jesus had risen and was alive, he still refused to believe. The reaction of Thomas when he was told about Jesus was not one of, 'Gosh, I had better get ready to meet him' Rather he is sceptical and unbelieving, an attitude characteristic of many people today. We could say that in many ways Thomas was born 2000 ahead of his time.
Doubting Thomas reflects a pervasive 20th century hesitation when it comes to matters of faith. Sometimes there is not a flat denial of truth but a mentality which is sceptical, suspicious, and demanding of hard evidence. This is not a closed mind really, but one open to the truth only after it has been fully proved and makes human sense. We might sympathise with Thomas and his demand for physical proof before he accepted anything of what had been said to him. Human report was insufficient, he had to see it for himself. However for those who are sceptical, no amount of proof will ever be enough.
Faith is undoubtedly a risk, a gamble. Yet in refusing to believe what was said about Jesus by those who had met him, to refuse to believe without the possibility of placing his fingers in the holes in Christ's body, Thomas was of course taking a risk. To believe or not to believe, both are risks and require faith.
- 1. To believe in Jesus as God incarnate, dead and then risen requires faith.
- 2. But equally, to say that Christ is dead, to dispute the personal testimony of history and the church and millions of believers, also requires faith.
As an example—Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge scientist, claims there is no God, but make no mistake, this is not an objective scientific assessment. He has so many unanswered questions himself, the most important questions he fails to even try to answer. He is not able to suggest where the carbons and gases and basic building blocks of life came from. Rather it is his statement of his personal belief when he says that there is no God. And I would say that to discount the theory of a creator God in the absence of any scientific suggestions as to where it all came from, betrays a rather closed and prejudiced viewpoint. It is to say,
'I believe that the creative processes of the world were accidental, that the world was made through cosmic accident, but whereas I don't know where the basic components came from I am sure it was not from a power bigger than I can understand. '
This is how those who say that there is no God stand logic on its head and use as their defence reason! If you believe that there is no God, then by all means say 'it is my belief.' But accept that this position is a step of faith. It is to speak of things of which you do not know. The rise of the Enlightenment worldview led to the credibility of Christianity being challenged. The rational religion of the Enlightenment led to a conflict with ideas such as resurrection. Whereas reason and historical analysis necessitates that we acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth existed as an itinerant rabbi, that is beyond historical question. Yet there is no proof that he was who he said he was, Saviour and Lord. We have only the evidence of written material from those who claim to have seen Jesus. And so for some people the impression is created that belief in Jesus necessitates faith, and those who do not believe are exercising the rational approach in view of the absence of satisfactory evidence.
Important ! In actual fact this position runs contrary to the weight of evidence. The faith in no God runs contrary to the evidence of so many people across religious faiths who have recognised and borne witness to their awareness of the presence of God. Indeed the theologian Paul Tillich said that it was existential experience of the risen Christ which was the important thing. He treated historical aspects of the Christian faith with a degree of disinterest.
In his recent television advertisement for SpecSavers, Hawking takes a ride around the planets. He sees the wonder of the universe the colours of the galaxy and the size and beauty of it all and he expresses his delight at creation. And yet this is a man who claims that there is no God. Confronted by the most wonderful aspects of nature, Hawking speaks about how nice his new glasses are from SpecSavers—and yet he has no spiritual vision whatsoever. Sadly, you cannot go down to the local opticians and buy a pair of spectacles which will open the spiritual blindness of those without faith. This is one of the mysteries of the universe. How can people look at the wonder of the world and attribute it all to accident? Even the chaotic parts of the world, the sickness, the times when nature goes out of control, even these bits seem to confirm the concept of a benevolent creator, because they seem to run contrary to the natural and expected pattern which is so full of the order designed and intrinsic to all that we see.
Faith cannot be bought. In one sense it is a great leveller even before death. If you haven't got it then nobody can give it to you. Your parents can't leave it in a will, you can't inherit or bequeath it. You can't buy it or give it away. Its not for the rich or the poor, you may have all the wealth in the world and yet still be unable to have the vision granted by faith. How sad, for it is this one thing—faith—and faith alone which transforms the created order in which we live from a giant cosmic meaningless accident, and makes sense of it all. Like Thomas we may be unprepared for the knock on the door. We may be unprepared to consider the existence of that which we cannot see or touch. Yet we know in our hearts that there is so much more to life than can be seen with the eye or proven with mathematical equations. Love for example cannot be weighed or measured, but it is the most powerful force in the universe and likely the most important need in our lives. Without faith we are restricted in what we can see, it is only with the vision of faith that all things are revealed. Faith does not offer proof, rather it removes the veils that prevent us from seeing deeper truths unavailable to physical vision. Jesus praises those who see with faith and called them blessed.
So is faith something over which we have no control? Are we damned at birth never to be able to believe? No, the requirement for faith is a willingness to trust, Jesus said that we must become like children, children will trust. And if we are prepared to take that risk and open ourselves to the possibility of being surprised by God, then that faith will expand our vision. I remember wearing glasses for the first time, they weren't SpecSavers, but I walked out of the opticians and could see individual leaves on trees and the lines of mortar in brick walls. Faith is like putting on spectacles and seeing things clearly for the first time. Faith can open our live and allow Gods miracles to come true.
So today ask yourself if your vision is limited by the 'show me' culture of Thomas. We may have doubts, even Calvin allowed that Christians will have questions and doubts as a normal part of their belief, there is lots which we do not know or understand. But are we prepared to be surprised by God? And those of us who have accepted the presence of the risen Christ, then have we still the capacity to believe in miracles for ourselves and others. There is the possibility that the risen Christ might turn up unexpectedly like a member of the Groundforce Team, even this day, asks to see how well we are tending to that which has been entrusted to us.