Finding Faith

Published: Monday, 04 April 2016

Finding Faith

This sermon was delivered by Geoff Pound at ABC on 3 April 2016. It is part of the ‘Resurrection People’ series which is also accompanied by Study Notes for group discussion and personal study. Here is the link to Study 2 which is based on this Scripture passage.

Reading: John 20:19-31 Thomas GP 0416

A few years ago I taught some week long intensive Bible courses in XYZ.[1] The first course had about 30 students and it was held in a large house in the mountains surrounding a major city. We arrived in the dark on Sunday night and at 9am the next day I started my first lecture.

I got up and said, “My name is Geoff Pound and I’m from Australia” but before this could be interpreted, a phone rang, a man cried out and everybody scattered!

They told me that teams of Police had been spotted in the locality. We hid our bags and I went with one group up into the bush. One said that the police had closed down their Bible College just a few days earlier.

At midday another phone rang giving us the ‘All Clear’. We returned to the house. We ate lunch and in good traditional style we had a siesta and then my lecture began at 2 0’clock.

Today’s Easter story begins with the disciples gathered behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish authorities (v19). This is quite understandable as their leader was crucified three days earlier. Were they going to be next?

It’s good for us to remember that Christians in many parts of the world today are meeting behind locked doors fearing for their freedom and facing all kinds of persecution.

As I discovered with my students there’s a special quality that believers possess when they pay the high price of living as a Christian.

The good news for these first disciples and for us if we’re fearful is that the Risen Christ came and stood among them (v19).

I’m so grateful to those of our church who lead us in worship. Leading worship is such a difficult task. All our hopes and desires have to be met in 60 minutes each Sunday morning. Some of us like more traditional hymns and some like something more upbeat, contemporary songs. Some like greater formality with written prayers that have responses and others like greater spontaneity. And what we are doing is not a performance. It’s not entertainment. It is an experience in Christian worship.

Writing 50 years after the first Easter[2] John is setting out the key elements for a gathering of Christian worship.

Here’s the first ingredient: “Jesus came and stood among them.” (19)

The presence of the Risen Christ.

Whether we are worship leader or worshipper, how can we best prepare and welcome the presence of the Risen Christ in our midst?

Secondly, the gift of His peace.

Twice in this gathering (19, 21) and once the next week (26), Jesus greets those gathered with the greeting of peace. How in our worship might grief-stricken, fearful people better hear this greeting and not only pass the peace but truly experience this peace deep within us?

The third ingredient is a commissioning.

Jesus says: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (21)

What a gift to discover in worship that Jesus has a task for us to do, that he’s sending us out to carry on the work that Jesus first started! If this makes us feel helpless and inadequate then look at the next gift.

The fourth ingredient is the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

“He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.” (22)

Doesn’t this breathing of Jesus remind us of the Genesis story (Genesis 2:7) when God breathed life into those first human beings? So Christian worship is an opportunity to receive that breath afresh and to begin all over again.

The fifth ingredient is forgiveness.

When we gather this is the time to check out whether we need to forgive a brother or a sister and to receive the forgiveness from someone else and especially from God.

Knowing Christ’s presence, accepting His peace, His commission, His Spirit and His forgiveness—what a rich experience if this happens to us Sunday by Sunday.

The Greek word for closed is kleiso. These disciples were locked behind kleisoed doors. They’re in a closed room, a closed community, closed by fear.[3]

Now think of the way gay people talk about ‘coming out’. When they tell their brave and courageous stories they usually talk about ‘coming out’ from the closet of fear and over time experiencing the freedom of that emergence.

The word kleiso (meaning closed) is connected to the word ecclesia which was the first name for the church.

Ecclesia means ‘the called out ones’, so Christians are not to be closed up and sealed up in a tomb but called out and freed.

Here in this place of worship the tomb busting Christ was not to be cocooned by fear and neither were his disciples.

So when the Risen Christ gifts them with his presence, his peace, his commission, his Spirit and his forgiveness it was as if he was saying, “You’re not to remain closed (kleiso). You are called out (ecclesia). Come out!”

Canon Australia invited six photographers to take a picture of the same actor.[4] At different times they came in to the same Sydney studio with the same props and the same 10 minute slot to talk to the man and complete their task.

But there was a twist! One by one and unable to talk to the other photographers, each was told a different thing about the actor. [Photos of the actor were used in the sermon at this point to illustrate these next six images taken.]

The first was told the man was a fisherman, so he appears to have an open demeanour and a sense of humour.

The second photographer was told the man was a psychic hence the two chairs in the image.

The third took this photo when told the man was an ex-convict. See the look of brutality, the sideways glance and the shadows?

The fourth photographer believed the man to be a self-made millionaire so he captured the man without any surroundings. No props are needed.

The fifth photographer was told the man was a lifesaver. No wonder he looks happy, bubbly, bronzed and full of light as if he’d just come off Bondi beach.

The sixth photographer was told this man was an alcoholic so the subject looks sombre and the water bottle suggests he hopes to be on the water-wagon.

This photographic experiment illustrates how the same person can be portrayed in totally different ways. It points up the power of perspective. It suggests that a photo is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by the one who is in front of it.

So when we come to look at Thomas, we see that his many portraits have been shaped by the point of view of the painter, the trick of light by the storyteller or the particular angle of the preacher.

Down through history Thomas has been snapped as a skeptic, framed as a disbelieving doubter and clicked as a second rate disciple. But he’s portrayed here positively by John as a model of how we can find faith.

20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

Some have suggested that Thomas unfortunately nipped out of the building right at the crucial time of Christ’s visit. Maybe he’d gone to buy the hot cross buns for supper. Perhaps he’d dropped out for a longer time so stricken as he was by grief and needing time alone.

But Thomas shows us that even in the early times people came to faith at different times, in different places and in different ways.

For Mary it happened alone, in a garden in the morning, for other disciples it happened in church at night when they were together.

For Saul it was like a blinding light—so instantaneous. For those on the road to Emmaus it happened as gradually as the falling dusk.

Let’s shun the cookie cutter method that tries to prescribe one way for coming to faith.

20:25 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."

We can sense the disappointment of Thomas in missing out. Thank God for people like Thomas who speak up and speak out their questions![5]

He’s drawing up the criteria for what it would mean for him to believe. He’s not skeptical. He wants to find faith. All he’s asking for is all that the others received in their encounter the week before. He’s expressing the key prerequisites for finding faith—honesty and desire. He doesn’t have a closed heart and a closed mind. He wants to believe.

It happens for Thomas a week later, in the house, behind locked doors. Jesus came and stood among them. (v26)

It says something about the importance of gathering together with other people of faith. It also tells us that Christ’s longing for us is much stronger than our longing for faith.

Jesus shows himself in accordance with the criteria that Thomas had established:

20:27 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."

Who knows whether Thomas took the touch test?

What we do know is what we hear from Thomas’ mouth:

20:28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

From his lips we get the highest confession in John’s Gospel.

In a Spanish church service you hear people pray and sing: ‘Señor! Señor!’ ‘Lord’ is a word of respect: ‘Lord! Lord!’

But in the first century the word ‘Lord’ was reserved for the Emperor. Thomas was now saying, ‘Jesus, you are the ultimate ruler. You are my Lord’.

It was considered blasphemous for Jewish people to call any human being ‘God’ but here is Thomas ascribing to Jesus the quality of deity and divinity: “My Lord and My God.”

Our passage concludes with a blessing to those like John’s readers who have not seen the Risen Christ and yet who believe (v29) and a statement that Jesus did many other wonderful things that never got written up (v30).

As we finish let me say that one of the difficult disciplines that film actors need to learn is to resist the temptation of looking directly at the camera.

You’ve got to pretend that the camera isn’t there. When amateur actors do this it breaks that magic spell that enables the audience to get involved in the action as though it was really happening and as if they were there and a part of it.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all avoid looking into the camera when they tell their stories. John is different. He deliberately keeps stepping out of his scene and he talks directly to his readers.

In the final verse John looks straight into the camera and says:

20:31 But these things are written so that you [with finger pointing!] may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

He’s speaking to you! We are in this Gospel! We get a mention in the Scriptures!

He’s not hesitant in saying, “My Gospel is to help you to come to belief and in believing you might have life.”

There’s a delicious ambiguity in this word which means ‘so that you may come to believe’ (for the first time) and ‘so that you might keep on believing’. That covers all of us.

Easter isn’t just about history. This is where Easter comes to us. Thomas gives us the template we need for coming to faith and keeping the faith and becoming people who are called out and fully alive!

Prayer

We thank you living Lord that you refuse to leave us be.

You keep on coming to us.

Your presence is wanting to infuse this community.

To we, the church that has nothing essential, you give us everything:

Your presence, your peace, your mission, your spirit and your forgiveness. What more do we need?

So help us to welcome your presence,

To delight in your visitation,

To be vividly aware of the living Christ standing among us and inviting us now to your table.

Our Lord and Our God.

Amen.

 


[1] I am choosing not to disclose the name of this country or the specific city so as not to jeopardize the work of the College and to overcome any visa issues I might have if I have the opportunity to visit this country again.

[2] John’s Gospel was likely written 85-95 A.D.

[3] I am indebted to Peter Woods for this thought and connection between kleiso and ekklesia in ‘Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are’, The Listening Hermit, 11 April 2012.

[4] This experiment is written up in several places including, ‘Ex-Convict, Self-Made Millionaire or Psychic’, Daily Mail, 10 November 2015.

[5] Thomas spoke out his queries back in John 14 and he asked, “But Lord we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way? To which Jesus gives that marvelous ‘I am the Way, the truth and the life’ saying.