|Faith That Doesnít Have to Touch
June 29, 1997 / John 20:24-31
There is a text from the Bible that introduces my lesson today. It is found at John 20:24-29, and I ask your indulgence to read it. And for someone who is not a Christian or who is wrestling with doubts about the basic claims of Christian faith, I particularly need to ask your indulgence ó and understanding. I am not reading this text to beg the question but to identify the central issue at stake for discussion. That issue, simply stated, is this: Can reasonable people believe the things that are crucial to Christian faith?
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!"
But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Only Judas among the original apostles has been subjected to more critical and uncharitable judgments than Thomas. Though his nickname within that group was "Didymus," he is better known as "Doubting Thomas" because of his reaction to the first reports brought to him about Jesusí resurrection from the dead. He insisted that he would have to have hard proof before believing it was so. "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side," he told ten believers, "I will not believe it." On account of this demand, Thomas has been reproached across the centuries.
I will be among the first to speak up in his behalf. In Thomasí demand for proof, he is to be admired rather than ridiculed. Too many people today believe too much on the basis of too little. I am appalled at how much anti-intellectual, irrational garbage people are willing to swallow without a particle of solid evidence to back it up.
People read horoscopes, lay out Tarot cards, and call 900-numbers to learn their futures. Others shave their heads and dance through the streets singing mind-numbing chants. A few will even follow David Koresh to Waco, give their 12-year-old daughters to him as sexual partners, and proclaim him to be Jesus Christ come back to teach again. Thirty-eight people followed their so-called "spiritual leader" in drinking a fatal cocktail in order to leave their "vehicles" and hop a ride to paradise on a UFO that was following the Hale-Bopp comet. And enough people think space aliens landed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 that several people are ó pun intended ó getting "taken for a ride" on their ship.
Call me a Doubting Thomas, too, if you please. But I am not about to believe Dionne Warwick, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, or the Roswell museum-keepers without some proof ó some good, solid proof. Too much is at stake for me to accept just any claim someone makes. Not the least of the things at stake is my intention to be a discerning and responsible human being.
I donít want to be such a radical skeptic that I set standards of proof so high they can never be met. Neither do I want to be so gullible that any sort of alleged proof will count as an actual one. Fair and reasonable standards, however, ought to be imposed on every proof offered for any point of view.
Jesus must not have been offended by Thomasí request, for he invited him to see the evidence he had requested. "Put your finger here; see my hands," he invited. "Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
"Thatís just my problem!" someone says. "If I could see and touch God, I would believe in him. If I could see and touch the risen Christ, I could accept the claims you Christians make for your religion. But until I have that sort of evidence, well . . .
Suppose you are walking in a forest and come to a clearing. There is a tent, hot coffee over a fire, and other evidences of human presence. As you look around, though, no one is in view. You call loudly, and apparently no one hears you. At least, no one answers. How would you react?
It is in the nature of our human thought processes to assume that the site belongs to someone who has been present before you arrived. You might look around to find the person or persons who made the campsite ó especially if you saw blood or other signs of possible danger. You could decide to wait around for a while to see who returns to the site. Or you might simply go on your way. But I dare say it would not occur to you to say: "Well, fancy this! What a stroke of luck that I came upon a site so perfectly suited to my needs!"
I doubt you would walk in, claim the camp as your own, and never entertain the possibility that you were encroaching on what belonged to another. When we see such things, we donít assume they just sometimes happen. We know somebody set it up.
By investigating the camp, looking at clothes drying on a line, and seeing footprints near the fire, you might even have a good idea about the number of persons and why they are in the woods. For example, a small coffee pot, dark blue clothing with insignia, and childrenís footprints might lead you to think it is a pack of Cub Scouts and their leader.
You wait around a while, and you hear a commotion to the east of the camp. You turn that direction and hear animated voices grow louder and closer. Then you see branches move and people starting to emerge from the trees. It is a Cub Scout leader and seven of his young charges coming back from a hike. You wave a greeting and visit with the group before passing on. The leader is friendly and offers you a cup of coffee, but the kids make such nuisances of themselves that you decide to leave sooner rather than later.
May I trace this analogy through with you? Maybe it can help me demonstrate why I judge Christian faith to be rational. I think it holds prospect for laying out at least the preliminary line of reasoning that ends at the foot of the cross of Jesus.
There are essentially three grounds for Christian faith offered in the New Testament. They are common-sense reasoning, the historical fact of Jesus of Nazareth, and a group of people in whose lives God is active.
First, there is logic, judgment, and common sense. Men such as Paul the apostle asserted that men and women have some knowledge of God simply by seeing the world he has created. In the first-century city of Lystra, Paul told a group of its citizens: "We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things [i.e., idols] to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy" (Acts 14:15c-17; cf. 17:24-29).
This sort of reasoning is usually called "natural theology." It is theology (i.e., thinking about God) that results from our reflections on the natural world in which we find ourselves. The cosmos we inhabit either (1) popped into existence from nothing or (2) was called into existence by some Eternal Force that preexisted it. Philosophers from at least as early as the time of Plato have reasoned from nature to natureís Creator, from a habitable world to a world-arranger.
That is the initial point of the campsite analogy. We know campsites donít just pop into forest clearings. Humans are generally too bright to accept an itís-just-that-way "explanation" (?) for tents, hot coffee, and sleeping bags.
We humans have come upon a campsite in the cosmos. Planet Earth is here and habitable. "Itís just that way" might seem a sufficient explanation initially. But the more we think about it, the more we know that is no explanation at all. So we begin looking around for clues that might offer us a reasonable account of why the clearing is here and why it has its particular form. In fact, we eventually realize that our own presence in the clearing in something in need of explanation itself.
"For since the creation of the world Godís invisible qualities ó his eternal power and divine nature ó have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Rom. 1:20). "Every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything" (Heb. 3:4).
Jesus of Nazareth
Second, there is the historicity of Jesus. Then, while we were standing around trying to figure out the meaning of the campsite, who should walk in but the One who set it up! Here comes the Scout Master with his little troop. Here comes Jesus with a ragtag band of disciples trailing after him. He smiles at us, shows us some of his astonishing creative power, and answers the questions that have been burning in our hearts for ages. It is an absolutely wonderful visit that we hope will never end!
Was there really such a person as Jesus of Nazareth? If we had no New Testament, we could construct a rather full outline of his career from Roman and Jewish sources outside Scripture. The late non-Christian historian Will Durant once wrote: "The denial of [Jesusí] existence seems never to have occurred even to the bitterest gentile or Jewish opponents of nascent Christianity." Of the alternate possibility that Jesus is a mythical, idealized creation of human imagination, he said: "That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels."
Jesus didnít just exist. He did astonishing things. He changed things. He changed people. He changed the history of the world! And he brought about change not by force of arms but by compassion, truth, and love. That is why Christians see him as God on a rescue mission to save us. Yes, we believe he is Immanuel, God with us. We confess him as divine, the Son of God, our Lord. But he did not enter history as a swaggering, threatening God. He came as a gentle, healing God.
"Through [Jesus] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:3-5, 14). "[Jesus] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death ó even death on a cross!" (Phil. 2:7-8).
Oh, we did want his visit to last forever. We wanted him to stay and stay and stay. We wanted to hear more, to see more, to experience more. But his essential reason for coming was to carry out a dangerous rescue mission that he knew would cost him his life.
Bill McCartney tells about an Hispanic man named Ivan who is a Vietnam veteran. Ivan lives in Denver, his life in ruins because of something that happened three decades ago. Ivanís squad had befriended some Vietnamese village children who would visit the men daily to peddle candy. And Ivan became friendly ó no, paternal ó with a little seven-year-old girl named Kim. He picked her up and whirled her around. He held her on his lap. He told her he loved her.
Then one day Kim was used by the Vietcong as a kamikaze. She showed up alone at the soldiersí camp, wired with explosives. But before she got too close, she unbuttoned her blouse to show the soldiers the bomb. It was her way of telling the Americans that she would kill them, if they allowed her to come any closer. Ivan was one of the men who shot her. As McCartney puts it, "This guy is in pure torment" still over what he did that day.
McCartney explains Ivanís torment this way. "He canít receive what Kim offered. His life! She gave her life so he could live." And that story parallels what Jesus did. He gave his life because he loves you. He gave himself up at Calvary to take the death sentence that had been handed down on me. And he wants you to accept life as his free gift, his gift of grace to you. Remember the words from John? "In him was life . . ." You need not live in the torment of guilt, shame, and bondage. He pardons. He liberates. He gives life. He came to do that in the full knowledge of what it would cost.
Godís People Through Time
Third, there are the people in whose lives God has been active through the centuries. This is the weakest argument that can be made on behalf of the Christian faith. Going back to the analogy I offered earlier, these are the Cub Scouts trailing their leader into his campsite who make such nuisances of themselves that visitors can hardly bring themselves to stay and talk with him.
At this point I am not only talking about the corrupt church of the Middle Ages, the occasional scandalous televangelist, or the preacher who gets arrested in a child pornography sting. You can counter-example some of those notable failures with cases of notable distinction. Hospitals have been built, orphans protected, education extended, elderly people cared for with dignity ó all because people took the practical demands of their Christian commitment seriously. And for the real-life Elmer Gantrys, there have also been real-life Mother Theresas and Billy Grahams.
The people who have made faith unpalatable in the extreme for people who donít know the history of the crusades or the names of religionís tarnished stars are people like me and churches like this one. Preachers can care too much about their status and dignity and too little about washing feet and serving people in the tradition of their Lord. Church members can be so concerned to parse the fine points of biblical doctrine that they forget such basics as the Golden Rule and its requirement that people be treated with respect.
Many people are driven to or reinforced in their unbelief by the disunity of the Body of Christ. One church blasts another for its eschatology or pneumatology. The blasted church fires back a barrage of invective about baptismal theology or the impossibility of apostasy. Churches perpetuate our divisions, while the words of Jesus ring across the centuries: "I pray for those who will believe in me through [the apostlesí] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:20b-21). Christian pettiness and division are the rich soil in which Satan grows bumper crops of unbelief.
Churches can accept institutionalized racism and sexism. They can be harsh rather than helpful with alcoholics, people with AIDS, or divorced persons. We can get so wrapped up in ourselves and "doing church" that we forget that Godís business is done in the places we have learned to avoid and among the people we have made uncomfortable in our presence.
"What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ĎGo, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,í but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (Jas. 2:14-16) ó and what possible chance will you have to convince a watching world that it needs anything you are offering?
But how blessed are those persons who have a friend or neighbor who truly knows Christ and in whom the Spirit of God works! They see joy, peace, goodness, and self-control in that believerís life. They watch him live out faithfulness to his family. They see her model kindness to all. They experience kindness and love from that person and are won to Christ by the beautiful witness of a transformed life (cf. Gal. 5:22-23).
The Place of the Bible
Going back to that encounter between Thomas and Jesus, do you remember how it ended? Thomas was invited to see and touch Jesus. His doubts were banished, and his faith soared. "My Lord and my God!" he exclaimed. Jesusí response to that confession is fascinating. "Because you have seen me, you have believed," Jesus told him. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
The writer of the Fourth Gospel added his own footnote at that point. After affirming that the life of Jesus was filled with other events and signs that are not recorded in his volume, he wrote: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." People who have lived in the generations following Jesus have had to depend on an authenticated Scripture as the basis for our faith in him.
There is no book that has been subjected to the reverent and rigorous scrutiny of its friends and, simultaneously, to the disdainful and contemptuous attacks of its enemies as the Bible. It was once quite fashionable to attack the Bible for its alleged anachronisms, historical blunders, and scientific errors. There has been a radical about face concerning prejudicial attacks in the last half of this century.
No single science has done as much as archaeology to confirm the reliability of the Bible. In 1979 Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay found two tiny silver scrolls in a tomb from Jerusalem. They were dated to approximately 600 B.C. When the scrolls were unrolled at the Israel Museum, they found a benediction from the Book of Numbers etched into their surface. This discovery made it clear that parts of the Old Testament were being copied long before its negative critics had said they were even written.
The biblical story of King David ó with its adultery, murder, and political deceit set over against his extraordinary faith and courage ó was considered "too fantastic" to be anything other than myth. King David must have been a made-up character. In 1993, Israeli archaeologists digging in the Golan Heights unearthed a piece of stone from an ancient monument dated in the ninth century B.C. Inscribed in Aramaic were the words "King of Israel" and "House of David." Critics of the Bible insisted the find was faked or the inscription incorrectly translated. In 1994, more fragments of the stele were found with additional references to the ancient king. Newspapers around the world quoted Seymour Gitin of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in East Jerusalem in calling it "one of the greatest finds of the twentieth century." The skeptical claim that King David never existed except as a drama character has been essentially dropped.
Recent archaeological digs at Shechem, where the Bible says Abraham built an altar to God, establish the fact that an organized worshiping community was there during the time of Abraham.
First Samuel says the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant to Ekron after capturing it from the Israelites. Unknown outside the Bible, Ekron was declared to be a "fabled city" by the negative critics. In the summer of 1996, a dig at a kibbutz in Central Israel found a stone tabled with a Phoenician inscription that refers to Ekron.
The French unbeliever Voltaire once boasted that it had taken twelve men to set up Christianity, but he would show that a single man was enough to overthrow it. He said that in a hundred years the Bible would be a forgotten book. How many books from Voltaire have you read? How many books of the Bible? Tell me the name of one book written by Voltaire. Tell me the name of any book in the Bible. Hmm. Whose star has faded, and whose is shining brightly?
The Bible is anything but an archaic millstone around the necks of modern people. It is the rock-solid foundation on which faith is erected. It has withstood the test of time and survived the violent attacks of unbelief. It is an absolutely reliable source of information about the most important character and issue in human history ó Jesus Christ and the salvation that comes through him alone.
The route to faith for someone far removed in space-time history from the things Thomas experienced is necessarily different, but his or her reward is not. Our proofs for Jesusí resurrection, for example, will obviously not be the same ones Thomas was given. But we should be reminded that no figure of history ó whether Socrates, Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, or Jesus ó is available for immediate sensory experiences through sight, sound, or touch. All of them have to be authenticated to us indirectly through history, archaeology, and documents.
When held to the strictest canons of historical evidence ó standards much higher than the ones applied to the issues surrounding the ancient Pharaohs or Alexander the Great or George Washington ó we have more attested evidence about Jesusí personality, life history, and resurrection from the dead than practically any other events of antiquity. It is on the basis of these many lines of proof ó not some blind leap or irrational sentimentality ó that I stake my life now and destiny for all eternity. On the basis of that same evidence, I do not blush to invite all others to know him and to trust him for all the promises he has made.
I have come to the clearing and found the campsite. What my own common sense told me was both confirmed and corrected by meeting the One who had set it up for operation. And the fact that he continues to function in history beyond the capacities of such incompetent neophytes as me makes it impossible for me not to believe.
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