Faith That Gives Life (John 20:30-31)

NOTE: This sermon was preached as a dialogue between John York and Rubel Shelly.

John York: "Unimaginable." That word has been overused in the past 12 days, as we have struggled to describe how or why the events of September 11, 2001, happened. The more we have attempted to process our shock and our grief and our anger, the more "unimaginable" the event has become.

Sure, we now have those images of the World Trade center crumbling so burned into our brains that we can imagine. A host of other circumstances has evolved out of this crisis that before the event would have equally unimaginable. I would never have imagined New Yorkers banding together as community or Mayor Giuliani responding to the challenge as he has. I would never have imagined the 7th-inning stretch at baseball games being a time for 21st-century Americans to start singing "God Bless America." In my wildest dreams, I would not have imagined Hollywood producing a telethon that would be carried on all network and cable channels and in which America the Beautiful and God Bless America were two of the songs performed.

Prior to September 11, what I imagined was faith in decline across this land. I imagined celebrity replacing heroism, with athletes becoming icons. I imagined people growing more and self-secure, more and more secular, more and more distanced from God—a land in which the church was a needed voice, but not a wanted voice.

The events of September 11 changed all of that. Now it seems unimaginable that people in our nation would not be drawn to God. And yet I know from e-mails I have received that for some this crisis has not produced faith at all. Only anger and further distancing from God. As one friend of mine put it, "If this is God's way of calling people to himself, I want no part of it! He can keep my ticket to heaven!" He is obviously angry—angry that, if there is a God, he would allow this atrocity to happen. Angry with the religious responses that sometimes have been equally hateful and vengeful, angry over "Crusade" language. When our securities are ripped away in crisis, we don't all respond the same way. And the language of faith that is produced can be difficult to decipher.

Rubel Shelly: Indeed! Why only last Sunday John Mark completed his series on the Lord's Supper by stressing the sense of community that comes in eating and drinking together. I think the previously dis-United States had become united again. Hockey fans wanted the president's speech more than they wanted the third period of the Rangers-Flyers game Thursday night. On Friday, the Mets and Braves played the first baseball game at Shea Stadium after the tragedy in Manhattan – and hugged each other during warm-ups and after the game. Greg Maddux said he had an experience totally unique for him in playing in New York City – no obscenities from the fans. And today Yankee Stadium is going to host not a baseball game but a prayer service.

Crisis moments change us. They challenge us emotionally and physically. And they challenge us spiritually. A real crisis demands decisive action.

I've flown hundreds of thousands of miles in skies over the United States, Europe, and Africa. I've had several unpleasant moments and a few anxious ones on those planes. But Thomas Burnett had a very different experience on United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. The chief operating officer of a medical device company, he called his wife after his plane had been hijacked by terrorists on a suicide mission. "If they are going to take the plane down, then we're going to have to do something," he told her. "A group of us is going to do something." Those were the last words he spoke to her, and the plane soon crashed about 80 miles from Pittsburgh. He, Todd Beamer, and Jeremy Glick — perhaps with others as well — rushed the terrorists and kept the plane they were on from hitting a populated area. It was a crisis situation for them.

Maybe some of you have heard the story of United Airlines Flight 564 out of Denver International Airport a week ago yesterday. On that Saturday, the first near-normal day at most airports in this country, the door had just been locked and the plane was about to pull out of the gate. The captain's voice came over the cabin's speaker system.

"I want to thank you brave folks for coming out today," he began. "We don't have any new instructions from the federal government, so from now on we're on our own." There was a total hush throughout the plane. He explained that airport security was tight and had pretty much eliminated the possibility of firearms getting aboard a plane – but not weapons of the type the terrorists apparently used — plastic knives or weapons fashioned from wood or ceramics. He continued:

"Sometimes a potential hijacker will announce that he has a bomb. There are no bombs on this aircraft and if someone were to get up and make that claim, don't believe him.

"If someone were to stand up, brandish something such as a plastic knife and say ‘This is a hijacking' or words to that effect here is what you should do: Every one of you should stand up and immediately throw things at that person — pillows, books, magazines, eyeglasses, shoes — anything that will throw him off balance and distract his attention. If he has a confederate or two, do the same with them. Most important: get a blanket over him, then wrestle him to floor and keep him there. We'll land the plane at the nearest airport and the authorities will take it from there.

"Remember, there will be one of him and maybe a few confederates, but there are 200 of you. You can overwhelm them.

"The Declaration of Independence says 'We, the people' and that's just what it is when we're up in the air: we, the people, vs. would-be terrorists. I don't think we are going to have any such problem today or tomorrow or for a while, but some time down the road, it is going to happen again and I want you to know what to do.

"Now, since we're a family for the new few hours, I'll ask you to turn to the person next to you, introduce yourself, tell them a little about yourself and ask them to do the same." [1]
In a genuine crisis, you must act. As a member of a community that may otherwise be less than a true community, you must be willing to band together, make common cause, and unite to take action. And there are certainly spiritual parallels to this sort of scenario. If you are a Christian who is trying to make a career decision between job offers in Atlanta and Cincinnati, pray for wisdom. But if you are lost and have no stake in the kingdom of God, cry out for God! If you are a believer with questions or a pilgrim who stumbles, plead with God to make you stronger. But if you are discovering in the horrible aftermath of Sept. 11 that you don't have a faith to sustain you, that you want to pray but don't know God, that you fear dying because you know you are not ready, you need to accept Jesus Christ today! Whether you are "in" or "out of" the church, a faith in crisis demands a resolute response.

The issue is your relationship to God through faith in Christ Jesus. That's nothing to dawdle about. It's nothing to put off until you've nothing better to do. Nothing better to do? There's nothing nearly so important as this one thing!

Do you believe — or not? Do you accept him — or not? Will you follow him — or not? All four of our canonical Gospels are putting that question at the forefront of consciousness for their readers.

John: I think you are right about that, Rubel. But the question is: to whom are the Gospel writers addressing their faith questions? I agree that the Gospels are addressing the faith question, but it is not so much the pagan outsiders but the Christian insiders that are having the faith question put before them. That is especially true for the Gospel of John, the last of the four to be written.

John's audience has a multifaceted crisis of its own that threatens to destroy them. They are living near the end of the first century A.D., and the promise of the risen Christ returning in their lifetime has become doubtful. There is confusion about their relationship to Israel. Rome has destroyed Jerusalem, and Christians are trying to distinguish themselves from Judaism while claiming to be the authentic Israel, the authentic people of God. Gentile Christians must renounce their pagan heritage and face persecution from the Romans, from their own families at times. Those whose biological lineage is Judaism have now been expelled from the Synagogue, and are treated as nonpersons by their heritage. In other words, these followers of Christ find themselves distrusted – despised even – by the people and circumstances that once gave them personal and communal identity.

I should throw in a third option that apparently exists in John's audience as well. There are some within the Christian community who seem to be claiming special, elitist spiritual knowledge about the Christ that makes them superior to other Christians. So what does authentic belief in Jesus look like? Why believe in a risen Christ who is not returning? Why live with such overwhelming insecurity in this life? Why claim faith in a crucified Jewish Messiah? What can such "faith" do to save one from such identity losses on all sides?

Rubel: And that surfaces the question of how one "grounds" (i.e., establishes, settles) faith. How do I know Jesus? What justifies my faith in him as the Son of God? By what right do I offer him to those of you in this room who are unsaved as your one and only hope for eternal life?

For some, their questions about Jesus were answered through first-hand experience of him. Our friend John — whose Gospel we are about to study for the next six months — wrote this in his epistle: "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it . . ." (1 John 1:1-2a). They saw Jesus with their own eyes. They touched him. They heard him teach, got to ask their questions, and marveled at his answers! He convinced them. He was precisely who he claimed to be. He was the Eternal Word come in flesh to dwell among us, show us the Father, and open the way to him. They beheld his glory, John said, "the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14b).

Those people were so caught up in their first-hand experience of Jesus that they sometimes were presumptuous enough to insist they would never take anything short of that. After the resurrection, for example, Thomas — having been told by ten of his fellow-apostles that they had seen Jesus alive — insisted he take no second-hand word about Jesus. "So the other disciples told [Thomas], ‘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' " (John 20:25).

John: And what comfort is there for not just second- or third-generation Christians, if faith comes only through first-hand seeing and experiencing? More to the point for us, how is faith to be generated or sustained for people living a couple of millennia removed from sight? Ah, that is why we hear faith described not as belief in the seen, but the unseen!

Rubel: So here we are — twenty centuries removed from the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. How do we believe? Can we believe? Can we believe enough to be saved, sustained, and confident of heaven? Can we have faith that really makes a difference in who we are and what we do on Planet Earth?

We philosophers call this a fundamental issue in epistemology. Before you textual scholars who are concerned with verb tenses and manuscript evidence get to your work, we have to decide whether or not thinking people can claim – in any meaningful sense – to believe or know anything about events outside our own first-hand experience. Contrary to the opinion of many a skeptic, however, I would remind them that anything we claim to know about events in history comes to us through means other than first-hand experience. We depend on witnesses. We listen to them tell their stories. We weigh them for content and credibility. And we make some decisions based on our judgments. We're like jurors listening to witnesses give their testimony in court.

Lots of people are back in church houses the past couple of weeks in the United States because of what is happening in our country. I am so grateful! I'm glad President Bush called Americans to assemble in houses of worship and to pray on the Friday following that awful day of terror. Now I am praying for the people who have gone to those places to find reason to return, to put their feet down among other people of faith, and to find and nurture a faith of their own.

For our writer-apostle John, faith is always a verb in his Gospel and not a noun. Whatever faith is, it isn't a prize or trophy. It isn't something to speak about abstractly. Ultimately, it isn't even so much something to "find" or "have" but to do. If you know who Jesus is and understand the relationship you can have with God through him, it makes a very real and practical difference.

And John's strategy for letting people know who Jesus is and how much he wants a relationship with them is simply to tell the stories he knows about his friend, his Savior, his God. We hear those stories, weigh them for content and credibility, and make some personal decisions about believing or discounting them.

John: That's right, Rubel, except that John doesn't just tell the stories. I don't know whether his audience already had access to Mark or Matthew or Luke. At any rate, they surely knew the story of Jesus already. When John tells the stories this time, however, they are not the same stories. Yes, he tells some of the same ones that you find in the other Gospels. There are parallel stories about feeding 5000 people, Jesus walking on water, blind men being healed. The narrative of Jesus' arrest and trial and crucifixion and resurrection has much in common with Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But John nuances the stories in particular ways.

The teachings of Jesus come not in monologues but in dialogues in John. There are no parables; there are no stories of Jesus exorcizing demons. There is never a question in John's Gospel about the deity of Jesus. The identity of Jesus is always out front, not hidden. From the opening verses of the Gospel, we are told this earthly Jesus is also cosmic Lord. And, most fascinating to me personally, is the use of misdirection and double-meaning when Jesus speaks. In many of the conversations Jesus has with people, Jesus says one thing but the audience understands his words in a completely different way. The miracle stories are "signs" in John because there is always more at stake in them than the performance of a miracle. John indeed tells us familiar stories of Jesus, but they are told with a twist. He knows that his audience will be sustained through their crisis only if faith moves well beyond intellectual assent. As you said earlier, John knows that faith is a verb. The stories and conversations and signs that John includes in this story are intended to empower these people for LIFE – not just life after death, not just physically secure life in the present, but eternal life NOW.

Rubel: Do all of you grasp the significance of that point? In John's Gospel, eternal life is not what we get after we die – if we do well down here! Eternal life is the power of heaven breaking into our earthly lives right here, right now. It is a free gift of grace to all who will receive it. And if eternity breaks into your life, nothing will ever be the same again.

The ability to put one's trust in Jesus as Christ-Messiah and Son of God gives life – eternal life, right-now life, empowered life, stabilized life, joy-filled life, triumphant life.

So, in the first century, there were some – like John, Peter, and even Paul – who could say, "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Cor. 9:1). But Peter could also write to people such as John, you, and me and affirm this: "Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Pet. 1:8-9).

The power to deal with and get through a crisis — as John understands it at least — is not found in occasional or bizarre things. It is not best displayed in sermons, parables, or even miracles. The power to cope lies in our seeing the glory of God as it has been revealed in Jesus. And you can know that by means other than having been there to see it for yourself. You can know it by hearing, entering, and experiencing for yourself the well-told story of Jesus through those who knew him as John did.

Battery Park City is a neighborhood in the financial district of New York City. On Friday's Op-Ed page of the New York Times, a resident of Lower Manhattan relates how her neighbor used to tell her 11-year-old son, Daniel, how to find his way home. She told him to zero in on the twin towers of the World Trade Center. "If you remember that, you can never be lost," she remembers telling him. Last week, Daniel came with a question for his mother: "How will I find my way home now?"

John, Peter, certainly Thomas, and those other first-generation believers had found a center for their lives in Jesus, a means to feeling secure, a sense that they were no longer lost now that the Incarnate Word was present. They had been with him. They had heard wonderful things from his lips. They saw his deeds. It was the glory of God in their midst! But he would not stay among them forever – as he told them in John 14. Do you remember who it was who replied, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" (v.5). It was Thomas! Even that far back he was wondering how he could hang on if he ever lost sight of Jesus! How would he find his way home again?

The answer the Holy Spirit gave Thomas and John and us is that the "sightings" and stories of Jesus would continue to be told. And the promise was that those stories would not be impotent and powerless in the telling. They would be empowered by the Spirit to quicken faith – and thereby to show us all the way home. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," Jesus told Thomas. "No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also" (vs.6-7a).

John: So John concludes his story of Jesus by telling us why he has bothered to write it at all: "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" (20:30-31).

It is interesting that in the last 12 days, so many things that seemed so important before September have faded from view. It's hard to focus on church politics at times like these. Hard to stay upset with our brother or sister who prefers a different worship style. Hard to place our faith in the rightness of this dogmatic opinion or that. Hard to walk away from God on the basis of what some individual "Christian" did that made us mad. We say that we are a people who walk by faith, not by sight, but I have the feeling it is easy for most of us actually to end up with a faith that IS based on sight — the sight of material blessing, the sight of living in the security of American military might, the sight of a church that meets our needs.

Rubel referred to Thomas earlier — we remember him as "doubting Thomas" because he refused to believe the crucified Jesus was the risen Christ until he personally saw him and touched him. The good news for Thomas was that he finally did see and touch, and so he believed. Jesus does not condemn Thomas for needing such tangible assurances. But he does suggest there is a faith that ultimately sustains and blesses in superior ways.

Rubel: Oh, John, thank you for saying that! I've thought for the longest time that Thomas gets a "bum rap" from most of us. One isn't a sinister doubter to need good evidence. In fact, I think people who don't sort through the evidence carefully may be guilty of a sin against their rationality, their likeness to God, their "faith" – if that is even the correct term. One shouldn't believe anything without sufficient evidence. Otherwise, one may simply be gullible!

I don't know any of the following people through first-hand experience: Socrates, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Jesus, Nero, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, or John York's grandfather. But that neither means that those people don't exist or that it is impossible for me to know anything of them. It just means that we know them through records, through narratives, through stories. And the stories of Jesus are compelling enough to engage and powerful enough to convict — so that they continue to reveal God's glory and create faith in Jesus.

As the late Elton Trueblood once said, "Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation." And for those who come to that point with Jesus, the result is eternal life now – and personal fellowship with him in heaven when this life is over. That faith sustained many of the dying on those four planes last week. It is sustaining thousands and thousands who are mourning their deaths and who are anxious about what lies ahead. And it will sustain you in your darkest moment – to give light in your darkness and hope in your despair.

John: Sometimes, we who think we know the story of Jesus are the people most in need of hearing it again — afresh! For the next six months we are going to journey with John on this Path to Faith. When Rubel and I started talking about this series, we obviously had no idea the circumstances of our lives would be so dramatically changed. We did know that in our growth as a community of believers here at Woodmont Hills and in our desire to spread the borders of God's kingdom to people around us, the path to faith presented in John's Gospel is a healthy, appropriate road to travel.

Rubel: So join us for the journey. And allow God to reveal himself to you again – or for the first time! – as we travel together along a route narrated by Jesus' beloved disciple, John.
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[1] Peter Hannaford, "Aboard Flight 564," Washington Times, 9 Sept. 2001; on-line version available at http://www.washtimes.com/commentary/20010919-6357240.htm.
[2] Udayan Gupta, "The Neighborhood We Built," New York Times, 21 Sept. 2001, p. A27.

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