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April 28, 2019

You’re in the Bible!

Passage: John 20:19-31
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Some people doubt Christianity because they suspect faith would require disbelief of things they know to be true. Others doubt due to history, questioning the reliability of Biblical sources and the authenticity of the Early Church. Still others may doubt due to ethics, wondering how a righteous God could possibly have a Church that has done so much evil, from so-called holy wars of old to modern sex abuse scandals and hypocrisies among prominent Christian leaders. And despite what talking heads tell you on TV, struggling with belief over fears of what it will cost you socially is not a recent problem for Christians. Even in the 1200s, the parents of St. Thomas Aquinas—now regarded as one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time—locked him in a tower with a prostitute in hopes of dissuading him from the foolish idea of devoting his life to Christian service. Throughout history—not just today—people have feared the social costs of faith and so doubt. Still others doubt because they have been told that faith is opposed to reason and that to choose one is to sacrifice the other, that belief requires you to check your mind at the door. Still others doubt because nobody has properly showed them what belief is. And more reasons for doubt remain beside I am sure. Suffice to say, there are plenty of reasons for questioning and wrestling, both today and across history.

The lectionary—which lays out scriptures for every Sunday on a rotation as a preaching aid—puts today's scripture on the week immediately after Easter every single year. The most obvious reason is that, after John's account of Easter here, the next event in this scripture happens one week after Easter, and we today are now one week past Easter. The second reason why I'll get to later. Today's text is why many refer to one of the apostles as “Doubting” Thomas. When Jesus after the resurrection first appeared to his disciples, Thomas wasn't around for whatever reason. And so when the other disciples told Thomas that Jesus was alive after being crucified and had appeared to them, Thomas' reaction was, “Riiiiiiiggghhtttt... But really now, what?” Thomas said unless he could see and touch the wounds of this so-called resurrected Lord, he wouldn't believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. Personally, I find the nickname “Doubting Thomas” unfair. Because if you read the gospels, Christ's female disciples learn about the resurrection first and go tell the male disciples, who doubt the women. But we never talk about the “doubting menfolk.” And in the earlier verses of chapter 20 in John's gospel, two male disciples, after hearing the women's report, ran out to the tomb to see for themselves—again, they doubted what others told them—and, when they saw the tomb was empty, did not understand what was going on. After seeing this mysteriously empty tomb, we can at least claim they didn't believe that Christ was alive and in power now, because the disciples later that same day go into hiding because they're afraid the local religious leaders will come after Jesus' followers to execute them next. So until Jesus shows up in the flesh, it seems like everyone involved does some degree of doubting. And when Thomas shows up later on the scene, he too doubts. But since he doubted last, after the others already saw and knew Christ was indeed alive, only poor Thomas got the nickname “Doubting.” But the implication of all this—all the fears, uncertainties, and doubting of all Christ's followers in John's gospel—the implication is that belief is really difficult, that faith isn't easy, that doubts come to every last one of us.

Has anyone here ever heard of the concept of “breaking the fourth wall”? It's an artistic technique you'll find in movies, theater, books, even video games... where a character turns away from the action to engage the audience directly, as a way for the author to tip their hand about what's going on in their writing. For instance, Mel Brook's western comedy film Blazing Saddles ends in a climactic battle between some bandits and the humble townsfolk. During the fight, the westerners literally break the fourth wall: the cowboys smash down the walls of the studio where Blazing Saddles is being filmed, as their fight then spills across other films in progress, a Hollywood cafeteria, and the very premiere of Blazing Saddles. It’s Mel Brooks’ way of joking about not only westerns but the unreal nature of western movies themselves. Famously, Peter Pan in one play adaptation, as Tinkerbell fades from life, turns away from the action to beg the audience, “If you believe in fairies, clap your hands!” In that moment, Peter Pan uses the play’s action to invite the audience to share in childlike imagination. And films like Annie Hall, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and even one James Bond movie all have the hero directly turn to viewers to ask us for sympathy over the plot. Breaking the fourth wall is a strange phenomenon unique to stories, in which a character or the narrator turns away from the story being told and towards the audience receiving it to point out our experience of the story as recipients. More on that later.

Bible scholars suspect the Gospel of John was the last gospel to be have been written down, sometime between 80 and 100 AD. Given the typical maximum life expectancy of the ancient world was around 70 years old or so and that we think the crucifixion was sometime around 33 AD, that means John's gospel was written down when the last surviving eyewitnesses of Jesus' life, folks who were youths when it all happened, were dying off from old age. That leads some commentators to suspect that John's gospel has the unique perspective of trying to write down the story of Jesus one last time while these eyewitnesses were still alive. And so John writes his book knowing that his readers—that every generation of Christians to follow him—will be like Thomas in today's scripture. We Christians today when looking back on the gospels can sometimes feel deflated, like we missed out on meeting Jesus in the flesh when he walked the Earth, that if we lived back when believing would be so much easier. Thomas missed Easter by one week and found faith hard. The first readers of John's gospel missed it by a decade or so and had their own doubts and struggles. We missed it by two thousand or so years. Is it no wonder believers struggle in their faith? We—like good old Doubting Thomas at first—we all experience the story of Easter second-hand, hearing it from others and wrestling with whether we'll believe what they're telling us. And that indeed is the second reason why the lectionary always puts this story on the Sunday immediately after Easter. On Easter we celebrate that Christ is risen from the dead. On this Sunday one week later, we grapple with the question of “So what are you going to do about it? Do you believe this good news?” All of us who read the gospel of John centuries later? We're all Thomas, because we all hear about Easter afterwards.

And that's why I see the author of this gospel break the fourth wall here, like Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, as the story of Bible slips off the pages of history and into our lives today. At the end of this post-Easter encounter between Jesus and Thomas, the author of John's gospel writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” To put that in lawyer-speak, the author is saying: “Just because I didn't mention something doesn't mean it didn't happen. I'm telling you only what I think is absolutely essential to know.” But then the question emerges: what is John's gospel trying to tell us, what are the essential ideas we're expected to have learned over the last 20 chapters of reading about Jesus? And so the author continues in his direct address to his readers: “But these things 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.” So John's gospel says what it says—and perhaps leaves out other stories that weren't relevant or were too repetitive—in order that you, gentle reader, would believe that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the Old Testament, that Jesus is God the Son incarnate in human flesh as celebrated by the New Testament, and that by believing in Jesus you may have life in his name. And to really drive home the point, if you read the line right before this address by the narrator in this gospel, you'll find Jesus himself speaking as if he's talking directly to you some two thousand years later and not just to his disciples long ago. When Thomas believed in Jesus after seeing his wounds, Jesus replies, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” And then as if Christ is turning to you today directly he continues, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” When I read that, it's like the eyes of God in Jesus swiveling away from Thomas and onto me like a spotlight at last finding its mark.

So... the author of this gospel and Jesus Christ himself both know that we today would be reading the story of the resurrection many years after that first Easter. And they both seem to know prophetically that we, just like Thomas did way back the week after that first Easter, would struggle from time to time with doubts and uncertainty. The Bible knows this is a problem that faces all of us, even the most faithful, even the innermost circle of Christ's personal disciples. And so that teaches us firstly that doubts are common to all believers, are things we are meant to wrestle with, and are things we are expected to overcome as we seek and find truth... before moving onto the next set of doubts or uncertainties life throws our way. So when you doubt or are unsure, do not be discouraged, know that doubt happened even to the mighty apostles, and so be brave in your faith as you seek the truth and wisdom to dispel your worries and doubts.

Second, this passage from John's gospel teaches us what belief and faith actually are. Too many folks get caught up in culture war debates and in the process throw out the baby with the bathwater. Here we see faith and reason are not opposed to each other, that belief and science are not opposites. If faith were the opposite of reason, as some suggest, then Jesus' words here would make no sense, because Jesus says Thomas “believes because [he] has seen me.” Thomas believes because he saw proof of the resurrection: physical, actual, bodily proof was the basis for Thomas' belief. And so that teaches us Christians that faith and belief can draw upon evidence and logic, that faith doesn't require a rejection of the minds God gave us. The difference between us and Thomas is 2000 years, so we don't have the exact same kind of evidence in front of us and must rely on others’ accounts instead, which is why John wrote all this in the first place. Some believers in the centuries after Easter saw evidence for faith in human morality, like C.S. Lewis. Others like N.T. Wright see it in our longing for justice, beauty, and relationships. Others like Kierkegaard or Barth found faith evidenced in God breaking through the absurdity and paradoxes of life. All that to say, Thomas believed after finding reasons to believe, and Christians today likewise believe, not in a wholesale rejection of the intellect, but because the minds God gives us lead to faith. You needn’t give up your brain for belief.

Third, we see that belief is more than just intellectual assent, more than just thinking something true, more than just checking a census box for religion and being done with it. Faith and belief are, in the end, about trust. The Greek word for “believe” here can translate as “think to be true,” which is how we Christians today normally use the word. But it also means “place trust in” or “commit to.” Because which version of the final lines of today's scripture sounds better? “These words are written so you may come to think Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through thinking this you may have life in his name”? Or “These words are written so you may come to trust Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through trusting in this you may have life in his name”? Belief-as-thinking-true vs belief-as-trust is the difference between falling off a cliff and thinking one branch over all the other branches will save you... versus falling off a cliff and actually grabbing onto that one branch for dear life, trusting that it will indeed support you and keep you alive. Doubting Thomas couldn't have known with 100% certainty that what the other disciples said was real. You and I can't know with absolute certainty either, though John's gospel does a fine job persuading us readers in the resurrection. Instead, having seen all the eyewitness accounts John can muster, having seen God at work in scripture and—as the scripture draws us into its story here—in our own lives as readers, in the end we too are invited to take that leap of faith, to put our trust in Jesus that yes indeed he is the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who gives us life. Questions and worries may emerge for us as they did for Thomas and for the first readers of this gospel. But the invitation extended here isn't to give up questioning but rather, at the end of the day having done all we can to learn the truth of God, to put our trust in the Lord who calls us all to be beloved disciples of Jesus the Messiah. Amen.


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