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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

April 8, 2018

Seeing Without Believing and Believing Without Seeing

Genesis 15:1-6; John 20:19-31

Several years after I graduated from Divinity School, I had the opportunity to participate in a study group composed of ordained clergy from different traditions. We received a Lily grant that allowed us to include several trips to enhance our study opportunities.  Our first trip was to New York City, and a portion of our time was to be spent with a group of actors and actresses to help us learn how best to stand comfortably before a congregation and lead worship services.

Our group was newly formed and the first set of exercises the actors offered us was designed to help us bond as a group and learn to trust one another. Our setting was an old building in the city with a room sparsely furnished with a few tables and chairs.  There was a tile floor, a very hard tile floor.

I was asked to climb on one of the tables and stand on the edge while the other group members were instructed to form two lines at the base of the table facing one another. The actors told me to fall forward and instructed the others to extend their arms and catch me before I hit the floor.

Now I was not born with the “R” gene for risk-taking and I like my excitement to be while I am sitting in an arm chair watching an adventure story depicted in a movie or a television show. I looked at the upturned faces of my new colleagues and at their extended arms.  I wondered how strong their arms were.  I looked at the hard floor I would hit with great force if I were not caught.

“Jump?” I asked.

“No, don’t jump!” they cautioned. “They can’t catch you if you jump.  Just fall forward and trust you will be caught.”

I hesitated for a moment. Could I trust these people to catch me?  How many broken bones would I suffer if I landed flat on that hard floor?  I decided to trust I would come to no harm.  I closed my eyes and fell forward into the waiting arms of my new best friends.  They caught me and lowered me safely to the floor.

This experience led me to consider what it really means to trust and have faith in someone or something. Last Sunday we celebrated our Christian faith in the belief we affirm each Sunday in the Apostles Creed: the belief that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell and the third day He rose again from the dead.  What does our affirmed belief in a Risen Savior mean for our day to day lives?  Does it make any difference in how we live our lives?  Does Jesus’ resurrection mean that we also have hope of eternal life, of life everlasting?

Michael Jinkins, the President of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, described Christian faith in this way: “Faith is not about believing the unlikely. Faith is not a matter of scorning scientific knowledge….  [I]t is about living, casting our lives into God’s hands, trusting that whatever the power of resurrection means…, it empowers us to live in defiance of all the threats brought against goodness and love and life in this world….  [I]t is also a faith that faces reality and equips us to deal with it, all of it.”[1]  Faith is not a list of improbable ideas.  Faith is seeking the truth and living lives that reflect what we believe.

“You shall know the truth,” said Jesus, “and the truth will set you free.” As Christians we seek to know the truth though the gift of faith and live in a way that reflects our Christian faith.

Faith is based on seeing with a vision deeper and truer than that which is given through our physical eyes. Faith is not required when we have no doubts and there is absolute certainty.  John Ortberg wrote a wonderful book entitled, Faith and Doubt, in which he writes, “Disciples are not people who never doubt.  They doubt and worship.  They doubt and serve.  They doubt and help each other with their doubts.  They doubt and wait for their doubt one day to be turned to knowing.”[2]  Yet, Jesus Christ entrusted His ministry to His disciples who live in this strange bi-polar world of both believing and doubting.[3]

Billy Graham was asked when he was in his nineties if he believed that after he dies he will hear God say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Billy Graham paused and after an inner struggle responded, “I hope so.”[4]

Mother Teresa experienced a deep sense of union with God as a young girl and dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor and sick in India. Yet, as she served, Mother Teresa came to struggle with emptiness and darkness and a sense of the absence of God.  She wrote in her journal, “I have no faith.”  But Mother Teresa did not reject God.  Despite her pain, Mother Teresa continued to serve, walking in the light of the faith she had once known and experienced deeply, serving others in the manner she believed Jesus Christ had once called her.[5]

We can anticipate periods of doubt in our lives. God can even use our doubt to strengthen our faith.  But it is how we respond to our doubt or our unbelief that is most important.

Thomas, known to the world as “doubting Thomas,” provides us with an example of one who seeks and finds the faith that leads to Thomas offering the strongest affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus that we are given in the Gospel of John.

The first disciples came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead by seeing the Risen Christ appear before them. The disciples are huddled together behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders.  Jesus appears in their midst, greets them with the words, “Peace be with you,” and He commissions the disciples to continue the work God sent Him to do.   Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples empowering the community to continue Jesus’ work.

But Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus appeared among them. Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead unless he sees the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, and puts his fingers where the nails were and puts his hand into Jesus’ side.  Thomas admits his unbelief and even states what he needs in order to believe, and Jesus responds.

A week after Jesus’ appearance to the disciples, Jesus again appears among them and Thomas is present. Jesus does not shame Thomas.  He offers to provide Thomas with the proof he had demanded, inviting Thomas to put his fingers in the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and in His side.  Jesus invites Thomas to see, to believe and not to doubt.

Thomas does not need to touch Jesus. Jesus’ appearance provides Thomas with evidence that God is at work in Jesus.  Thomas is open to allowing Jesus to transform his unbelief into belief.  Thomas sees Jesus and responds, “My Lord and my God!”  Thomas honestly seeks faith in Jesus as a resurrected Lord, and he finds it.

Jesus responds with the words, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We are assured that future generations of believers, such as ourselves, may come to believe in a Risen Savior without first seeing the resurrected Jesus. We can believe without physically seeing Jesus with the mark of the nails in His hands and the scar of his pierced side.  We are called to believe by seeing with eyes of faith.

There are many ways we can come to believe. I find convincing the miraculous stories of the scripture about the transformation of a group of fearful disciples into courageous apostles.  The disciples once huddled behind a locked door for fear of the Jewish leaders are transformed into courageous apostles who carry the scripture into all the world, enduring unimaginable hardships and persecutions.  Thomas is believed to have travelled to preach the Gospel as far away as present-day India, founding what are known today as St. Thomas Christians.  The story of Jesus could have died with the disciples’ deaths.  Instead, Jesus’ teachings, shared by His disciples who were empowered by the Holy Spirit, provide the foundation for the Christian faith we have today over 2000 years later.

The Book of Acts tells the amazing story of the Holy Spirit at work in and through the earliest disciples as they spread the story about Jesus Christ and established the beginnings of the Christian church. Today, Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in the world.  We often hear about the death of Christianity in Europe.  The Holy Spirit is, however, still at work.   The Federalist just published an exciting report on the revival of Christianity in Europe.[6]  Awakening Europe Christian worship events were held in Prague in 2017, Stockholm in 2016 and Nuremberg in 2015 with each event bringing approximately 1,000 people to declare new faith in Jesus.  There are signs of increased vitality and church growth in the Catholic, Protestant and nondenominational evangelical churches in Europe as well.  Citing a number of other examples of the vitality of the Christian Church in Europe, the writer concludes that a spiritual shift is taking place in Europe today toward renewal and growth in all branches of Christianity.  It appears that a European revival has begun.  The Holy Spirit is at work!

 Christian faith can be received and strengthened as we worship, study and pray with other Christians in churches and communities of believers.  A prayerful reading of the scriptures in our own quiet time nurtures our Christian faith.  The stories of Jesus and the disciples, the birth of the Church and the spread of the Gospel, all provide the foundation for our faith.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, these stories can come alive and we can see ourselves and our life stories in the lives of the persons we find portrayed in the Old and New Testament.  We can find strength and courage when faced with obstacles and challenges as we hear God’s assurance to Joshua:

“Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9.

We can find peace to calm our fears when we hear Jesus’ words to His disciples:

“Peace, I leave with you. My peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:27.

When we are lonely, we can embrace Jesus’ assurance, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20.

We can pray the prayers of the Psalmist and know that every feeling, every doubt, every fear we can possibly experience has been experienced by God’s people and can be lifted up to God in prayer. God knows and God understands.  God loves us and God cares about every one of us.  We can seek God’s help and hear Him speaking to us through words of scripture that resound in our minds and hearts.

Other people come to believe because of their experience of Jesus in their lives or in the life of one dear to them. I recently saw the movie, I Can Only Imagine, a box office hit that is based on the true life story of Bart Millard, the lead singer of the Christian band MercyMe.  The film depicts how Bart’s life experiences led him to write the most played Christian radio single ever, “I Can Only Imagine.”  The song took Bart only minutes to write, but the writing was inspired by Bart’s life-long tumultuous, conflict-ridden experiences with his abusive father.  Before Bart’s father dies of cancer, the lives of Bart and his father and their relationship were miraculously transformed in a way that could only be the work of the Holy Spirit.  Bart and his father and many people come to believe in Jesus by experiencing and seeing Jesus at work in the lives of His people.   They see Jesus through eyes of faith rather than through physical eyes.

Faith, and what we believe about God and Jesus Christ, will grow over our lifetime, if our faith is a living faith. Our faith does not safeguard us against human suffering, and suffering can awaken our struggles with doubt and unbelief.  Yet, God can use our experiences of suffering and bewilderment to allow our faith to grow and mature.  Experiences of suffering can bring us to seek God with more earnestness and to listen for God’s guidance more intently.

Christian Wiman is an American poet who was diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the blood on his 39th birthday less than a year after his wedding day.  Wiman writes of his experience with suffering in his poetry and his prose.  Wiman once said that he is not a Christian because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  In his book, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, Wiman writes, “I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness cries out, ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ …The point is that [Jesus]... felt human destruction to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”[7]

God is well acquainted with human suffering and can provide us with hope that sustains us during the darkest times. We have hope in God’s transforming power in both life and in death.  In Jesus’ resurrection, God shows that He has the power to transform our greatest enemy of death into new life, a new life that He offers to us.

Our Christian faith can, however, be challenged and even threatened by times of suffering and loss and disappointment with God. C.S. Lewis was a well-respected Christian theologian, writer and speaker and a confirmed bachelor when in April, 1956, he married Joy Davidman, an American poet with two young children.  They shared four brief but extremely happy years of marriage until Joy died after a battle with cancer.  C.S. Lewis plunged into deep despair and grief and wrote of his struggle in his memoir, A Grief Observed.[8]  C.S. Lewis lamented that his Christian faith appeared to be nothing but a house of cards that had shattered and his concept of a trust-worthy loving God was shaken.

C.S. Lewis’ writing shows us how he responded to his grief by continuing to reach out to God, to remain in conversation with God, seeking to know God as God truly is. C.S. Lewis held on to his Christian faith, dark though it seemed, until he could allow himself to release his loved one into God’s hands and find peace in a renewed, stronger relationship with God.  Times of unbelief can be used by God to allow our faith to take more mature forms of belief.  Our struggles with unbelief can lead us to a greater sense of humility and the ability to be more compassionate and understanding with others who struggle to believe.

Scott Hamilton became known to many of us as a champion American figure skater. He won four consecutive U.S. championships, four consecutive World Championships, and a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics.  In the past 21 years, Scott has faced Stage 4 testicular cancer, followed by three brain tumors, one every six years since 2004.  He is living with a brain tumor now.  During this same period of fighting cancer, Scott Hamilton has enjoyed a career as an Olympic broadcaster, written best-selling books and begun a foundation dedicated to cancer research and survivorship.   Scott Hamilton has a host of students, past and present, who he has trained at the Scott Hamilton Skating Academy in Antioch, Tennessee.

Scott Hamilton tells the story of a research laboratory constructed in the late 1980s in the desert as a closed and controlled ecological system.[9]  The purpose was to sustain and study the life systems that grew inside of it.  But as the trees grew into maturity, they fell over.  In the enclosed environment, the trees did not experience the resistance of wind and consequently, did not build the strength tissue of stress wood and grow deep roots.  Without the force of wind, the trees did not endure stress and did not develop the strength to endure.  Scott Hamilton found in his life struggles the resistance he needed to build stronger emotional and spiritual muscles and become a strongly rooted optimist who thrives despite the odds.

The same principle applies to our Christian faith. Our faith struggles can, with God’s help, produce endurance and maturity.  In times of struggle we may become very aware of our human weakness.  We need Jesus and we need other Christians to be with us and to help us endure.  When our faith feels weak, we can find strength through the compassionate care and support of other Christians and their prayers for us and with us.  The faith of other believers can be used by God to strengthen our wavering faith.

I draw great comfort from the story of the father who brought his ill son to Jesus. He asked Jesus if He could help his suffering son.  Jesus replied, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”  The father responded, with tears and great honesty and sincerity, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Jesus honored the belief of the father, imperfect as it was, and healed the son.

Perfect belief and perfect faith are not required of us. Only a willingness to offer the belief we have and to seek to believe more firmly in the power and love of God as reflected in His resurrected Son.  To honestly seek to encounter God is to take a leap into the unknown and trust that His arms will catch us.

Henri Nouwen was a beloved Christian writer and theologian who became fascinated with the skill of trapeze artists and became friends with the Flying Rodleighs who performed in the German circus. One day Henri Nouwen was talking with one of the trapeze artists about flying.  He said, “As a flyer I must have complete trust in my catcher….  The secret is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything….  When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar….  The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher….  A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”  Henri Nouwen immediately thought of the words of Jesus while on the cross, just before His death: “Father into Your hands I commend my spirit.”[10]

It is hard for us to let go. But in living fully and abundantly, we trust in a Savior who invites us to let go that He may catch us and receive us unto Himself.  All that we cling to as our sources of security on this earth we will someday lose except the gifts God offers to us of faith, hope and love.  Until we let go, our hands are never free for God to catch us and to guide us, with God’s own hands into a new life built upon His promises.

We are invited to see with eyes of faith and believe and live as Easter people, who can embrace and follow the Savior that Thomas affirmed as “Our Lord and our God!” Only God knows what miracles we will see with eyes of faith.

[1] Michael Jinkins, “Redefining Faith.” Thinking Out Loud (January 2, 2018), 2.

[2] John Ortberg, Faith & Doubt, (Zondervan, 2008), 176.

[3] Ortberg, quoting Frederick Dale Bruner, 176.

[4] Ortberg, 24.

[5] Ortberg, 107-108.

[6] John D. Martin, “Reports of Christianity’s Death in Europe Have Been Greatly Exaggerated,” The Federalist (April 4, 2018).

[7] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2o13).

[8] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (N.W. Clerk, 1961).

[9] Megan O’Neill, “Strengthened by Struggle, The Olympic Gold Medal-Winning Figure Skater and Cancer Survivor Continuing to Inspire,” The Contributor (Nashville, January 29-February 12, 2018), 9-10.

[10] Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift (Harper Collins, 1994), 66-67.

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