Sermon: What Do You Believe?
11 Apr 2010 at St Paul's Lutheran Church, Sugar City, CO
Children’s Sermon: Believe
Theme: We, like Thomas, sometimes have to see to believe.
Do you find it easy to believe what someone tells you, even if what they tell you seems impossible? For example, suppose I said to you, "I am going to take this paper strip and cut it in half -- but after I cut it in half it will still be in one piece." Would that be easy for you to believe? It doesn't make sense, does it? If I cut this paper in half, it should be in two pieces, shouldn't it? Do you want to try? (Let them try if they want to)
Well, let me try it and see what happens. (Make Mobius strip and cut it along the center)
Well, look at that! I cut the paper in half, but instead of having two pieces, I have one longer piece. Now that you have seen it, do you believe it? Sometimes we must see something before we believe it, don't we?
On the evening of the first Sunday after Jesus had been crucified, his disciples were together in a locked room. They were afraid that those who had crucified Jesus would also want to put them to death. Suddenly, Jesus appeared there in the locked room with the disciples. It was hard to believe, but they saw him and Jesus showed them his wounds in his hands and his side, so they knew it was him.
One of the disciples, whose name was Thomas, was not with the others when Jesus appeared to them. When they told Thomas that they had seen Jesus, he did not believe them. He had seen him crucified and buried, how could he be alive? Thomas said, "Unless I see the wound in his side and put my finger in the holes where the nails were in his hands, I will not believe it!"
A week later, the disciples were in the locked room again and this time Thomas was with them. Again, Jesus came and stood among the disciples. Jesus, 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 fell on his knees and answered Jesus, "My Lord and my God!"
Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
You and I have never seen Jesus with our own eyes. The question is, will we be a doubter, or will we be one of those who Jesus said were blessed because they believe, even though they have not seen?
Let us pray,
Lord, help us to believe in our heart those truths we find in your Holy Word, even though we have not seen them with our eyes. Amen.
Sermon: What Do You Believe?
It seems to be human nature to believe in some things, and to not to believe in others. Sometimes we find out we were wrong to believe in something, and other times we find out we should have believed in something after all.
One example of this came on October 30, 1938, the radio drama, The War of the Worlds, adapted from the novel by H.G. Wells was performed. The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. Then it seemed that regular programming broke down as they tried to keep up with casualty updates, firefighting developments and other news of a Martian invasion. It caused panic in many areas, and because of the times, many people that panicked thought that the Germans had invaded instead.
There were several notices that this radio broadcast was fictional, but many people missed those notices and only heard the radio show as they changed stations. It was later determined that out of the approximately 6 million people that listened to the show, 1.7 million people believed it to be true. Since then, Radio and Television stations now inform their audiences about stories that are fiction, including TV shows having a disclaimer on the video.
Another example would be the reporter who thinks he has some factual news, only to find out later that his information wasn’t true or accurate. We see corrections and retractions in the news all of the time, but in many cases, it’s too late and the damage is done.
These are great examples of people believing what they perceive. And we still see this happen all the time. For instance, most of us know things are not always what they seem in the media, on the Internet, in the junk mail we get in our mailbox, or even in many emails that some of us get on our computers.
Just the other day I received an email from a relative about an incredible machine that was built as a collaborative effort between the Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of Engineering at the University of Iowa. It said that 97% of the machine's components came from the John Deere Industries and Irrigation Equipment of Bancroft, Iowa.
It went on to say that it took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment, calibration, and tuning before filming the video that was attached to the email, and the machine is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University, and it's already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian.
So I opened the video attachment, and saw what seemed to be a remarkable machine with all its moving parts as it started to play music. But being a bit of a computer geek, I noticed right away that this was a very well done computer animation instead. So I did an Internet search on it, and not only found out that the device in the video does not exist, but I found that it is an example of a computer-animated music video that can be downloaded off of a web site.
There’s a saying from Buddha that says, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.“
For the most part, I tend to agree with this statement, as it seems that I don’t believe things right away, and that I need to check the facts first to make sure they are true. And when I find out something isn’t true, like in the email I received about the fictitious machine, I send an email with the facts back to the person, to include the links of where they can find the actual information. Also, when looking at the email, I could tell many people believed it was true, as it had been forwarded from one group of people to another, with each person saying how they thought it was an incredible machine.
It made me think of the many scams that are out there today. Some of them are:
The Nigerian Scam; where a wealthy foreigner needs help moving millions of dollars from his homeland and promises a hefty percentage of this fortune as a reward for assisting him.
The Foreign Lottery Scam; where an announcement informs the recipients that they've won large sums of money in foreign lotteries.
And there’s the Family Member in Distress Scam; where scammers impersonate distressed family members in desperate need of money.
In all these cases, a small percentage of people contacted believed the information, and sometimes get taken for thousands of dollars, and sometimes are even victims of identity theft or worse. But why did they believe the information? Sometimes it is because of greed, and the temptation to get something for next to nothing. Others may think they are helping someone. Or maybe some people accept some things as truth if the facts presented agree with what they believe, even if it may be wrong.
So, should we be a “Doubting Thomas?” Someone who won't take what you say on trust? Someone who has to see it for themselves before they believe what you're saying? Should we live like Buddha said? “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.“ I think Thomas might have agreed with this. Because Thomas was a realist, a pessimist, a “the glass is half empty” kind of person.
We don’t know too much about Thomas before he met Jesus, other than he was a commercial fisherman, and grew up around the Sea of Galilee. So I’ll bet he didn’t fall for too many wild fishing stories either. But when Jesus came to Capernaum and called him, Thomas followed for three years. Most of us know him as "the doubter," but I don’t think our Gospel lesson for today is about doubt. I think it is about reality.
For instance, in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, when Jesus says mysteriously, "I go to prepare a place for you.... You know the way to the place where I am going," it is Thomas the realist who replies truthfully, "Lord, we don't know where you are going; how can we know then the way?" Jesus answered him with, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (14:5-6)
And in the 11th chapter, when Jesus speaks of going back to Judea, Thomas knows that for Jesus to return to Jerusalem is to go to his death. Thomas was no fool. He counted the costs before making a decision. But, it is Thomas who bravely urges the others to follow Jesus saying, "Let us also go also, that we may die with him" (11:16).
Knowing this, Thomas' reaction to the news of the risen Christ should not be surprising. He had been hardened by his experience in the world. He was, above all else, a realist.
And for Thomas, reality had come as his world fell apart. Thomas was there when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and he fled for his life. It was Good Friday, April 3rd, 33 AD (based on astronomical data and computer simulations done by biblical scholars and scientists), and on that day, Thomas watched from a distance as Jesus was nailed to a cross on the Roman killing grounds of Golgotha. As Jesus' life drained away, Thomas realized that the hopes and expectations of the last three years were as dead as his beloved Lord.
On Saturday he was in shock. On Sunday he was so disappointed that he doesn't gather with his fellow disciples for an evening meal. In fact, sometimes I wonder, if while the other disciples were hiding in the upper room at Christ's first appearance, Thomas was not out preparing to move on, to get on with the work of rebuilding his shattered life. But on Monday morning, the disciples go looking for Thomas and tell him what has happened in his absence.
"Thomas, we were in that upper room where we'd been meeting. We locked the doors for protection. Yet, all of a sudden, Jesus appeared. 'Peace be with you,' he says. Then he shows us his hands. There are jagged holes where the nails had been. He pulls back his tunic and shows us where the spear penetrated his chest. But he isn't weak or sick or dying. He is alive, raised from the dead!"
I can imagine Thomas reacting doubtfully, and maybe even shouting. "I don't believe it! I don't believe a word of it. You're seeing what you want to see. Jesus is dead. I saw him die, and part of me died with him. But he's dead, and the sooner you accept that fact, the better off you'll be. Give it up!"
Peter pleads with him. "Thomas, I saw him myself. I tell you that he was as real as you are!" But Thomas demands proof. "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
But by the next Sunday evening he is eating with his fellow disciples in the same locked room. Suddenly, Jesus stands among them once again and says, "Peace be with you."
I can picture the blood draining from Thomas' face and maybe falling to his knees as Jesus turns to him and speaks plainly, without any hint of resentment or sarcasm, "Put your finger here, see my hands." Jesus holds out his scarred hands for him to examine. Thomas recoils. Not out of fear, but I would imagine from a mixture of amazement and revulsion. Jesus begins to open his outer garment and says, "Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
But it is said that Thomas never does place his hands in his Lord's wounds, even though Jesus invites him to. I think Thomas was most likely filled with fear and anger and shame that comes from knowing that he not only doubted but also deserted his friend. When Thomas is confronted by the risen Lord, when he is greeted by the forgiveness and grace embodied in the words "Peace be with you," he instantly believes and makes the great confession of John's gospel: "My Lord and my God!"
Thomas, "Doubting Thomas," as he is sometimes called, is the first disciple to put into words the truth that Jesus is both Lord and God. "Doubting Thomas" utters the greatest confession of faith recorded anywhere in the Bible, so maybe he should be called “Thomas the Believer” instead.
Because in that moment, Thomas knew that he was in the presence of God, had been saved and redeemed by that God, and that he will never be the same again. This story, then, is not about Thomas' doubt at all; instead it is about an encounter with the grace of God which has come down from heaven and been embodied in Jesus Christ.
Now, it's important to note, that at his encounter with the Risen Christ, Thomas' doubt is swept away; but not his realism. Thomas' confession is just as much a part of his ability to deal with reality, as was his demand for proof. For it is not Thomas' realism that has been changed, you see, but reality itself. When he is confronted by God's grace in the Risen Christ, Thomas is confronted by a whole new reality.
This is what Easter means; that we are also confronted by a whole new reality and are a forever transformed people. That is why we don't celebrate this Sunday as a Sunday in or after Easter, the way we would the 2nd Sunday in Advent or the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost. Instead, we call this day, and the next five Sundays, a Sunday of Easter to remind us that Easter isn't just a day, it's every day. Easter isn't just a celebration; it's a way of life! And in the case of Thomas, his life was changed forever.
But what happened to him? We know “Doubting Thomas” does not stay a doubter. When he saw the risen Jesus, all that Jesus had taught over the years clicked in, and to his death Thomas is an outspoken advocate for his Lord.
Church tradition tells us that he preached in ancient Babylon, near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where Iraq is today. He travels to Persia, present-day Iran, and continues to win disciples to the Christian faith.
In 52 AD, almost 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas sailed south to Malabar on the west coast of India. He preached, established churches, and won to Christ high caste Brahmins, as well as others. When the Portuguese land in India in the early 1600s, they find a group of Christians there; the Mar Thoma Church established through Thomas' preaching a millennium and a half before.
Finally, Thomas travels to the east coast of India, preaching relentlessly. About 20 years after arriving in India, in 72 AD, he is killed near Mylapore, near present-day Madras. Tradition tells us that he is thrown into a pit, and then pierced through with a spear thrown by a Brahmin.
Thomas died for the sake of the truth he was preaching in the name of Jesus. Like the other disciples who became martyrs, he was willing to suffer any consequence, even death, in order to be faithful in sharing the good news of the risen Jesus Christ. Thomas, who had so passionately proclaimed his unbelief, carried the Christian message of love and forgiveness to the ends of the earth.
I think Thomas speaks to doubters today, to those of us who have seen our hopes and dreams destroyed, and to those of us who have had our doubts from time to time. “Doubting Thomas” would tell his story of how Jesus' life had intercepted his own. He would tell us of his fears and his doubts. And then, with a radiant, joyful face, St. Thomas, Apostle to India, would relate his joy at seeing and knowing the risen Jesus himself. "My Lord and my God!" he would say. "My Lord and my God is Alive!”
For Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! And nothing will ever be the same again.
"Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
I for one believe. What do you believe?
Let us pray.
We give you thanks Lord, for the hope and courage that is ours in and through Christ and his resurrection. Root us firmly in the challenges and realities of the places to which you have called us that we might bear witness to the new reality and creation that is ours in Christ. Amen.
Cites and links to source material:
Thomas the Believer: Faith and Character of Apostle Thomas by Dr. Mathew Vellanickal and many other articles in St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia