28 April 2019 – 2nd Sunday of Easter – 10.00am Parish Eucharist – Revd Michael Camp
“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.” So ends chapter 20 of St.John’s Gospel. This was probably the original ending and then later on someone added another chapter on, but this sounds very much like the end doesn’t it. There are lots of other things that Jesus did, says John, but these are the ones I’ve written down and I’ve done that for a very specific purpose. I’ve written these things down to help you to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God and that believing, you may have life.
So, what does it mean to believe? What is actually going on when we say that we believe something?
Every week we stand up and we declare that “We believe in one God…we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the son of God…. We believe in the Holy spirit, the Lord, the giver of life” and so on. That’s our Creed; the word ‘credo’ means ‘I believe’ but we don’t say ‘I believe’ do we? We say ‘we believe’. In other words this believing business is something that we do together as a community. Believing is not a solitary thing; it’s something we share. When someone is Baptised they come to the water as an individual but when they declare what they believe they don’t do it alone. They join in with the rest of us.
That’s the first thing then, believing is a shared thing. It’s something we do together. When we say the Creed we are saying that we are part of a community that believes that those words tell the truth about God.
Now the Christian church spent a lot of time thrashing all that out. The first 500 years of the church’s life were spent constantly arguing about what Christian belief really meant and only then did they write it down. Even then not all Christians believe everything in it but most Christians in most places and at most times hold to what the Creed says. In order to be a Christian you need to hold beliefs which are pretty close to what it says in the Creed: that Jesus is God; that he died and rose again; that he comes to us in the Holy Spirit and so on.
Believing all that is something we share but that doesn’t mean that every single individual Christian believes it all in the same way all the time. Each of you will, at some time and in some way, have decided that you accept it and so you have made it your own but you’ll still have questions and doubts; we shall all go through periods when we have trouble making sense of some of it; or even all of it, but crucially, it’s at those times we can be held by the community of which we are a part. That’s why it’s so important to be part of the church community, we support each other in our faith.
So belief is first and foremost a shared activity of our community but alongside that, it’s also something that each of us must take for ourselves. To a certain extent it is an intellectual exercise. Its brain stuff; but only to a certain extent, because reading about Jesus and sharing in the life of the church doesn’t convince everyone that Jesus is the Messiah. There are plenty of people who are left totally unconvinced. We, though, are those who have decided that we shall be convinced. We have decided. So believing is only partly intellectual. Alongside that it is an act of the will. We have made a decision to believe.
Just like Thomas. The story of Thomas is familiar isn’t it? On the first Easter Day Thomas wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared to the disciples in the upper room and when the others told him Jesus was alive he didn’t believe it. He said he wanted evidence; he wanted actually to touch the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet and side. A week later they were together again and Jesus came to be with them again. Thomas was there and Jesus invited him to touch him and to feel the evidence he wanted. But Thomas didn’t. Thomas didn’t reach out and touch Jesus; he didn’t feel the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet. His need of evidence seems to have evaporated and instead he simply proclaimed his faith in Jesus. He said “My Lord and my God!” without actually examining the evidence. There was something about what happened in that upper room that enabled Thomas to make an act of will and make the decision to believe.
You have all made a similar act of will. If you sit down and think about it all scientifically and rationally, matters of faith don’t all simply fall into place, there is a whole lot more to this than is rational and provable; we have all made a decision to believe it.
OK, so that’s all about what’s going on in our minds and in our wills but our readings this morning have a lot more to say to us about faith than just what we think.
Let me remind you
From the book of Exodus we heard about the escaping Israelites crossing the Red Sea to get out of Egypt, this is one of the most famous miracle stories in the whole of the Bible. The story goes that God drove the sea back and that his people crossed over on dry ground and that the sea then flowed back again and drowned all the Egyptians. In that act, Jews believe, God saved his people from slavery.
This too is a story about believing in God, but this time it’s not about giving intellectual assent to something; this is not a story about what the Israelites thought. This is about what they did!
They’re standing there on the seashore with the Egyptians chariots bearing down on them from behind, and in front of them a way out opens up but it’s a pretty scary way forward. What are they to do? Well, the story goes that they followed Moses and they plunged forward into the sea and made their way to freedom. For them belief in God led to a very practical act of trust. Here believing is not something to sit and debate in a comfortable home group discussion over a glass of wine; here believing is a matter of life and death; existence or destruction. For the writers of the book of Exodus belief is not in your mind but in your actions.
Our New Testament reading from the Acts of the Apostles makes this connection more explicit still. The Apostles have been in the Temple teaching people about Jesus and proclaiming the resurrection and they’ve been arrested and thrown in prison. Then they get out and they go straight back and do it again. Again they are arrested and they’re hauled up before the Jewish Council.
What do they say? They proclaim their faith in the resurrection “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus” says Peter; and then he says that because of that they must obey God and act as witnesses. In other words their actions in speaking about Jesus grow directly out of their belief that God has raised him from the dead. Their belief is leading quite explicitly to action; and its quite dangerous action too. Just like the Israelites crossing the red sea it is extremely risky. The Apostles are risking punishment and death by acting as they are but, for them, belief is about action.
So, what does it mean to believe? It means to decide to accept the truth of what the Christian faith teaches and it means to act on it.
We show our faith and trust in God not only by what we think and say but also by what we do. It is in what we do that we can see that it really makes a difference to us. The Christian way of life; the acts of charity we carry out; the truth we live by and share; the work with homeless people, refugees, food banks etc etc are all statements of belief just as much as a creed.
John’s Gospel is there to give you the words of faith and the life that is for ever.