Sheldon W. Sorge, Bellevue United Presbyterian Church, April 3, 2016
Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31
I confess that the title of my sermon is an indulgence I don’t often enjoy – “Don’t Stop Believing” was the number one hit of a band popular during my student days named “Journey.” It tells stories of people in various dire circumstances who kept the faith against all odds, and challenges us to do the same.
It is an appropriate message in light of our texts today. One quality of the early church that stands out especially in the first chapters of Acts is irrepressibility. The authorities did everything possible to try and stop the early Christian movement, but every effort to put out the fire only fanned its flames.
In today’s text from Acts 5, the apostles had been imprisoned for stirring up the city with their preaching, but when the authorities went to retrieve them from jail to question them further, they discovered that they had escaped, even though the jailhouse doors were locked and the sentries had stayed on post continuously. Just as Jesus had passed through walls and locked doors to visit his disciples after his resurrection, the apostles by the same Spirit passed through prison gates on tight lockdown.
The police finally located them, back at home, and hauled them to the council, where the apostles justified their defiance of the court’s gag order by claiming that it was more important to obey God than human authority. They were so clear on the mission God had given them that nothing could stop them from pursuing it. Are we so clear on our divine marching orders that nothing will stop us from carrying out God’s mission?
When the church of Jesus Christ has a clear word from the Lord about what God has called it to say and do, it is unstoppable. This is the message of Acts, and it has been repeated countless times through the course of the Christian history.
So how did the disciples, so fearful and fickle just a few weeks earlier on Easter evening, become a resilient, irrepressible force for the spread of the Christian Gospel? The clues are present already in the story of the apostles coming to grips with Easter, as told in John 20.
Have you noticed how some people get so tied to a particular feature of their appearance or story that they are forever known by that moniker? John the Baptist. Erik the Red. Ivan the Terrible. Bloody Mary. Buffalo Bill. Richard the Lionhearted. Peter the Great. Dennis the Menace. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) One of Jesus’ disciples had such a name: “Thomas the Twin.” That’s how he is identified in our gospel reading today, as well as in other places in the book of John. (John 11:16, 21:2)
But he is remembered most not as “Thomas the Twin,” but as “Doubting Thomas.” Today’s reading indicates how he got that name, even though it ends with him being “Believing Thomas.” It’s the “doubting” part that we remember most.
Artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were often given painting commissions by wealthy patrons. Frequently such paintings included depictions of the patron as part of a scene in ancient narratives. The patron would be depicted as one of the disciples or servers at the Last Supper, or an onlooker at one of Jesus’ miracles. The artists did this to fatten their fee, but they were also illustrating an important principle of biblical interpretation. We need to paint ourselves into the Bible story, if it is to be anything more than a piece of literature or historical chronicle. If it is to be for us the transforming word of God, we need to see ourselves in its narrative.
Perhaps one of the reasons we are so captivated by “doubting Thomas” is that in him we see our own selves. We identify with him immediately – skeptics in the face of others’ testimony. We are scientists – “empiricists,” in academic language. We are inclined to believe something only if there is indisputable evidence that we can see, touch, hear, smell, or taste. This is especially so for us Presbyterians, who pride ourselves in being intellectually rigorous. Recently I asked a large group of Presbyterians from across a three-state region what they liked most about being Presbyterian. One of the most frequent answers was “our emphasis on education, on intellectual rigor.” As one person put it, “I love being Presbyterian because we don’t have to check our brains at the door when we come to church.”
Thomas may have been the first Presbyterian, since he refused to be swayed by the word of others. He had to see something for himself before he would accept it. Jesus never scolded Thomas for being a skeptic. Jesus would far rather that we be skeptical than that we be gullible. Instead of rebuking Thomas, he gave Thomas exactly what Thomas demanded: “Come, touch me! See, here are the scars!”
Many times Jesus was asked to prove himself. Most famously, he was taunted by onlookers to prove he was Messiah by coming down from the cross. But that was not the first time. Time and again during his ministry, people asked him for signs to prove his identity, and he refused.
Why did Jesus grant Thomas the proof he demanded, without question or blame, when he refused to do so for others? We can only speculate the answer, but I think it might be related to the fact that Thomas did not abandon his fellow-disciples even when he disagreed with them or disbelieved them. He didn’t let his doubts stop him from sticking with his faith community.
Later on, the book of Hebrews urges Christians not to neglect meeting together, because we need each other’s encouragement as we prepare ourselves for the Lord’s coming. (Hebrews 10:25) Apparently this advice was necessary because some HAD begun to fade in their commitment to gather with the community of believers, and as a result they were being weakened in their faith.
It’s easy to come to church when our spirits are strong and we already feel close to the Lord. But how about when doubts creep in, when our struggles seem more real than our faith? If that’s how we feel, we are in a Thomas moment. We feel out of sync with the rest of God’s people; they all seem strong in their faith, unlike us. And exactly then, Jesus comes along and says, “It’s OK! Just don’t give up sticking with the rest!”
Have you noticed the little word that keeps cropping up in our text from John 20? It is perhaps the key word to the entire book of John, and we know it well from John 3:16. It forms the core purpose of the entire book, according to today’s text, where John says that all this was written so we might believe in Jesus as Messiah, and believing might have life in his name. (John 20:31)
John doesn’t mean “believe” in the same way it is taken often in the church today, where we associate “believe” with affirming certain propositions as being “true.” We have come to think of “believing” as a mental category, as intellectual assent to particular truth claims.
The French acrobat Philippe Petit managed to run a cable between the Twin Towers in New York soon after they were built, and in August 1974 walked across it in one of the most celebrated high-wire acts of all time. At one point, he even lay down on the wire to take a nap. For 45 minutes he crossed back and forth across the span eight times, more than a quarter-mile above the ground (50% higher than the U.S. Steel Tower). The act was illegal, and required a crew to pull it off. They all believed he could do it, or they wouldn’t have participated. They had no doubt in their minds that he could succeed.
Imagine that he has been up on the high wire, and as he prepares to bring his show to a close, he calls out to his crew members, “Now do you believe I can do this?” They answer, “We knew you could all along!” “Ok,” he replies, moving to the end of the cable, close enough to touch one of them; “Jump on my back and let’s go for a walk out there together, and you can discover for yourself what I’ve been enjoying.” And his crew backs off in mortal terror. This is what it means to “believe” in the biblical sense. To believe in someone, biblically, is to trust your life into their hands, regardless of the risk.
Even though Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection intellectually, he continued to believe by putting his life on the line, staying with the disciples as they were hunted by the authorities, rather than bailing on them to find a safer place.
This is the meaning of the word “believe” in ancient church creeds – trust ourselves into the hands of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the church.
It’s not a doctrinal checklist. Have you noticed that there is not a single doctrinal checklist in the Bible? No leader was ever chosen by God in the Old Testament, or by Jesus or the church in the New Testament, based on their doctrinal understanding or affirmation. Doctrine matters, but the bottom line is whether we trust ourselves into God’s hands.
The way that got worked out concretely in the early church was that members trusted themselves into the fellowship of Christ’s body. This is why the Nicene Creed leads us to proclaim trust not just in the triune God, but also in the church: “I believe in – I trust myself into the hands of – the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” We cast our lot with the saints regardless of how tough it gets, just as Thomas stayed with the band of disciples even when he was in a very different frame of mind from the rest.
So what does that mean for us today at Bellevue? You have lost a beloved pastor who has shepherded you well over the past sixteen years. Cathy has also served our presbytery with great energy and wisdom. We all will miss her terribly. Yet know this: God will bring you the right new pastor in due time. Your presbytery is fully committed to assisting you toward that end. For now your task is to “believe” by continuing to be part of this congregation. Now, perhaps more than ever, you need the church, and the church needs you.
Don’t stop believing! Continue entrusting yourself into the fellowship of this congregation. In due time, the Lord will reward your trust, even if like Thomas you are entirely unsure about where things stand. You are needed to sustain others, as well as to be sustained by them.
In this season between pastors, I urge you to demonstrate the faith Cathy proclaimed, by leaning ever more fully into the arms of our Lord, both in personal faith and in commitment to his church. It is just as true for us today as it was last Sunday: The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! He has come among us despite the walls behind which we seek safety. He will remain with us always. Amen.