Posted: Monday 9th April 2018
Can the Christian faith be a private matter?
Easter 2, Year B, 2018
Acts 4: 32-35 & John 20: 19-31
Rev’d Simon Buckley
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”
That verse, many biblical scholars contend, was the original final verse of John’s gospel. Giving as it does the ‘last word’ of the gospel to Jesus and spelling out, very simply, that faith does not depend on having seen proof and that the faith which the first disciples had come to was not for them alone.
As St John’s gospel has come down to us we have words which go on to spell out the fact this book has been written so that we may come to the same conclusion about Jesus as those who ‘actually saw him’ (just in case Jesus’ words about people coming to faith without seeing him weren’t clear enough!). And then, just for good measure, there’s a whole extra chapter after this with other accounts of Jesus being seen by the first disciples which ends with a lovely few verses which – if I may paraphrase them- has the author say “I’m going stop here because, quite frankly, there are so many things that Jesus said and did that I could go on writing for ever”( John 20:30).
But the crucial element in the appearance of the Risen Christ to Thomas is that Jesus makes himself known to Thomas so that others may come to faith too. And the faith that the disciples had come to was not just that Jesus was alive, risen from the dead, but that what they seen with their own eyes proved him to be, in Thomas’s words “My Lord and my God”.
That’s true of the other resurrection appearances- remember how Jesus said to Mary outside the empty tomb to go and tell the other disciples that he was raised to new life: That what they’d half understood, semi-believed and at times questioned was true- that Jesus is Lord.
Last Sunday, I debunked the myth that people can say “I accept Jesus as a moral teacher or example of a supremely good person, but don’t accept him as somehow divine”, and quoting CS Lewis observed that anyone who said the things that Jesus did, and said the things he said was frankly either the Son of God, a con-man, or insane. You can’t separate his acts of kindness, his compassion and self-sacrifice from his bold assertions that “no-one comes to the father but by me”, “I am the bread of life”, “I am the way the truth and the life” and it took the manner of his dying for the centurion at the cross to say “this man truly was God’s son” and then his being raised to new life for his followers to confidently call him “My Lord and My God”.
Well today I want to debunk a second myth: that our religious faith is, or can be, a wholly private and personal matter. It isn’t and it can’t. I began to sow the seeds to evidence this when I said earlier that Jesus appeared to Mary with instructions to proclaim this good news to others; notice too, how even the intensely personal and intimate exchange between Jesus and Thomas in today’s gospel happens when all the disciples were gathered together on the first day of the week. Yes, Jesus appears and speaks directly to Thomas, but in the context of the wider group of disciples and in order that others not present may come to belief as he shared his experience with them. Something, tradition tells us Thomas was to go on and do from Jerusalem to India. News he couldn’t keep to himself and for which he was ultimately speared to death near Madras.
Firstly ‘having faith’ demands some interaction with another, because it involves trust and we can’t really trust in something that we have just made up on our own. Thomas Aquinas, the great mediaeval theologian, said that of faith and hope and love, whilst St Paul said the greatest is love, in his opinion the most important is faith – because the others spring from it. Think about it: our hope comes from the faith we have, and it is from our faith that we learn what love truly is. So, faith lies at the root of our hopes and our loves- the way we live and in what we trust. Aquinas quotes Aristotle that ‘every learner must begin by simply believing other people’; we begin from a position of putting our trust in another person from the minute when as babies, we look into our parents eyes and hear them tell us to eat our vegetables because they’re good for us, to the teachers and lecturers at school or college who give us what we must trust is a reliable basis- whether in history, physics or biology for our own further learning, through to the doctor who advises us on the best cancer treatment for us or our loved ones. And even if we question that advice and seek a second opinion it is to another person (even if the faceless, nameless person who posted something on the internet) to whom we turn. John the evangelist says to us “trust, put your faith in, what I’ve written; not just because they’re my words but because they record what people evidenced for themselves – a truth they were willing to die for because they couldn’t deny it”(John 20:24). Faith and trust demand interaction with others.
And the second reason that I think we can’t keep our faith as a private matter is that, as we have already heard, sharing the good news of the Gospel- that not even death can keep Jesus down, giving us hope of new life for our lives – is something that all Christians are called to do. We must share that faith not just with those who’ve already glimpsed it to encourage them (though the importance of that shouldn’t be under-estimated) but to share that news with those who have never heard it or understood it. Now this is the moment of course when any self-respecting Church of England congregation begins to squirm in its seats and feel uncomfortable and mutter silently “oh no, he’s talking about evangelism and next he’s going to be asking me to stand outside Comptons shaking a tambourine and asking people if they know Jesus…. quick get me outta here!”. Well, ye of little faith! I would not ask you to do that, for three reasons:
(a) that’s way too embarrassing, (b) it’s ineffective as a means of evangelism- no matter how well intentioned such efforts might be and (c) because the gospel calls us to something far more challenging and demanding than that!
At the last supper Jesus said “by this people will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another” (john 13:35). It is by how we interact with others that we live the gospel and proclaim the gospel as Jesus told us too. It’s easy to use words, to trot off a formula of belief or to quote passages of scripture at people; far more difficult, eloquent and converting it is to show Christ-like love: to give time, care, attention to, or show respect for those who it would be easier to ignore as ‘not my problem’. Jesus said “it’s not those who call me Lord all the time who enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do my father’s will” – and he showed us what God willed when he knelt and washed the feet of those who gathered at the last supper(John 13:5) , just as he had embraced the leper, the outcast, the despised, the disreputable the least worthy or deserving. The profession of faith becomes empty words unless backed up by actions of charity and kindness towards others.
Our faith can never be simply a personal private matter between an individual and God, because actually we speak to God most honestly through our interactions with others and God so often speaks to us through them too. Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles painted in just a few verses a picture of the ideal church- a people united through their faith in Christ’s resurrection: resulting in love for God and love for one another in equal measure. I wonder how long that ‘perfection’ lasted and to what extent we mirror it here in Soho 2,000 years on. I certainly see intimations of it at times and at our best it’s rather wonderful, but we’re a long way from ‘fulfilling everyone’s needs’ as the picture of the early church describes, and so -despite our reputation for being ‘friendly’ or ‘a lovely and diverse group of people’ we have absolutely no room for complacency and none of us- least of all me- can ever, in a quiet moment of private prayer, ask God for a personal pat on the back.
The good news of Christ is for us to know as individuals but to share and proclaim through our life as a community. It was St Francis who said “preach the gospel at all times- use words when you absolutely have to” by our deeds more than our words do we glorify God and share the good news, news that is simply too good to keep to ourselves.
Jesus asked Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. By our life together here may we witness to the risen Christ that others may see and believe what we have heard and in what we trust, and so share our faith that Christ the Lord is risen, Alleluia!