…by soon to be ordained student minister Julie Kirby
John 20: 19-31
John writes, at the very end of his gospel:
‘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 what does it really mean to believe in Jesus?
I seem to have quite a lot of conversations with people about belief. For me it is through these conversations that on my pilgrimage towards Ordination, I am discovering who I am in God’s image and how that relates to how and what I believe and why. Of course, we are all created in the image of God and we all experience life differently. That can also be said of those first followers of Christ. They like us all believed in different ways. As we grow and develop, and grow in faith, we may experience God ‘differently’ that’s ok, it all part of the complexity of relationship.
I have to confess, that not so very long ago I would rather avoid the Gospel of John, I had always thought that it was written in a way that was deliberately obscure, However, it has gone from being my least favourite of the Gospels to my joint favourite. That’s for many reasons but mainly because I now understand why it is so different to the synoptic Gospels, when it is read in context it is easier to comprehend.
But it seems that for people of honesty and integrity, faith is not something that can just be conjured up, however much they may want to believe or however pleasant and positive they are about people who do have faith. I think that it is about relationship – not only our individual relationships with God but how those grow and develop when we share with those we worship and socialise with in our daily lives.
Holy Week and Easter have been a new experience for me this year, I have been blessed to be with you and feel so much a part of the family here. I was totally committed to doing all that I could during Holy Week, I wanted and needed to be a part of what was going on in this place – with all of you. After leading the act of worship on Maundy Thursday, I went home feeling decidedly unwell and during the night developed a lurgy that prevented me from being with you on Good Friday and again on Easter Sunday. I tell you this because it left me feeling quite strange. I felt cheated! You had been able to complete the story together and celebrate the good news last week and as silly as it sounds, I felt left behind, in the garden, betrayal…………. What next? Of course I know the rest but that was in some way diminished by not sharing it! I wonder if that’s what Thomas felt?
Believing is not simple.
Poor Thomas. He is not with the other disciples when they see the risen Jesus Christ on Easter day. And though they tell Thomas what has happened, and though their story ‘we have seen the Lord’ is corroborated by the two from Emmaus, and by Mary who met Jesus at the tomb that morning – Thomas does not or cannot believe. The other disciples have received the gift of the Spirit from Jesus – but somehow, they cannot convince Thomas that Jesus is risen. And then a whole week passes.
I wish John told us what happened in that week. Did Thomas just keep away from the others, with their crazy stories of the risen Jesus, and their strange insistence that they had received the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them, and that they were going to tell the whole world this good news of Jesus, the one who came back from death?
Did the apostles try to tell anyone else, or were they so gutted by Thomas’s disbelief that they kept the news to themselves. Did they try, every day, to convince Thomas of the truth of their story? Did Thomas pray, like the father of the sick child in Mark’s gospel “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”?
Or did they all just wait for Jesus to act?
We don’t know. John doesn’t tell us. And only John tells us this part of the story – about Thomas – so we just don’t know.
But we do know that Jesus appears to Thomas – 7 whole days later – and that Thomas, when he sees the risen Jesus, believes. And Thomas then goes the whole hog ‘My Lord and my God!’
But aren’t those 7 days fascinating? Why did Jesus wait 7 days – why not put Thomas out of his misery sooner (because whatever else did or didn’t happen in those 7 days, Thomas was left mourning his teacher and Lord). Perhaps, somehow, Thomas needed that time to accept the truth, to believe, to see.
I think it is moving to see how the risen Jesus meets and accepts Thomas, just where he is. Christ accepts the challenge without complaint or criticism. He responds to the need within Thomas and Thomas responds with the declaration “My Lord and my God”. The scene ends on the note of belief and trust – not just for Thomas but for all of Johns readers who have not seen the risen Lord.
Maybe this strange gift of belief is a gift that God waits, patiently, to give us when we are ready to receive it.
Of course, waiting patiently is not something most of us are very good at. We want to know – now. We want to have faith, enough to move mountains, we want the church to be filled with power to change lives.
We want God’s spirit to make people listen to the story we have to tell about the resurrection of Jesus and to believe and join us.
But sometimes we have to be patient, hard as it is.
We may or may not be familiar with the account in Acts of the Holy Spirit’s arrival, the impatience of God’s people to move forward, to be active and we might feel very impatient and even very jealous of the early church:
‘With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. We are told in the book of Acts that there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses, sold them; they laid the proceeds it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’.
The apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection and many believed. But, wait just a moment – these are the very same apostles who had 7 days to convince Thomas of their ‘testimony to the resurrection’ and who failed. What’s changed? Luke’s second volume – the Acts of the Apostles, it was sometime between the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit and only then were they able to preach with great power.
Another stretch of time, a waiting time, a growing time, a learning time?
They had to wait. Thomas had to wait to believe. They had to wait to see results from their belief.
What about us?
If we believe that Jesus is risen, if we believe that Jesus sends us to tell the world, what are we waiting for? Perhaps we too have to wait for God’s time to be right, for people’s hearts to be open to hear what we have to say. But we need to pray to be ready. Ready to believe; ready to tell; and ready to welcome those who also believe, so that believing we may all have life in Jesus’ name.
Lord, help our unbelief.