Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why do you believe in God?

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2010
John 20:19-31
(This is somewhat amplified, and thus a bit longer than the actual sermon):

Why do you believe in God? Why do you believe in God? Maybe you’ve had some mystical, burning-bush experience like Moses. Maybe you’ve had a dramatic conversion experience and you can point to the difference God has made in your life. Maybe you are struck by the beauty and grandeur of creation. Or maybe, you were just raised that way and it makes sense to you. Do you ever doubt your belief? Or maybe you are one of those who find belief in God difficult, plagued by questions and doubts. Do you ever doubt your doubts?

In this morning’s gospel we hear about Thomas who has been tagged with the nickname, “Doubting Thomas”. Thomas is a lot more complex than this nickname would suggest and some have tried to rehabilitate him and drop the nickname. But, since our Lord himself says to Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe,” I think the nickname is going to stick. And I am glad. I am glad there is one among the original disciples who has a reputation for doubting. I am glad because I am someone for whom belief in God does not come easily. I often feel like I have more questions than answers. Someone once said that the epitaph on my tombstone should read, “Just one more question . . .”

Belief is sometimes difficult for me, but unbelief has proven impossible. Let me explain. For me, when it gets right down to it, I believe in God because of the suffering and injustice in the world. I know that the suffering and injustice in the world is supposed to be the great stumbling block to faith in God. But, I’m just backwards enough to find that to be the reason to believe. Every time I’ve tried to be an atheist (and I have tried) I run up against the reality that to be an atheist forced me to face a contradiction – a contradiction between my mind and my heart. Either I went with my mind and followed logic to its utmost conclusion or I followed my heart. But the two could not be followed together.

When I tried to be an atheist and followed the logic of my mind I was forced to admit that the beginning of all that is, and the beginning of all that I am, was an accident. The end of all that is and all that I am will also be, more or less, an accident. Everything in between is a meaningless event suspended between two accidents. Nothing, ultimately, has any meaning. Nothing, ultimately, has any purpose. All we are left with is our personal preferences and prejudices as to what is good and what is not so good. I know that most atheists deny this or try to get around it, but they are kidding themselves. Albert Camus was more honest. In his book, The Rebel, he wrote that if we believe in nothing, then it does not matter ultimately if we stoke the fires of the crematorium, as did the Nazis, or if we serve the lepers in Africa, as did Albert Schweitzer. It all comes to the same thing. He goes on, “Evil and virtue are mere chance and caprice.” Camus expended a lot of energy trying to face into this and find a way to live humanly in spite of it. But, he did so without sentimentalism and resolutely rejecting what he considered false hope. In the end, there is evidence that he began to question his atheism.

The flipside of the question “How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in the world?” is the question, “If there is no God and no meaning, why do I care about the suffering in the world?” Why should I? There is no logical reason to give the lives of people priority over the lives of cattle. They are both just the accidental byproducts of evolution and history. Our inclination otherwise is only conditioned sentimentalism. If there is no God at the heart of it all, one can only conclude that we have evolved ourselves into an existential cul-de-sac. At some point in our evolution longings for meaning and purpose, for believing there is good and evil were useful in our survival as a species. But now we know that those longings are but a trick of evolution and baseless.

But, that is a dry and weary land where no water is and humans cannot live there. However much my mind might say that there is no meaning, my heart cried out in contradiction, “No!” My heart insisted that there is meaning. It’s not a matter of indifference. I began to doubt my doubts. I suspected that my response to news about people abused, tortured and killed was not just a matter of my own personal preference. The response of my heart is in tune with the response at the heart of the universe. That offense, the offense we take in the face suffering and injustice, does not prove that there is a God, but it at least points us towards God.

The reason to believe in a more particular God is contained in this morning’s gospel. Let’s set the scene. The disciples had responded to the call of Jesus and followed him around for three years. They had heard his teaching and witnessed his deeds. They had come to believe and hope that he was the one who would redeem Israel and through Israel redeem humanity setting everything right. He was the Messiah. But, then he was arrested, tortured and crucified. Now he was dead. Dead. And with him their hope had died. They were huddled in hiding with the door locked. The air was thick with despair. And it was thick with fear. If they had tortured and killed Jesus, wouldn’t they likely do the same to his closest associates? The air was also thick with guilt. One way or another each of the disciples had denied or abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. Jesus whom they had loved.

Then, beyond all imagining, into this stifling atmosphere Jesus himself appears. It would be unnerving enough to have someone you knew to be dead show up in your locked-up room. We can expect they were more than a little spooked. But, remember they had denied and abandoned Jesus. If this is his ghost come back to haunt them, they might well expect him to be intent on retribution. But, rather than condemning them, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” It is what God and God’s messengers say again and again in the Bible when appearing to human beings. This word of Jesus to the disciples after all that has transpired is an undeniable word of grace and forgiveness. With his peace he offers reconciliation and addresses their guilt. He gives them his Spirit that they might be people of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s a God I can start to believe in.

But, there’s more. Jesus shows them his hands and his side. He later invites Thomas to touch the wounds. How remarkable that Jesus returns from the grave with the wounds remaining. Don’t you think – if you were going to make this up – that you’d have Jesus come back whole without a mark? But, he doesn’t. He comes back with the wounds. I believe that it is more than just a means of demonstrating that the one appearing before them is truly Jesus who was crucified. The wounds identify Jesus, but they also reveal something about Jesus and, thus, about God.

The wounds are the ultimate marks of what we might already suspect given the incarnation. We believe that, in some sense beyond our complete understanding, Jesus is God enfleshed. In taking on human flesh, God in Christ has entered into the mess of human reality, the reality of sin, suffering and death. The wounds indicate that having entered that reality he entered it to the uttermost – abandoned, tortured, and brutally executed. This is not “god” as an abstract idea. The God we know in and through Jesus has placed himself in solidarity in the concrete reality of human history with all its terror and tragedy. This God is not aloof. This God has taken on sin, suffering and death in the incarnation and taken them all the way to the cross. This God bears the wounds. This God bears the wounds of all of history. This God bears the wounds you and I have suffered as well as those we have inflicted. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII, wrote, "The wounds of Christ are his credentials to the suffering race of men [sic] . . . Only a God in whose perfect Being pain has its place can win and hold our worship." This is a God I can begin to believe in.

But, Jesus doesn’t simply bear the wounds. In resurrection, he returns with the wounds transformed. This is not a case of “Let’s pretend that didn’t happen.” His torture and death were all too real, as is the torture and death that have marked so much of the human story. A belief in immortality alone does not address this tragic story. But, the Christian hope is not that we might simply escape from the unhappy reality of sin and suffering. It is not that it will all just be forgotten. Our hope is that sin and suffering will be transformed into resurrection glory. The wounds are testimony that transformation. Such a God, a God of transformation is a God I can hope in.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus enters into the stifling atmosphere of the room where the disciples are locked in fear, guilt, and despair. He breathes the fresh air into the room and into their hearts dispelling their fear with his peace, their guilt with his forgiveness, and their despair with the new hope of transformation and new creation by way of resurrection. He brings them new life. And he sends them into a sinful, suffering world to be resurrection people, new creation people – people who bear witness to peace, forgiveness, and hope.

He breathes that same fresh air of his peace, forgiveness, and hope into our fear, guilt, and despair. He fills our suffering with his presence and the promise of transformation. He calls us to be resurrection people.

The God we know in Jesus – a God who bears the wounds – might not resolve all our questions or doubts. But, if this is who we’re talking about, I can join Thomas and say, “My Lord and my God!”


Anonymous said...

Thank you Father, those words of yours at the beginning "Belief is sometimes difficult for me, but unbelief has proven impossible." proved with the rest of your post to be a blessing.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, George. I glanced at your blog - evocative and provocative. As honesty usually is.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Just stopping by.

Wanted to tell you that I thought this was a terrific sermon. I hope many people are moved closer to Christ as a result of what God has laid upon your heart to share with them.