Sermon: Being is Believing. April 15, 2012

Sunday, April 15th

1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31
“Being is Believing” Rev. Stacy Swain

Will you pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I have to tell you, the only thing I hate more than someone telling me what to do, is someone telling me what to believe. It’s true. Mark, my husband, will attest to it — there is an obstinate streak in me that is a mile wide and twice as deep.

This has made my relationship with organized religion, particularly when I was a teenager, rather rocky. Especially so during that year of confirmation class. The minister spoke with such conviction about what the church said about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin, forgiveness. And we were instructed to listen carefully, take notes and be prepared to pull it all together and make it our own in a cohesive personal belief statement.

One class, I will never forget. The minister was telling us about the Easter miracle, how Jesus’ death was an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Of how the blood of Christ had purified me from all sin. Of how I was now to be Christ-like in my living. She was clearly so excited about all of this, so clear she was offering me an incredible gift to be cherished. But I couldn’t quite believe it. I could not quite see how all of that could be real.

After she finished, I remember stating quite emphatically before her and the rest of the class that 1) I never asked Christ to die for my sins so I take no responsibility for him having done so and 2) that I knew myself quite well and I doubted very much that I was purified of anything and 3) that I had no interest in being Christ like if being Christ like lands you on a cross.

I can only imagine how fresh I must have sounded then, but looking back on it I think there was a part of me that felt that all of this was far too important for me to take it on her word only. If I could not see it for myself, if I could not put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I would not believe.

And I am afraid that that confirmation class curriculum is much of what the Christian message is these days. So much of traditional Christian theology prescribes what is and what one should believe. And I am afraid that that message can be particularly challenging, particularly jarring at this time of Easter. How are we to really understand what happened between that first Good Friday and Easter morning? What impact does whatever it is that happened really have on our lives today?

Because honestly, do we really know what happened? The gospel accounts were written decades after the fact. They are not journalism reporting. They are not reality TV recording what is. There wasn’t a security camera outside the tomb that day. No one pulled out their Iphone to make a video when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples gathered behind locked doors. All we have is someone else’s word for it and thousands of years of Christian tradition that have tried to explain and make sense of a belief system that is handed down to us today.

And all of that can leave us feeling a bit queasy, particularly in this Easter season when we hear the soaring phrases, “Christ is Risen. Death is defeated. Love is stronger than hate. God wins.” “You have been wiped clean of sin so go and live Christ-like lives.” In this season that is the heart of our faith and that calls for such conviction, for such confirmation of all we belief, we may feel rising in us a desire not to consent but to contest, not to believe but to question. Do I believe this? What does it mean to really believe this?

And this is compounded, I think by an overlay of what theologian Douglas John Hall calls Christian triumphalism[1] — this rosy optimism that on the far side of the empty tomb all is as it should be. We are all set. Life is good, Salvation is guaranteed. Hall claims that this rosy optimism crept into Christianity during the time of Constantine in the 4th century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and has been with us ever sense. All we have to do now is have faith and believe and everything will work out just fine.

Now I don’t mean to be a downer but the problem with all of this soaring Easter celebration, Christian triumphalism, this rosy optimism, is that it is wonderful here in the space of this sanctuary but it fades far too quickly when we go down the front steps again back into the brokenness of the world and pain of our lives. How do we reconcile the Christian message of God’s triumph over evil through Jesus with what is happening right now in the world? We may walk away from church wondering if any of that has to do with any of this anyway; wondering if the Christian message while beautiful — can actually speak to our lives right now or is it rather irrelevant. It is no wonder that the pews are empty in so many churches across the country. One gets tired of being told just to take it on faith, just believe it to be true without any evidence that it actually is.


But all of this insistence on belief, all of this conviction and rosy optimism, when I peal back the layers of Christian doctrine and try to get back to what it may have been for those first followers of Jesus, well I just don’t see it. What I see is a fragile community trying to figure out what it is to live out of love in a world that shouts fear. Digging down deep, Hall find what he calls Christianity’s “thin tradition within Christian history that tries to proclaim the possibility of hope without shutting its eyes to the data of despair. This tradition insists that authentic hope comes into view only in the midst of apparent hopelessness. This thin tradition is grounded in this world, like the cross of Calvary, and it will not abandon this world for all the hope of heaven. The most significant thing this tradition has to teach us is that the authentic expression of the Christian hope depends upon the encounter with the despair that is native to our own time and situation.”[2]

To peal back the layers of Christian doctrine and try to get at what it may have meant for those first followers of Jesus on that first Eastertide is, I believe, to wrestle with the stark truth that the Lord has risen indeed but we have not. We are broken still. Jesus may be in glory but we face the howl of despair and the chasm of meaninglessness that pervades our culture but that we as a society for the most part refuse to acknowledge or address. John is quite clear about this. Living in the post resurrection world does not mean we are living in a world without sin. In fact “if we claim we have not sinned, we make Jesus out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” To live in a post Easter world is to be honest and open about our doubt, our brokenness, our disbelief. To be open an honest about all we with which we wrestle, all that keeps up from God. To be a Christian is not be perfect, it is to accept our brokenness and essential nakedness in front of God.

In the opening chapters of Genesis, the first tendency of Adam and Eve after having eaten the forbidden fruit was to hide. They covered up their nakedness and hide from God. And we have been trying to hide ever since. The triumphalism of Christianity in its worst form is just one more thing we are hiding behind. This thin tradition seeks to divest us of all that we have attempted to use for the covering up of our essential nakedness.[3]

But if you read the story, it is all there. Their essential nakedness is there. They are not clothed in conviction, not draped in belief. Mary, the eleven disciples including Thomas are naked in their sorrow, their fear and their doubt. The Christian faith clearly began not with certainty but with question.

Serene Jones, a theologian, pastor and now president of Union Theological Seminary calls Thomas the “the incredulous nonbeliever who hides inside every believing Christian – the questioner in us that resists easy answers to hard questions of faith, who always wants a little more proof. Doubt follows faith’s lead, stalking its edges with quizzical uncertainties, poking at belief’s soft spots, and stirring up those still waters we are always seeking.” [4]

My faith is emboldened by Thomas. For Jesus seeks out Thomas. Thomas does not need to clean himself up, put on convictions that may not fit before he is worthy of meeting Christ. Just the opposite seems true. The Risen one come through a locked door, “Jesus refuses to let dead bolts or chains block the movement of love toward the one who lacks faith.” And so too, I believe, it is with us.

Serene Jones says it so much better than I ever could so I will quote her here: “When doubts crowds out hope, we can be confident that Jesus will come to meet us where we are, even if it is out on the far edge of faith that has forgotten how to believe. God comes seeking us, stepping through the walls that hardship builds around us, offering love at the very moment that grace seems nothing but a farcical ghost story told by not to be believed friends.”

This is what I love about what I have learned is at the heart of faith and what I have experienced over these years for myself as true. This is also what I love about this gathered community. The starting place of a relationship with God is not conviction of belief but honesty of being. It is a willingness to gather together without pretense, without hiding our doubts, fears and disbelief under rosy optimism and Christian triumphalism. It is about being fully human. Jesus took on flesh and walked on this earth. He ate and slept. He laughed and cried. He was afraid and he was overcome with joy. Why? Why did God go through all of that? Well I think it is because God wants our faith to be not something we think about but something we are. Ours is a flesh and blood God. Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Belief is about being who we are right now.

And that for me is the good news of Easter. We do not need to pass some kind of bar of cleanliness, perfection or belief to be welcomed into the gathered community of faith. We need only bring who we are. Our authentic selves full of faith, fear, doubt and belief. It is from here we begin. It is from here the risen one meets us. Amen

[1] Douglas John Hall “Lighten Our Darkness: towards an Indigenous Theology of the Cross.” (Academy Renewal Press: Lima, Ohio, 2001).

[2] Ibid 104-5

[3] Ibid 109

[4] Feasting on the Word, Year B volume 2