+ ‘Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe’
Today, eight days after Easter, each year, we get the story of doubting Thomas, Thomas the Apostle who came late to the party and didn’t believe his friends. He didn’t believe his dead friend was alive, which is actually quite reasonable.
Who and what do you believe? Long experience shows you can trust some people. Did you trust president Putin when he said he wouldn’t invade Ukraine, despite deploying his armies to its borders. I half did, as bluff is a tool of realpolitik. At the same time spreading disinformation and keeping you enemies guessing is essential for a military commander. Likewise I watched fascinated as the opposition parties in the Commons struggled for ways to call the Prime Minister a liar while not being allowed to use that unparliamentary language. In our political system not telling the truth and breaking the law are serious matters, at least if you get found out.
But is truth an absolute, does it matter, and how can we be certain? If the Gestapo come to the door and ask ‘are there Jews in your attic?’, and you are hiding Jews, should you be honest and say ‘yes, there are Jews in the attic’; should you tell an untruth and say ‘no’; or should you prevaricate and say ‘there are no Jews in my attic’, with the mental reservation that we don’t have an attic, we have a loft. The last is like saying, ‘it wasn’t a party, it was a work meeting’.
I know what I would do, what do you think? There are two main Christian views on telling the truth. On is that you should never tell a deliberate untruth, hence prevarication where telling the truth would cause a great evil. The other is that you should never tell a deliberate untruth to someone who should hear the truth.
Which do you accept? In both cases the truth is highly valued. And so it should be as Jesus said, ‘I am the truth’, and the devil is the ‘father of lies’. We heard Jesus say on Good Friday ‘I came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me’, and Pilate replied, ‘What is truth?’ Pilate’s words can be a cop out, thinking there is no absolute truth, it’s like saying ‘all politicians are the same’ or ‘all religions are the same’. No, they’re not, but higher than truth is love.
‘Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe’. Jesus’ words bring us to a new level. We are not speaking about truth in philosophy or war, or politics. We are speaking about the truth of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Did he or didn’t he. You can’t prove it scientifically or historically or philosophically. You can only show that it is neither impossible nor unlikely. We are in the realm of faith, but we have already been there, did you believe Putin when he said he wouldn’t invade? Thomas, did you believe Jesus when he said he would rise from the dead?
On Monday in Holy Week some of us joined our friends at Cramond Kirk to hear Richard Holloway speak about his life and faith. In his talk he attributed most of the evils of Christianity, which come from a false way of reading of the Bible, to a misunderstanding of the nature of faith. He said ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty’.
This is quite a powerful statement and needs a bit of unpacking, but it is not as clear as it first appears. On one level it is true. If you had access to Putin’s private diaries or had bugged his office, you might have known with certainty he would invade. In which case it doesn’t matter what you or others might believe, you would KNOW. With certain knowledge there is no place for belief, or doubt. I thought he might not invade, but I doubted this view.
If you have faith, if you believe, there is no scientific certainty and so there must be room for doubt and so faith without doubt is not faith at all. Holloway’s is a powerful argument – that sort of certainty powers the Inquisitor or John Knox as they burn things and people. Thomas, doubting Thomas, is the patron saint of doubt, as so this is a great gospel to preach on.
Yes, but the whole purpose of this story is to move us from doubt to faith. I looked up some sermons and prayers on today’s gospel and most were really hostile to doubt, ‘blessed are those who have not seen yet believe’ = ‘blessed are those who don’t doubt’.
I’m not convinced by this, but I also have one reservation about the Holloway view. The risen Christ has his wounds. They don’t go away but are transformed into signs of victory. The Thomas story is given us for a purpose, this is so explicit that John writes it out, ‘these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’. Christian faith is not about facts, will he invade or won’t he, it is not about scientific or mathematical certainty. It does involve belief that something happened, Christ is risen from the dead, but that event can’t be proved by the human mind. Christian faith is not a self-help programme, but like those it is about abundant life. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe – us – because we will have life in his name.’
Christian faith is trust in God not factual knowledge, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches: ‘faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen’. Like the enduring wounds of Christ, which assure us our weaknesses and imperfections will not be destroyed but transfigured, our doubts and uncertainties are part of our faith. But, as Hebrews uses ‘assurance’ and ‘conviction’, for me faith does involve a certainty that is beyond the cold certainty of mathematics. It is a warm certainty, like when you know that someone loves you. This is faith, and this is what Easter is all about: ‘blessed are you who have not seen yet believe’.