By the Reverend Trevor Jamison
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields – 28/04/2019
I admire the faith of convinced atheists. It takes faith to be an atheist. If it just depended upon sifting or balancing the evidence available to us then surely the logical position is to be an agnostic; to say the evidence is insufficient to prove definitively either that there is a God, or that no God exists at all.
Most people in this country are agnostics … maybe! Did you watch, Pilgrimage: the Road to Rome, a recent television series about a group of celebrities (some of whom I recognised!) following the medieval pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome? They reflected the variety of religious traditions and beliefs in today’s UK: a not-very-observant Jew, a former Evangelical, a lapsed Jehovah’s witness, the child of someone who renounced Catholicism, and a gay man, alienated from the Christian Church by its lack of welcome. Paid-up belief was represented by a quietly observant Muslim and the more vocal Catholic Christian, the singer, Dana. Only one in the group, Brendan Cole, from TV’s Strictly Come Dancing, was a vocal, convinced atheist.
Thomas would have fitted in with this group, an agnostic than an atheist concerning the resurrection of Jesus. He’s not saying that it did not happen. He’s just saying that he needs more evidence, though he is demanding. For Thomas, hearing testimony from those who tell him, ‘we have seen the Lord’ (20:25), is insufficient: ‘unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails in his hands and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ (20:25) This sets the bar very high for belief; hearing what others say is not sufficient for believing; not even seeing is believing; Thomas needs to touch, hear and see.
Not everyone is as demanding as Thomas. That’s good, because Jesus’s body is not available to us today for seeing and touching. If we were all like Thomas none of us would ever become a Christian believer. Fortunately, it’s not like that as far as believing is concerned, as Jesus implies: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me [Thomas]? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (20:29) So what does move people from atheism or agnosticism to belief about Jesus and his resurrection?
Well, assuming we have some acquaintance with the Christian Gospel story – a big “if” in twenty-first century Britain – then our experience of the beliefs of others plays a big part. I don’t just mean what others believe in their heads about Jesus but also how those beliefs affect the way they treat others, including us; also, how they live their faith lives together – how they do church.
This is a big responsibility for us. Provide someone with a positive, authentic experience of how belief in God, in Jesus Christ, changes lives, and the chance that they might come to belief increases. There is some truth in the saying that, “Christianity is caught, not taught.” The life stories of many Christian people feature individuals and groups who provided a chance to try out Christian faith – belief – before making the move to accept it for themselves.
Providing positive faith experiences to others so that they can come to belief is a big responsibility. Too often people are provided with negative experiences which discourage coming to belief. On Pilgrimage: the Road to Rome there were a couple of examples of that. One of the pilgrims had heard a clear message that as a gay man he was not welcome in church, so he declined to have anything to do with it. What does that do his chances of moving on from agnosticism or atheism? With another, his mother had been effectively excluded from the Roman Catholic Church when she had a child without being married. Where was he then going to encounter examples and experiences of living faith?
As fewer people in this country hear the Christian story, and fewer of them experience life in a Christian community or congregation, the chances of acquiring faith seem smaller and smaller. Yet, people do come to faith; make the move from agnosticism or atheism to belief, sometimes in unpromising circumstances. What’s that about?
Well, that takes me the verses connecting Jesus’s resurrection appearances with the presence of God: ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” When he said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”’ (20:22) Then the week later, when Thomas is present, and when Jesus has appeared to them again, again Jesus is saying, “Peace be with you,” which implies again a giving of the Holy Spirit.
When it comes down to it, it does not depend on us what someone else believes or does not believe. Despite what we think, it might not even depend upon us for what we ourselves believe! Yes, life circumstances and the actions of others can make faith more plausible or less plausible: I was born in Belfast, not Mecca; I was always more likely to be a Christian than a Muslim. Yet similar people in similar circumstances end up believing different things. I conclude that it’s God who makes the difference; that God’s intervention – a work of the Holy Spirit – is what tips some towards belief.
This is good news, because then it’s not up to me to make others believe. Also, it helps me understand why I might believe when many others do not. It reassures me that it’s ok to continue believing in the midst of a society where most do not. None of this absolves me from the responsibility of representing Christian faith to others. Yet it tells me that this faith thing is a gift from God; an act of God’s grace.
Since faith is something in God’s hands to give as a gift, or not, that also makes me hopeful about the fate and future of those who do not believe as I do. Thinking more about that is for another day and another sermon, though. Today, it’s enough to remember and celebrate Thomas’s declaration, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (20:28) and give thanks for Jesus’s response: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (20:29) Yes, thanks be to God. Amen.