What Does it Mean to Believe?
April 15, 2012

What Does it Mean to Believe?

Passage: Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19-31

Easter 2, Year B-2012

(The middle section is based on the section on ‘Believing’ in Christianity After Religion, by Diana Butler Bass)

Holy Week and Easter here at St. Andrew’s were wonderful. And our celebration of Easter continues for 50 days, until the Feast of Pentecost. Christ is risen – death has been overcome. This is a time of great joy. Let us reflect together this morning on believing – believing in this resurrection, believing in God. Let us consider three points: (1) believing is personal – it grows, rather than being on object thing, something you have or don’t; (2) what in terms of faith believing means and doesn’t mean, and (3) how belief relates to how we live.

First, belief is personal. In our Epistle reading, we hear ‘John’ speak about what he has heard and seen and experienced. He shares his experience and invites us to consider it and to share in his joy and walk with him. His belief comes from his personal experience and the experience of fellowship, of community. He doesn’t argue but shares and invites. But what if we don’t believe the same thing? In our Gospel lesson, most of the disciples that first Easter evening saw the risen Lord. But Thomas was not with them and did not believe as they did.

Where was Thomas? We don’t know. Some suggest he may have gone out on an errand, being perhaps braver than the others trembling in fear behind locked doors. Or maybe Thomas was too devastated by Jesus’ death to be with the others. He needed to be alone. It wasn’t that he was a doubter – he was the consummate disciple. He gave himself utterly to following Jesus. Sometimes when one is committed to something or someone and then one is disappointed or betrayed, one may be so devastated that they isolate themselves or that part of themselves. That can happen in churches also. It may not feel so much that you have left the church or faith as the church has left you. You may still be spiritually seeking, longing, but you reject the church, what you call religion, that which was before.

When Thomas came at some point to meet with the other disciples, he was honest about not believing that Jesus was risen. Notice that the others did not judge or condemn Thomas. They accepted him in their midst. They were patient. That is how we need to be with one another and with those who turn away from the church. And Jesus came back, for Thomas, not with criticism but with an offer to see his wounds.

It is interesting that the wounded Thomas recognizes Jesus by his own wounds. In other stories too, the disciples recognize the risen Lord not by his glory but by his wounds, like our wounds. That also says something important about the church we share and serve. Let us consider, second, what it means to believe. Believing in biblical times and through most of the history of the Church, is not the same as how we use the word and notion in these modern, scientific times today. Since the Enlightenment and the development of modern 2 science, we usually think of believing in terms of rational belief, believing that these facts are true, that something is this and not that. We talk of what one believes – what doctrine you affirm, what opinions you hold about life.

But the biblical and later notion of believing is more like the Latin ‘Credo’ – ‘I set my heart upon’, or ‘I give my loyalty to’. Faith is not so much about what I believe as about who I believe – who do I turn to and trust. So in the Creeds – expressions of belief – are not statements of doctrine so much as affirmations of who we trust and turn to. I put my trust in God, the Creator of heaven and earth, of all there is. I put my trust in Jesus, God’s love expressed in human form. I turn to and rely on the Holy Spirit, on the community, the Church, on forgiveness and eternal life.

Our Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in a recent book on the Creeds, compares then to the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the vows that shape a Buddhist way of life. Those vows are: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma (Teaching); I take refuge in Sangha (Community). Our Creed reminds us that we take refuge in God the Creator, take refuge in Jesus’ teaching and love, take refuge in the life-giving Spirit. Beliefs thus are not about what doctrines or facts you recognize or propose or bet upon but rather more like marriage vows.

What then about doubts? Perhaps when we stand to say the Nicene Creed, some parts have less meaning, or no meaning. Nevertheless, we share in the Creed together. I affirm my believing with you and you with me and together we share in Christian community and Christian experience through time. And we accept one another as part of the community, just as Thomas was welcomed with his questions and things he was still working on. This way of believing is welcoming, honest, and sometimes very messy. That is what the Episcopal Church is like also.

We see in our first lesson this morning how believing can affect and guide how we live. The early Christian community, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, believed – trusted – took refuge in – God and God’s salvation and abundance. Their believing enabled them to live generously, to hold possessions in common since they did not need their private property to be secure. They shared what they had so that the needs of others could be relieved.

As we grow in relationship with God and one another, in Christian community – seeking Christ and sharing Christ – we can find, I pray, more wholeness throughout our lives. Our daily living will be enriched by our faith. Our decisions about material things, our stewardship of all that we have,, our political and economic actions, can be informed and grounded in our believing. Rather than compartmentalizing faith and life, they should go together. And God – Jesus – will be part of the whole. And it is so much easier to live in wholeness, even a wounded and vulnerable wholeness, than to shut part of ourselves off, or shut one another off. And since this can be hard, and difficult – at least too often for me – remember, we ‘take refuge in ‘the peace of God, which passes all our understanding, and in our Lord Jesus Christ.


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