Faith and Doubt -Dean John’s Sermon – Sunday April 8

April 17, 2018
April 17, 2018 Michelle

EASTER II     2018

10.30am Sung Eucharist

Ripon Cathedral

The Dean’s Sermon: Faith and Doubt

 Do we believe them? Does the claim seem credible? Is this really how the world works? There are those who would offer an alternative explanation. Why do we doubt them?

Well, it is good to hear that Sergei Skipal and his daughter Yulia are now no longer critically ill. This could be seen as a victory of the forces of life over those of death, a victory worth celebrating. Do we doubt it? There has been much debate in recent days.

Were the former double agent and his daughter really poisoned by the Russian state? The resulting reaction of a relatively large number of nations suggests this is credible. But how could we ever know, except on the basis of what we are told? In which case, doesn’t what we come to believe about many things depend in good part upon how much we trust those who tell us about them, and how much their witness agrees with our experience of life on planet earth.

Think about it? We have been hearing about Salisbury. Are we really sure Salisbury is still standing? How do we know? Do we need to see it before we believe? Or do we just trust?

The disciples were trying to make sense of the fact that their familiar world had been shattered. How could they possibly take in that their friend and leader had been so cruelly put to death. We all find it difficult to accept when a close friend, a loved one, dies – especially if he or she dies suddenly, in tragic circumstances. In our gospel reading this morning, the disciples are again struggling to make sense of what is happening in the word around them. Can they believe what they are being told? Can they believe what they see? And let us not think that this was all easier for them two-thousand years ago than it is for us today. As one bishop once said, ‘People didn’t ordinarily rise from the dead then any more than they do now.’

“We have seen the Lord,” said ten of the disciples, and the eleventh, who had been absent, doubted it. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

The story, of course, is a well-known part of the witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – the very foundation of our faith that we celebrate in this Easter season. A week later, the risen Lord appeared again, and Thomas had the opportunity to do all that he said would be necessary to overcome his doubts. At least he had the grace to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” Doubt was turned into faith – to some extent.

How do we make sense of all this? How, for example, can our doubts be turned into faith? We cannot see and touch now in the way that Thomas did then.

Well, before looking at a few helpful pointers, let us just make sure that we don’t fall into an unhelpful error. I was pleased to read Rupert Shortt, the religious editor of the Times Literary Supplement, assert an old pearl of wisdom. In his book God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, he spends some time dealing with false claims that can be made about Christianity by those who then proclaim that they wish to reject the faith on the basis of that claim. So, for example, my example, someone might say, ‘I am no longer a Christian because I cannot accept that God is an old man sitting up on a cloud.’ Well, orthodox Christianity has never believed that of God so it is not a good reason for rejecting the faith. Shortt then repeats the old wisdom that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.  We who keep the faith should not be tempted into thinking we need to be certain – quite the opposite.

Let us not misunderstand this morning’s gospel reading, then. When St. Luke gives his account of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the evening of the resurrection, Thomas isn’t signalled out in any way. All the disciples are said to be experiencing doubt. “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” (Wouldn’t we be startled and terrified?) Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?’

Our view on recent events in Salisbury depends much on whom we are prepared to believe. The same can be said in relation to our faith. Faith is encouraged by the gospel accounts that share the witness of those first disciples. What is communicated to us clearly this morning is that they too had their doubts – understandably – and they could never have provided unquestionable proof of what they professed. But they did risk their lives to share the faith, and they did believe that the risen Christ Jesus had said those who came to believe through them would be blessed. Surely, we who have come to believe are grateful to them, and to every generation since, for passing on this faith. Full of mystery, lacking certainty, does it not help us to make sense of everything?

Writing in his wonderful book, Fare Well in Christ, which he published as he was approaching his own death in the 1990’s, Canon Bill Vanstone wrote, “When intellectual doubts assail me, I turn my mind to the mysteries which enfold me. They are inexplicable, inconceivable, unimaginable, and yet undeniable – the mystery of existence, the mystery of my soul, the mystery of meaning.”

And yet these mysteries relate to the world that we really experience, to the lives that we really live. For Vanstone and millions like him –  like us, probably – it is experience that opens up the mind to the fulness of reality.

I wonder how many people in our society today have doubts about the Christian faith because they wrongly believe that science somehow disproves Christianity? There seems to be the widely-held view – and this is not science – that we cannot talk about those things that science cannot tell us about. But this is to discount a vast amount of human experience. How can we possibly discount so much evidence for making sense of everything? The disciples knew that the dead do no normally rise from death. They had doubts about what they were witnessing, but they simply could not discount the evidence of experience. And there have been those of us like them in every generation since who have done exactly the same. Surely, the Church with an appropriate balance of confidence and doubt can suggest that this makes no less sense in the 21st century than it did in the first.

And a final and brief thought. If our doubts sometimes seem too strong, we can reflect on our experience of life which, when seen through the eyes of faith, adds weight to the assertion that Jesus Christ is indeed risen from the dead.

No, perhaps we haven’t seen in the same way that Thomas and the other ten did, along with the women and the hundreds of whom St. Paul speaks in his I Epistle to the Corinthians. No, perhaps we can’t see in that way, but we can in others. The way in which love is evident between people; the ways in which goodness and charity are so wide-spread in a fallen world; the way in which faith in the risen Christ has moved ordinary men and women to do outstanding things for God and the common good. With the eyes of faith, such things can be regarded as looking upon the activity of the risen Christ.

No, we cannot be certain – we are not expected to be. But we rejoice in sharing a faith that stands on the witness of the apostles and every generation of the Church since. With two-thousand years of experience, it continues to give hope in life as much in the 21st century as it did in the first.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

 

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