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That You May Believe

 Menachim, a Jewish father was troubled by the way his son, Benjamin, had turned out, and went to see Elder Moishe about it.

'I brought Benjamin up in the faith, gave him a very expensive bar mitzvah; it cost me a fortune to educate him, then he tells me last week he has decided to be a Christian. Elder Moishe, where did I go wrong?' pleaded Menachim.

'Funny, that you should come to me, Menachim,' commented Elder Moishe. “I sent my son off to rabbinical school for four years. It cost me a fortune. Suddenly he comes home to visit last week and tells me he too has become a Christian. Let’s go together and see Rabbi Goldberg about it. Perhaps he knows where we went wrong”

So they go to the Rabbi and both Menachim and Moishe share their tale of woe with the Rabbi.

'Funny, that you should come to me,' commented Rabbi Goldberg. 'Like you I, too, brought my boy up in the faith, put him through University; that cost me a fortune, then one day he, too, tells me he has decided to become a Christian.'

'What did you do?' inquired Menachim

'I turned to God for the answer,' replied the Rabbi.

'And what did He say?' pressed Moishe.

'God said, 'Funny that you should come to me...'

 This morning we look at how we come to believe. Both our Epistle and Gospel speak on the subject:

In John we get two emphases. Speaking to “Doubting Thomas”:

 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29)

The apostle John follows this up with his summation of purpose in writing his gospel

 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

Peter picks up on the theme of believing without having first seen:

 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.  (1 Peter 1:8-9)

You see, faith is not about mastering the mystery but about being mastered by the mystery.

American author and essayist Mary Flannery O’Connor put it this way.-You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.

The word for truth in Greek is alhqa, its root word is lhqw, arriving at its opposite alhqa,  by simply adding a prefix “a,” alhqa, from lhqw,  which means ‘hidden.’

Our gospel text gives us a picture of a church which had no pipe organ, or even an old upright piano. No choir. No pastor, even. In fact, it’s a picture of church at its worst, the most miserable little conglomeration ever to take upon itself the name, “church.” It’s the disciples of Jesus, gathered after his resurrection. Here, says Tom Long, is the church at its worst — “scared, disheartened, and defensive.” There is plenty of room for unbelief and doubt.

But, writes Frederick Beuchner, doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. Doubt keeps faith awake and moving.

I saw a bumper sticker recently that simply said, "Question skepticism."

St. Augustine said, “Faith is to believe what we do not see and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe.”

Today’s readings provide foundational images for God’s own people. Three motifs characterize the appearance to Thomas: the greeting of peace as a gift of the risen Christ that casts out fear; the presence of the Holy Spirit manifest in the power to forgive and retain sin; and the need for a faith that grows even without the tangible presence of Christ.

Although many translations include "doubt" in v. 27 -- and thus lead to the phrase "Doubting Thomas", it may surprise you that there is no Greek word for "doubt" in the verse! The contrast is between pistos and apistos, the only occurrence of both these words in John.– note again the negation of the first word simply by adding the prefix “a” before the word. A

contemporary example in English might be the word “mnesia” which means to remember, memory – “amnesia” means to forget, to have no memory. In checking different Greek Lexicons, none of them list "doubt" or "doubting" as meanings for apistos. There are a number of words with the meaning of "doubt" (diakrinomai; dialogismos; distazo; dipsychos; aporeo), but they aren’t used here. The prefix "a" in apistos,
means "not" or "without." "Apistos" means "without pistos."

So, the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament by Lowe and Nida gives three definitions for the adjective pistos.:

• pertaining to trusting -- one who trusts in, or is trusting (31.86)

• pertaining to being trusted – one who is faithful, trustworthy, dependable, reliable (31.87)

• pertaining to being sure, with the implication of being fully trustworthy (71.17)

apistos would be "not having trust or faith in or certainty." 

The biblical laments indicate that questioning God is an aspect of faith. If one is asking God questions or seeking answers from God, there has to be some kind of faith that God exists and can respond. Thomas' questioning, his desire to be sure (a meaning of pistos), can be commended as an aspect of faith in God.

In his book “Will Our Children Have Faith” John Westerhoff III speaks of varying levels of faith:

(1) EXPERIENCED FAITH (that which is held in preschool & early childhood) -- imitates actions, for example, a child praying the Lord's Prayer without understanding the meaning of all the words – “Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be his name…” Experienced faith says,  "This is what we do. This is how we act," they are taught and imitate. Next comes…

(2) AFFILIATIVE FAITH (in the age of childhood & early adolescent years) – it refers to belonging to a group, which still centers on imitating what the group does -- "This is what we believe and do. This is our group, our identity as church."

Then there is (3) SEARCHING FAITH - this occurs more often in late adolescence, and is characterized by asking questions, "Is this what I believe?" Thomas is our example of this. He will not blindly accept what others have said, but needs to find certainty for himself. This stage of faith is adding the "head" to the "heart" of the earlier stages. Westerhoff comments:

It appears, regretfully, that many adults in the church have never had the benefit of an environment which encouraged searching faith. And so they are often frightened or disturbed by adolescents who are struggling to enlarge their affiliative faith to include searching faith. Some persons are forced out of the church during this state and, sadly, some never return; others remain in searching faith the rest of their lives. In any case, we must remember that persons with searching faith still need to have all the needs of experienced and affiliative faith met, even though they may appear to have cast them aside. And surely they need to be encouraged to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation, and first endeavors at commitment. [p. 97]

I remember, while I was in Bible school, teaching my first confirmation class at a church in Issaquah, WA. At the parent/student orientation, with about 40 people in attendance, one of the first questions I got came from one of the students, a brave young girl who raised her hand and asked, “Are we going to learn about Abraham and Moses and all that junk over again?” I could tell who her parents were immediately – they were the ones in the back row who ducked down real quickly. I answered that, yes, we would talk about those things, again, but that I hoped we would look at them in a more meaningful way. Then I talked about how this was the time for them to push past the faith handed down to them and develop searching faith, where questions would be welcomed and doubts would be okay, and indeed necessary if these young people were going to make the faith their own. My point was that I hoped they would ask those questions in the church, rather than walking away from their faith without ever having asked them.

In spite of his questions, Thomas remained with the disciples. There he discovered the answers to his questions. However, the questioning stage can lead into the two directions of v. 27

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Or perhaps more accurately, “…be not unbelieving, but believing.”

Those two directions -- will the questioner become unbelieving or move onto the next stage of faith? This age-level of "questioning faith" is also the age-level when most cult groups recruit their members and when many "drop-out" of church.

Finally comes OWNED FAITH, in early adulthood -- this stage comes only through the searching stage. After exploring the question, "Is this what I believe?" one, hopefully, discovers a Christian answer that declares:  "This is what I believe." The Thomas scene ends with such a personal confession: "My Lord and my God" -- a confession we don't hear from any of the other disciples who didn’t go through the same questioning as Thomas. However, this is the strong, personal faith that one witnesses to and one is willing to die for -- the other disciples certainly ended up in this stage. And, by the way, Thomas also gave his life for his faith some years later while a missionary on the south west coast of India. You can still visit the seven churches in Kerala which were founded by this great apostle. And you can also visit the place in Madras where he was speared to death by his enemies.

In his Daily Study Bible devotion, William Barclay says this about this passage:

There is more ultimate faith in the man who insists on being sure than the man who glibly repeats things which he has never thought out, and which he does not really believe. It is doubt like that which in the end arrives at certainty.... Thomas doubted in order to become sure; and when he did become sure, his surrender to certainty was complete. If a person fights his way through his doubts to the conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, he or she has attained to a certainty that the person who unthinkingly accepts can never reach.

I also have this quote written from Paul Tillich: "The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born."

Let me add that the distinctions between the types of faith are not so clear as the above descriptions might suggest. All are present all the time. Young children will ask questions and so should mature believers. Believers of all ages have times of certainty and times of questioning, of "going along with the crowd" and "standing against them." However, as general descriptions of the maturing process of faith, I have found these true in my own life -- and many with whom I have shared these stages have resonated with them in their lives as well.

Rather than call him "Doubting Thomas" -- a person whose behaviors we should avoid; what if we call him "Confessing Thomas"? He was the only disciple in that room who uttered a confession of personal faith. Shouldn't we all come to that point in our faith journeys?