Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book but these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God.
How does someone come to faith? How does anyone become a Christian? That would seem to be a rather important question. It’s the sort of question asked by a church concerned to reach people. It is a missional question. Because if we can answer that question we can become more effective in bringing people to that faith. If we can come up with an answer to that we can use that answer to construct programmes, organise our church, offer the right incentives, in order to become what we long to be; a growing church. The trouble is, we are better schooled in the ways of the market place, in thinking in the way advanced consumer capitalism thinks, than we are in the ways of the Gospel and the ways in which the Bible wants us to think. So that question: “How does anyone become Christian?” Starts to sound like a marketing question; “How does someone come to faith?” begins to sound like; “What makes people buy Christianity?” Which is functionally the same as asking; “What make people buy one brand of soap powder rather than another?” Once we starting asking the question that way, we begin to construct the church on a “commercial model.” Evangelism becomes marketing, we spin our product to make it attractive to the kind of people we want to attract. We start thinking about being accessible, appealing attractive, as if faith were brand loyalty. We become obsessed with the new, the novel, the instantly exciting. But is coming to faith really like buying soap powder?
At tea time on the first Easter Sunday, still, almost none of the followers of Jesus were Christians! If by Christians we mean people whose lives have been transformed by coming to faith in Jesus and his resurrection. They are people who have heard that Jesus has been raised. But that is not the same as faith. Even now, nearly everyone around us has heard the story that Jesus was dead on Friday and restored to life on Sunday. And a fair proportion of them might say that they believe it is true. But clearly that is not the same as having faith in the resurrection. Most of the followers of Jesus weren’t Christians on that Sunday evening, maybe the women who went to the tomb were, perhaps Peter and John. And even as the disciples were locking themselves into the upper room in Jerusalem two more were being added to the number of Christians on the road to Emmaus. Well that makes seven or eight at the most, out of all the people who followed Jesus down from Galilee.
But the disciples were gathered on that first Sunday evening. They locked themselves in for fear of what might happen to them. Jesus came and stood among them. And they believed. This was the real presence of Jesus among his followers, they saw the risen Jesus and they believed. At that moment they have become Christians. Their lives from this point on are transformed. Everything from this moment will have to be lived in the light of Christ, will have to be shaped in response to the reality of his resurrection. The gathered disciple have become the Church.
It this point of course our attention falls on Thomas. Who was known to his friends as “the twin” (Where’s his sibling?). But who has been given a new and probably undeserved nickname: Doubting. By bedtime on the first Easter Sunday almost none of the followers of Jesus weren’t Christians. Nearly all of them have come to faith in that first congregation, except for Thomas. Thomas who for whatever reasons wasn’t in that meeting locked into the upper room He declares, as many people still declare, that he cannot believe until he has proof. Thomas perhaps should be the patron saint of agnostics. He says that he cannot believe, in the sense of having faith, of being a Christian, until he has had the same experience as the other disciples. Thomas’ resistance to faith, like most people’s still, is reasonable since he and they haven’t experienced what the Church takes for granted as the foundational experience that brought the first believers to faith.
One week later the scene in the upper room is repeated. But this time they have made sure that Thomas is there. Jesus came and stood among them. Thomas can see that it is indeed Jesus. He sees the nail prints in his hands, the spear wound in his side. Thomas sees and despite what he said in the end he doesn’t need to touch. Thomas saw and believed. Seeing is believing, right? If that were so we would have a problem! Thomas, following on from the other disciples the previous Sunday, has an experience which very very few Christians have subsequently been privileged to share. Thomas has had an encounter with the risen Jesus so real that he could have reached out and touch it. If that is what it takes to have faith, to become a Christian, Christians would be a rare species indeed. Yet the Church persists. People do come to faith. Seeing isn’t all there is to believing. Seeing isn’t all there is to encountering the real presence of the risen Jesus, There is some other way to come to faith. Not unnaturally our attention falls on the drama of Thomas’ story. His story is a good story, that is why it has probably been told on this Sunday ever since Christians began telling stories. We are thrilled and inspired to hear the faith of the Church burst into speech from Thomas “My Lord, My God.” But by focussing on Thomas we might lose sight of Jesus and we don’t hear him when he says something vitally important about how people come to faith:
“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe”
There is another way to come to faith. Jesus announces a beatitude on all believers who have come to faith, in contrast to Thomas and the other disciples, without seeing his resurrection real enough to touch it. That other way is the faithful witness of the church. It is the constant pointing of the church as it gathers to the real, risen presence of Jesus in its midst. It is the constant testimony to the truth, that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God.
Answering the question “how does someone come to faith?” is important. How we answer it should make a difference to how we organise ourselves as a church. But the answer isn’t marketing. The real answer is because it is true! It is faithful witness to the truth. How do we, when we gather, without now locking the doors, make it evident that Jesus is alive and present in our midst? We, I think I’m safe to assume, didn’t come to faith by seeing Jesus. We came to faith through the faithful witness of Christians to the truth that Jesus is alive. We were brought to faith by the witness of that faith embodied in lives transformed by that reality and embodied in the coming together of Christians to be the church. Perhaps seeing is believing after all. Seeing Christians living faithful lives is the way that someone encounters the real presence of the risen Christ and comes to faith.
The reading on which this sermon is based (John 20:19-31) is set by the Revised Common Lectionary for each year on the Second Sunday of Easter. So I have already published another sermon on Thomas’ story. You can find it here.
Not just seeing that is believing by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0