Believing is Seeing

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Edmonton, April 28, 2019
Text: John 20:19-31

Many of us will be familiar with the adage “seeing is believing,” which may well originate in today’s Gospel story, and is sometimes taken to be the point of the story. I don’t think so. There’s a lot more happening in the story of Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Christ than how we often over-simplify it:

  1. Thomas hears the news from the other disciples and demands visual evidence before he believes.
  2. Jesus appears to Thomas and gives him the proof.
  3. Thomas believes. Seeing is believing. End of story.

Or is it? Has anyone else noticed that there’s a big gap in this story? There are two scenes, a whole week apart. A week can be a very long time: much can happen in seven short days, especially when something like the Resurrection has happened. The text is maddeningly silent about what went on between those two Sundays. We could speculate endlessly, but it seems to me the least likely answer is that “nothing happened”. Things surely happened—for Thomas, for the rest of the Twelve, and for all the disciples who received the Holy Spirit and were sent by Jesus on that first day. When he sent them, did they just sit there? Surely not—I have to believe that they went out from that room and told many people what they had seen and heard. In that week, there would have been time for Thomas to see what was going on, to talk to his companions, to ponder what was happening around him.

What happened when Jesus appeared again with Thomas present? Thomas saw and believed: that much is clear. But he would not have been there at all had he not believed on some level in his friends’ veracity. He knew something had happened, and he had not abandoned the group. He believed—and so he saw! Proof was offered, Thomas believed, and then he made the great acclamation that climaxes John’s Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Belief in the reality of Jesus’s Resurrection led to this colossal insight. First among his companions, he now saw Jesus as he truly was and is.

Believing became seeing.

Something like this happened recently in the world of science. On April 10 an international team of scientists announced the first successful imaging of a black hole. The existence of these strange objects was first proposed over a century ago as a result of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Half a century ago, when I was an undergraduate taking a course in astrophysics, they were believed to exist, but there was little evidence available. Succeeding years led to more and more evidence, almost to the level of complete proof. The announcement three weeks ago was the culmination of over a decade’s work, involving eight separate observatories and hundreds of people. Looking like a fuzzy yellow-orange doughnut, the image agrees almost exactly with theoretical predictions. Einstein was right!

I could go on at length about the science of black holes, but that’s not where we want to go.

What struck me about this achievement was the team’s dogged determination, and their clear belief that what they were seeking was truly there. If they had not trusted the theory and the mounting body of evidence, they would never had invested so much time and energy (not to say money!) in this arcane quest.

If they had not believed in black holes, they (and we) would never have seen one. Believing led to seeing!

The Risen Christ said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We can certainly include ourselves in this number.  The fact that we are gathered here today in this place testifies to our belief in the Resurrection – in a variety of ways and understandings, to be sure – and to the church’s continued faithfulness in proclaiming this central truth of the Gospel.

The contemporary Christian writer Diana Butler Bass (in “Christianity After Religion”) has suggested that the church needs to pay more attention to HOW we believe. We’ve been pretty good at enunciating WHAT we believe, in creeds and catechisms, but we have been less effective in putting wheels on the bus.

If we say we believe, what comes next?

What difference does it make in our lives?

Will our proclamation of the Resurrection be anything more than words?

Think of those scientists. They believed in the existence of black holes enough to devote over a decade’s work and many millions of dollars to produce the image they presented to the world. They believed, and so we see.

Friends, belief in the Resurrection can never be just a head game. It has consequences far beyond that upper room, consequences reaching into every aspect of our lives, consequences that give us a wholly new way of seeing the world.

We believe and proclaim that Christ rose from the dead. We affirm that this was not just a “one-off,” but as Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15:20, it is the “first fruits of those who have died.” The promise of the Resurrection is that death will never again have the last word.

Believing in the Resurrection of Jesus is a truly eye-opening event. To the believing eye, the world no longer needs to look like a medieval map, with “here be dragons” on its margins. Rather, we are enabled to see a world destined for renewal and resurrection – a world in which the forces of evil, while still present and active, are fighting a rearguard battle. As Fr. Chris said last Sunday, “We shall overcome,” and we can and should affirm that in our words and our actions.

Believing is seeing—seeing the world as the creation of a good and loving God, seeing death not as defeat but as the next step in God’s renewal of creation, seeing all others as heirs with us of God’s eternal kingdom.

As we believe, so may we see.

As we see, so may we act.

As we act, so may we proclaim.

And may our proclamation always be
“Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”

Reconciliation in the Name of the Trinity

Trinity Sunday, 2015 – joint service of Trinity Lutheran Church and Holy Trinity Anglican Church

I am grateful for the opportunity to be in this pulpit today, on a Trinity Sunday which holds special meaning for me. I have had many years of close association with the ELCiC, including the privilege of preaching and participating in the laying-on-of-hands at my sister-in-law’s ordination to the Lutheran pastorate. More recently, I have developed a closer relationship with some members of Trinity Lutheran, including Pastor Ingrid. The date is significant because I was ordained a deacon on May 31, and preached my first sermon as an ordained person on Trinity Sunday, 1987.

About a year before that, I was beginning Clinical Pastoral Education at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. One of the nursing units to which I was assigned was in maternity, where I made one of my very first pastoral visits. When I introduced myself to a young woman seated on her bed, she first said she was just waiting to be discharged, and then said, “What church do you belong to?” I gave her the standard hospital answer: hospital chaplains served everyone without denominational distinction. That wasn’t good enough for her: she demanded to know what church I was associated with when I wasn’t in the hospital. When I told her “Anglican,” her response was immediate and negative, something like “That’s one of those churches who believe in the Trinity! It’s not in the Bible, so you can just leave.” I started to argue with her (major mistake!), but quickly realized that nothing would be gained by proceeding.

It was a real surprise to me that there were people who called themselves Christians who denied the Trinity, something I had understood as an essential tenet of the faith. In the decades since, then, those few minutes by a hospital bed became foundational as I strove to understand what we mean by “I believe.”

Our faith is Trinitarian in shape: the Nicene Creed which we will recite in a few minutes has a three-part structure: we believe in God the Father; we believe in his Son Jesus Christ; we believe in the Holy Spirit. But what do we mean by the word “believe,” and where is that belief grounded? Lutherans and Anglicans share a history of being rooted in Scripture as well as the traditional teachings of the Church, going back to the time of the Church Fathers, who were expounding doctrine well before the Canon of the Bible was agreed upon. Don’t get me wrong: scripture is important, but we should remember that the Church came before the Bible, not vice versa.

As members of two congregations dedicated to the Trinity, we are reminded of the doctrine’s centrality every time we enter one of our buildings—you can’t escape the name. I don’t recall hearing of either congregation spending much (if any) time debating the nuances of the doctrine, but members of both certainly devote ample time to living out the faith in church activities, and in ministries beyond our walls.

We tend to understand belief as a kind of “head exercise,” giving intellectual assent to propositions about God and God’s works. The question asked of the church is often “What do we believe?” In her ground-breaking book “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass has suggested that we rephrase the question as “How do we believe?” Pointing to the German root of the verb, she says that belief is less about the head than the heart—what we believe is where place our trust, as we set our hearts to follow God in the divine mission.

How do we live into a Trinitarian faith? That’s a huge, life-changing, and life-long question, because it encompasses the whole of God’s being. St. Augustine wrote:

“If we speak of God, what wonder is it is you do not comprehend. For, if you comprehend, He is not God. Let there be a pious profession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. That one’s mind only touch God a little is great happiness; to comprehend Him is utterly impossible.”
St. Augustine, Sermon 67 on the New Testament – http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160367.htm

Seeking to know God and to follow God’s ways is the task of a lifetime, the ongoing process called progressive sanctification, the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in making us ever more holy.

There are many aspects to growth in holiness. Let me focus today on only one: the work of reconciliation. Paul expressed the importance of this ministry in these words:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
2 Corinthians 5:18-19a NRSV

This week in Ottawa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada will deliver its final report on the Residential Schools. The Anglican Church has been deeply involved in this process for years. I note that the ELCiC has held some recent events focusing on the on-going work of reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters. At the TRC’s event last year in Edmonton, Mayor Don Iveson proclaimed the next year to be a “Year of Reconciliation.” Well and good, but a year is a short time to work on a century-old issue. It’s very tempting to take shortcuts, like the person who responded to an appeal for the Residential Schools Settlement Fund by walking into my office, slapping a large cheque on my desk and saying, “There! I hope that’s the last we hear of this.” Not by a long shot! Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the TRC, has said

Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships.
There are no shortcuts.
http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=3

The Residential Schools created a gulf between indigenous and non-indigenous people in this country. I heard a great deal of that pain in my time in Brandon, which brought me into contact with many survivors and their families. Reconciliation—building respectful relationships—will take time in listening, in walking together, in working together. It is important work for our nation and for our churches.

Reconciliation goes against the flow of human behavior. We’re very good at building walls and creating enclaves in which to live. We’re less good at reaching out across those walls, and learning to see those on the other side as God’s children deserving of every bit as much respect as we are.

One sign of the ongoing work of reconciliation is the continuing and developing relationship between our two congregations. It is truly the work of the Holy Spirit as we seek to build and maintain a respectful relationship.

There are no shortcuts to the Kingdom: relationships must be carefully fostered and lovingly maintained, whether between Lutherans and Anglicans or between indigenous and non-indigenous people. We have been entrusted in the name of the Trinity with the ministry of reconciliation, hearing the call of the God who called Isaiah, seeking to follow the one who reconciled us to God through his death on the cross, and always and ever empowered by the Holy Spirit.

May it be so.

Believing: What or How?

A friend posted some questions on Facebook a few weeks ago, wanting to know what modern Christians believe. As I told him in my reply, the questions point to some of the most basic and profound theological issues. It would take a library to address them in any comprehensive way that would make sense to my very intelligent friend. At one time he would have described himself as a Christian, but now… I’m not sure what label he would accept, if anything other than “sceptic.”

Facebook is certainly not the venue to address his questions, and neither is this blog. Matters of God’s being, of how we know that being, of the nature of the Bible, of prayer, of heaven and hell — all these require more words than most people would have the patience to digest. Of course, I would end up answering the questions more in a sense of my own beliefs rather than others’. No-one can escape their own point of view, and even a sociological analysis of “what people believe” will inevitably be coloured by the analyst’s perspective.

I won’t try to answer “what?” for myself or for anyone else. You can read the various books of theology and religious studies for those answers. Suffice it to say that Christian belief today has a huge multidimensional spectrum. Even in my last parish, I could introduce you to people who held an almost fundamentalist view of scripture and theology, sitting in the same pew as others who regarded it all as one big metaphor.

What I want to address is a different question: “How do modern Christians believe?” I am indebted to Diana Butler Bass, whose book Christianity After Religion has helped me to understand some of the most important  tensions in modern Christianity, and what the future might look like. The book is an extended look at the question of what it means to be “spiritual but not religious,” a phrase often heard in contemporary  In its central section, Butler Bass re-frames the traditional central religious questions in spiritual terms. (Broadly speaking, “religion” pertains to matters of structure and institution, while “spiritual” pertains to more fluid aspects of living in relationship to the divine.

The traditional religious approach to forming new members follows this sequence: first we’ll teach you what to believe, then we’ll teach you how to behave, then we’ll let you belong. Butler Bass first re-frames the questions at each step:

  1. Believing:
    The religious question “What do I believe?” becomes the spiritual question “How do I believe?”
  2. Behaving:
    The religious question “How do I do that?” becomes the spiritual question “What do I do?”
  3. Belonging:
    The religious question “Who am I?” becomes the spiritual question “Where am I?”

But it doesn’t’ stop there. Butler Bass turns the whole process on its head, by suggesting that people do not enter at the question of belief, but at the other end, with a community that attracts people, who then learn what it is that the community does by being among the community. Intentionally doing what others doing leads us to share an understanding of what they are doing, and what lies at its roots.

Belief in this sense grows out of doing rather than the reverse. As Butler Bass, points out, the word has a German root “beliebt,” related more to loving than to knowing and understanding.

So…
To understand what Christians believe, you should look at how they believe.

  • What drives them?
  • What passions energize their lives?
  • What does that look like?
  • How they behave?
  • What’s their mission?

Re mission:
A retired bishop told a clergy conference some years ago that everyone has a mission and a mission statement. “Just look at a person’s chequebook. That will tell you what their mission in life is.”

Or as Jesus put it:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
(Matthew 6:21)