This sermon was preached on the Second Sunday of Easter, “Thomas Sunday,” April 7, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(Revised Common Lectionary, Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; and John 20:19-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
Leslie Dixon Weatherhead (1893-1976) was an English Methodist Minister who served at the City Temple, a Congregational Church in London. He served there from 1936 until his retirement in 1960. In one of his several book, The Christian Agnostic, he wrote, “When people said to me, ‘I should like to be a member of the City Temple, what must I believe?’ I used to say, ‘Only those things which appear to you to be true.’”
Last week at our Easter services, many of us reaffirmed our Baptismal Covenant doing exactly what we are about to ask Graham _____________, or those speaking on his behalf, to do . . . and we will all do it again with them. We will ask one another, “What do you believe?” and in good liturgical fashion we will all answer in the same way; we will answer the questions, “Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” with responses which are nothing more and nothing less than the ancient Apostle’s Creed. Our Anglican tradition calls this creed “the Baptismal Symbol.”
Not a single one of us is likely to balk in the midst of our liturgy and say, “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.” And yet I’ll bet that some of us might be thinking something very much along those lines as we dutifully recite the answers set out for us in The Book of Common Prayer. Many people in our world today, both outside and inside the church, do.
And there is nothing wrong with thinking that. Nothing at all. Because, you see, there are varieties of belief. Writing to the church in Corinth, St. Paul said, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (1 Cor. 12:4-6) I suggest to you that there are varieties of belief, but the same Christian faith throughout the church.
For example, on a regular Sunday, a Sunday when we are not baptizing new member of God’s household, we would recite the Nicene Creed, which begins:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
Now let’s just take the last phrase of that bit, the part that says God is the “maker of all that is, seen and unseen.” Let’s just take the last word of the last phrase of that bit, “unseen.” What, in your understanding, does that mean?
Are you one of those who believes in a spiritual or supernatural realm? One who believes that, as the introduction to an old television anthology series used to put it, “there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit.” Is that what you think of when you acknowledge your belief in God as maker all that is unseen?
Perhaps you think of the microscopic, atomic, and subatomic realms of Newtonian space or Einsteinian space-time. Maybe you think of the multiverse and the infinite number of alternate realities suggested by the probability equations of quantum mechanics. Possibly you give thought to the 13 tightly curled, hidden dimensions of superstring theory. Or perhaps you don’t think of any of that. Maybe you’ve never given it any thought; you just say the words that are put there in the Prayer Book.
Whatever, it’s all perfectly acceptable because, as the Rev. Mr. Weatherhead said, there is nothing in particular that you must believe about God as maker of all things unseen, “only those things which appear to you to be true.” And if we were to make our way through the rest of the creed, whether the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed, we would find ourselves facing a bewildering variety of beliefs as we paused at each phrase or word and teased out the various and sundry meanings we all might give it. One of us might say, “This is what that means,” and another would respond, “I don’t believe that at all!” And yet all of us would nonetheless still be comfortable in saying the creed together because, as Peter said to the Temple authorities, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29) And the creeds, important as they are, are human authority, the words of bishops and church counsels and church tradition, not the word of God.
Early in our Anglican history, there were those who wanted to impose a single understanding, a single interpretation of the creeds, of our several prayers, of the Sacraments, and of Scripture. They wanted to enforce a single way of worshiping God and they prevailed upon Queen Elizabeth I to enforce that uniformity for them. She declined. She simply required that the English people worship together, but what each might make of that worship, of the words spoken, of the Sacraments administered, or of the Scriptures read she left to each: “I would not open windows into men’s souls,” she declared. Her preference, worked out in Parliament in a series of acts known as The Elizabethan Settlement, has been called the terminal point of the English Reformation and, in the long run, the foundation of Anglicanism and the “via media” (or “middle way”) we still, 550 years later, claim to be. We still do not open windows into each other’s souls; we still treat ascent to the historic creeds as a matter of individual conscience and interpretation.
Mr. Weatherhead, in his book The Christian Agnostic, also wrote this:
I believe passionately that Christianity is a way of life, not a theological system with which one must be in intellectual agreement. I feel that Christ would admit into discipleship anyone who sincerely desired to follow him, and allow that disciple to make his creed out of his experience; to listen, to consider, to pray, to follow, and ultimately to believe only those convictions about which the experience of fellowship made him sure.
Mr. Weatherhead may have been a Methodist, but these words would sum up the understanding of every Episcopalian or Anglican true to our heritage. Being an Anglican follower of Christ, to which manner of life today we welcome Graham _____________, is not a matter of theological system, even though we ask those questions with prescribed, systematic, creedal answers. Being an Anglican follower of Christ is about community and fellowship, a community and a fellowship in which it would be perfectly acceptable to say, “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.” Because more than mere intellectual assent to particular propositions is at stake. Because there are varieties of belief, but the same Christian faith throughout the church.
That is why the Baptismal Covenant does not end with those three questions and those three systematic, creedal responses. The Baptismal Covenant continues with questions about community and fellowship, questions about respect and dignity, questions about behavior and practice, questions about ministry and mission. Five questions:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Five questions to which the answer is the same: “I will, with God’s help.”
In the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to Mark there is a story of a man who comes to Jesus seeking healing for his son who is possessed by a demon. The mean tells Jesus that the demon “has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds to man saying, “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes.” In the wonderful poetic language of the King James version of the Bible we are told that, with tears, the father cries, ” Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:17-24)
It is that same cry that we utter when we answer those behavioral questions of the Baptismal Covenant, “I will, with God’s help.” Lord, we believe (we have said that in answer to the first three questions; we believe in whatever manner each of us believes) . . . Lord, we believe; help thou our unbelief. Help us to carry through on the way of life which is implicit in those stated beliefs. We will; we’ll carry through “with God’s help.”
Belief is one of those ambiguous words that can mean so many things. In the creedal sense, it means to give intellectual assent to a stated proposition. “Do you believe in God?” in this sense means do you accept the proposition as true that there is a God. Suppose we change the object of question, however. “Do you believe in your wife/husband/child/parent?” It would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it, to interpret this as asking, “Do you accept as true the proposition that your wife/husband/child/parent exists?” We know that the question, that the word belief as used in the question, means something very different. It means, “Do you trust in your family member? Do you have faith in them? Do you expect them to behave in certain ways, to carry through on promises, to have your best interests at heart?” And if you believe in your family member, will you behave toward them and within the community of your family in equivalent and considerate ways?
And that is precisely what the word belief really means in the creeds and in the Baptismal Covenant. Do you trust in God? Do you have faith in Christ? Do you expect the Holy Spirit to act in certain ways in your life? Are you confident that God will carry through on God’s promises with your best interests at heart? Do you believe in God? And if you believe in God, will you behave toward God and within the community of God’s household the church and of God’s world, “all that is, seen and unseen,” in equivalent and considerate ways?
Thomas, known for all time as “Doubting Thomas,” wanted to believe! The words of that grieving father, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief,” could as easily have been his. And they are, most certainly, ours. “I will, with God’s help.” Help thou mine unbelief!
Jesus gave Thomas the help he needed; he showed him his hands and his feet; he invited him to put his hand into the wound in his side. “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.'” Jesus was talking about us, about you, about me, about all of us “who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And he was talking about Graham _____________ who, if we do as we promise each time we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant, if we continue “with God’s help,” if we persevere “with God’s help,” if proclaim “with God’s help,” if we seek and serve others “with God’s help,” if we strive for justice and peace “with God’s help” . . . if we do all that, with God’s help, Graham too will be blessed as one who has not seen and yet has come to believe, because he will, in fact, have seen. He will have seen Christ in us.
“Lord, we believe; help thou our unbelief.”
And now, “to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (Rev. 1:5b)
The candidate for Holy Baptism will now be presented . . . . .
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.