Year C, Easter 2
April 28, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…through believing you may have life in his name.”
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!
Happy Easter everyone! I had a refreshing few days off. I hope you are feeling lively and springy. And I hope that you had a good Holy Week followed by a joyous Easter. It went really, really well. Our hospitality team pulled off two great events in the yellow and green rooms. The choir was spectacular. (And Lucy’s Exsultet this year is my new Exsultet of record). Sue led the altar guild beautifully: some things new, some things the way they have always been. The flowers were appropriately extravagant. (I loved the palms on Palm Sunday). Our children’s Vigil worked; it was great. Sandra did a beautiful job with the retreat. The lectoring was lovely. The EMs were as always subtle and graceful. Tina knocked it out of the park – the children were well taken care of, the bulletins were beautiful, accurate, and EARLY! And she took care of all sorts of stuff this week in my absence. And you all showed up. We had a bunch of people here all week, and the spirit was good. If you are here on Easter 2, our historically lowest Sunday of the year, that means that you are serious, and were probably here for a lot of Holy Week. I hope you felt the drama of the observances.
As I said on Easter, that these things happened, the Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, is most important. That God intersected with the world in particular ways in particular places in at particular times, that is most important. Feeling them comes next. Feeling the majesty and the mystery of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. The liturgy evolved to help us feel all of this, to feel the humanity and divinity of the our story.
And we are Episcopalian. Scripture – the giveneness of the story; Tradition – the way we observe, the structures that guide feeling and doing… those are categories of utmost importance, and they are tempered by, informed by Reason, understanding. Reason, something being reasonable doesn’t necessarily mean that it is rational (Great is the Mystery of Faith), but what we do with the stories, the memories, how they reach (or don’t reach) us matters. This is our very Anglican way of expressing that what we believe, matters.
“Do not doubt but believe.” That is what Jesus tells St. Thomas. And Thomas confesses “My Lord and my God!” And Jesus puts it right back on him (and us), “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”
What does it mean to believe (or not believe) something? I talk about this a fair amount, because issues of beliefs (or doubts) are central barriers to modernity’s ability to embrace the mysteries of faith. The Enlightenment made factthe most important thing. I think the statement “We believe…” in the Creeds pushes more intelligent, discerning people away from the church than any other spiritual/religious reason. It is kind of funny, biblical literalism arose in the late 19thcentury as an answer to the Enlightenment value of fact. If factis the only thing that matters, then the Bible must be factual. (The liberal dismissal of Biblical stories, in particular the miracles, uses the same exact logic but to a different end: if it isn’t fact, then it is not believable). So what does it mean to believe? _____
It is all of those things. Sometimes it is about believing as in thinking it, cognitive assent: I believe that 2+2=4, that the sun will rise tomorrow. I believe that all people are created equal. I believe in vaccination. Those sorts of belief are important, including religiously.
But belief is a much deeper affair. The kind of belief I am interested in is the belief that St John the Evangelist is writing about in today’s gospel selection, in the story of Doubting Thomas. This lesson is in fact the Evangelist’s justification for his whole gospel. “But these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may come to have life in his name.” That’s it. “…through believing you may come to have life in his name.”
Believing, as I said, does have an element of cognitive assent. I believe xhappened. But failing that test doesn’t mean that the whole story of Christianity is bunk. It is a lot broader. Take Marcus Borg’s idea of post-critical naivete. “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.” I believe this story is true. The truth of the Good Samaritan story has nothing to do with the fact of if an actual Samaritan ever did those things. Did Jesus conjure bread for 5000 out of thin air or did 5000 people find themselves satisfied with the bread they had? What matters is that they were satisfied through the action of Jesus Christ.
But it is much, much broader than that. Following the teaching of Archbishop Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, belief has a lot more to it than cognitive assent. And this is not only as a post-modern work around, it is, according to many, the spirt of the earliest knowledge of God in Christ. To believe is better rendered as to believe in. As in “I believe in you.” “I believe in this country.” “I believe in the mission of this church.” That means to have faith in. To trust. It means, as Williams says in his books on the creeds, to take refuge in, as our Buddhist brothers and sisters take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sanga, we take refuge in God in the triune form God has been revealed to us.
An understanding of belief can be even broader than that. Making a statement of belief, such as we do together in the Creed, can be seen as not (or not only) assenting to the accuracy of a 4thcentury anti-Arian doctrinal statement, but it is proclaiming that you are part of a worshipping community that has been gathered for 2000 years around the idea of God the Father, and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Belief. To believe. To believe in. To have faith. To have faith in. To trust. To take refuge in. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen an yet have come to believe.” Or as the father of the possessed boy in Mark cried out “I believe; help my unbelief.” All of these facets of belief, of what it means to believe all point to one focal point: how we live. “…so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may come to have life in his name.”
What does that mean, to “have life in His name”? How does that happen through believing? Ain’t that the question! That question is the heart of the petition in our Collect of the Day for this the 2ndSunday of Easter, “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith…” That’s the Christian life, showing forth in our lives what we profess by our faith, living out our beliefs.
There are as many ways to do that, to show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith, as there are people professing faith. Only you know how what we do here, how your relationship with God in Christ, how your beliefs affect your lives, how you live it, the choices you make. That’s up to you. What we offer here is context and companionship, traditions and interpretation, worship and community. To that end, I think that the first three readings we had today are great examples of how believing, as St. John puts it, we may come to have life in His name.
We’re with the Acts of the Apostles throughout Easter. Today’s story has the apostles in trouble with the authorities. Previously they had been imprisoned for preaching the Gospel but miraculously they escaped. Now when it comes to prison breaks, conventional wisdom says, “Run!” But running has nothing to do with life in Jesus’ name. So what did they do, what did their faith strengthen them, enable them, compel them to do? Return to the scene of their crime and do it again. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Their leader had been crucified. The one who betrayed Him died horribly, possibly by suicide. They had been imprisoned. (Eventually all of them would be martyred). What would drive someone to do that? To risk what they risked in order to what, forgive the sins of the very people who were sinning against them? Belief. Faith. Trust. That is what gave them the strength to face the world that was arrayed against them. That is one way to have life in his name.
The Psalm, Psalm 150, the last one in the book… it is a litany of praise and thanksgiving, used to honor a victory and God God’s due. “Halleluhiah! Praise god in his holy temple/praise him in the firmament of his power… for his mighty acts, his excellent greatness…praise him with lyre and harp… timbrel and dance…” Offering our praise and thanksgiving. There is nothing more gracious than honestly expressed gratitude. If you truly believed that all of this, everything we have, including the breath you just took, came from God, we’d sign psalm 150 all the time. Having a life in Jesus’ name can come through believing that God is in fact in charge, that very little of this is up to us. We are powerless, but there is a greater power, God, that can restore us, redeem us, if we believe in God, if we turn over our will and our lives to that God in whom we trust. Another way to have life in his name.
Then there is the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We will spend all of Easter with the Revelation. (It is a lot more than rapture). This complicated book offers a wholly different take on having a life in the name of Christ. Written against a backdrop of imperial oppression and persecution, (the whore of Babylon motif is a very thinly disguised allegory for Rome), Revelation is less about how to live than it is how to see the world, how to apprehend the mystical nature of existence, the unseen side of things. “Grace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come… Look! He is coming with the clouds… ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ say the Lord God who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Gets my blood flowing. Sort of smooths out some of the hard edges of the seen world, slaps us in the face with the mystery of existence, the unknowability of the abyss, the absolute grandeur of God the Almighty. We can’t in good faith kneel in worship, we can’t worship, without letting go of a lot. We’re Americans, for better or for worse, we don’t kneel before anyone, we don’t bow to anyone. Yet here we are, bowing to, kneeling before God. And it is good for us. It is good for us to bow before God. It take faith to bow down before the Lord. It takes trust, belief.
The whole point of this is that when you encounter the word, the idea of belief in your life of faith, remember that it doesn’t just imply agree with. “I agree that God is the father…” Good for you. What matters, though, is how that helps you to live life in His name. And I don’t know, but I suspect that God doesn’t much are about our opinions. But I do have faith, I do trust, I do believe that God is ultimately concerned with us, with you, and how we shine our God-given image of God’s own self into this broken an glorious world. That, I believe; Lord help us in our unbelief. AMEN