Tuesday, May 03, 2011

What if it's all true?

Acts 2:14a, 22-32 1 Peter 1:3-9 John 20:19-31

Thomas (the twin) apparently missed out the first time around with the resurrected Christ. In spite of what were likely very strong and excited words from his fellow apostles about Jesus' appearance, Thomas was not willing (or maybe not able) to believe it except with his own eyes and by his own touch. He may have even felt a little left out and was wishing he could have seen what they claimed to have seen. You and I could probably appreciate Thomas' cynicism much more than we can appreciate what the disciples were feeling as they huddled together in fear behind a locked door because I doubt there are many among us who have felt so threatened for having "followed" Jesus.

Doubt is part of the faith process and journey, I think, and is nothing to be afraid of because when we have doubts, we are inclined to ask questions and seek answers. We need to address those doubts because there is nothing more unsettling than uncertainty. The problems come when we are not careful about the sources we go to in search of these answers. If we do not question our sources, we run the risk of getting at the very least an incomplete answer; at worst, we will get misinformation, personal opinions, and outright lies that will better suit the selfish and perhaps prideful purposes of the source rather than our quest for truth.

A case in point: Vilonia AR was recently hammered by a tornado in which four persons (as of this writing) were killed. Initial reports on the night of the storm said the tornado itself was a half-mile wide and that as many as 80 homes were "destroyed". The next morning's news reports were saying the tornado was three-and-a-half miles wide but only about 20 homes were "damaged". Photos showed some homes destroyed and others with substantial roof and structural damage that would hardly qualify as "destroyed". Obviously we now know more, but this is not the point.

Tornados are fickle and treacherous beasts that cannot be pinned down and are even harder to predict with any certainty. Often it is hard to tell whether the damage was caused by a tornado or straight-line winds. Especially because these speculations were made in the dark, reason might suggest we would be much better informed of the extent of the damage "in the light" when the sun finally comes up. Then we can avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety, more accurately assess the damage, and determine a more appropriate course of action. When something is revealed in the light of day, it can be better appreciated for what it really is - even if we do not like what we are seeing. We should know by now that darkness by its very nature conceals. Only in the light can the truth be finally and fully revealed.

To appreciate the setting of John's reading, we must remember that the One they called "Lord" only days before had been crucified. The One whom they had proclaimed as "Messiah" and "Son of God" lay dead in a tomb as far as they knew. And surely Peter had by now shared his story of his own close call (though he might have left out that part about having denied knowing Jesus at all!). It is little wonder, then, that they had the doors closed and locked. All their hopes for themselves as well as for Israel had been nailed to a cross and killed. These gathered may have even considered the last three years of their lives "wasted" following this Man around, hearing Him teach, and even witnessing with their own eyes some pretty amazing things. And now they would have to spend the rest of their lives running and hiding? Not much of a life.

The compelling question, which must be asked of just about any book throughout the Bible, is: what is the writer/narrator trying to tell us? What is being conveyed by a story that was written some 40-50 years after the fact? Well, John tells us why: "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."

What if it is all true? Is this not the challenge most of us face in our daily living; that is, if we think about it at all? When we encounter someone who disputes the Bible and its admittedly incredible stories, isn't our fall-back answer usually along the lines of, "What do you have to lose by believing?" I have long maintained that even if we removed all divine references in the Bible, it would still be a good way to live. It still teaches some valuable lessons, is incredibly insightful and intuitive about human nature, and is rather graphic about consequences that come as a result of less-than-wholesome living.

Still, many of us can think of someone, young or old, who has had such bad luck and experiences that it is difficult - if impossible - for them to understand such a notion as a "loving" God who will not directly and immediately intervene in human events. How could such a "loving" God have allowed the Holocaust? How could a "loving" God allow children to be kidnapped, abused, and sold as slaves for unimaginable and unconscionable purposes? How could a "loving" God have allowed these awful storms we have endured these past few days in which innocent persons lost loved ones AND perhaps even their homes and everything they have ever owned? How could a "loving" God even conceive of such an unthinkable thing as "hell"? And for many, this question burns in the forefront of their minds: What has God ever done for me?

This is part of the reason why I cringe at the notion of a "personal" Lord, a "personal" Savior, and the concept of "personal" salvation. To be sure, our individual encounters and experiences with the Lord, in whatever form, are intensely personal when we are directly affected. "Look what He has done for ME", some exclaim. "Listen to what He told ME", some preachers proclaim. And then there are those who have lacked such an intimate experience and have not "felt" any such thing. How is the witness of such individuals useful for those who desire such an experience but have not felt anything like it? What do we say to them? How do we explain to and convince these many - and there are many - that the Lord's desire is that ALL of humanity should prosper and live? That ALL of humanity should be reconciled to Him and live in certainty and hope rather than in doubt and despair?

The truth is there are no easy answers. To blithely state that "God's will" is what it is does nothing for the human soul who has not been so unmistakably touched. We have a perpetual generation of "Doubting Thomases" who want to believe and are willing to believe ... but not by faith and certainly not by the word of a witness or even a preacher. These doubters - and it would be hard to define them as "agnostic" or "atheist" - have as acute a need to believe in something greater than themselves as you and I do, but they struggle with human doctrine and fond notions we are inclined to "make up" for ourselves, notions that are often lacking in biblical foundation or basis.

We try to make the Bible read and apply in such a way that fits more appropriately and uniquely to our own lives. It works for us as individuals but like inaccurate tornado damage reports, they only confuse. The "real" story is not being conveyed, and there are a lot of gaps that cannot be adequately accounted for. So we fill in the gaps ourselves, and we make stuff up that works for us. We deny the sovereignty of the Lord and instead turn Him into some sort of cosmic "play thing" that suits our individual purposes. It may make us feel better, but these ideas and ideals lack the necessary universal element by which the Lord can be equally applied across the board. We create "in our own image" a God more pleasing to ourselves. And by doing so we then lock the "doubters" out of the room.

Thomas had been absent from the group. We don't know why. Maybe he was tending to family business. Maybe he was still hiding out. Maybe he had intentionally segregated himself from that group because of all that had transpired in the last few days. Maybe he was chief among those who had determined that following Jesus had been a complete waste of time. After all, what had Jesus done for ME besides confuse me and put me, and perhaps my loved ones, in grave danger? Why SHOULD I believe?? In light of the events of the last few days, what could I possibly gain from continuing to follow a dead man?

So Thomas finally has his own moment with the Lord. He is shown the marks and is encouraged to reach out and touch these marks so that he may finally believe. I don't think, however, that this can be construed as a "personal" moment exclusively reserved for Thomas. The purpose for which Thomas is being shown the truth of the Resurrection is for the Church which will soon be called forth. This is testified by Jesus having "breathed on them" to impart the Holy Spirit, and it is further testified to by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost. This is the reason why Scripture study of the WHOLE Bible is encouraged as a means of grace. Memorizing Bible verses can be useful, but we often forget that individual verses cannot stand outside of their given contexts.

Something great is about to come forth, something greater than anyone then - or now - could possibly conceive of. Throughout the Bible, the Lord has never revealed Himself exclusively to suit any individual human purposes. There is no reason to believe He will now. The purposes for which we are called forth and individually gifted are to strengthen the whole Church, the Body of Christ. It is all true for the proclamation of the Gospel, which is the sole purpose of the Church's entire existence, and the purpose is clearly Divine - not human.

It is true because Life comes from Truth. It is true because Truth comes by Light, and it is by the Light of Christ Himself that the fullness of the Lord is revealed - in us and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit and in His Holy Name. For His sake, not our own.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: