Sermon — Pr. Martin Noland — Blessed are Those who Believe

Text: John 20:19-31 [2nd Sunday of Easter]

Seeing is believing–or is it?  Do you see Jesus or do you believe in Jesus?  Is the Christian faith a matter of sight or belief?  These are critical questions in our modern age, in which Christianity is harshly questioned and Christians are vilified for all sorts of reasons.

Steadfast Sermons GraphicIn our Gospel lesson this morning, the apostle Thomas is a prime example of all the people who say, “I won’t believe it, unless I see it with my own two eyes.”  I understand why most of those people say that.  They have been lied to, deceived, or otherwise fooled, and they don’t want to be made the fool again.  They have learned to doubt extravagant claims, and sometimes to even doubt credible claims. They may even think they are superior to others because of their skepticism.

After Thomas saw Jesus and said, “My Lord and My God!”  Jesus put this question to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” (John 20:29). This was really a question about the nature of belief.  In the strict sense of the term, Thomas did not “believe.”  He knew that Jesus was alive, because he saw Jesus with his own two eyes.  Thomas’ apprehension of the resurrection was not “belief.”  It was direct knowledge based on empirical data received from the brain by the eyes.  This is what made Thomas and the other apostles what we call “eye-witnesses” of Jesus’ resurrection.

The distinction between faith and sight is affirmed by the writer to the Hebrews when he defines faith:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.  By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3)

At the end of this week, many of our young people are going to take a trip to Cincinnati, to attend a Higher Things conference about the creation of the world, and to tour the Creation Museum in the Cincinnati metropolitan area.  Many of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States have a museum devoted to “natural history.” The basic assumption in those museums is that everything we see was made by things that are still visible today.  The Creation Museum is the only museum I know of in which the basic assumption is that everything we see was originally made by things that are not visible, namely, by the words of God.

I have always been puzzled by those who think that the ideas expressed in “natural history” museums are modern.  The Greek Epicureans, who lived prior to Jesus, taught that only what you see is real.  Epicureans were a type of what we call “materialists” today, i.e., the idea that only matter is real.  There was even a Roman philosopher of the Epicurean school, named Lucretius, who taught a primitive form of materialist evolution nineteen centuries before Charles Darwin.  Darwin only developed the theory of evolution more fully, he did not invent it.

What is different today from Jesus’ time is that materialism and/or evolution are the dominant ways of thinking for most Americans, even of those who call themselves “Christian.”  We should not be disturbed by this, since the Apostle Peter predicted that this would happen:

Scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying “Where is the promise of [Jesus] coming?  For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as from the beginning of creation.”  For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old and the earth [also], standing out of the water and in the water. (2 Peter 3:3-5).

The Christian doctrine of the creation teaches that the universe and this earth came into existence by God’s command, and that they took shape and forms according to God’s express commands in six days.  This is a doctrine of faith, not sight. You and I were not present during the creation to witness it.

How then do you know that the world was created through God’s word?  You know it because Moses and the prophets, and Jesus and the apostles, taught the doctrine of creation, wrote it down in the Scriptures, and you have the Bible to read and discover on your own today.  If you believe what they taught and wrote in the Scriptures, then you have faith in what God teaches us about creation.  If you don’t believe the Scriptures’ testimony about creation, then you have unbelief–sorry to say.

How do Darwin and other materialists know that the world was not created through God’s word?  Actually, this is something they cannot prove; it is a preliminary hypothesis. They were not present to witness the evolution of the world.  They do not have direct knowledge of the formation of the world based on empirical data received from the brain by the eyes.  Strictly speaking, evolution is not what scientists and philosophers call “empirical science.”  Evolution is a “best bet,” based on a variety of physical phenomena and, most important, the philosophical assumption that God did not create the heavens and the earth by the power of his almighty Word.  But if God did create the world by His word, then “all bets are off.”

What does all this have to do with Easter and Jesus’ resurrection?  Just about everything.  If matter is all that exists, as the materialist teaches, then there would be no power in the world that could restore Jesus to life.  Then there is no power in the world that can restore you to life either, once you die.  But if Jesus did rise from the dead, then there must be a power that can do both, as Saint Paul writes: “God both raised up the Lord [Jesus] and will also raise us up by His power” (1 Corinthians 6:14).

The Bible teaches us that God expresses his power through his word.  Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth!” and Lazarus rose from the dead (John 11:43).  Jesus rebuked the demon at Capernaum and said, “Be quiet, and come out of him,” and the demon left the possessed man (Mark 1:25).  God said, “Let there be light” and there was light (Genesis 1:3).  None of these events can be explained by science, because science deals only with material processes.  God’s work in the world through his almighty word is inscrutable.  In other words, the details of how God does his work through his word cannot be explained.  We can only believe the witnesses who have seen these wonderful events.  In the case of creation, the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2), so that he could tell Moses what he saw and heard at creation.

The three ecumenical creeds have taught the Christian church that the doctrines of creation and resurrection are not optional or subsidiary ideas.  They are among the primary articles of our faith.  But:

the first and chief article is this, that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, “was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  He alone is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)(Smalcald Articles II, I, 1-2; Tappert, 292).

When Jesus showed himself to the apostles and Thomas, he was declaring to them–by his presence–that their sins were forgiven in God’s sight.  The resurrection is not only a demonstration of God’s power through his word, it is chiefly a demonstration of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness toward us poor sinners.  Thus Jesus gave to the church the power to forgive sins in verse 23, “If you forgive the sins of anyone they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

Even so, may you receive the forgiveness of sins for your eternal salvation, through faith in the word of God which raised Jesus from the dead and which will also raise you on the last day.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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