Jesus Christ and culture
Believing in Jesus is the way to know God and it is a way of life (talk transcript)
John 20: 24-31
Jesus Appears to Thomas
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The Purpose of John’s Gospel
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
This is taken from my St-Saviours-Evening-Service sermon. You can listen to it here or read the transcript below.
These things are written
John writes at the end of his gospel and he says, “These things are written.” The end of chapter 20. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” In John 20, we see a dawning realization that the resurrection has taken place, where it’s like the sun. You know how the sun comes up over the horizon? You see the light before you see the sun itself. It’s like that in John 20. There are these kinds of signs that the resurrection has happened and then there’s this moment when the disciples get to actually see the Son, get to see Jesus. They see the empty tomb. They wonder what’s happening. Mary comes to them and says, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then they meet the risen. Lord Jesus, all of them except Thomas.
The choice between faith and doubt
Then Thomas himself gets the biggest revelation that we could possibly get in the sense that he gets to actually touch the Risen Lord Jesus, to put his hands in the nail marks in his hands and put his hand in his side. The thing that Jesus says to him that I really want to focus in on tonight, is he says, “Stop doubting and believe. Stop doubting and believe.” I think that’s quite an amazing thing to say to someone who is actually getting to touch the Risen Lord, Jesus. Thomas is standing in front of Jesus. He’s touching the Risen Lord Jesus. He’s getting the biggest possible experience that we could have of the Risen Lord Jesus. And yet he still has the freedom to choose between doubt and faith. Jesus says to him, “Stop doubting and believe. Make that decision of faith.”
The disciples, like us today, would have had a whole stack of experiences, some of which would have affirmed faith in their life, and some of which would have undermined faith. That’s what life is like in the world as we await Jesus’ return. The disciples had seen Jesus suffer and die. They’d seen the man that they’d followed helpless on the cross. They buried him in a tomb. That was a pretty vivid memory in their minds as they contemplated the resurrection. In our lives today, suffering and death are right up there as the things that would undermine our faith in God. As we look on the TV and we see some of the suffering that goes on or just perhaps closer to home, some of the stuff that we know friends or we’ve experienced ourselves. Stuff undermines our faith and so we all have this choice between faith and doubt.
As the disciples process what’s going on, as they go to the tomb, even as they meet Jesus physically in person, even when Thomas gets to touch Jesus, they still have that choice to believe or to doubt. It’s not only John’s gospel that makes this point about how God’s never going to take away our freedom to choose between doubt and faith because it’s too important. Faith is too important. It’s everything about what life with God is about. Turn back a few pages to Matthew, the end of Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission. It’s on page 705 in my book. It’s probably a different page number. Matthew 28 verse 16, Matthew writes at the end of the gospel there, he says, “Then the 11 disciples went to Galilee to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.
Experience can get you so far
When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Again, the disciples are standing in front of the Risen Jesus. He’s about to ascend to Heaven and they still have the freedom about whether to believe or to doubt. It’s too important for that freedom to be taken away. God’s never going to take away that freedom. And the message of Jesus’ words to Thomas is clear. He’s really saying it to all the disciples that experience can get you so far.
Thomas is the one saying, “I’m holding out until I get to touch Jesus.” It’s like Jesus is saying to them, “Experience can get you so far. It’s great to build what you believe upon what you’re experiencing, of what you get to touch and hold taste and see.”
You will always face that choice between believing and doubting because believing is the way to fullness of life in Christ. I think we can feel, Doubting Thomas has become the little phrase for Thomas and we can feel a little bit superior to Thomas, can’t we? We may think, well, if I’d had that kind of experience as Thomas, I wouldn’t struggle with faith at all. But Jesus says something really interesting. He says to Thomas there in verse 29, Thomas gets to touch Jesus in verse 28. He says, “My Lord and my God.” And Jesus told him “Because you’ve seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Thomas isn’t the lucky one. We’re blessed if we believe on the basis of not necessarily getting to touch the Risen Lord Jesus, because it’s through believing in him that we come to fully know him.
I think we believe in our culture that experience is everything. We think like that because of our scientific mindset. I certainly think like that all the time because in science we discover truth by experiment, by experience.
You do some stuff, you experience what happens, and then you base your understanding of the truth upon what you’ve experienced. That’s how science works. That’s why we learn things from experiments. In that scientific method, which is extremely powerful and has brought us great strides, great developments, it can spill over into our whole lives. And we can think that the only way that we get to know anything true is by experiencing it, by having it proved to us in a kind of experimental sort of way.
The impact of negative experiences on our faith
Trouble comes in life when we don’t necessarily have experiences that all the time say to us, God loves you. Many people have experiences in their lives that they just can’t get their heads around. What do you do then? How do you deal with the conflict that arises and seems to contradict your other experiences of truth?
I had the experience, the blessing of growing up in a Christian home, and as I grew up in that Christian home and life was going really well, every kind of experience I had just confirmed what I was being told about a God who loves me, who cares for me, who’s there for me. Everything fitted together neatly. But when I was 13, my dad just died suddenly in the night of a heart attack and it rocked my world. At the same time at school, just coincidentally, I was getting bullied.
It was just really hard going at school. So I found myself not doubting God, but just going, “I’ve been basing my faith upon all these experiences that worked with what I’d heard about you, but now I’ve got a whole stack of experiences that don’t seem to be lining up with that. How do I deal with that?” And to be honest, I walked for many years in that sort of situation.
Making the decision of faith
That was until I did the Alpha course when I moved to London. Week three of Alpha was the most helpful week for me. The talk was on how can I be sure of my faith? I realised that it was actually by believing, making that decision of faith that we begin to experience in full what the life of God is like.
That it’s not that we experience the life of God in full and then we choose to believe, but rather it’s as we make that decision of faith, even in the face of some situations that we go, “I can’t square this with the God that I’ve come to know. I can’t square it.” As we choose to keep on believing that we find the experience of God, life in all its fullness follows.
Saint Augustine wrote, “I believe in order to know.” So often in our culture, it’s the other way around. We want to know in order to believe, but Saint Augustine said, “We believe in order to know,” and that hasn’t changed. That’s not a premodern view. That is how all knowledge is based. It’s all based upon faith. Actually, if you talk to a scientist, it’s actually through their convictions that they set about doing their experiments and then they discover what is true.
So there’s actually conviction and faith behind all knowledge. We believe in order to know.
Experiencing the life of God
The point that I’m making is that it’s great that we can experience all sorts of things and build our life on our experiences, but we’ll get fullness of life as we choose to believe, as we choose to believe in Jesus. He’s never going to take that freedom away from us because it’s as we believe in him that we discover the life to which we are called. Believing in Jesus every step of the way is how we experience the life of God. In John’s gospel Jesus says this. He says, “Whoever believes in me as the Scripture said, streams of living water will flow from within them.” Jesus is never going to force us to believe. He’s never going to take away the possibility of doubt.
We might think that’s a kind of a shortcoming. Why God, don’t you just kind of make it simple for us and take away the possibility of doubting? He’s not going to do that because it’s by believing that we find the way to life itself. If you look at Jesus’ life, the whole way through, he was living in faithfulness to God. That was how he expressed who God was. It’s quite hard for us to understand because Jesus is fully God, but he chose to take on a human body to experience human life. There were times like on the cross where he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He had experiences that were totally counter to the Father that he knew and yet he carried on believing.
If you look at the rest of the words on the cross, they’re words of faith. Even that one, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” comes from a Psalm, which is a Psalm of faith. God is never going to take away the need for faith because faith is what makes life worth living. It takes fear out of life because in adversity we can choose faith instead of doubt. It’s the message of the gospel. That’s why Jesus ends this chapter in verse 31, saying, “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Believing, I think, can be presented as the hurdle that we need to get over to become a Christian. That once you believe then you’re a Christian, and then you’ve done the faith thing.
It’s not like that. We become a Christian through faith and we go on every single day by faith. Actually one way of translating that verb, is believing you may have life in his name. John’s gospel is actually saying carry on believing. That is the reason that John wrote the gospel. It was to bring people to Christ and to equip people in their Christian lives to carry on believing in Jesus.
Saint Paul writes the same message to the Corinthians. He says, “And now these three remain faith, hope and love.” They remain. They go on being at the heart of the Christian life. I read this in The Guardian. “Europe is losing an ability to speak a language, that of faith. It pretends that faith is simply a personal hobby. When the pretense doesn’t work, it peers fearfully at a world all around that has become profoundly foreign.”
You see the world was not designed to be lived in without faith. We need to know how to live by faith because there’s no way of negotiating this world with just constant certainties.
Designed to live by faith
God has designed us as human beings to live by faith. That would be very hard without a relationship with God, but he came in the person of Jesus Christ to give us that life which is by faith. That is what Jesus came to do. And we suffer from fear if we want to live a life of certainty rather than a life of faith. The article goes on to follow Bob Geldof in Africa. Geldof writes this. He says, “Grasping the significance of faith in Africa was like a light going off in my head. There’s not a single part of Africa where the spiritual is not vitally present.
For Africans, it’s as real and as tangible as the phone you’re holding. The spiritual is to be negotiated on a daily basis.” Now, of course, Christianity is not the only faith in Africa. Just like in Europe, there’s all sorts of faiths present. I think he’s right, that Europe’s a place where faith is not a very tangible thing. We don’t talk about our faith easily in our workplaces or in other settings. We’ve lost that ability. We need to get our faith back because actually it is the way that we live truly fully human lives.
I heard the Bishop of London, Bishop Richard speaking about a recent trip to Nigeria. He met the Bishop of Benin in Nigeria who’d recently been shot in an ambush. He managed to get taken to the hospital and when he arrived in the hospital, some police came in and said, “We’ve got to take you away because the doctors are trying to kill you.”
So he was like, “Oh my goodness.” Then the doctors came back in and the doctors said, “No, it’s not us that’s trying to kill you, it’s the police.” So he didn’t really know what to do, but thankfully he trusted the doctors and the doctors were the ones that were on his side. They were the ones that were true. It was the police that were trying to kill him. And Bishop Richard said this. He said that talking to this man was like a transfiguration moment. He just radiated the love of God. The Bishop of Benin is a man who knows what it is for faith, hope and love to be central to his daily walk with God. The need for faith remains. It’s the gift of sharing in the very life of God. We see that born out in their last bit of John’s gospel, in chapter 21.
Faith is at the heart of a life of God
If you look, Jesus has a meal with the disciples. There’s this miraculous catch of fish. And then if you look down in chapter 21 to verse 12, he says to the disciples, “Come and have breakfast.” It says, “None of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.” They’re not uncertain. Their faith is real. It’s powerful, but the fact that he says none of them dared ask means that there was still that potential if they wanted to, to not believe in Jesus. That is so important because it’s the way to be truly alive. To share in Jesus’ resurrection life is to choose faith over doubt at every moment in our life, not because it’s a test, but because faith is at the heart of the life of God.
That’s why Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We can go out into our lives and we can talk to people who are experiencing tough situations and not lose confidence that the gospel is good news. Because it’s not about how much we get to see, it’s about a God who raised Jesus from the dead. Not even death could hold him. So we don’t need to be apologetic if we’re going into people’s lives and we’re going, “Well, life’s been great for me. So of course, of course, I believe in Jesus.” But when people are having a tough life, you don’t need to be apologetic about the gospel because it’s not how much we get to see in this life. It’s about a God who raises Jesus from the dead. We can experience the power of his resurrection in whatever situation we’re in.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed because it’s the way to life in all its fullness. One day when Jesus returns, faith and sight will be one and the same thing, but until then, there’s faith and there’s sight. And faith, Jesus is saying, is the better way in this life because it’s the way to sight. And faith and sight will come together when Jesus returns.
Choose to believe
So this is really what I want to end with. It’s possible to be a Christian and to have given your life to Him. But to go along with God, really a bit like Thomas, just going “Well, God, I’m really struggling to believe, really struggling to make you fully part of my life until you do this, that and the other.” And Jesus doesn’t stop loving us. Jesus comes to the Thomas in all love and he says, “Here you go. Here are my hands. Here’s my side.”
He will meet us. I don’t think God gives up on us. I know he doesn’t give up on us because I’m a Thomas so often. I think he wants to say to us in all of love, and he says this throughout his resurrection appearances, believe. Choose to believe. Don’t just wait for me to prove it to you all the time. Choose to believe in Jesus and you will find the life for which I’ve called you, the life I want you to know, a life where you don’t need to be afraid if you have a bad day because you’re not going to find God any less at the end of it because you’re choosing faith over doubt. No experience will ever prove to you what you can only discover by believing in Jesus. That’s true freedom. That’s the life of faith and hope.
Video: Tim Keller answering Lesslie Newbigin
In 2019, it will be thirty years since the publication of Lesslie Newbigin’s classic work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. In this book, Newbigin produced an epistemological critique of what he called the ‘myth of the secular society’ and offered a theological treatise for a renewed confidence in the Gospel. At the heart of this confidence is his conviction that the doctrine of Christ and the logic of election and mission are indivisible. This creates a relationship between the Gospel and other religions and cultures that is liberating for both the church and society as a whole. Mission is intrinsic to the Gospel rather than a subsequent movement, and therefore the church is called to be neither reticent about proclaiming the uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour and Lord, nor make an arrogant claim to be in ‘possession’ of the truth. For Newbigin, if the church embraces (as it should) the reality of a pluralist society but assumes that this necessitates demurring on the ‘universal intent’ of the Gospel in the name of humility and for the sake unity, it has accepted an account of autonomous reason that is as illusory for non-Christians as for Christians. This erroneous rationality leads instead to confusion and hopelessness, and ultimately anything but the peace that is the goal of those who argue for a ‘secular society’ in which the public realm of universally accepted facts and personal beliefs are somehow separable. Newbigin calls the Gospel is “Public Truth” and the Bible “universal history” not as a culturally imperialist move but the necessary implication of the ontological primacy of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church’s witness to that reality should bear the marks of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God (costly self-giving) and any sort of institutional or political coercion to accept this truth is incongruent with its reality. In outlining this thesis, Newbigin drew upon significant epistemological and theological work contemporary to him (Michael Polanyi and Karl Barth in particular) as well as, of course, his wealth of experience as a British missionary and a local bishop in India for decades. In doing so, he also employed terms that he drew from ‘narrative’ and ‘postliberal’ theology, but I hope to argue that his work does not ultimately depend upon these theological moves. In the second half of this essay, I hope to demonstrate that by turning to Bruce McCormack’s groundbreaking exposition and development of the theology of Karl Barth and the recent epistemological work by Paul La Montagne. My intention is to show that their insights support the tenets of Newbigin’s theology and underline the continued importance and significance of his work to contemporary missiology.
Lesslie Newbigin’s ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to Postliberal theology: (Under construction)
• Lindbeck wrote in his classic work The Nature of Doctrine in a Post-liberal age of the stand-off between the equally problematic cognitive/propositional (conservative) and experiential-expressive (liberal) approaches to truth and posits a cultural-linguistic mediation of truth. The classic statement of the point that is often lost in modernity is that truth statements can not be disconnected from the community – that words and practical activities work with each other to form meaning making – is the crusader who lops the head off an infidel with the words ‘Jesus is Lord ‘. In what sense is this true?
• Newbigin was influenced by Lindbeck and MacIntyre on their critiques of modernity. The crucial role of tradition in the form of the life and witness to the gospel of the gathered church was not lost on Newbigin. It was his commitment to this being God’s gathering (ekklesia tou Theou) that signalled that he would not accept every aspect of this approach.
• Yes: the life of the local church (in word and action) is the hermeneutic of the gospel
• No: the gospel is public truth
How Free are we to Believe – John Lennox