By Pierre Whalon
“These things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you have life in his name.”
Here we have in this one verse, the raison d’être of all four gospels. Each one was composed so that we might believe in Jesus. The skeptic, of whom we have many in France, might well say, “Aha! These gospels are written so that you might believe, and so become as duped as we are.” They are propaganda for this sect which took a simple carpenter, who said simple truths to simple people, and made him into a god.
Now we should admit that this is one plausible way of reading this verse. It is clear that John has told the story of Jesus and his people in such a way that we — his contemporary readers — will be moved to believe in Jesus as he does. The question is, whether he is telling the truth or not?
We should also give thanks for such skeptics. They were responsible for two hundred years of the most intense scrutiny of any books ever written. The New Testament has been examined from every angle to see where the fraud is. And since they haven’t found it, we now have greater confidence in the integrity of these manuscripts than any of our forebears. We know for a fact that they come from the first century. In particular, we have manuscripts, including a fragment of the 17th chapter of John that lies in the Rylands Library in Manchester, England. It has been dated to the 80s of the first century.
And we can have confidence therefore that the message they contain is the message the first disciples wanted to transmit to us. In particular, a new book by Richard Bauckham about the Gospel of John has moved me. He is a New Testament scholar at St. Andrew’s in Scotland. In his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham presents a closely-argued thesis that in fact John’s gospel is the only real eyewitness account of the four. Written by a disciple of Christ in his old age, the gospel presents a profound meditation on the Word made flesh, written that we might believe.
Just before this verse, we read the story of Doubting Thomas. Our reading begins with the disciples meeting the Risen Lord, who entered the upper room though the doors were locked for fear. They had heard from some women that he was risen but dismissed these claims as just a bunch of hysterical women. (Does that sound familiar, ladies?) Now they found out for themselves…
Thomas meanwhile isn’t there. Now, I was ordained priest on the Feast of St. Thomas, and I have been interested in him ever since. He has a certain bent of mind that I find appealing. He wants to think things through. Thomas is a practical fellow. We can imagine that, despite the profound shock of Jesus’ death, Thomas has gone out to the local supermarket to buy food. Life goes on…
I had an intimation of this when my mother died. As I stood over her dead body, I felt that a huge hole had been torn into the world, my world. It seemed to me that the earth should stop rotating, so momentous was this fact. I mean, she was 91, and it was not unexpected, but still… While I was bent over her, lamenting like this, my stomach growled. “Feed me.” Life goes on.
So Thomas comes back with a load of groceries and he finds the disciples hopping up and down shouting, “we have seen the Lord! We have seen the Lord!” And he thinks they have gone nuts. “First the women — now this!” he must have thought. And he makes his famous declaration that he won’t believe this nonsense unless he can stick his fingers into the wounds of his hands and his gorèd side.
Shortly thereafter, Jesus returns, and goes straight away to Thomas, asking him to place his fingers in his wounds and his hand in his chest wound. Do you think Thomas actually did it?
In the 15th-century reredos at Notre-Dame de Paris, there are scenes from Jesus’ life carved in wood that wrap around the main altar. One scene shows Thomas putting a finger in Jesus’ side. Do you think he did that? What would you do?
I wouldn’t have, that’s for sure. In any event, Thomas falls to his knees, crying “My Lord and my God!” And then Jesus says to him and to you and me, “Blessed are those who have NOT seen and yet have believed.” That is when John tells us that he has written down these stories of Jesus’ life and ministry so that we too might believe in him. And have life in his name.
For we have not seen what the first disciples saw. Yet we believe. That is to say, we have life in Jesus because we believe the witness of the first disciples. So we have apostolic faith because of the apostles. And the life we are promised is the life that Jesus has now in the resurrection. Those first people were hard-pressed to describe what they had witnessed, but it was clear that Jesus was alive again in a new way, one that built on his previous life but was — is — completely different as well. I mean, he came in through a locked door. This is no resuscitated corpse, nor a ghost.
John says that if we believe, we will have life. Now belief is not certainty, though some would make Christian faith out to be a sure thing. T’ain’t so. We believe the original apostles, those women and men sent with the message that He is alive. Belief means to trust that it is so. We can be certain of very few things in this world. Death is certain, and so are taxes, as well as change. These do not save us, do they? But they are quite certain. Belief is not like that. There is room for doubt. The skeptic has a place in this story as well. Thomas is their spokesman. And it should go without saying that all believers should have doubts from time to time. That’s why we call it faith…
Finally, these things are written that we might believe. Because we have not seen, we are even more blessed than the first disciples, including the fellow who wrote this gospel. And that blessing is life that starts right now. The Prayer Book Burial Office says that “when our mortal body doth lie in death…life is changed, not ended.” Eternal life is now, here. You and I have it, share in it.
So all has been done for us to live, now with Jesus and forever with him. The body he has we shall have. The life he lives we live and shall forever live. So we are to celebrate this faith in a moment through receiving Xavier and Fanny into this communion of the Church of Jesus Christ. And then obey his command to eat and drink his Body and Blood, so that we might commune with him now.
And then we are to go forth from here with confidence. For we can believe. We do trust. We have life in his name, and therefore others need to hear from us that name. That they too might believe. And have life in his name. The great name, the powerful name, the strong name, “the only name given under Heaven for health and salvation” — the name of — Jesus.
The Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon was the first elected Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, serving from 2001-2019. He preached this sermon at St. Marc’s Episcopal Church in Grenoble, France on the Second Sunday of Easter, 2010.