John 20: 24-29; Daniel 3:17-18; Hebrews 11:32-39
When our girls were little hearing departing sleigh bells as they awakened on Christmas morning provided adequate confirmation that Santa had indeed included them in his appointed rounds. Snow covered landscapes in Virginia and Indiana were no challenge to an Easter Bunny’s perennial visit. Even when they were a hundred miles from home living in college housing the Great Pumpkin found them. Do you remember the hope of anticipation, the joy at discovering mysterious gifts, the peace of “knowing” that such entities existed? Your early view of the world, like mine, was formed by such beliefs and the experiences that seemed to “prove” them. And as we matured and learned from practical life experiences our naturally skeptical minds demanded ever greater levels of verification. Failing that, my beliefs, and yours, changed. When my beliefs changed my world view changed–forever.
People once believed that the sun and moon were just out of the reach of birds. We once believed the earth was flat. Seafarers were deathly afraid that their ship could sail off the edge plunging them to certain death. And of course as skeptical minds accumulated the evidence needed to deduce that the earth is in fact round, that the sun and moon are quite far away — our collective world view changed. An incessant battle still rages between those who want to hold onto unsubstantiated beliefs and those who have drawn different conclusions.
Faith is not the same as belief. Like many words that seem to be synonymous these two words actually express quite different concepts. What we believe is simply what we’ve concluded from our perceptions about our experiences filtered through our world view. This is an important part of who we are. Being able to formulate beliefs gives us frames of reference to help us navigate through life with integrity and purpose. We humans have also been blessed with an ability, often not well developed, which allows us to detach from our belief forming facility so as to become observers of our own processes. As we gain practical knowledge from what we learn and experience our system of beliefs come closer to describing reality. Were that not the case we would be hopelessly trapped in unreality. Times have come when we have mistakenly accepted what we believe to be reality and when that is challenged we find ourselves clinging to it as we would a life preserver. Could there be times when beliefs can actually block faith? There is no need for fear, guilt or shame to letting go of beliefs that no longer serve, that defy our deepening understanding, an emerging Faith. Clearly, this is rather the mark of a maturing person.
One writer suggested that we can see the difference between belief and faith illustrated in a couple of verses from Daniel 3. (17-18) If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us[c] from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
– Daniel 3:17-18
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego declare that even if they are thrown into the furnace, God is able to deliver them from it as well as deliver them from the King. Those are strong and powerful words. They state that God is able. They do not say that God will but that if God chooses, then God will. They believe in God. They believe in the power of God. They believe He can deliver them from King Nebuchadnezzar. This was their belief.
Now comes the moment when faith steps in, as they proclaim that even if God does not deliver them, they still would not worship or serve the King’s god. Their faith said that even if they were to perish, it still did not change that God is good. Faith is not placed in the outcome of a situation but instead in God. My faith says that God is good no matter the outcome of my situation. I believe that God can save the day. I believe that God can work miracles. My faith says that whether or not I follow God will not be dependent on things working out to my benefit. It says that I will follow God no matter what.
Several verses in Hebrew 11 come to mind:
“who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promise.”
Through faith there were those who conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, escaped the sword, and much more. There were also those who were put into prison, stoned to death, tortured, sawed in two, killed by the sword. No matter how good or how bad, whether or not they received what had been promised to them, their faith was not shaken. They chose to follow and obey God even when they could not see the outcome, choosing to follow even when the outcome may not have been one that they would have chosen. They each had a faith in the character and nature of God. In that same Hebrews chapter we read: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Your faith and mine is not about all of our beliefs and convictions. I have a ton of those, but those things are not what please God. What pleases God is when I put every ounce of my trust, my faith in Him even when I do not know the outcome, when I do not understand and when I may not get my way.
Our text for this first Sunday after Easter comes from the disciples experience one week after Resurrection Sunday. Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus spoke the words we looked at last Sunday. Earlier in the week, on hearing the disciples proclaim that they had seen the Lord, Thomas said that unless he could see the nail marks on Jesus’ hands, put his finger where the nails had been and put his hand into Jesus side he would not believe. What do you think of Thomas? Did he think the others experienced some kind of group hallucination? Nothing could satisfy him but the testimony of his own senses. He had witnessed the crucifixion, he believed Jesus to be dead. For Thomas resurrection fell into the realm of unreality. What occurs next is the culmination of the entire Gospel incorporated in Thomas’ confession. According to the Revised English Translation John writes: A week later his disciples were again in the room and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them, saying, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Reach you finger here; see my hands. Reach your hand here and put it into my side. Be unbelieving no longer, but believe.’ Thomas said, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said, ‘Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are they who never saw me and yet have found faith.’
So where do you find your faith? Is it found in a belief system or it is found in being open to Christ at work in your life? In order to have that kind of faith, I must draw near to Him. I have to pursue Him. In James 4 we read: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
There is a qualitative difference between belief and faith, although, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Belief can amount to little more than a matter of opinion. Faith is substantially acting on a belief. Belief is relatively undemanding, while faith requires commitment. Some dictionaries include terms such as trust, loyalty, and fidelity in the definition of faith.
Whether we admit it or not, each of us live out our days committing acts of faith. We go to work and even cast a ballot because we have faith that the benefits of doing so will outweigh the consequences of not doing so. Although we may be operating on pretty good evidence that this is true, we cannot know its verity for certain until after the fact. From a sermon preached a very long time ago I recall an illustration given on the difference between belief and faith – probably you’ve heard the same story. It was of a tight rope walker who announced his intention to push a wheel barrow across Niagara Falls. When asked, one of the spectators proclaimed his belief that the performer could do it. When the performer asked him to be a passenger in the wheel barrow his tune changed.
Despite that to which others could be witness, Thomas absolutely refused to say that he understood what he did not understand. There was an uncompromising integrity about him. Thomas wouldn’t recite someone else’s creed! What he believed had to find credulity in his own experience. When we, like Thomas, battle our way through all our skepticism and honest doubts to acknowledge Christ as Lord of our lives, then it is no longer a matter of saying what we believe – we have found faith. When Thomas was certain, when belief became faith, Thomas went all the way. John gives him the principle speaking part in his resurrection narrative. Thomas proclaims: “My Lord and my God!”