In the last few days I have received a couple of emails offering advice on how to preach on atheism. The Global Atheist Convention is taking place this weekend in Melbourne and I was urged to use the opportunity to defend Christianity. Some of you will have watched the debate between Richard Dawkins and George Pell on the TV. I didn’t, but both Dawkins and Pell supporters are claiming victory. Somebody, and I suspect the media, wants to make a big thing out of the so-called contest between reason and belief. The newspapers want to sell more newspapers and the TV stations want to improve their ratings. There’s nothing like a good fight to attract attention and to get people talking.
I don’t think there is a fight. I think that there is more in common between people who call themselves atheists and those who claim to be believers. We are all people who are struggling with the big issues that face humankind. We all want nice easy answers to questions about the existence of the universe, the problems of evil, disease and natural disaster. We want to know where we’ve come from and where we are going. We want explanations for life itself, love and pain, joy and grief. We want to discover what lies beyond our little world and what lies beyond death. And we’re going to tackle these questions with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Whether by accident or design, this is what human beings do.
And, also by accident or design, we have the perfect Bible passage to help us. The story of Thomas, called the Twin, who said, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
Like all humans, Thomas wanted to see and touch the evidence. If we hear the screech of brakes and a smashing noise out there in the street, we say to ourselves, “There has been an accident on the corner.” And what would we do next? We’d all hurry outside to have a look. We want to know exactly what happened; how many cars; were people injured; what’s the traffic doing; are there police cars and ambulances; did they need a fire engine and so on. We might feel a little bit ashamed by our curiosity, but we’d all want to see.
So when the other disciples told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” Of course he said, “Prove it! Show me. I want to see for myself.” Thomas could easily be the patron saint of atheists!
But our story continues. A week later, when all the disciples were present, Jesus joined them and challenged Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas was actually asked to examine the physical body of Jesus to make sure that this really was the person who had been crucified and pierced with a spear. He was being asked to conduct an autopsy. The word ‘autopsy’ means ‘see for yourself.”
Now the story takes a different turn. Thomas says nothing about the wounds, the body or the resurrection. A reasonable person, an atheist, someone from CSI Miami or Silent Witness might have done so. But Thomas makes a confession of faith. He says, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas has jumped straight from evidence to verdict, he has made a great leap of faith. The wounds are not proofs of the resurrection, they are signs of the Lordship and Godhead of Christ. When Thomas conducted the autopsy, he didn’t write a report for the coroner, instead he declared his faith in God and in Jesus Christ. His response was worship, not science. To believe means to love, to worship and to be inspired by, not to prove something is true.
Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me?”
In Jesus’ question there are two statements. One is that Thomas has seen and touched the risen body of Jesus, the other is that Thomas is now a believer in Jesus as Lord and God. The question asks if these are connected. In other words, do you have to see and touch the body of Christ before you can believe?
And Jesus answers his own question. “No. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Loving God with your heart and soul and mind and strength is not the result of seeing hard scientific evidence. Love and faith and belief cannot be measured or weighed or put in a package. What we do have is signs that love, faith and belief exist. When two people are always seen together, gazing into each other’s eyes and holding hands, we take these as signs that they are in love.
When we see people whose lives are changed for the better, people who love their neighbours as they love themselves, people who value their church attendance above other activities, people who have an inner strength and joy; then we are seeing signs that these people are in love with God; they believe in God.
Today we will baptise Swaran, who is taking Ashlyn as her name in Christ. These actions are signs that she believes in Jesus as Lord and God, just as our sharing in the bread and wine of the eucharist are signs that in them we share the body and blood of Christ.
John finishes his gospel with the words; Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written 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.
Let us pray that what we do today and what we do in all our lives may be true signs of our faith in Christ and may encourage others to come to believe, so that all the world may believe and have life in his name.