When I was a leader on a Christian holiday for teenagers, we used to run a game called 'Hunt the Leader'. We all hid in disguise in the local town. And the lads then came hunting. For which we always got police permission. For one 'Hunt the Leader', a friend called Jem dressed as a punk. And you can't imagine a more unlikely punk - Jem's got a plummy, home counties accent, and was then a stockbroker. But the disguise was brilliant. And off he went to sit on top of a phone box. Well, soon afterwards along came a policeman who hadn't been briefed about our game. The conversation went something like this:
'Off that phone box, son.' 'But I'm playing a game, officer.' 'I don't care what you're playing. Off that phone box.' 'But I've got permission to be here.' 'And who are you?' 'Jeremy Sykes.' 'You local?' 'No. I'm from London.' 'And what do you do in London?' 'I'm a stockbroker.'
Which got the predictable response: 'I see, sir. Well, I think you better come with me.' So off to the police station they went, where the evidence of Jem's driving license and business cards finally convinced him. But on first hearing Jem's claim, you can understand the policeman saying to himself, 'I can't believe that!'
Well many people have the same reaction to the Christian message. 'I can't believe that!' And often, I find they've never been told that Christians believe on the strength of evidence. People seem to think that Christians just take a blind leap of faith - a bit like believing in life in other galaxies beyond ours: there's no evidence, so if you believe, it's blind faith. You believe not because of evidence but because you want to believe there's 'something out there'.
Well, it isn't like that with the Christian message. Christians believe in God because God has given us the evidence we need to know he's really there. And in a word, the evidence is Jesus. What Christians believe is that Jesus, who really lived 2000 years ago, was and is the Son of God. He became a human being so that people could see him, hear him and even touch him. Well, I want to ask three questions:
What do Christians believe? Can you believe it? Will you believe it?
First, WHAT DO CHRISTIANS BELIEVE?
Well, on the service sheet you have part of John's Gospel printed out (John 20.24-31). John was one of the eye-witnesses of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And he wrote his Gospel to present the evidence. Verse 30:
Jesus did many other miraculous 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 Christ, the Son of God… (vv30-31)
And if you read chapters 1-17 of John's Gospel, you find two kinds of evidence that Jesus was and is the Son of God. There's the evidence of what Jesus said. Eg: one of his disciples once said to him, 'Lord, show us the Father.' (ie, 'let us have a direct sight of God.') And Jesus said:
'Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father?' Don't you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me?' (John 14.9-10)
Ie, Jesus says: 'You want to see God directly? You're looking at him. I am as much God as my Father in heaven is.' And there's also the evidence of what Jesus did. Eg: if you read John's Gospel you'll find that Jesus walked across the sea of Galilee (John 6.16-21). He gave vision to a man born blind (John 9). He resuscitated a man who'd been dead and buried four days (John 11). Power over nature. Power over sickness. Power over death. Which are the marks of God.
The painter Picasso once went into a furniture maker's shop. The furniture maker didn't recognise him. Picasso said, 'I want you to build me a cabinet.' He asked for a pencil and paper and sketched his design. The furniture maker looked at the sketch and thought, 'I'm sure I recognise that style. Yes…that bears all the marks of Picasso.' So he said, 'Are you Picasso?' And Picasso said, 'Yes. How much will a cabinet like that cost?' To which the man shrewdly replied: 'Nothing. Just sign the sketch.'
The miraculous signs of Jesus are like the sketch: they bear all the marks of Almighty God. And then his claims are like the signature. But then read John 18-19, and you find something happened that all but destroyed the faith of those first disciples. The people in power didn't believe Jesus' claim. And they got him crucified for blasphemy. So John 19 ends with Jesus dead and buried in a tomb (John 19.38-42).
That was Friday. Saturday was Jewish rest day. On the Sunday, the disciples went to the tomb to complete the burial process. They found the tomb open; grave clothes there; body gone (John 20.1-9). Imagine you could get a life-size body-shaped balloon, blow it up and wrap it in grave clothes the way they did in the first century. You then put the wrapped balloon on a stone slab and pop it with a pin so the grave clothes collapse just where they are. That's what they saw. And they also saw Jesus alive again, and that's where the passage on the service sheet picks up. Verse 24:
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, 'We have seen the Lord!'
I guess most of us know what it's like to miss the crucial moment. I think George Best would sympathise with Thomas. You remember the European Championship Final - Bayern Munich were 1-0 up against Manchester United with just minutes to go. Ex- Man Utd player George Best decided to leave the stadium. He didn't want to watch final defeat. It was only in the taxi that he discovered Man Utd had scored twice and won the cup. And if that seemed unbelievable to George Best, how much more unbelievable did it seem to Thomas that Jesus had risen from the dead. Verse 25:
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 it.'
And you can understand Thomas' reaction. Partly because they're asking him to believe something so extraordinary. But also because so much was at stake. Verse 26:
A week later his disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked…'
And the doors were locked because they were afraid that having crucified Jesus, the people in power might come looking for them (John 20.19). Being a Christian costs. It means changing sides. From going the way of the world around you, to going God's way. And that's what we're all afraid of. The main reason people give me why they won't turn to Christ is fear of what people will think. The claim is extraordinary. The stakes are high. So verse 25:
[Thomas] 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 it.'
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!'(vv26-28)
Just try to take that in. Thomas knew that Jesus had been nailed to a cross. He knew that the authorities had guaranteed him dead by ramming a spear up his body cavity. He knew he was dead and buried. So what is he seeing in v26? A hallucination? No, because the Twelve are all seeing it, too. This isn't something in one person's mind. It's out there. So is it a ghost? No, it's recognisably the body of Jesus - even asking to be touched. Only it's a body that isn't confined any more by locked doors and solid walls. It's a body that belongs to another place, beyond death, outside time. And that's what brings Thomas to full-blown Christian faith. He suddenly sees it. 'This man isn't one of us. He became one of us. But he's from beyond time and space and lives through death. My Lord and my God!' That's what Christians believe.
Secondly, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?
You might well say, 'It's all very well for Thomas. He saw with his own eyes. But I haven't. And I'd need to see.' Which is pretty much what Thomas said. If that's what you're thinking, look at what Jesus said in v29:
Then Jesus told him, 'Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'
Ie, Jesus says: you don't need to see him in order to believe in him. It's perfectly possible to believe what Thomas believed without actually seeing what Thomas saw. And vv30-31 explain why:
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you [ie, all of us who weren't there to see] may believe…
Notice: God isn't asking us now to believe without evidence. He's asking us to believe on the written evidence of what eye-witnesses like the apostle John saw. Now in my experience people are very dissatisfied with that. 'I need to see in order to believe,' they say. But that isn't actually how we live. Eg: we believe football scores over the radio. We believe without seeing. Or eg: we get on trains which say they're going to London. We can't see they're going to London, because where they're going lies in the future, and we can't see the future. We believe without seeing.
Or eg: two weeks ago I was here at a wedding. I saw two friends promise one another that they would love each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer in sickness and in health, till death parts them. And they believed one another. And yet they can't see one another's hearts. They can't see that the other person really meant it. They believed without seeing. Not blindly. They have good evidence of one another's hearts after years of going out. But they've believed what they can't see on the evidence of what they can see and have seen.
And that's what God is asking of us. He's asking us to believe what we can't see on the evidence of what we have in the pages of the New Testament - eg, in John's Gospel. 'But,' you might say, 'My problem is that it all happened 2000 years ago. It's like that game, 'Chinese Whispers' - a lot could have been added or changed' But the information hasn't reached us Chinese Whispers-style. The words in your hands were written by the apostle John. It wasn't passed from John to Fred to Bill, etc. It was written by John the eye-witness from memory. And we know from early copies of John's Gospel that it's reached us accurately. Or you might say, 'But I just can't believe these things could happen. People sink on water. Dead men stay dead.' But you're arguing from your experience. Just because you sink on water doesn't mean Jesus must have done. We shouldn't make our experience the measure of what's possible.
In the last century, a missionary came back from Africa saying he'd seen snow on the equator. (He'd seen Mt Kilimanjaro). But the experts at the Royal Geographical Society said, 'No. It can't have been snow. You can't have snow on the equator. That's just not possible.' Our ideas of 'what can't be true' can blind us to what is true. Or you might say, 'The trouble is: people like the apostle John were biassed.' Well, yes they were, in the sense that they were committed to Jesus. (In that sense, we're all biassed - we're each either for or against Jesus. There's no neutrality when it comes to Christianity.) But that doesn't make them untruthful, does it? There's no logical step from saying 'X is biassed (ie committed)' to saying, 'X is not capable of telling the truth.' And the evidence is that they were men of integrity. They suffered and several of them died for this message. John himself was sent into exile (Revelation 1.9). They could have made their message more popular and their lives more comfortable by changing their tune. But they never did. All the evidence is that they were not just committed to Jesus. But committed to being truthful.
Thirdly, WILL YOU BELIEVE?
The evidence is there, v31,
that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
That word 'Christ' is a reminder that Jesus didn't appear out of the blue. Through Old Testament (OT) times, God had been explaining what had gone wrong in the world and how he would put it right by sending the Christ. The OT says that God created us and has the right to tell us how life should be lived. It says we've rebelled against God and lived as we please. And that God won't allow that rebellion forever. As the Bible puts it, 'Man is destined to die once, and after that, to face judgement.' (Hebrews 9.27) And death is the way God summons all of us into his presence to judge us for the way we've rejected him. And the judgement we deserve is to be cut off from him forever. That's the situation Jesus came to rescue us from. And there's one thing we've left unexplained so far tonight. That is: why did Jesus die? His resurrection from the dead shows that he's the Son of God. So why did he die? His death could not have been God summoning him to be judged for his own sins. He had no sins. So why did he die? This is what the Bible says:
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth… He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree [ie, on the cross]. (1 Peter 2.22, 24)
Very simply, Jesus died in our place. He took the judgement for sin that we deserve. So we might be forgiven and justice be upheld. That's why in v26 Jesus said to them, 'Peace be with you.' He'd just paid the penalty they should have got. So he could now assure them that they were forgiven and could know peace with God his Father. And that's why, end of v31, it says that by trusting in Jesus 'you may have life in his name.'
A true story came out of the American Civil War about a young man called Charlie. He left home to fight. He got fatally wounded. And a friend he'd made, called Jim, got him back behind the lines. But they couldn't help him. And shortly before he died, Charlie handed a note to Jim and said, 'If you make it, please take this to my parents.' So after the war, Jim headed for Charlie's home. He was pretty much a beggar. He arrived at what turned out to be a smart, rich homestead. And the servants tried to turn him away. But then an older man came out. 'I have a note from Charlie,' said Jim. And Charlie's father took the note, read it, then said to Jim, 'Welcome home.' Because the note read: 'Dearest Father and Mother, by the time you receive these words, I shall be dead. The hand from which you receive them is that of my closest friend in life and death. Please take him in, in Charlie's name. Your loving son, Charles'
Because of our sin, morally we're like dirty beggars in God's sight. And when death brings us to his door, we deserve to be turned away. But God in his love decided on a way by which sins could be forgiven and justice upheld. He sent his Son to take for us the judgement we deserve. So that to those who turn to Jesus and trust him, God is willing to say: Welcome home. Your sins are forgiven, in Jesus' name - ie, on account of the cross. So v31, real Christian faith isn't just believing that something is true - believing 'that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.'
It does involve believing that, but it's more than that. Real Christian faith involves, end of v31, turning back to Jesus, admitting you've left him out of your life, being forgiven and starting life over again with him as your Lord and your God - a relationship which carries on into heaven. 'I can't believe that.' The Bible says: 'Yes you can. The question is: will you?' Will you accept Jesus as your Lord and your God, as Thomas did in v28? That will mean living the way he says from now on. And will you accept his forgiveness in his name, as in v31? Which means admitting your sin and abandoning all trust in your own supposed goodness. Those are the ultimate sticking points. Not the issues of the mind ('Is it true? Did it really happen?', etc) But the issues of the will.
Many people here tonight have accepted Jesus as their Lord and God and have received his forgiveness. We simply need to keep accepting those things day by day. That's what John wrote to Christians in one of his letters: 'See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you.' (1 John 2.24)
Some will still be asking the questions of the mind ('Is it true? Did it really happen?', etc). Some are asking the questions of the will ('How would I have to change? What would my friends think?', etc). If that's you, then can I say: please keep coming to hear more. Please do pick up information about Food for Thought and The Tavern which we lay on to help people who are at the finding out and questioning stage. But there may be some people here who've asked all the questions. The issue for you is taking that step of the will and accepting Jesus as your Lord and God. I'm going to end with a prayer that would be appropriate if that's you. If you're ready to accept Jesus as your Lord and God, you could do so by praying this prayer. I'll pray:
I believe that you rose from the dead, that you are alive in heaven, and that you are my rightful Lord and God.
I confess I have not given you your rightful place and deserve your judgement.
Thank you for becoming a man and dying on the cross to rescue me from judgement.
Please forgive my sins. And please come into my life by your Spirit, to enable me to live for you from now on. Amen
I'd only encourage you to pray that if you're ready to do so, and ready to be known publicly as a Christian from now on. But if you are, you could respond to God tonight by echoing that prayer to him.
Two if's. If you have just prayed that prayer and meant it, you can trust that God has heard and answered it. Jesus once said, 'Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.' (John 6.39) That means he accepts whoever comes to him and then never gives up on them. That's a promise. And if you've prayed, can I encourage you to come and tell me? It would help you, because it would underline that you've really begun. And I'd like to be able to give you a booklet about beginning the Christian life, and ask your name so I could drop you a line with a few ideas of how to go on from here.