Why Believe

Belief comes by experience or testimony... and as a gift of God. A sermon for Epiphany 2b

SJF • Epiphany 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I’m going to ask a question of you that might seem odd coming from a priest to a congregation gathered in church for worship on a Sunday morning. And the question is, “Why do you believe?” I’m specifically thinking of why we believe in God — after all, right after this sermon I will invite us all to affirm our faith and the faith of the church in the words of the Nicene Creed, where we will sing a whole long list of things we say we believe about God.

But there is a larger question here: why do you believe anything? I think most of us would say, starting at the simplest and most personal level, that we believe the things that are evident to our senses — as the old saying goes, seeing is believing! There is an old story about an Anglican bishop who was confronted by someone who was from a church that believed only adults should be baptized. This Anabaptist challenged the bishop, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” To which the bishop responded, “Believe in it? Why, man, I’ve seen it!”

So for most of us the first stage of belief is based on our personal experience; we believe what we see. I know that London is real because I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt! But the fact of the matter is, I believed there was a London long before I got there and saw it with my own two eyes and walked its streets with my own two feet, and breathed its foggy air. And that brings me to the second reason for belief: testimony.

Much of what we know and believe, probably most of what we know and believe, is not based on our own personal experience — our senses — but on the experience of others reported to us. I spoke a few weeks ago about secondary sources in writing history, and this is precisely where they come in. We believe on the basis of the testimony of others. Unlike personal experience, which is by definition unique to each and every person, belief by testimony can be shared and multiplied. I can tell dozens of people that I have been to London, and talk to them about what I saw there, what the food and weather and the architecture are like, and if they accept my testimony they too will believe that there is a large and populous city on the River Thames, the seat of English government, full of incredible buildings and well supplied with fish and chips — and curry. And not only can I share my own testimony, but those who come to believe through me can share their new belief with others, and they with others still. In this way, many who have had no personal experience of London may come to feel well informed about it.

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So far, so good. It all seems free and clear. But what about people who believe things that are not true? Experience shows that experience can be fooled — the doors of human perception are not always open, and the windows are not always clean and clear. As we are only a few weeks from Christmas, I recall Ebenezer Scrooge’s argument with Jacob Marley’s ghost, right at the beginning of the story when the ghost challenged him to his face as to why he doubted his own senses:

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” To which the Ghost responds, “Man of the worldly mind! Do you believe or not!?”

Our passage from the Old Testament this morning reveals some of the problems with the senses — and with our ability to make sense of them. The old priest Eli has grown blind — not just literally, but figuratively as well, as he has turned a blind eye to the blasphemous corruption and crime of his own two sons, who have corrupted the worship of the temple, stealing the people’s offerings for themselves. The whole nation seems to have lost its senses of hearing and sight, too, for the word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread. The corruption in the leaders has infected the people.

It takes a child — a child with fresh and open ears, young Samuel — properly to hear the voice of God gently calling him by name. And even though he does not at first — or even second — recognize who it is that is speaking to him, he eventually comes to know the Lord, and becomes a witness to the presence and power of God, so that the whole land, from Dan to Beer-sheba, comes to know and respect him as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

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Which brings me to the second problem with belief — it is one thing to trust your own senses, or not to trust them; but it is quite another thing to trust someone else’s senses, someone else’s testimony. The extent to which you believe someone else’s testimony is based on how much you trust them. Whether you believe will be based to a greater or lesser extent on the degree to which you trust their testimony, or their general trustworthiness.

When Philip tells Nathanael that he has found the Lord, Nathanael’s first response is one of doubt, not trust. Perhaps he’d had some bad experience with Philip; or perhaps he found it too hard to believe that the Messiah had actually come — especially from the unexpected direction of Nazareth; or maybe he was just a skeptical person by nature and didn’t trust anybody. Whatever the reason, doubting other people or their testimony can be a block to our believing what they say.

So, as Philip suggests, perhaps with a shrug or a smile, Come and see; if you don’t believe me, let it be your own senses that convert you, convince you, and bring you to belief. So it often comes back to personal experience. Just as Thomas said he would not believe in the risen Christ until he saw him with his own eyes, and even put his finger in the place where the nails had made the wounds, so too Philip offers Nathanael the only thing ultimately that you can offer to a doubtful skeptic: Come and see! And Nathanael goes, and he sees, and he believes. Big time.

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So why do we believe? Is it simply because you accept the testimony of those who walked with Christ, in those ancient days, and passed along their testimony in the form that eventually came to be published abroad in the Gospels we now have, those precious pages in that book? Do you believe because people whom you respect have told you of their experience of God at work in their own lives? Or do you believe because you have, in some way perhaps you cannot fully describe or even understand, heard the voice of God calling you gently by name, have felt the hand of God at work in your life, guiding you along right pathways for his Name’s sake? Very truly, I tell you, those who believe will see greater things than these. You will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.+