Why We Believe
Why do we believe? Why do I believe? Why do you believe?
When I consider that question, I can’t help think of a novel by the American-Canadain author, John Irving. The book is A Prayer for Owen Meany, published back in 1989. Here is how it starts:
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he is the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ – and certainly not for Christ, which I’ve heard some zealots claim.”
The narrator goes on to explain that he attends church fairly regularly, but then he adds: “I skip a Sunday service now and then; I make no claims to be especially pious; I have a church-rummage faith – the kind that needs patching up every weekend. What faith I have I owe to Owen Meany, a boy I grew up with. It is Owen who made me a believer.”
I have to say that I have mixed feelings about such a faith.
On the one hand, I thank God for those who have gone before me and those who are currently around me who encourage faith in me. After all, we are all called into the community of faith, a community which transcends time and space, a gathering of the saints that knows no bounds. That community is tremendously helpful to me and to each every individual in it. We share our Christian faith, which is especially important when one or more of us is struggling in faith.
On the other hand, I am troubled by this confession of faith. The narrator says, What faith I have I owe to Owen Meany, a boy I grew up with. It is Owen who made me a believer. You know what that sounds like to me? When taken by itself, such a faith is borrowed faith. It’s not really one’s own faith; rather, it’s a faith that depends upon the faith of another person.
Well, why do we believe? That’s the question that is prompted when we read today’s gospel lesson.
Thomas (one of the Twelve) was not with his brothers and sisters in faith when the resurrected Jesus first appeared to the gathered disciples, so when the others told him that they had seen the Lord, he said to them, “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.”
Thomas requires proof in order to believe. (Proof is a requirement of law. Jesus was tried and condemned under the law. Hmm. It’s disturbing to see the persistence of the law with respect to the death and now even with the resurrection of Jesus!) Thus Thomas has been immortalized in Christian culture as Doubting Thomas.
When Jesus appears among them again, a week later – with Thomas also present this time – the first thing Jesus says (after greeting them all in peace), he directs to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
And then Thomas, the one who notoriously doubts, utters the highest confession of Christian faith in the entire Bible. He says, “My Lord and my God!”
Now, did Thomas actually reach out and touch the wounds in the exalted body of the resurrected Jesus Christ? St. John doesn’t tell us. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was enough for him just to hear the voice of the resurrected Jesus, who spoke directly to his unbelief. Thomas heard the voice of Jesus. And he believed.
Why do we believe? Why do I believe? Why do you believe?
In his Small Catechism Martin Luther tells us why. It’s in his explanation to the Third Article of The Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
Using his catechetical method, Luther asks the question, “What is this?” This is his answer: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”
This is the heart of the Lutheran tradition of the Christian faith. Read Luther’s words again, just to make sure you got it right. If someone asks you what distinguishes Lutherans from other Christians, your answer will surely include Luther’s explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed. If you can’t memorize it, then study it and put it into your own words.
Here are my words: I believe that I cannot believe. I confess that the Lord must do it all, simply because I am not capable of doing anything to contribute to my redemption. It’s the Holy Spirit that calls me, provides me the gift of faith, and keeps me in that faith.
The key word in Luther’s answer to his own question is instead: I believe that I cannot believe – I, with my powers of comprehension: I, with the strength of my creaturely being; I, with my claims of innate virtue – I cannot believe! Instead – instead! – the Holy Spirit works faith in my heart, produces belief in my mind, and breathes the profession of faith through my voice box and across my tongue and my lips.
When the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ visited the disciples the first time – without Thomas – Jesus breathed upon them the Holy Spirit. That’s why they believed. Thomas wasn’t there, so he did not receive the gift of the Spirit. Thus he did not – could not! – believe.
It took a second appearance from the resurrected Lord, his divine insight into Thomas’ condition, and his instruction for him to not doubt but believe – it took all that for Thomas to believe. And when he does believe, he utters the highest confession of Christian faith in the church: “My Lord and my God!”
Living generations later, you and I have the advantage of the Spirit. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has poured out the Holy Spirit upon all people. Many still do not believe. But those who indeed come to faith do so by the power of the Spirit. And that is why we believe.
There are times when it seems easier to believe … like when you and I are gathered with like-minded, caring people on a Sunday morning to receive the Good News in Word and Sacrament; or when we are in the embrace of a loving, believing family or group of friends.
In other circumstances it may be harder to believe – like in a workplace infected with disrespect and mean-spiritedness; or when we suffer devastating and senseless loss; or when we are isolated by a pandemic and health-safety protocols. At such times we may indeed benefit from the witness and encouragement of others who believe, just as the narrator in Irving’s novel thanked Owen Meany for his faith.
But I know that I cannot borrow the righteousness of faith from someone else. I believe that I – with all my creaturely powers of understanding and reasons – I believe that I cannot believe. Instead, the Holy Spirit produces faith in me through the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ.
The Lord simply must do it all. That is God’s claim upon us in Christ, and that is our only hope.
Because of the Spirit breathed upon us by the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, we believe. Together with Thomas and a myriad of saints ever since his time, we believe.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! / He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Peace be with you all.