Summary: An encounter with Christ is essential for true faith to take shape. Our encounter with the world is then empowered by the Christ we meet at the table.
I made the point last week that poor ole doubting Thomas should not be singled out as the only disciple who had doubts about this new “resurrected” reality. Here is the rest of the story – as Paul Harvey would say – to vindicate Thomas. Verse 41 of today’s text clearly makes the point. “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” The point I tried to make last week is that each one of us needs an encounter with the Risen Lord before faith can truly take shape. We saw that happen very vividly last week in Thomas’ life. Now we see it being played out again in this text. To the rest of his disciples Jesus says, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
I think this week, I want to look a little more closely at the importance of personal encounters and what that means to our lives of faith. I will restate the issue: faith begins with God. It has to begin with God. Without God’s amazing gift of faith we would be unable to believe. Faith is not a matter of effort. We cannot say, “if I just try a little harder, or study a little more, then I will be able to believe.” Faith is a divine gift, freely given to us even though we do not deserve it.
I want to clarify what we are talking about as well. The kind of faith I am describing here is not simply an expanded version of something we already have. This is not a “faith upgrade.” It is not like we are born with faith version 1.0 preinstalled in our hearts and all God has to do is insert faith version 7.0 to make us more complete. An encounter with God is like getting a whole new hard drive! Nor is it like we are somehow born with a “seed of faith” and God simply puts fertilizer to it, thereby making it grow. It is not like that at all. The very “seed of faith” itself is, in fact, planted by God. The growth of that seed is what happens as we mature into the faith God has planted. Neither is faith like some dormant thing that God simply has to wake up. Nor is it like being born with poor “faith vision”, and God simply puts on corrective faith lenses, which enable us to see more clearly. It would be more accurate to say that we are born with no vision at all and God’s work is to give us eyes to see.
The faith that we experience when we have an encounter with the risen Lord is a brand new thing – a new sensation. It is a glorious work of God. So, we have to be careful so that we understand the very origin of our faith. It is purely and completely a gift from God.
In this story, we see the beginning of real faith. It is a gift to the disciples given by the risen Christ. And we can clearly see that faith for the disciples begins with a very real encounter with Jesus. The encounter was essential in order that the disciples be empowered with a real and living faith. The very fact that Jesus came back to reassure the disciples is comforting news to all of us who may still be languishing in disbelief. Jesus does not give up on us just because we may need a little extra encouragement. The encounter is just the beginning of a life of faith – just the beginning of an entire life of discoveries. But it begins with an encounter with the living God.
We often talk about faith as being a journey or a process. It is never complete, not is it ever perfect – at least the way humans go about doing it! And, if it is a process, then there must be growth and work that accompany it – not work in the sense that we work for our salvation, but work in the sense that we try to faithfully discover more about God. Once we have had that encounter with God, our lives should be marked by continual renewal as we try to learn the ways of God, through prayer and reflection…AND through the study of God’s written word.
So along with the very seed of faith itself, an encounter with the living God gives us spiritual tools that we need to discover even more about God. It is clear in this text that this is exactly what happened to the disciples. They had this encounter that gave them a whole new understanding of the scriptures. Verse 44: Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." So God’s appearance to us also serves to open our hearts to the whole breadth of faith as we see it played out in scripture.