IS THERE A PURPOSE?
If you know me, you know that I do a lot of reading. I like lots of difference kinds of books from fiction to theology to books on church growth and leadership. But I particularly enjoy reading philosophy. Yes, I realize that many of you think that’s weird – and maybe it is but it’s also true. I also really enjoy philosophical conversations because there are so many directions they can go and I find that it really challenges me to think about what I believe.
I was actually having a conversation at the gym a few months ago with a graduate student at University of Windsor and we got talking about philosophy. I know it’s not your usual gym conversation but it’s amazing the number of different people you run across when you’re pounding the treadmill at 7 am.
What we got talking was the whole idea of purpose and meaning. If you’ve studied philosophy that’s known as teleology. It’s the philosophy of purpose. What is the reason something exists? What purpose does it serve? And that goes for anything from a folk to a person. For example, what is the purpose of a fork? The purpose of a fork is to poke food so that you can get it into your mouth without messing up your hands. It didn’t randomly happen. Someone intentionally made it like to serve that very purpose.
But what’s the purpose of a person? That’s a good question. It’s a question that people have asked pretty well since the beginning of time? Why are we here? What purpose to do we serve? What is the meaning of life?
The answer is different depending upon your perspective. For Christians – in fact, for most people of faith, Christian or not – we believe that we are here for a purpose. We are not here by accident. We are not mistakes. We believe that we here because of God’s design and God’s design is intentional and purposeful.
These are the points that I was discussing with the person at the gym as we pounded the treadmill. But then she said, “You know, there is not a whole school of philosophy that no longer cares about things like that. They don’t believe that we are here for a purpose. They believe that we are simple by products of a random chain of evolutionary events and that trying to find purpose is life is just not realistic. So they simply don’t worry about that.”
The thing is that I knew that. The notion that life has no purpose is actually the dominant philosophical assumption today. Do you know why that is? It’s because the majority of professors in humanities in public universities don’t believe in God. That’s because if you believe in God than you pretty well have to believe that life has purpose. But if you don’t believe in God than you are quite free to believe that life has no purpose. To take that one step further, if you want to convince others that God does not exist, then somewhere along the line, you have to convince that person that there is no purpose to their life. Think about that for a minute.
And so my question to you this morning is both a simply yet profound one. Do you believe that life has purpose or not? That’s important because the answer to that question says a lot about whether or not you believe in God.
That’s a lot to unpack in twenty minutes or so but we’re going to give it a try. And to do that we’re going to look at the story of a man who really struggle with faith and doubt. His name was Thomas.
FAITH & DOUBT
Thomas, of course, was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. We don’t hear a lot about Thomas in the gospels except near the very end of Jesus’ walk on earth. And the most famous story, of course, is found in John 20. Back when I was in Sunday School, we called it the story of Doubting Thomas.
It begins like this in John 20:24-25a (NIV): “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’” What’s this all about? First of all, why was Thomas sometimes called Didymus? It’s because, in Greek, Didymus means twin so we assume that Thomas had a twin brother or sister. It’s as simple as that.
But what about the rest of these verses? Here’s a bit of background. Right before this story in John 20, there is another story of Jesus appearing to the other disciples. It was the evening of the day of the resurrection. The disciples still did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and so they were huddled together in a house with the doors locked because they were afraid that the Jewish authorities were trying to hunt them down. But Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you.” And because they saw Jesus, they believed. But for some reason Thomas wasn’t there. And because he did not have the benefit of seeing the resurrected Jesus, he still had his doubts.
We get Thomas’ response in John 20:25b (NIV) which says, “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.’” What is Thomas doing here? Why does he not believe the other disciples? It is because, unlike them, he has not seen the evidence. Let’s face it, it would be difficult for anyone to believe that someone who was crucified on Friday morning would be walking around on Sunday evening. Even if that person had somehow survived the ordeal of the cross, how would they possibly be able to walk around? Their injuries would have been extensive. There were there the beatings and the scourgings. Jesus would have lost an incredible amount of blood. Add to that the spikes that were driven through his wrists and heels and there is no way that Jesus would be walking around. So let’s not be hard on Thomas for doubting. Would we be any different?
At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that faith was present because Thomas desperately wanted to believe. That, in fact, is the purpose behind his request. His purpose in asking for evidence is so that he can believe. “I want to believe,” he seemed to say, “so please give me a reason to believe.”
Are we so different? Which one of us here today can say that they have never ever, for one moment began to doubt if they really believe what the Bible teaches? Have you ever asked yourself the question, “What if I’m wrong about this God stuff? What if the atheists have been right all along and that we really are just meaningless blobs of tissue?” The truth, of course, is that if we’re wrong then no harm done. We live, we die, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust and we would need to worry about it because we’ll simply cease to exist anyway. The bigger problem, I’ve always contended, is the atheist because, if they’re wrong, the downside risk is substantial. Nonetheless, I think all of us, like Thomas, have those moments of doubt. What I’m saying is that that’s okay. In fact, if it helps you at all, I also think it’s quite normal.
The real question is not whether or not you have doubts. The real question is how you deal with them. How is that? Let’s continue with the story and find out.
PURPOSE – RECONCILING FAITH & DOUBT
It continues in John 20:26-27 (NIV): “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.’” That which Thomas had wanted he now receives. It’s a week later mind you but there they are again in a house with locked doors because they are still afraid of the Jewish authorities when Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you,” which is the exact same thing he said the first time he appeared when Thomas wasn’t there. But this time, Thomas is there.
“You wanted proof Thomas, you got proof. You wanted to see the same things that the other disciples saw, here they are. See these scars in my hands. Touch them if you want. What about the place where the spear pierced my side? Put your hand there. Feel it and know that it is me, Jesus, and I am risen.”
Thomas gets exactly what he asked for a week earlier. He asked for the same evidence the others had received and he gets it. But then Jesus offers him another challenge. Jesus says, “Stop doubting and believe.” Don’t misunderstand what Jesus is saying. There is no sense in the passage that Jesus is somehow chastising Thomas for doubting. All Jesus is saying is that Thomas asked for something and it has not been supplied. All Jesus is waiting for is to see how Thomas will respond.
So here’s my question to you. Thomas needed to see the evidence that Jesus was alive. Jesus delivered and then challenged him to put aside his doubts and believe. When we have our times of doubt, what do we need to see or hear that will help us to get past our doubts?
Let me be very clear about one thing that you won’t see. Unlike Thomas, Jesus is not going to appear before you to show you his hands and side so that you can believe. That’s because Jesus is in heaven with the Father and he’s not coming back until the second coming. So don’t expect it. We also cannot expect to somehow prove the existence of God with scientific evidence. It can’t be done because God, who made science, is outside of science.
So where can we look? While we cannot prove the existence of God, we can show that belief in God is a reasonable proposition. And how do we do that? I want to show you one way to do that and it goes right back to what I said at the beginning of this message. Do you remember that philosophical word “teleology”? It’s the philosophical study of meaning and purpose. Do you remember that I said that atheists tend not to believe that there is any purpose to creation or even to us. We are just the random end of a very long chain of evolutionary coincidences. I also said that belief in God virtually necessitates purpose and meaning because to believe in God means that we believe that God created with intent and purpose.
So where am I going with this? Simply put, if we can show that it is reasonable to believe that the things of creation have a purpose, then it is also reasonable to believe in God. So, let’s give that a try.
Is there purpose in life? Is there purpose in creation? Look around. Speaking of looking, all of us have eyes. Do eyes have a purpose? Sure they do. The purpose of eyes is to see. Do ears have a purpose? Of course they do. Their purpose is to hear. We can find all kinds of purpose for every part of the human body. Granted that some are more difficult than others. I’m not quite sure of the purpose of the belly button. Nor am I sure of the purpose of the little hairs that grow out of my nose. Or maybe they once had a purpose but no longer do.
What about the rest of creation? What is the purpose of colourful flowers? The purpose is to attract bees. And what is the purpose of skunk spray? It is to keep predators away. What the purpose of gills on a fish? They exist so that the fish can breathe.
And let’s go out even further. What is the purpose of the sun? It is to provide the gravitational force necessary to keep the solar system together. It also provides heat and energy for the planets.
The point is that when you look around at creation, you discover that it is resplendent with purpose. No matter where you look, you see things that have a purpose. Given that we are surrounded by purpose and that purpose has to come from God, it is most reasonable to believe that God exists. In fact, if you take the philosophical study of teleology seriously, it’s hard to argue that God does not exist.
I also want to say something else. There is an understanding in some Christian circles that universities are filled with godless professors. And that while there are certainly some Christian professors at universities, the vast majority of them are decidedly anti-Christian and anti-faith.
It’s interesting when you look at the actual numbers. There certainly are university faculties that are dominated by atheists. Philosophy is one of them. Some studies show that it’s actually difficult to find a philosophy professor, outside of Catholic universities of course, who isn’t an atheist. So if you’re talking about philosophy professors you may be right.
But do you know that are a few other faculties where it is quite safe to be a person of faith? It is the faculties of science. The best study on this was done eight or nine years ago by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. What they discovered was really quite remarkable. It found that the majority of science professors are theists, that is, they believe in God. Having said that, the discipline does make a difference. Physics and biology professors were the least likely to believe in God; only 58% but still a sizable majority. That number rises to 67% in computer science and engineering. What is the highest rate of believers? It is in the health care faculties where a 94% believe in God. That’s amazing.
What this study did was put to bed the notion that somehow, science professors are corrupting the minds of young Christian students and turning then away from the faith. It’s simply not true. While it might be true that our children often question their faith when they go off to university it isn’t because of their heathen professors. The real reason would be the topic of another sermon which we don’t have time for now.
I wish these researchers had asked these same professors why they believe but they didn’t and I couldn’t find any other studies that did. So, we are left to do a bit of speculation. My hunch is that it has something to do with purpose and meaning. I say that because the professors most likely to believe in God are those who work in health care. Maybe that’s because while physicists work with things like neutrons, electrons, quarks and leptons, health care professionals actually work with people. I can see how easy it is for physicists to forget about God because it’s harder to find purpose in the tiny particles that are the building blocks of matter. It’s much more difficult for a doctor or a nurse to look into the eyes of living, breathing human being and believe that that person has no purpose.
What about you? Can you look around you, at your friends and family, at your children and grandchildren and parents and say without a doubt that there is no purpose or meaning in those people’s lives? I can’t and I don’t suppose you can either.
Jesus challenged Thomas to stop doubting and believe. Let’s listen to Thomas’ response. In John 20:28 (NIV) it says this: “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” Do I really have to say anything about that? I think Thomas’ words say it all. Thomas asked Jesus to appear to him. Jesus appeared and Thomas believed. Mission accomplished.
But what about purpose? Did Thomas ever find his? In fact, he did. After Jesus ascended to heaven and the Holy Spirit filled the disciples at Pentecost, all of the apostles spread out in different directions to preach to good news as Jesus commanded them. Does anyone remember where Thomas went? He went to India.
That surprises a lot of people because they wonder how Thomas ever managed to get to India from Judea. The truth is that there were sea going trade routes at that time than went through the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea and there they were on the west coast of India. it is believed that Thomas made that journey in 50 AD.
Thomas initially shared the gospel along the south western coast and established at least seven churches. Eventually, he felt called to go to the eastern coast of India. Things did not go so well there for Thomas. On July 3, 72 AD he was killed on a hill in the district of Chennai, India which was named St. Thomas Mount in his honour. His body was laid to rest in a nearby village which is now called Mylapore. Years later, when Europeans colonized the area and discovered Thomas’ burial place they built a huge church around his tomb and created an altar to mark the place of his burial.
Did Thomas have a purpose? I think so. God called him to preach the gospel to the people of India and, in obedience, he went. It eventually cost him his life but he did what he was called to do. He fulfilled the purpose for which God created him. The fruit of his work is that there still a Christian church in India today.
The final verse of this passage says this in John 20:29 (NIV): “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”
Thomas saw and Thomas believed. Be like Thomas. You won’t see Jesus the way Thomas did but you can see God’s intent and God’s purpose in the things of creation that surround you.
Know that it’s okay to ask
questions. It’s okay to doubt. We all do. But like Thomas, also, look around
and understand that we are not here by accident. There is a purpose and an
intent to the life of each and every one of us. And like Thomas, go and do what
God has called you to do in the name of Jesus Christ. Fulfill the purpose for
which you were put on this earth. Be like Thomas.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
We give you thanks for the joy of this season, for longer daylight and warmer evenings, for cooler days that seems to come and go and for flowers poking their heads above the earth. We thank you for the many bird that are flying north and building nests where they will raise their young.
We offer our thanks for the wonder of this Easter season. This is a time of resurrection and new life. May your Spirit so infuse us in a new ways that we will be vividly aware of your presence and praise you for all of the ways in which you have blessed us so abundantly.
You are the Potter and we are the clay. Mould us into vessels of your love so that we might share your Good News with honesty and integrity. You have given us an image of what we can be in the person of Jesus Christ. Through faith in him and by the power of the resurrection may we fulfill your mission for us in our day and generation. May we not shirk from duty but enter into your service with passion and zest.
This is a season of new life. Renew us in your love. Renew our relationships. Renew our structures. Renew our hearts. Take away our desire for vengeance. Free us from greed and hypocrisy. May your Blessed Spirit flow though the veins of our being bringing hope, help and healing.
We lift up in prayer those of our community who are in need of your Healing Touch. We remember Sharon and Mary. Fill them to the brim with your grace that they may experience your presence even in the midst of illness. You are a God who desires that your children be well. Send your Holy Spirit upon us this day.
Help us, O God, to keep you as the
focus of our lives; not only of our worship but also of our work, play and
relaxation. In all things, help us to look towards you for you alone can
fulfill our needs and make us whole. Only through the power of the cross are we
able to come to you as whole and forgiven people. We lift our praise. We life
our voices. We lift our hearts to you. Do your will within us and guide us in
the way that we should go. We ask these prayers in Jesus’ Holy Name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
April 28, 2019 / Easter 2
Psalm 150; John 20:19-31; Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8
CALL TO WORSHIP
Praise the Lord! Praise God in the Temple!
Praise the Lord! Praise God’s strength in heaven!
Praise the Lord! Praise the mighty things of God
Praise the Lord! Praise God’s supreme greatness!
Praise the Lord! Praise God with harps and drums, flutes and cymbals.
May all living creatures praise the Lord!
PRAYER OF APPROACH
The earth rejoices and the heavens declare your greatness. The hills sing and the valleys cry out in gladness. The sea is yours for you made it. Your hands prepared the dry ground. You have opened to us your Holy Kingdom. You have made us citizens of your Heavenly Realm. Come to us now, Lord Jesus. Fill us anew with your Spirit as we worship and lift our lives in praise and thanksgiving. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
You, O God, have created the mountains heights and the depths of oceans. You have strung the stars together and caused the planets to spin our their axis. Yet, like Thomas, we doubt. We ask for proof of your existence. We want evidence that your love for us is real. We demand that which we should already know by faith. Forgive us, God of Mercy, for our untrusting hearts. Help us to come, in faith, to your table with the gifts of assurance and grace.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
When we doubt, Jesus comes to us and assures us of God’s love. When we mourn, Jesus comes to us, offering the soothing balm of God’s touch. When we repent and confess our sins, God forgives, forgets and brings healing to our brokenness.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
Creation rejoices in the works of your hands. We, your people, praise you for the goodness of your abundance for us. We give, now, a portion of your gifts to the work of your Church. Bless these gifts and each giver, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
the Lord, all you people. Praise God in your comings and in your going. Praise
God in the waking and in your sleeping. Praise God in your sorrow and in your
joy. Praise God in your shouting and in your silence.