April 23, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
BELIEVING WITHOUT SEEING
This is the Sunday after Easter. I see you’ve all reclaimed your seats. We have a little more room to spread out today. Because Easter is over.
Or is it? Most people think Easter is a day. Actually Easter is a season. It began last week on Easter Sunday and it continues for 50 days until Pentecost. This year, that will be June 4.
Luke says there were 40 days of resurrection appearances (Acts 1:3) and then 10 more days until the Jewish festival of Pentecost. That’s the day the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and they were empowered to be apostles. Apostle means messenger. That was their new job – to be messengers who take the message of Jesus out to the world. Luke says it takes 50 days to get from Easter to Pentecost, and the church calendar follows Luke.
But today we read from John, and John tells the story a little differently. According to John, Jesus appeared to the disciples on Easter night and he commissioned them right then and there. So basically, John combines Easter and Pentecost into a single day.
Here’s how it went down. The disciples know nothing of the resurrection. They are all together mourning the death of Jesus. And they are afraid they might be next. So basically, they are hiding out, likely in the same upper room where three days earlier they had their last supper with Jesus.
Then Jesus shows up. He says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them the wounds in his hands and side. He says, “Peace be with you,” again. Then he commissions them. He says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you . . . Receive the Holy Spirit.” He also breathes on them. That’s how the Holy Spirit moves from him to them. They are now apostles, messengers. They are all set to take the message of Jesus out to the world. And this happens on Easter Sunday evening.
There is a problem though. The problem is that Thomas wasn’t there. We don’t know why he wasn’t there. Maybe he went out to get pizza. So Thomas missed out on the commissioning. Maybe they could have just said the same words Jesus said to them and breathed on him like Jesus did and that would have been good. Except for the fact that Thomas doesn’t believe them when they tell him that they had seen Jesus. He says, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Which, as you may already know, is why we call him “Doubting Thomas”.
But I want to suggest a new name for him. Let’s call him “Absent Thomas”. He was absent when Jesus came into the room in his risen glory. He wasn’t the only one who was absent. I wasn’t there either. Neither were you. So “Absent Thomas” represents all of us who weren’t there in person to see for ourselves the proof of the Resurrection.
It’s interesting the way the storyline goes. The disciples have just been commissioned to be apostles. That means their job now is to go and tell people what has happened. And at that very moment, in walks Thomas carrying a pizza. This is their first chance to do what they had been commissioned to do. They didn’t have to wait long. Now they can tell someone the good news. They don’t waste any time. They say, “Thomas! Jesus is risen! We have seen him with our own eyes!” And what does Thomas say? He doesn’t say, “Praise God!, Thank you, Jesus!, Hallelujah!,” or any combination of these. He says, “I don’t believe you.”
Put yourself in the place of the disciples. They have a new job. They have their first customer. And he isn’t buying what they are selling. He says, “I won’t believe you until I can see it with my own eyes.”
Thomas is just like us. We weren’t there. Which means that if we believe, it won’t be because of seeing. It will be because of hearing. It will because someone told us the good news about Jesus, and we believed them.
Unlike us, Thomas gets another chance. Eight days later Jesus appears again to the disciples in the upper room. This time Thomas is there. He says to Thomas, “Go ahead if you must – touch my wounds.” And Thomas doesn’t do it. He doesn’t need to do it. He simply says, “My Lord and my God!” And what Jesus says next is the whole point of this story: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
For forty days, faith came through seeing. From that point on, even today, faith comes through hearing.
I imagine this was a big problem in the early church. How can we believe if we haven’t seen? In fact, this very problem is specifically addressed in the book of First Peter: “Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not see him now, you believe in him” (1:8). There’s a beautiful song based on this verse. We’re going to sing it later, but let’s listen to it first right now.
(Hymn # 2206, “Without Seeing You”)
“Without seeing you, we love you.”
Have you noticed how many blind people there are in the Bible? Lots and lots. Jesus was always coming upon blind people. They couldn’t see, but they could hear. And even though they couldn’t see, every time they would hear the good news, they would believe.
It really is quite interesting. People who can see, don’t believe and people who can’t see, do believe. And what does Jesus say to them? “Your faith has made you well.” Without seeing Jesus, they love him. And they believe in him.
Thomas saw the Lord for himself. Ever since followers of Jesus have had to believe without seeing. And Jesus speaks to us: “Blessed are you who can’t see, and yet believe.”
Which by the way is why we call it the Christian “faith”. We don’t call it the Christian “certainty”. We can be certain about some things in life. We can be certain that two plus two equals four. We can be certain that washing your car is going to make it rain. But most things in life are not that way. Especially things that matter.
You trust you life to another person in marriage. There is no certainty in that. That is an act of faith.
You choose to live by a high code of honor and integrity. That may or may not pay off. Because that is an act of faith.
You make sacrifices in the present hoping to gain something greater in the future. But there is no guarantee. Because that is an act of faith.
There are no certainties in any of these or in any of the other truly important things in life. Everything that makes us genuinely human, that leads to greatness and goodness and nobility, they all involve risk. They all involve faith. Which means they all involve doubt.
There will be times when you wonder if you made the right choice in giving your life to another person. There will be times when you wonder if it is worth it to live a moral life and to hold onto your ideals. There will be times when you wonder if it is worth it to work for peace and a better, more inclusive, more just, more loving world.
If you give yourself to great things, you are going to be left with questions. The greater the cause, the greater the doubts. And can you tell me what cause is greater than the cause of Jesus Christ? And what belief is greater that the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Madeleine L’Engle wrote about a cabin retreat that she and her husband built up in the mountains of upper New York state. They lived in New York City, which is known to make sane people crazy and crazy people crazier, so they looked forward to those times when they could get away to their special place.
Their daughter had given them an icon as a gift. It was a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus. Madeleine L’Engle nailed it to a tree down by the stream where she liked to sit and think and pray.
On one visit she went down to her spot along the stream. As she approached the icon tree, she could see what had happened. Someone had used her picture of Mary and the baby Jesus for target practice. It lay in pieces on the ground. There was a bullet hole through the face of baby Jesus.
Someone had done this deliberately. She was enraged. She had to take a walk through the woods to get herself calmed down. When she was finally calm enough to talk, she went home to tell her husband.
The next morning, they went together to the spot and they pulled the nail out of the tree. They picked up the shattered pieces of the icon from the ground and placed them in the stream. It was like a act of worship. It was a way of letting go of something that had been upsetting and painful.
Later she reflected on that incident. What happened was evil, on a small scale. But she felt violated. It was that nameless, faceless, impersonal violence that we all experience from time to time. And she felt what we all feel at moments like that. Powerless. There was nothing she could do. There wasn’t even a person she could blame. She was powerless, and out of powerlessness very often comes fear.
The disciples had watched as evil had struck down the most wonderful, beautiful, precious thing this world had ever known. Their reaction to that was the same as ours would have been – feelings of powerlessness that led to fear. So they all fled. They went into hiding.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote about how her experience with the Jesus icon used for target practice got her to thinking about the disciples. On a much smaller scale, she was feeling some of the same things they must have felt.
And then something else happened to her that was also similar to what had happened to them. The bullet wound in the tree healed. It absorbed the wound and continued to grow. The tree itself became her new icon. It became for her a symbol of resurrection.
Her pain. Her fear. Her powerlessness. Her anger. All that melted away. She was now ready, as the disciples had become ready, to live a life of joy and to share that joy with others.
Here’s how she ended her icon tree story:
I affirm my faith in the promise of the Resurrection, not only of our Lord Jesus Christ, but of all of us. Why is it that this little life of ours should not be all there is? The only reason is through the joyful love of God who shouted out the galaxies, and who is not going to abandon one iota of his creation. The icon tree for me is a symbol of God’s concern for ever and ever, until ages and ages, for all of us, every single one of us, no matter what we think, or believe, or deny.
Lord Jesus, without seeing you, we love you. Without certainty, we believe. We place our faith in you. We give to you this morning our doubts, our fears, the broken, shattered pieces of our lives. And we receive from you what only you can give. Hope. Empowerment. Joy. Joy too great to keep to ourselves. For we too have been commissioned to share your good news with others. So that they too, without seeing you, might love you and believe in you and live for you. We ask it in your name, Amen.