Second Sunday of Easter
30 March 2008
Seeing is Believing
Today is international Assistant Minister Sunday. Yes I know–the pew leaflet doesn’t indicate this high ecclesiastical holy day. In fact, you will be hard-pressed to find mention of International Assistant Minister Sunday in print at all. But I assure you, all around the world, churches today are celebrating.
I know this, because it happens every year. After the business of Holy Week during which ministers must find the time to write the Easter sermons, after waking up early for Easter services, and fretting over every aspect of a glorious Easter Sunday, ministers figure its time to take a Sunday off. “Ah hah, next week, why don’t we ask the Assistant Minister to preach?”
Thus, the Sunday following Easter–International Assistant Minister Sunday.
[I will say, the fact that I’m preaching this Sunday is mostly due to scheduling issues in April–Fraser does a good job of treating me as a colleague–but as circumstances dictated, here I am, preaching the Sunday following Easter.]
So I’ve anticipated preaching on this Sunday for years as the text for today is always the same: “doubting Thomas.” The basic ideas for a “doubting Thomas sermon” is pretty simple.
The safest bet is simply to re-tell the story, and emphasize Jesus’ words to Thomas at the end. Here’s what I should say:
Thomas–silly Thomas–missed the party. He refused to believe his friends who told him they had seen the resurrected Jesus. Stubborn Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails on Jesus’ hands, and put my finger in the mark, I will not believe.” So the next week, Jesus–being a pretty nice guy–showed up again and enlightened old doubting Thomas. Thomas put his fingers in Jesus’ scars and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.” Then Jesus said, “Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are they who believe without seeing me.”
And so the sermon should be on believing without seeing. It should probably be hard on doubting Thomas, encouraging all to believe even without seeing.
I’d be perfectly happy giving such a sermon. I’d emphasize the importance of faith, the assurance of Jesus’ presence following the resurrection, and the need for solid Christians in the world today. I would preach that sermon on International Assistant Minister Sunday but….
But, I don’t think that sermon is fair to poor old Thomas. But, I don’t think that sermon is faithful to the scripture text. But, I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.
You see, taking Jesus’ famous “rebuke” of Thomas in context muddies the waters. In fact, Jesus actually empowers people to see him–to have faith after seeing–and he does it over and over again.
We read just last Sunday of how Jesus appeared to Mary. Mary figured he was the gardener, and Jesus could have moseyed on by, but he didn’t. Jesus comforted Mary, called her by name, and she recognized him. For Mary, Jesus made sure he was seen, then Mary’s faith was secure.
Jesus next appeared to the disciples. John writes that they were afraid–and who wouldn’t be, the teacher they had been following for years had just been murdered. And they certainly didn’t do too much to stop it. And further, now there were strange reports of an empty tomb–was Jesus coming back to take revenge? The disciples were ashamed and afraid so they gathered in the upper room and were sure to lock the door.
Then Jesus appears. He doesn’t say, “You idiots; what are you doing?!” He doesn’t say, “Why did you forsake me?” He doesn’t say, “You of little faith.” Rather his first words are, “Peace be with you.”
Then Jesus shows them his hands and his side, and then, after seeing the scars, they recognized their Lord and rejoiced.
So we come to Thomas. After Jesus appeared to Mary and he made sure she saw him; after Jesus appeared to the disciples and made sure they saw him; I don’t think it’s too much for Thomas to wish for the same experience.
Thomas wasn’t any less faithful than the other disciples, he just wanted to be included in their experiences. Suffering from a deep grief, he hastily said, “Unless I see the marks of the nails, and put my hands in the scars on his side, I will not believe.” You can’t blame the guy; we would have wanted the same thing.
So the next week, Jesus appears again, and this time Thomas is around. Jesus invites Thomas to put his finger in his scars, “Do not doubt but believe.” And in the next breath Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus appears to Thomas just has he had to Mary and the rest of the disciples. Then he says his fancy famous phrase, “Happy are those who do not see but believe.” But what is the very next verse?
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not in this book.” The next verse is about Jesus’ signs–things folk saw and then believed.
And if that’s not enough, in the next chapter Jesus goes being seen left and right–by Simon Peter, Nathanael, James, and John.
In this context of Jesus appearing to so many, of the gospel writer emphasizing Jesus’ signs, is it really fair to come down hard on Thomas? I don’t think so.
In fact, in this context of so much seeing and believing verse 29, “Happy are they who have not seen but have yet believed” becomes a bit misleading, ironic, or just plain funny. Jesus is up to something here, and its more than meets the eye.
Jesus’ instruction to believe without seeing, set amidst five stories of people believing because of seeing, should call us to pause and read a bit deeper.
Christians today believe that Christ is risen, but not remote. Christ has ascended to heaven, but, as the good shepherd, he still cares for every last one of his sheep.
The problem with saying, “Don’t worry about seeing, believe no matter what” is that Jesus, over and over again, appears. Sure, we don’t look for Jesus in the same way as those first disciples, we may not long to put our hands in Jesus’ side, but we long to see God’s work in the world today, and that’s good and right.
Years after the resurrection, it’s not as if Jesus has left us and is hanging out in heaven not caring a lick. No, the whole point of the cross was to say, God is with us, and never leaves us. God will go even to the point of death, for us.
So look around. Where do we see Jesus?
It may be simple, but it’s worth remembering: we see Jesus in the Bible. In the scriptures, God has revealed the word to us and it’s through reading, studying, and discussing the Bible that we can see Christ.
John writes, “Those [signs] written here have been recorded in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Well if those signs have been recorded in the Bible, we should do our part to read them.
There’s a reason Tom brings the Bible in every Sunday, carefully placing it in the pulpit as worship begins. We gather around that word, because in it God is revealed.
A few years ago now, Professor James Smart published a book in America entitled, “The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church.” Smart studied the American church, its classes, its activities, its social events, and he argued that though the general knowledge of church members was growing, Biblical knowledge was declining. While people were comfortable talking about world events or politics in the Church, they weren’t comfortable discussing the Bible.
Now this was an American study, a few years back, but my time in the Church of Scotland suggests this is not an entirely American phenomenon. If we encounter Christ in the scriptures, then we should read them for more than five minutes during Sunday worship. If by reading the text, we can see Jesus’ and his claims for our lives–we should look closely, carefully, and often.
It’s interesting that of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection, in all but the appearance to Mary, Jesus appeared to groups, to a gathered community. The verse from Matthew comes to mind, Jesus said, “Whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am also.” Though Jesus speaks of those who believe without seeing, he can certainly be seen in communities.
Other than family gatherings, churches are one of the few remaining places in our culture where we can have fully intergenerational experiences. I think of Dave Eggers’ comment in his book humbly entitled–get this– “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” The true story is of Dave Eggers and his brother Toph who were orphaned, and how Dave raises his younger brother by himself.
Set in Los Angeles, in one scene Dave goes shopping, and has a fairly lengthy interaction with an older shop clerk. After which he reflects, saying he couldn’t remember the last time he interacted with someone over the age of forty. It must have been years, he thought. You see, the hip, young, city lifestyle is so age-segregated that Dave just didn’t interact with elders anymore. And neither did his younger brother he was raising.
We in the church look to see Jesus in community–in the community gathered for worship around the Word, in the community that makes it prayers around the font for a baby, and in the community that gathers for the funeral of an elderly member. In Christ’s body, the church, we can glimpse Christ himself.
“Happy are they who have not seen but have yet believed.” It’s hard to know how to take this sentence, but I don’t think it’s one to pull out of context and pop on the church stationary. Considering the whole story we come to realize, Jesus calls us to look at the world with new eyes.
But do not fear, Christ does not send us into the world alone. Over and over again in John, Jesus speaks of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, that God sends to comfort, accompany, and help us discern.
In that locked upper room, Jesus appeared to the disciples and did not stay long. But he left a parting gift: the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
So we, Christ’s disciples today, should look for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we serve the risen Christ. When we read the Bible, we can ask God to send the wisdom of Holy Spirit to guide us. When we meet in community–especially in the intergenerational community of the church–we can do so looking for Holy Spirit moving in our midst.
As we live our lives outside these walls, seeking to see Christ where at first we would not expect, we can pray that the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see anew, and in seeing, believe.
In the words of the next hymn our community will sing,
1. Come, living God, when least expected,
when minds are dull and hearts are cold,
through sharpening word and warm affection
revealing truths as yet untold.
4. So, let our minds be sharp to read you
in sight or sound or printed page,
and let us greet you in our neighbors,
in ardent youth or mellow age.
[Alan Gaunt, b. 1935 “Come, living God, when least expected”]