Sermon: Seeing is Believing, John 20:19-31

Ayr: St. Columba Church
Second Sunday of Easter
30 March 2008

John 20:19-31

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.

[pause]

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"]

Comments

  1. Yup it was International Assistant Minister’s day in Kilmarnock too… and this assistant is more than ready for a holiday!

  2. as usual the middle section of your sermon is your best. it seems to trail off when you ask the question where do we see jesus.

    how many people, who before today would not, will read the bible because you said you will find jesus there? it reads more closely to guthrie’s christian doctrine than pulpit proclamation.

    the fundamental issue is why believe without seeing? the words and stories about jesus in the bible are a theological student’s answer to where jesus is today, but does that speak as clearly to your average church member? it doesnt feel like there adequate attention was given to the intersection between the jesus of the bible and the lives of the people to whom you have preached.

    one preacher asked a great preacher how to organize and write a sermon. his answer was, “you want to learn the art of constructing themata…in my view there’s nothing more foolish than to sit down and try to come up with a theme. for that you must arrange your life sensibly. see to it that every day you have at least half an hour for incidental reading in the new testament, or a devotional work. when you go for a walk you must let your thoughts flutter randomly, sniffing here and there, letting them have a go now here, now there. that is how to arrange one’s housekeeping. themata are the accidents that the week should deliver to you in abundance. but the more you see to it that the dividends are uncertain, the freer, better, richer they will become, and the more striking, surprising, penetrating.”

    the purpose of preaching, one of them at least, is to get people to see that they do not believe without seeing. the preacher’s task is to open the eyes of the believer or point them to the truth that god is alive today. the difficult task for a preacher who spends much time in the study is finding theological intersection in congregants’ lives. that is, of showing them that ordinary events are theological. these events are communicated to congregations through stories told in the listeners’ language.

    that said, you are a very good writer and your sermons display wisdom and passion, which is a rare combination in the church.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Mr/s Guest. To be consistent with my (only briefly) published comment policy, please leave at least initials and an email address in future comments (the email address won’t go public).

    I take several of your points to heart, and agree with most of them. The sermon could certainly be improved. And if I was preaching in the states, to a congregation with whom I would have a long relationship, I would go further. Let’s take the bible reading point, for instance.

    You write, “how many people, who before today would not, will read the bible because you said you will find jesus there?” Fantastic question. First, I think a preacher should be careful not to think she has too much pull. Will one sermon drastically change someone’s daily habits? Probably not. If a preacher, on the other hand, in each sermon shows how reading the Bible can be fun, exciting, and take folks to new places in their faith, then I think we can get somewhere. I’m aware that I’m out of here in 3 months. I can push, “Read your Bible” over and over again, but if there’s not support, structures, and a community ethic to do so then I doubt much will change. In this context, many folk are so intimidated by their Bibles (for reasons I can’t go into in such a forum) that they need a year of demonstration that the Bible is not scary before they will pull out their dusty youth fellowship Bible from years past. I’m aware I’m pushing small small steps, but I’m trying to do so at every event at which I speak, and model careful Bible reading often. Several people have mentioned to me, “You sure do talk about the Bible a lot” which I take as movement in the right direction–they’re noticing, and it’s being reinforced.

    Regarding another point of yours, “it doesnt feel like there adequate attention was given to the intersection between the jesus of the bible and the lives of the people to whom you have preached.” Again, I hear you, and I agree. I went 16.5 minutes–long for this context–and there were several other places I would have gone if the congregation was used to longer sermons. However, right after my sermon we sang the hymn I quoted and it summed things up like I’ve never felt before. It was awesome: the energy from the sermon peaked during the hymn, which in a few verses said what I had taken so long to say. Great holy spirit stuff.

    Not sure about this, but the section on seeing Jesus in community, particularly the intergenerational community of the church was actually mean to push a bit. In two other church forums recently I’ve suggested ways in which they could move towards more intentional community. So in that section I tried to both affirm, and to those few hundred who attended the other forums, renew thoughts of how we can do that better.

    Many thanks for your comments. Cheers.

  4. Hi there… as somone who was a beneficiary of international Assistant Minister Sunday, enjoying a few post easter days with my Mother in law in Prestwick, while someone else was in my pulpit back in Belfast, I wish I had latched on to your blog before we came home. I would very much have liked to come listen to you and share in worship at St Columba’s.
    You are a brave man posting your sermons for others to dissect… Even after all my years of preaching I wouldn’t be so bold… Actually, most of my sermons are so contextual now that they do not translate easily to the general (at least that is one of my excuses).
    Without wanting to heavily critique your sermon (which I enjoyed… as I have enjoyed most of your previous stuff having spent an inordinate amount of time this afternoon reading it), whilst you distinguish seeing Jesus in the Bible and in the church, in many ways we only fully see Jesus in the Bible when the when we are collectively and contextually seeking him there… The solo pursuit all too often becomes the “looking down at a reflection in a deep well” that Schweitzer criticised the 19th century quest for the historical Jesus… The collective approach, opens up a range of perspectives denied to any individual, whilst the “tradition” in which any collective stands should serve to prevent the contextualisation of scripture getting out of hand…
    In addition we need to open our eyes to see Jesus in those outside the church (Matt 25)… putting our fingers in the open wounds of the contemporary world.
    But thank you… I will be popping back from time to time…

  5. Fred Flink says:

    Adam,

    This is getting to you somewhat after the fact, and I don’t even know if you’ll read it, but I wanted to let you know that I enjoy reading your sermons. They are not too ponderous and not too light. Pretty much, they are just right.

    When you’re a young minister’s assistant, you only have one chance to get your sermon right, unlike a novelist who has months to have his work read and edited and reworked, or a stand-up comic who can hone his routine after many trials.

    All in all, you are doing a great job considering the restraints under which you work. Thank you for posting your sermons, and thanks to the Holy Spirit for helping you in their preparation.

    Fred Flink

  6. Thanks, Dr. Flink. I’m a big advocate of the idea that preaching is not a one time event, but a conservation with a congregation over a long period of time. So certainly, one sermon can only do a wee bit. Over time, thanks to Holy Spirit and the conversations of members–often on all the points the sermon missed–great things can happen. Thanks for the word. AJC

  7. Steve Calkins says:

    Very interesting and thoughtful. So I can’t help but ask for additional help. I need to do a 5 minute children’s sermon, to kids grades 1-5 but in front of the congregation, on the upcoming assistant minister Sunday.

    Suggestions would be much appreciated.

  8. Hey Steve, glad you found me. I don’t have any current thoughts on a children’s sermons re this text, but here’s an old post that may give you a place to begin ;)
    http://adamjcopeland.com/2008/04/07/great-childrens-sermon-resource/

  9. OUTSTANDING thank you! I’m so tired of folks beating up on Thomas. People think they understand what’s in the bible without actually reading it.

  10. Alexander says:

    Steve Calkins has my sympathy (3 years late) because talking to children is not the easiest thing to do. One way round this which I find works well is to have a story and picture book pitched to the older members of the children’s group but not so old that the youngest would not understand.

    Then sit on the altar steps or as I do make a little wooden stool to sit on to bring yourself down to their level and gather them around you. That way they can see the pictures, the older ones can read the words to themselves and you have been able to get a point across to the children separate from the adults, though they have been listening as well.

    A five minute good talk will take a minimum of five hours to prepare. Someone else has already done that for you in a story book.

  11. Jennifer says:

    Hey Adam,
    I appreciate this fresh perspective on the doubting Thomas story! I’m thinking through this text in anticipation of giving a children’s talk on it this week and enjoyed your sermon!

    Best!

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