Doubting Thomas: Believing and Seeing

(Note: I preached this sermon on April 7, 2013 at Messiah Lutheran Church. Other sermons on this pericope can be read here and here.)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Who has ever used that phrase? Who has used it in the last week? I have. It’s a good sturdy phrase, I think. And I think we use it because it expresses something about how we’d like to think of ourselves: skeptical, hard-nosed, nobody’s fool; but also open to persuasion if evidence arises.

“I’ll believe it when I see it.” It expresses something else, too, something about how we think the world works. We like to think that our minds are neutral. They form opinions or judgments based on what our eyes report facts, and our eyes simply record reality. What we see is real, and we only see what’s real.

This line comes up from time to time in arguments between atheists and Christians or other religious folk. One such atheist, a scientist who has done a good deal of writing against Christianity, put down a marker a few years ago to show his good faith.

“…if a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas.”

Now I want to leave scientists out of this, because I really admire scientists. This particular writer was making a point about evidence. But does it leave you asking any really obvious questions?

Here’s mine: How would you know the 900-foot Jesus was Jesus? None of Jesus’ friends saw fit to write down what he looked like, and no one drew or painted his portrait until long after his lifetime. We have no evidence for what Jesus of Nazareth looked like.

Now I don’t want to waste too much time on this particular person’s argument, because it’s a silly argument. But I do want to ask us, today, to consider this: we do not believe something because we see it. Instead, we see something because we believe it. You can only “see” a 900-foot-tall Jesus apparition because you have an idea in your head of who Jesus was, what he looked like, and why he might be appearing to you.

Now this is a big idea, so let me take a step back. Our eyes don’t simply report the world to us. We are only able to see a small sliver of the light that is abroad in the universe, for instance. Even the things we can see are composites. Our eyes fill in blanks, so to say.

And our minds have a role in how this works. Eyewitnesses turn out to be really bad at reporting an event. We forget things that happened right in front of us. We remember, very vividly, things that never happened. When I was younger I had strong visual memories of an addition being built onto my grandmother’s house. The problem is that the addition was built before I was born.

Our eyes don’t simply report the world to us. What our eyes show us is shaped by what we already know about the world, by what we expect to find, by what we love. How often do we miss something that is literally or figuratively right under our nose? How often are we convinced that we see something that isn’t really there? When the stakes are high, especially. When things that matter are on the line:

I’ll do better.

He was right there at the airport, I know it was him.

I love you.

Things will be different this time.

You know I’d never lie to you.

I’ll see it when I believe it.

Today’s story from the Gospel of John looks, at first blush, like a story of someone who says “I’ll believe it when I see it,” then sees it, and believes. But there’s a lot more to it than that. We are transported today to the evening of that first day, the day of Jesus’ rising from the dead. Jesus appears to his disciples, minus Thomas. When Thomas comes back, they tell him the news that Jesus, who had just recently been publicly executed, had appeared to them. Thomas says, a little rashly, that he won’t believe them unless he sees the wounds and thrusts his hands into them.

This, I suppose, is why we call him “Doubting Thomas.” But that’s not really fair. Thomas isn’t being a skeptic here. Imagine, for a moment, the person you love most in all the world who has died. Imagine your friends insisting that this person appeared to them, in real life, in your absence. Would you be pleased? Or would you, like Thomas, be angry at them for telling such a tale?

So Jesus comes back. Thomas, please note, hasn’t been kicked out of the church because of his “doubt.” And he hasn’t chosen to leave and spend his Sundays somewhere else simply because he doesn’t believe what his friends believe. He’s still there, sharing the meal of grace in memory of Jesus. And it is to this Thomas–pierced still with sorrow, deeply angry and over-the-top in his demand for evidence–to whom Jesus comes and shows his wounds.

Now here’s the thing: Thomas doesn’t, in this story, turn to his friends and say, “It seems you were right,” or “ I’ll be darned, he really is alive.” Or even “this must be some kind of hallucination, or a ghost.” Everyone believed in ghosts back then. Instead, he answers “My Lord and my God.” All of his pent-up love, all of his frustrated faith, all of his hope and yearning for Jesus comes out in that one moment. Jesus asks, rhetorically, “have you believed because you have seen?” But in a sense, he hasn’t. Thomas has seen because he believed already, without really knowing it. He wanted to see Jesus. He hoped to see Jesus–if only in the meal he shared with the disciples. And so he saw Jesus.

As you might guess, pastors end up having a lot of conversations with people who talk about their doubts. People who talk about struggling with their faith, about needing more from God, about wondering whether what we hear and say in church is true in any way that matters. I welcome these conversations. I consider it a privilege to be a part of them.

But I also know that many people here have doubts that they will probably never share with me or Pastor Dawn, and perhaps not with anyone else, either. I want to say clearly right now that those doubts and the searching, longing, hoping, and loving that they represent are honored here. I want to assure all of you, whatever you wish to see and just can’t, that if you are looking…if you are hoping…if you are desiring…if you are waiting for Jesus, you already believe. And I want to assure you, moreover, that the seeing will come. It may come only in a moment, as it came for the disciples. It may leave you with questions as well as answers. But it will come. We’ll see it when we believe it. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal had a vision in which Christ spoke to him: “Console yourself. You would not be searching for me if you had not already found me.”

I had my own minor moment of doubt last week. I was really, really deep into putting our Easter Vigil together this year, working with Holy Apostles Episcopal Church and their rector, Mother Martha. It’s quite a production. It always feels only slightly less complicated than mounting a fully-staged production of My Fair Lady. You light a fire, read lots of Bible stories, cycle through a hundred-odd images of those Bible stories, sing songs, have a few baptisms, and then celebrate Easter with Holy Communion. It’s my favorite church service of the year. Totally coincidentally, it’s also the longest church service of the year. So I am always afraid that no one will want to come.

This year, to encourage good participation and fellowship and to celebrate the end of Lent, I decided that we would have a little reception at the end of the Vigil. There would be cake and fruit and chocolate and sparkly beverages of an adult-friendly and a child-friendly nature. On Saturday afternoon, I mentally tallied what we could expect for the reception: a couple baked treats from me, some cookies from Mother Martha, and a few other things. It was shaping up to be a pretty threadbare end-of-Lent feast. Who would want to stay? Who would bother?

By the time we ended the service, after two hours of worship, the table was filled with all manner of delightful treats, from chili to chocolate-covered strawberries. Not only was there much more food than we needed, but almost everyone who came to the service stayed for food and fellowship. Forty-five minutes after the end of a two-hour service, people were still chatting happily away.

Now this is not a miracle. Maybe, considering the length of the service, it’s a little tiny one. But like everything else in life, the hope that it can happen, that it will matter, is what makes it possible. Put your hands here, in my side. Do not be disbelieving. See, because you have already believed. Search for me, because you have already found me. Amen.

One comment

  1. […] (Other sermons on this pericope can be read here, here, and here) […]

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