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Sermon: Seeing and Not Seeing

May 1, 2011

John 20:19-31

What a difference a week makes.  It was about ten days ago in the liturgical calendar that we gathered in the Friendship Hall to remember the night Jesus and some friends gathered for a time of intimate fellowship.  Jesus washed their feet and gave them a new commandment: Love one another.  Ten days ago that was a room full of love.

Today, we return to that room, but instead, it is a place of fear.  The disciples are huddled together with the doors locked tight.  They are afraid that the same forces that killed Jesus will rampage through their lives, too.  They are hiding.  But even in their fear, in the moment that love for one another was the last thing on their minds, “Jesus came and stood among them.”  He said, “Peace.  Peace be with you.”

Now I want you to pay careful attention to the order of the next several events.  Immediately after his greeting, Jesus showed the disciples his hands where the nails had pierced them, and his side where the spear had entered his body.  Then the disciples rejoiced.  They had not realized it was Jesus in the room with them until they had seen the marks of his crucifixion.  This is much like the experience of Mary Magdalene, who came to the empty tomb but did not recognize Jesus until he called her by name.  It is similar to the event in Luke’s gospel, where the men traveling with the risen Christ did not recognize Jesus while he walked with them to the town of Emmaus.  Jesus came into the locked room with his disciples, but they did not know him until they saw his hands and his side.  Only then could they know it was Jesus.

So when these disciples told their brother Thomas about this later, Thomas said, “Well, when I can put my fingers in the holes in his hands and my hand in the hole in his side, then I will believe it, too.”

The following week, they were again gathered.  The door was shut tight and Thomas was with them.  Jesus came and stood among them again.  “Peace be with you.  Here I am, Thomas.  Put your finger in my hands; put your hand in my side.  Don’t doubt, but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  That confession of faith is as strong as any other in John’s gospel.  Thomas believed!

There is some question about whether or not Thomas actually did touch the nail marks and the hole from the spear.  John’s gospel never makes it clear.  Were Jesus’ words and the sight of his hands and side enough for Thomas?  Did they make the connection in his mind just as it had for the other disciples a week earlier?  I like to think that Thomas didn’t touch, that he didn’t need to, that Jesus’ words were enough.  But in the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter.  What really matters was that Thomas believed, not how he came to that belief.

After Thomas’ confession of faith, Jesus said that there were a group of people who are particularly blessed.  They are the ones who believe even though they have never seen Jesus or his wounded body.  The ones who can confess without ever having seen the risen Christ with their eyes have a special blessing.  Of course, that means everyone after the generation of the disciples.  That means you, and it means me.  We have received a special blessing from our Redeemer that not even Jesus’ closest friends received.  And believing is the whole point of John’s gospel.  That’s all he cares about.  These things are written, he said, so that you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that in believing, you can have true life, eternal life.  That’s what matters, not how you come to believe.

There are a number of ways that people come to believe, and none of them are wrong.  If we took a poll of those of you out there who believe, we would find a range of experiences that led to faith.  I myself can’t exactly identify a time when I came to believe, and that is because my mother brought me—at a very young age—to church.  I had a children’s Bible, and would leaf through the pictures, and just assumed from the beginning that this was important and true.  But that childhood belief was not mature.  I could not have made a confession like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”  My faith was built and confirmed from within the church—Sunday school, sermons, hymns, anthems and, most importantly, the living example of the adults around me.  Without them, the rest has no meaning.

Because of my own experience, the bolt-of-lightning conversion, like the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, is strange and foreign to me.  But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  Some of you may have had that divine moment of clarity, seemingly out of the blue, that brought you to the risen Christ.  Others of you, like the Prodigal Son, may have come running back to the arms of the Father because you had no other choice.  You had hit rock bottom and were sitting in the slop with the pigs.  Your own inability to control your own life may have made you understand your complete dependence upon God.  There is nothing wrong with that kind of belief, though it is a hard road to get there.  There might be some of you here who—like the disciples—came to believe through seeing.  You met the risen Christ in the face of a stranger, perhaps someone who came to your aid or someone you thought you were helping.  You may have learned that in loving one someone else, or being loved in return, you were claimed by faith.  Some believe through the sacred act of reading, sometimes scripture, sometimes another book.  Maybe you have come to belief through hearing, hearing the good news from a trusted friend or relative, or—very rarely—from the pulpit.

Sara Miles found faith in a unique way.  She was the grandchild of Christian missionaries.  Sara’s own parents were so turned off by the life of the missionary and the religion they experienced, that they created an anti-religious household.  Sara came to identify herself as atheist.  She did not believe.  One Sunday, she was passing by St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.  She went inside.  While she was there, a stranger offered her a piece of bread.  It was communion bread.  She wrote about that moment, “I knew that it was made out of real flour and water and yeast—yet I also knew that God, named Jesus, was alive in my mouth.”  That’s a pretty remarkable experience, but that is the power of Holy Communion.  Some people find belief even in the bread and wine.

Sara Miles didn’t simply relish her newfound belief and go home.  She did something about it.  There is now a food ministry at St. Gregory, and they bring people into the sanctuary and give the food to people at the altar, because Sara recognized that any time we are sharing food in the spirit of Christ—especially with strangers—we are sharing not just food, but Jesus.  (Sara Miles quoted in Association of Lutheran Resource Centers: “Food.”  See also saramiles.net.)  And the point isn’t who or why or what or how.  The point is belief, so that we can have life.

It will be interesting to know if any of you this morning will discover that Jesus is alive in your mouth.  Because from there, it is a very short journey before Jesus becomes alive in your hands and your feet and your heart.  And you will be blessed because you have not seen and yet have come to believe.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. joshen permalink
    May 6, 2011 8:06 pm

    I have a friend, he also believes Thomas didn’t see the holes in his hands. Instead, he saw Jesus, and after that, forget about holes, Jesus is here!

    We believe, when Jesus said to Thomas to “Put your finger in my hands; put your hand in my side. Don’t doubt, but believe.”, He did it lovingly, humorously. Hey, you say you’ll believe only when you put your finger in my hands? What will you do if there are no holes? Here, try it!

    Thomas needed no other confirmation, he immediately believed.

  2. May 10, 2011 10:22 am

    I think Thomas generally gets a bad rap, so I’m very happy to believe he didn’t need to touch any holes in Jesus’ resurrected body. I’m glad someone else thinks so, too.

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