by Elaine Maust
John 20: 19-31
April 12, 2009
Seeing is believing. That’s what we are told.
But our friends in John, the men and women who followed Jesus, had seen things in the past few days that they didn’t want to believe. Like their teacher being humiliated and murdered. Some of them like John and the three women (John 19:25-27) stood there with him as he died. Some, like John and Peter (John 20:3-9) had not seen things they wanted to believe. That Jesus had come back to life again was showing up here and there. Mary Magdalene had seen it all, of course the dying and the alive again and they wanted to believe her, but… Could it be? Very confusing.
This Easter has me wondering about seeing and believing. In our text today Jesus shows up in person to clear up the doubts. He gives those with questions chances to see and believe. But he also says something curious that seems especially for us, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” (Jh 21:29)
Could there also be some blessing in the times when we can’t see? In the times when we can’t figure out what God is up to? Is there any blessing for the days when God doesn’t make sense to us? For times when we doubt? How could believing through those times, be blessed?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Turn with me to John 20:19-31 for this precious part of the Easter story. Jesus died on the cross, and was alive again. Really. Our story picks up on Easter evening. Let’s take a look.
It happened on the evening of the resurrection, the night of the day when Mary found the tomb empty and had a conversation with Jesus in the garden. A group of Jesus followers had locked themselves up in a room because they were afraid. Maybe they were afraid because they saw what happened to Jesus. Would they be next? Maybe they were afraid because they were accused of grave robbing. Folks who didn’t really believe that Jesus had come back to life, thought maybe the disciples had just staged the whole thing and stolen his body. Anyway, they had a pretty good idea that they were being hunted. The doors were locked.
They were sitting there in that room too scared to think what to do next when all of a sudden, Jesus was standing there with them. Really. Imagine their amazement. The truth of the resurrection was beginning to seem possible, but to have him standing there, right beside them? It must have been quite a shock!
“Peace be with you” (19) or “May God give you every good thing.” Jesus showed them his scars, his hands, his side where the spear had gone through his skin. And, it seems the disciples began to come to life themselves as they believed. The were “overjoyed.” I imagine hugs and cheers, back slaps and high fives all around. They had seen the Lord.
But wait, Jesus was still talking. He repeated, “Peace be with you.” (21) And gave them a commission that gives me goose bumps, “As the Father has sent me, even so send I you.” (21, KJV) Imagine that you are one of the disciples and Jesus is putting his hand on your shoulder and looking you in the eye and saying, “So send I you.”
And just like God breathed into the human he created in Genesis (Gen. 2:7), Jesus breathed into them the Holy Spirit life and blessed them with the authority to forgive sins.
And then He was gone. How many times did his friends tell each other that story hoping it would soak in, checking with each other to make sure it was true. Seeing is believing.
Now it happened (v 24) that Thomas was not with the rest of the followers that Easter night when Jesus came. Maybe he was off by himself grieving. Maybe he came in later that night with a secret knock they had arranged ahead of time. I don’t know, but when he caught up with the rest of the crowd, they told him the good news, “We have seen the Lord” (v25)
But he didn’t believe it. I can hear him, “Whatever! I’m not going to believe until I see for myself. I’m going to have to see the holes the nails made and put my finger in that make where the nail was. Then I’ll believe.”
Now I hope you don’t look down on Thomas. At least let me tell you why I don’t. Back in John 11 (you can turn there if you like) we have the story of another resurrection, the healing of Lazarus. There are lots of layers to that story, but here is one that I’ve overlooked. The disciples didn’t want to respond to Mary and Martha’s appeal for help for their sick brother, because last time Jesus was in that area, some of his enemies wanted to stone him. (v8) But Thomas was the loyal one. In John 11:16 he says to the rest of the followers, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Accounts of Thomas’ missionary work (these aren’t in the Bible) say that later in Thomas’ life in India he was equally heroic. So I don’t question Thomas’ loyalty. In fact, I rather identify with Thomas. And maybe you do to, if sometimes you struggle to believe.
Well, a week later Jesus’ friends were back in the house again (v26) and this time Thomas was there too. And again, the doors were locked. And again Jesus just came right on in and stood there with them. And he said the words of blessing and reassurance, “Pease be with you!” (third time in these verses) (v26)
And this time, Jesus is there especially for Thomas. He says to Thomas) “…put your finger here. See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” And then the word that must have made Thomas’ heart skip a beat, “Stop doubting and believe.”
Maybe Jesus was scolding Thomas, but I don’t think so. You remember Jesus, the one who talked about going out after the lost sheep? I think it was completely in character for Jesus to especially care for and help the one who was struggling. I think Jesus was simply providing an honest doubter with what he needed to take the next step.
And Thomas took it, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him (v29) I believe the words were gentle and tender.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”
So where does that leave us? Are we the seeing? The doubting? The believing?
John goes on to write the purpose of his Gospel in John 20:30-31. He lets us know that Jesus did a whole lot more than what he put down in the 21 chapters of his book. In fact, in John 21:25, the very last verse of this book, John says that if he had written down every last thing that Jesus did, the whole world wouldn’t have room to hold the books. But John chose to record the stories that he did, so that we might believe and find life. That all of us who haven’t seen, would believe.
But back to my question… are we the seers? the doubters? or the believers? Or all three perhaps?
In some ways we at Jubilee have seen more than enough to believe. We have seen miraculous healings. We have seen people delivered from additions. Very likely you are sitting beside someone today whose life God miraculously saved in one way or another.
We have seen God provide for us in amazing unexplainable ways. I still haven’t recovered from the wonder of the two unexpected checks (one from 8th St. Mennonite and one from Ms. Fannie Jenkins) that came the same day and covered the air conditioner repair costs. And what about the fact that we are meeting in this beautiful place for worship. There’s another miracle story. Or what about God providing us with everything we needed during and after Katrina.
Well, I could spend this whole morning talking about what we have seen. To becoming a part of Jubilee is to join in the holy action of God in the world. That’s not being haughty, that’s just telling the truth. Maybe we haven’t seen the scar in the hand of Jesus, but we have seen enough miracles to fill a book ourselves. And even when they don’t seem to happen at our house in particularly, it is enough to keep us believing.
Or is it? What about the times when we ask and nothing happens. What about the times when we pray and our words just seem to fall on the floor? What about desperate hopes that have gone on nearly all our lives and still are not realized? What about a time a perfectly healthy pastor suddenly has major health problems that last for months? What about when God doesn’t make any sense?
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” Could there be a blessing for all us who have a few questions? What is the good news for us? As we ask these questions we are reassured that Jesus who heard his friend, Thomas’ doubts and made a special point to come back to help him resolve those doubts will not strike us dead for our questions.
For almost 40 years I have embraced the mystery we call God. During that time there have been nights I have sat up late in my dark house and cried out my whys to God. This is what I have learned. I am convinced that the blessing of doubt is that it leads to a faith that is tested and to a trust that is real. I believe that doubt is the doorway to faith. If we own up to our questions, the way that Thomas did, we will find the blessing of a faith that survives and that will sustain us no matter what happens to us in the future.
But not so fast. If we choose to believe what we cannot see, what is it that we will believe? That God will do exactly what pleases us all the time? That would turn us into spoiled children of God who think that if we scream loud enough and long enough we will annoy God into listening to us. Is that really what we want to become? (There should be some religious form of Super Nanny for such cases).
And what does that make God? If we always get what we want all of the time, doesn’t that turn God into some kind of a puppy that we can train to do what he is told? Is that what God is like?
Of course not! So though we don’t understand exactly what is going on, we sing our belief in a God that is “indescribable, untamable.” God remains undomesticatable.
And at the end of the day, the truth is, I don’t want a God I can order around. Truth is, I don’t always seem to know what’s best for me or the folks I love. I want a God who knows more than I do and who is more powerful than me. So, it only stands to reason that I won’t always understand.
So to the question, can I believe what I can not see? Will I trust when I don’t understand?
It is clear to me after almost three months of pain, that this is not going to be one of those instant healing kind of times. I don’t know why this is happening. I don’t know what Duane and I and all of us together will go through between today and the day when my recovery is complete. This is one of those not seeing times.
But I will choose to believe. I will believe that a God who died for me as Regina sang about this morning, loves me enough to have my best interest at heart. We can believe that a Spirit who dominates death, exploding Jesus back to life will also give me everything that I need. (Romans 8:32,KJV)
Seeing may be believing. But believing is also seeing. These days as I am believing that God love me and that God is good when I don’t necessarily see that, my eyes are opened. I see that you all love me and are willing to carry me. I see that Duane is wise and loyal. I see that my life is in God’s hands. I have experienced the blessing Jesus talked about when he said, “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.”
And so this Easter, whether we see and believe or believe and see, we gather in praise of our God who sent Jesus to live and die and overcome death.
This same Jesus will come to us on this Easter like he did to Thomas long ago. And Jesus will say, “Peace be with you. Reach out your hand to me. Believe that I really am the one who died and came back to life. Reach out your hand and believe that I did this for you. Stop doubting and believe.”