COLLIDING WITH THE QUESTIONS: Easter Season 2014
Unless I See, Can I Believe?
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC, April 27, 2014, the second Sunday of Easter.
Text: John 20:19-31
“Unless I see…I will not believe.” These words of Thomas from our Gospel represent a common human perspective, one that has been around forever—not just dreamed up by modern scientists or by smug, postmodern atheists. “Seeing is believing…” “I’ll believe it when I see it!” We’ve all heard these things and quite possibly have said them. And, frankly, there are often good reasons for our taking such a position; just think of situations when expectations haven’t been met in the past and yet another promise has been made. We do well to temper our eagerness to trust the promise until we see some evidence that things might be different this time. Though it’s been years since the film came out, I still think of that line from “Jerry Maguire”: “Show me the money!” Show me. Then I’ll trust what you’re telling me.
To “see” is one of many common themes that runs through John’s Gospel account. Jesus issues his first invitation to follow him with the words, “Come and see.” And Jesus comments on more than one occasion about the fact that people want or need to see signs in order to believe—and he provides sign after sign: water into wine, feeding the five thousand, healing people, restoring the sight of the man born blind, and raising Lazarus from the dead, to name a few. And in our passage today, he once again offers a visible sign, offering his still-broken body to Thomas for inspection. Jesus couldn’t have been more human or present—and he didn’t refrain from doing signs so that people would see. He invites people to come and see; Jesus wants to be seen.
Throughout John’s telling of the Jesus story we learn that to “see” means more than simply physical vision. You can have 20/20 vision and yet fail to see Jesus in your midst. In the very first chapter of John, we hear that Jesus (the Word and the Light) came into the world but the world didn’t “know” or “accept” him. Jesus was there, but people didn’t recognize him for who he was. My point? Even for some who actually, physically SAW Jesus, they didn’t really see him. Remember Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in the midst of the controversial healing of the man born blind? The Pharisees thought they saw clearly, but Jesus taught that they were the ones who were truly blind. They didn’t see Jesus for who he was; they didn’t see God’s love and mercy in him and his actions.
The whole point of the book seems to be to give all of us who arrived at the Jesus party after he’d already left the building an opportunity to (see and) believe— In the very first chapter of the book of John we hear that John the baptizer came “as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” (Jn. 1:7) And we heard this morning: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn. 20:30-31)
Where does all this leave us? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that God has gone to pretty great lengths to provide signs and wonders for humankind so that we might “see” and, as a result, know God and God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. In our passage today we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” A temptation is to interpret these words as saying that we are to have “blind faith”—that we are supposed to check our intellect and questions at the door and not require any evidence. But surely this isn’t what Jesus means. Maybe it means “blessed are those who once were blind but now see;” or “blessed are those who didn’t get to see me in the flesh and have come to believe.” But I don’t think it is saying that we aren’t supposed to need any evidence. God knows we need to see and sent Jesus—and Jesus did sign after sign. And it seems to me that this relieves us of any guilt we may have for desiring something that we can see. God knows what we need and has given it to us!
In our story today Jesus wasn’t physically present or visible when Thomas drew the proverbial line in the sand. And yet when Jesus came to the disciples a week later, Jesus knew what Thomas had said, responding to Thomas’ request without any prompt. Could it be that after the resurrection Jesus is present and aware of what we are thinking and saying and doing, even when we cannot “see” him? We learn from the story in the garden on the first Easter morning that, after the resurrection, Jesus may have been difficult to recognize; Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for the gardener! But Jesus came to her and spoke her name; at that moment, she saw him. I believe the living Christ continues to be present to us, to come to you and to me in all sorts of moments—not just in moments of prayer or meditation, but on our daily rounds. If we’re listening and watching, we will be given eyes to see.
But God has given more even than that. Perhaps a primary way that we “see” and come to believe in the love of God in Jesus is through witnesses. We receive the witness of God’s people in the scriptures, some of whom were eye witnesses and even close friends of Jesus. And we physically “see” people and communities in whom Christ is living and through whom Christ is working. [Who in your life has helped you “see” Jesus and come to know God’s amazing grace and love?]
The Church is called to be a communal witness to the presence and power of the living Christ—so that others might see and believe. We need to be the sign for those who don’t know the love of God; we as the church need to give folks something to see so that they might believe. In John 17, Jesus prays to God for his disciples saying, “For the message you gave me, I gave them; and they took it, and were convinced that I came from you. They believed that you sent me…and my life is on display in them. For I’m no longer going to be visible in the world; they’ll continue in the world while I return to you.” (17:8, 10b, 11a, The Message) And today Jesus says to us, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…” You may have heard it said, “Your changed life is the only Gospel some people will ever read.” Today, I want to remind you that each of you are called to be a witness—to be a visible sign of God’s love and compassion that you have seen and experienced. Together as a church, we are called to be a witness. Because we may be the only Gospel some will ever read.
Today we have the privilege of sharing in the Holy Baptism of some of God’s beloved children and in welcoming sisters and brothers into covenant here at St. Matthew’s who will be re-affirming their faith. YOUR witness to the presence and power of the living Christ has created a community in which these persons have and will continue to experience what it means to see and to know and to love and to serve Jesus Christ. Today, we rejoice that, together, we will continue to be a sign—we will continue to be the Gospel so that others might see and receive life in Christ’s name.