April 27, 2014, Easter 2 – Not Seeing Can Be Believing
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Have you ever been to a play where you are just sitting and observing the action between characters, and suddenly one of the characters looks directly at YOU, and begins to address his words to you, rather than to the characters in the play? At once you are drawn in to the story in a new way; instead of watching from the outside, you have become part of the story, and the story takes on a new level of reality for you, because you are called upon to interact with that character. You can’t just sit and daydream or text your friend or work on your grocery list anymore. And if the actor caught you napping, you are suddenly wide awake. It might be embarrassing, but it’s also more interesting, because now the story includes you, personally.
In the gospel passage we just read, John does something very like that. We read the story about Thomas, the apostle we call “Doubting Thomas”, on the day he first encountered the risen Jesus, and then John turns to us. And he tells us, “You are the people I am writing these stories down for.” and he says: “Jesus did lots of things, and a lot of people saw him, but I’m writing these particular stories down for you, who are not here to touch the scars on the Lord’s hands and feet, who are not here to put your hand in the wound in his side, who are not here now to feel his breath as he gives us the Holy Spirit, so that you can know these things are true, that they really happened, and knowing, you can believe just as we do, and so that believing, you may have life in his name.”
When we read the Bible, it’s good to read carefully. It was written by many, many people over many centuries, and each book was written by a human being in a particular historical setting in a particular location for a particular purpose. Everything in Scripture is there to reveal to us who God is and what he is doing in our world and how much he loves this creation he made. But we can only really understand the Bible if we take care to recognize the human beings and the differences between our culture and theirs and our situation and theirs. All Scripture is important and valuable for us to read, but very few things are addressed directly to us. Very few, but not none, because here in the fourth gospel, John, the writer, tells us that this book was written for us. John wrote the stories of Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and Thomas, and Jesus (men and women whom he knew personally) And he wrote them for us – for all those who would come after him, from the first to the twenty-first centuries and beyond, so that even though we were not able to be physically present with Jesus and the disciples, we can still know Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and believe in him, and receive that life that comes from faith in him only.
When he had let Thomas feel the scars in his hands and feet and side, Jesus said to him, “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” And Thomas worshiped him at once, “My Lord and my God!” And then Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We are those blessed ones Jesus was talking about, those who never had the opportunity to see or hear or touch him, but who are still believers in Christ. And I think it is very important to understand that believing means knowing.
People use the word “belief” in so many different ways, that it’s no wonder they don’t always understand what we mean when we say we are believers. I think one thing people mean by belief is that they mean they have a fervent kind of feeling about something. When I was little, I used to love to watch the movie “Peter Pan” when it came on TV every year. And if you’ve seen it you know there is a part where the little fairy Tinkerbell is dying, and Peter Pan, played by Mary Martin, calls on us – audience participation again! – to show that we believe in fairies, because that’s the only thing that will save poor little Tinkerbell. And every year I clapped my hands in a frenzy, earnestly displaying my belief in fairies so that Tinkerbell would survive once again. At any other time, I might or might not have any particular feelings about the existence of fairies, but at least once a year I believed with all my little heart. Well, that fervent feeling I had, however sincere I was while the show lasted, was not belief.
And yet for many people that fervent feeling is exactly what they mean by belief. We find ourselves moved by an excellent hymn or by the words of a psalm or by a really good speaker like Fr. Nigel or Bishop Love, and in that moment we feel that we believe. But then we go home and the dog had an accident on the rug and the electric bill comes and has nearly doubled and we try to read in the Bible and we end up in Leviticus reading about baldness or blood sacrifices and it leaves us cold. And that strong feeling we had seeps away; we leak, as I have heard someone say, and we feel that our belief is very weak indeed. We feel in those moments that we are “bad Christians” – I hear so many people say that. But belief is not a feeling; it is a knowing. And the ups and downs of our feelings and our spiritual fervor are distressing and frustrating, but they have nothing to do with whether or not we are believers in Christ.
Of course, not everyone puts such great store in feelings. A lot of people – a LOT of people – consider that being a believer should be all about what we do. After all, we call our sets of rules and regulations “beliefs”. So a believer is someone who does the right things – because didn’t Jesus stress over and over again that we must not only hear his words, but also DO them? And that has pretty much the same problems as basing our belief on our feelings, because even if we are able to be good people all day today, and maybe even tomorrow, it won’t be long before we mess it all up. We can avoid murdering someone generally speaking, or telling lies, or stealing things, but can we avoid envying our friend who just got a new car when our car is barely chugging along? Can we get through even a single day without calling our brother or sister a fool, or adjusting the truth a bit for convenience sake, or gossiping? Sooner or later, and usually sooner, we fail, and suddenly we are believers with a C- ranking, or worse.
The problem is that we have put the cart before the horse, because the life of the kingdom – living and doing the things that God would have us live and do – are not belief itself; they are the fruits of belief. We can never make ourselves good Christians by doing good things, even if we were able to always do good things, which we aren’t. That sort of Christianity would be – is – a pretty dry and uninspiring sort of life. The life that comes from belief in Jesus Christ is abundant, not holier-than-thou-ness, but joyfully abundant, free to give, free to love, free from fear or judgment. And that life is the result – it is the fruit – of belief in Jesus Christ.
And belief isn’t feeling or doing: belief is knowing. John says, “these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Before we believe, we have to know, and before we can KNOW, there has to be something – or in this case, someone – to be known. We believe because there was truly a small group of men hiding away in terror in an upper room two thousand years ago. And even though they had the door locked tight, suddenly the man they loved and admired most in the whole world was standing right there in the room with them. And the weird thing about that was that they had seen him get arrested and tortured and killed. They had seen his dead body. But here he was, and not only Thomas, who kind of gets picked on as a doubter, but every one of them had to at least look at the scars on his hands and feet and the horrible gash in his side from the soldier’s spear, still there, but healed, glorified. They heard his voice and they felt his breath when he breathed on them; they ate with him and talked with him. And they wrote all these things down because knowing Jesus is the most important thing in the whole world, back then and now and forever. We can only believe because there is something real to be known and believed in. And when we believe, instead of being filled with gushy feelings or handed a set of rules to follow, we are filled with a life – Jesus’ own life – that begins to transform us from the inside out.
Peter, who knew Jesus as well as any human being on earth, wrote this to the new-born believers in the churches sprouting up like wildflowers all over the known world: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” That confidence, and that inexpressible joy, belong to us as well, because our belief does not depend on our feelings or our good works, but on the solid reality of Jesus Christ, who was born a human being, who lived and died as one of us, and who burst forth from the tomb, fully man and fully God and fully and eternally alive, to share his abundant life with all those who believe in him. “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”