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Second Sunday of Easter, April 7, 2013

A friend just recently told me a story about someone she knew who was a history teacher. Once, during a lesson about the pyramids, she had a student who said to her, “There is no way those pyramids are possible. How could anyone without modern tools have put those big stones on each other? I won’t believe it unless I see it for real and not just in a picture. Later, the student went overseas with the military and made a special trip to Egypt, where he did indeed see the pyramids. He sent the teacher back a postcard with a picture of them on it that simply said, “Seeing is believing”.

Seeing is believing applies to most of the disciples too. The beloved disciple believed when he saw the empty tomb and the grave cloths. Mary Magdalene believed when Jesus called her name. But for the other disciples, hearing about the resurrection from Mary was not enough. They believed in Jesus as their Lord, they believed in his miracles, they believed that he was the Messiah. But their belief had been shattered when he was crucified. Now they had nothing to hold onto. They who had heard the message of the kingdom from Jesus and proclaimed it themselves were now in the darkness of despair.

It is evening, and the darkness of the room they are in mirrors the darkness in their souls. They thought they had something wonderful to believe in, but now there is just a hole in their hearts. The doors are locked in fear of the Jews. Because their leader has been killed, they fear they might be next. They huddle together in their ignorance and unhappiness. Suddenly, Jesus appears among them and says, “Peace be with you.” But they are still afraid. They don’t know a Jesus who can appear and disappear at will. They know a human Jesus, a flesh and blood Jesus. Perhaps it is a ghost they see. Jesus, sensing their doubt, shows them his hands and his side, which still bear the marks of his crucifixion and piercing. Now the disciples know it is their Jesus, and they rejoice. Their Lord is indeed risen and has now appeared to them. Seeing is believing.

But Thomas is not with them on that night. They tell him about it, but he is as skeptical as the disciples had been about Mary’s story. Thomas says he will not believe unless he sees for himself. Not only that, he has to touch the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side. The next week, the disciples are gathered together again. Seeing and believing had not been enough to take them out into the streets to witness to the greatness of God in the resurrection of Jesus, so they were still in that room with the doors closed. They must have still been afraid of the repercussions. Jesus comes and stands among them again and wishes them peace. Then he offers Thomas a chance to touch his wounds. It is not clear whether Thomas did so or not, but we know Thomas’ skepticism is gone and in its place is a Christological confession, “My Lord and my God”, the most complete description of Jesus in the book of John. Seeing was believing yet again.

I can buy into the “seeing is believing” theory. I know that when someone says, “Congratulations, you’ve got the job!,”  I don’t quite believe it until I see my name on a contract. But what would I do if I were hired by someone who did not have written agreements with his employees. I would have to hear and be satisfied, and that would be harder. The early Christians faced the same dilemma. Soon seeing would not be possible. Jesus was ascending to the Father and his time as a human walking on the earth would be ended. What was going to happen then? How would people believe in him? How would people “see” him? The disciples would testify to him to the whole world. They would witness to the cross and resurrection and speak of his appearances to them. They would speak of the promises he made to them that he fulfilled – to return to them, to bring them his peace and to send the Holy Spirit, promises that were not just for the disciples, but for everyone.

Jesus sends the disciples out to do the work the Father has sent him to do. Then he breathes on them. He gives them the Holy Spirit to help them do this work because they cannot do it with their strength alone. Then he gives them their commission. They are to preach forgiveness of sins. To John, sin is not a moral transgression. Sin is refusing to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. So he tells the group gathered there that they are to speak this message, forgiving the unbelief of those who doubt and come to faith and challenging those who will not come to faith to change their minds. From now on, hearing will be believing.

John is speaking to his community, most of whom probably never saw Jesus, but John is not just speaking to them. We are included as believers who have not seen. In his farewell discourse, Jesus prays to the Father for those who will believe in him through the disciples’ word. After Thomas exchanges doubt for belief, Jesus says he has had the rare privilege of seeing to believe, but blesses those who do not see and yet believe. That blessing is for us too. And John does not want to leave the believing to an oral tradition or some version of a mystical experience of God (Charles B. Cousar), but wants to make it as easy as he can for people to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. So John writes a book that details the proofs of the resurrection for all those who hear it or read it so that they may believe. The writers of the other gospels do the same thing when they realize that Jesus is not returning any time soon. The voices of the past are there to speak to the ears of the present, to encourage belief so that new life is possible in Jesus’ name.

John knew that the story of Jesus’ resurrection would be hard to believe, for some people more than others. But all types of belief are OK with Jesus. There is the relatively easy belief of the beloved disciple, who sees nothing but the empty tomb and believes, and there is the struggling belief of Thomas, who wrestles greatly with his faith. Sometimes, as with Thomas or Paul, faith in the risen Jesus comes in a dramatic moment. We answer an altar call, or we can point to a moment where we “found God”. Sometimes faith comes bit by bit as we hear more and more about Christ crucified and risen. We slowly give up analysis for confession (Charles B. Cousar). And faith can be variable. Sometimes we put Jesus in the center of our lives more slowly than others. We may trust Jesus with some things and not with others. We have doubts, and we have moments of the peace of Christ. Sometimes we believe, but think God is not doing a good job with us or with anyone else. Sometimes we feel the presence of God in the movement of the Holy Spirit in us. All of our journeys are acceptable as long as we are engaging our faith in some way, rather than thinking about it on Sunday morning for an hour and having no use for God the rest of the week. For the history student, seeing was believing. For the first disciples, seeing was believing. For the rest of us, there is the biblical witness to Jesus’ signs and wonders and to his death and resurrection that have been passed down through generations of the church’s teaching. As we have been witnessed to, it is now our turn to witness, to tell our stories about what Jesus has done in our lives to give us light and life. Whether we are timid or bold, whether we are struggling or sure about what we believe, Jesus gives us the same mandate he gave the first disciples. The story is too good not to share. We are about bringing others to belief in Jesus. Name it, claim it and do it.

AMEN

  - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 283
Ibid., p. 275