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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Believing Without Seeing

John 20:19-31

I’ve always had a lot of sympathy for poor old “Doubting Thomas,” who gets his moniker – I believe undeservedly so – from this morning’s gospel lesson. Thomas wasn’t in the room on Easter afternoon when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples. It’s hard to blame him for not believing their crazy stories that they had seen the risen Christ: Thomas had betrayed him as had the rest; Thomas had probably witnessed the crucifixion from a distance, like the rest; Thomas may have visited the tomb or even helped prepare the body for burial. He had probably seen with his own eyes, perhaps touched with his own hands, Jesus’ corpse. He had followed the Galilean carpenter for three years, believing he was God’s anointed. Now, he’s not about to trust another hare-brained affirmation of faith without proof positive. He was from Missouri: it needed to be proved. Thomas probably didn’t invent the phrase seeing is believing, but he certainly subscribed to it.

Thomas not only wants to see a living body, he wants to see a crucified body. Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side (where the centurion’s spear had pierced Jesus), I will not believe. No body double will do for Thomas. If the crucified and dead Jesus is not resurrected, there is no resurrection.

And so we say two thousand years later. In a few minutes we will affirm our faith with the words of the Apostles’ Creed: . . . crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again . . . Over those two thousand years there have been scores of theologians who argued that Christian faith did not require both a fully dead Jesus or a fully resurrected one. Perhaps, argued some, he only seemed to die. If he were truly divine, then he couldn’t really die. Or, it was only the human part of him that died. On the other hand, postulated other theologians, perhaps Jesus really did die, but his resurrection was a new understanding of his importance in the minds of his disciples. They came to understand that Jesus’ essential message would live on in eternity, because no one can ever kill love. They were using coded language when they talked about him rising from the dead: what really rose was his message and teachings, which live on in us.

No, Thomas was right: Jesus had said he was going to be killed and then would rise on the third day. If he didn’t die, Jesus was a liar. And if the dead Jesus didn’t rise, then he’s still a liar, and there’s nothing different about Jesus than any dead hero.

A week later, in the same room, with Thomas present, the resurrected Jesus suddenly appears. He turns to Thomas and invites him to touch the wounds in his hands and side. Thomas, stunned, cries out, My Lord and my God! Jesus answers Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.

Do you understand whom Jesus is talking about in that last sentence? He’s talking about you and me. Jesus is extending the blessing of faith to you and to me, to Christians for the last two thousand years and for the next. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe. We’ve not seen the risen Jesus. We’ve not touched his wounds. Oh, yes, I have preached sermons for years and still believe that you and I are the risen Body of Christ, and that when I hold the hand of a dying saint or a crying child or a resident of the Gulf Coast whose home has been destroyed, I touch the wounds of the crucified Christ. It’s great sermon material, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about. You and I don’t get to see the dead Jesus suddenly appear in our dining room. We don’t get to touch him and see he’s real. You and I don’t get to test out whether he is a hallucination or not. But, says Jesus, we are just as blessed, if not more, than the eleven in Jerusalem a week after Easter.

It’s always tempting to believe that things were ever so much better back at the beginning – if we could just go back to those halcyon days and see what people were really thinking and believing and doing, then we could copy them and get it right. Most religious reformations are attempts to go back to the beginnings: St. Francis of Assisi was trying to get back to the simplicity of Jesus; Martin Luther was trying to get back to the purity of St. Paul’s theology; the Puritans and Anabaptists tried to remake the church after the order of the first century; the liturgical movement of the 1970’s recovered second and third-century liturgies, like the prayer from Melito of Sardis in our bulletin this morning. Crosby, Stills and Nash sang it at Woodstock: We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. The Tea Party movement and original-intent Constitutionalists want to go back to the origins of the country and recover what the framers intended. There is a whole musical movement intent on playing baroque and classical music only on baroque and classical instruments. There is even a group of people dedicated to preserving early video games on original video consoles and computers, so classics like Asteroids and Frogger will not be lost to the world. Yes, if we could just get back to the beginnings, life would be ever so much better, wouldn’t it?

Except that in the beginning, the Bible says, it all went wrong. In the beginning, in the Garden, human beings were just as selfish and murderous and unfaithful as we are now. For thousands of years Jews wanted another King like David – the same king who had his chief general killed so David could have his wife, the same king who couldn’t control his own household, and whose son was such a tyrant that civil war erupted upon his death. Oh, if we could just have our own nation, then we could live in peace – and disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the process, including Palestinian Christians. We Christians are just as foolish: if we could just get back to the first century church, which was so dysfunctional that Paul had to write letter after letter to try, unsuccessfully, to correct the rampant problems within. The first century churches that are condemned by the angel in Revelation. The first century church that had ongoing arguments about who was welcome, about finances, about clergy credentials, about personal morality. Friends, if we want to go back there, congratulations: we’ve succeeded beyond our wildest dreams!

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe, says Jesus to Thomas and to us. The first century had no faith advantage on us: Jesus continues to pour out exactly the same love, the same Spirit of truth, the same opportunities for discipleship and blessing on us as were available in the apostolic age. We have access to the same miracles and the same persecutions as did the apostles. A saint in the twenty-first century is not inferior to an apostle; a sinner of the twenty-first century is no better than the villains of the Bible.

How do we know this – other than that Jesus said so? Look at the hands, feet, and side of the resurrected Jesus in the gospels, most especially this lesson. What do you notice? Even in the resurrection, Jesus is still wounded. Bill Mallard, who will be preaching here in June for Senior Adult Sunday, says that the wounds of the resurrected Jesus mean that for all eternity, Jesus is carrying the wounds of the world. Jesus didn’t just suffer for the people around him in 33 AD: Jesus suffers and intercedes and prays and comforts and heals and is present with you and with me every bit as much as he was for the people of the first century. Jesus will continue to bleed until the last sinner is redeemed, until the gates of hell are shut and its fires extinguished. Jesus will continue to bleed until the last cancer is cured, the last automobile death avoided, the last sword pounded into a plow, the last enemies made friends, the last tear of sorrow converted into a tear of joy. Jesus weeps for our sin no less than for Judas; he rejoices no less for our joys than for Lazarus. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.

Of course, you know what that means: if we are no less blessed than were the apostles, then we are no less called than they. If Jesus told them to take up their crosses, die to themselves, and follow him, it is no less true for us. If Jesus told them to forgive each other and love their enemies, it is no less true for us. If Jesus told them not to worry about storing up treasure on earth, it is no less true for us. If Jesus told them that if they followed him, they would be persecuted, it is no less true for us. If Jesus told them not to judge others, then is no less true for us.

The blessing and the discipline are inseparable. We, who have not seen, are just as blessed. But we are no less called. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe. We will receive the blessing, as did the apostles, to the extent we follow.

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