On Sunday evening, the first day of the week, three days after Jesus was crucified and only hours after Mary and other followers claimed to see Jesus raised from the dead, the disciples are gathered together behind a closed door and to their amazement, Jesus appears. A few weeks ago I visited my parents who live in Florida, and we watched a remarkable magic show on television. The best magicians in the world were all there. Women appeared out of nowhere and vanished into thin air. White balls become red balls, even a helicopter materialized out of the blue—it was remarkable! I was fascinated, but I knew, even though I wanted to believe otherwise, I knew that it was all just a trick. It wasn’t real. It didn’t really happen. There were mirrors, I was being duped, it was a show and although I was amused I did not really “believe” that it happened, and even if it did happen just as my eyes told me, what would it have mattered?
Thomas had those same questions. I guess Thomas had gone out for pizza when Jesus came, because he missed the great trick and when the other disciples told him how Jesus just showed up, he acted like a Tennessee good ole boy. He said, “I may be dumb but I’m not stupid. We buried our boy Jesus and the party’s over. No more Washington social galas for us. It’s time to pick up and head home to Memphis.” And it looks to me like Thomas must have been pretty persuasive with what he had to say, because eight days later—not later on that evening or the next morning, but eight days later—the disciples were still behind closed doors when Jesus again appeared, only this time Thomas was at home.
Again, Jesus, announces his presence with the words, “Peace be with you.” At that point peace must have been about the last thing the disciples were experiencing. Their leader had been executed by the state as a political conspirator. They were in danger. That was why the door was closed. But Jesus, knowing what they needed most, greets them by offering-peace.
He then immediately speaks to Thomas and offers concrete proof that it really is Jesus: “Put your hands in my wounds if you don’t believe.” To Thomas’ credit he needs no further proof—he knows that it is Jesus and, more to the point, he knows that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world.
Then Jesus speaks to all of us, those of us from Tennessee, those of us in Washington, those who worship in small struggling churches and those who worship in the National Cathedral. Jesus declares, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
The Gospel writer goes on to say that the point of his entire Gospel, everything he has written for the last twenty chapters is so that you and I will believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Well, it’s just not that easy.
About ten years ago in Memphis, a great promoter named Sidney Slinker came to town and told us all the things he was going to do to make everyone in Memphis rich and famous, and do you know what? We believed him. Now I’m sure he could tell us what went wrong and how the politicians let him down but the experience left the rest of us skeptical about people who proclaim themselves to be Saviors—and Jesus is no different. Most of us, if we are honest, at many times in our life, neither believe that Jesus is our Savior nor understand that in him we may have life.
Many of us have difficulty admitting this because it puts us in the same camp as doubting Thomas. For some reason we are convinced that doubt of any sort is incompatible with faith in Jesus. Yet, Paul Tililch, a theologian from the fifties and sixties whom many are starting to forget, taught us wisely that faith without doubt renders your faith idolatrous. The essence of faith encompasses a degree of uncertainty. Only if we turn our God into a golden calf can we know without doubt that it exists. Doubt is, in fact, a good thing, a healthy thing for any person of faith. What matters is the process you go through to achieve the faith you have.
With this in mind there are three points I want to make that lead me to believe, along with Thomas, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that in him there is life.
The first two points I want to make come out of my experiences in Memphis at the place I work and spend my life, which is known as the Church Health Center. The Church Health Center began in 1987, and working with over 200 congregations of faith, now cares for the health care needs of over 30,000 working but uninsured men and women whose jobs allow them to make our lives comfortable. They cook your food, clean your houses, and will one day dig your grave. Yet, when they get sick they must pay the bill out of their own pocket. In Memphis, however, the people of faith have acted to care for their neighbors in remarkable ways. Recently I became the doctor for Susan who is 45-years old and just got married for the first time last November. About the time of her wedding she began having a pain in her pelvis that she hoped would soon go away. She did not go to the doctor because her husband was starting a new business and she knew that they did not have the money to pay for any medical expenses. The pain, however, did not go away.
After months of the pain growing steadily worse Susan heard of the Church Health Center and came to our walk in clinic where the cost for care is only $30. One of my partners saw her and immediately knew there was a problem. She ordered a CAT scan of her pelvis at no charge and made her an appointment to see me.
A few days later I looked at her chart before seeing her and read the CAT scan report. She had a 10-centemeter mass in her right ovary. I was certain that it must be ovarian cancer. Before even saying “hello” I arranged for the best GYN cancer surgeon in Memphis to volunteer to do her surgery, but then I had to tell her what was causing her pain. As I told her of the mass in her ovary, she began to cry. Who wouldn’t cry when hearing such news? I tried my best to comfort her but as I did she stopped crying and said to me, “I know you think I am crying because I am afraid I have cancer, but that is not why I am crying. I am crying because I cannot believe that there is a place like this that cares about me.”
And why is it that this place, the Church Health Center, exists? It is because this is what the people of faith have said that it means to follow Jesus after he is raised from the dead. Throughout the Gospel of John the Gospel writer repeatedly makes the point that it is not good enough to be impressed by Jesus as a miracle worker or a doer of spectacular deeds. To believe in Jesus is not just to be impressed by his magic but hear the word of God that he utters and upon hearing the word to do the word. The first reason I believe without having ever seen Jesus is because I have seen the people of faith live out the gospel in a way which gives Susan hope in the goodness of life, and by the way, I can’t explain it, but her tumor wasn’t cancer.
The second reason I believe without seeing is because of Evelyn. Evelyn was only 42-years old when she had a heart attack and needed a by-pass operation. Her surgery went fine and all was well for the first twenty-four hours then she lost the pulse in her right leg. Twenty-four hours later she lost the pulse in her left leg. Twenty-four hours later she had both legs amputated at the hip. After that I became her doctor because she does not have health insurance.
Not too long ago she developed a pain in her side that would not go away. On a Friday afternoon I saw her in the clinic and made plans to do more tests the next Monday, only that night she went to the emergency room and was admitted to the hospital. When I saw her Saturday morning her husband was holding her hand thinking she was asleep. Only she was not asleep, she was in a coma. Within a few minutes she was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.
Over the next few weeks she almost died, but without explanation she recovered. Once out of the hospital she came to the office and while talking to me asked, “Dr. Morris, do you remember what we did the last time I was here?”
I remembered very well. On that Friday afternoon she had asked me to pray for her which I did. She placed her hand behind my neck and I prayed that she would be healed.
As I remembered that day I thought to myself, “What must she think about God? What kind of God would have you pray for healing only to have you at death’s doorstep within 24 hours?”
After a moment I acknowledged remembering our prayer together at which point she said, “What do you think would have happened if we had not had that prayer?”
What would have happened if we had not had that prayer? Is your faith that great? I am afraid my doubts may have leapt into disbelief at that point, but Evelyn’s faith during that ordeal and her continued faith day in and day out despite her many troubles helps me to believe when I am prone to unbelief.
It is not the possibility of a miraculous rescue from death that moves me, but Evelyn’s belief in God’s unending presence even as she was enduring the dark night of the abyss. Because of her faith I am encouraged to join her in the fellowship of believers. What would have happened if we had not had that prayer? Whose to say, but having that prayer has helped convince me that the world is more than the rational mind can conceive. And that world is the creation of the word of God.
And finally, I believe that Jesus is the Christ, because of the unexplained joy that happens in the world.
A friend of mine was a Lutheran minister in New York City for about ten years. Her church was located in the middle of a large Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. It was a very small Lutheran Church. During her time at Our Savior Atonement Barb got to know many of her Jewish neighbors including Sheva and his father. Sheva was born with a fairly serious birth defect, which impaired him physically and mentally. But Sheva like most boys liked baseball and wanted to be able to play. Barb happened to hear his father tell the congregation that one day while walking through the park the other boys in the neighborhood were playing baseball and Sheva looked at his father and asked, “Can I play?” His father was reluctant to ask the other boys but quietly approached the boy in left field. The boy thought for a minute, and since it was already the eighth inning and his team was losing by five runs, he asked the others and they let Sheva get a glove and go to right field. Sheva was thrilled. He had never actually played in a game before.
As luck would have it, Sheva’s team scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning and then in the ninth inning, the bases were loaded with two outs when it came Sheva’s turn to bat.
Sheva’s father did not think this would actually happen, but to his amazement the other boys let him bat. Sheva did not know how to swing the bat and held it awkwardly.
The opposing pitcher, seeing what was happening came close to Sheva and slowly tossed him the ball. Sheva swung with all his might only to miss the ball by a mile. Then one of the other boys came and put his arm around Sheva, placed his hands together and stood with him to hit the ball.
The pitcher again tossed the ball gently and Sheva swung with his whole might. This time he topped the ball and it rolled softly back to the pitcher. Everyone yelled “Run, Sheva, run.”
As he ran to first base the pitcher fielded the ball and intentionally threw it over the first baseman’s head.
“Run to second, Sheva, run to second.” When he got to second base, the short stop pointed him to third base, and every one yelled, “Run to third.” By now the right fielder had picked the ball up and thrown it wildly over the third baseman’s head. As he reached third base all the other boys were now behind Sheva and shouted, “Run home, Sheva, run home.” When Sheva reached home plate the boys from both teams cheered and placed Sheva on their shoulders for Sheva was a hero.
As Sheva’s father told this story to the congregation he concluded by saying, “On that day, I saw what perfection can be.”
Now I wish that story had happened in Tennessee, but who here has not seen goodness breakforth in the world when you least expect it? In the midst of the world’s tragedies day in and day out there are moments when beauty is radiant, when compassion subdues greed, when kindness suppresses meanness and when love replaces anger.
Do these things just happen by coincidence? Do the people at GuidePost make them up to sell their magazine? Are these truly just random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty?
Or did God mean for it to be this way? Did the word of God, Jesus Christ, create the world this way?
Although I am not certain why it is this way, I know that it is not magic. It is not a trick, and though I was not there with Thomas with the chance to put my fingers in his side, I believe that Jesus makes it so. That Jesus is truly all that the Gospel writer claims. He is the Christ, the Son of God, and in him there is life. Sure there are days that I have my doubts, but Susan and Evelyn and Sheva are the stories that allow me to say I believe. What are the stories that will allow you to say the same?