The Rev. John Ander Runkle, R.A.
Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I don’t know about you, but I find Jesus’ statement troubling. Troubling because here we have Thomas, a person not unlike you and me—a disciple, yes, but a skeptic—someone who was raised to see the world with suspicious eyes. Who was taught that only a fool believes everything he or she hears. Who learned that fiction often gets more traction than fact when people talk. Who subscribes to the creed that truly, “seeing is believing.” So, Thomas simply is not about to accept the notion that Jesus was raised from the dead just because other people are telling him so. How absurd would that be?! Who in their right mind would even say such a thing and keep a straight face? Before giving any serious consideration to such a notion, Thomas demands to see some hard evidence, some real flesh-and-blood proof that Jesus really is alive. And who among us can blame him?
In fact, I suggest we celebrate Thomas as a wise and prudent man. Perhaps a patron saint for those of us who live in the present age—a world governed by tangible fact, by logic and law, by measured, verifiable circumstance. After all, the principles of rational thinking form the foundation for western civilization. Our very own Declaration of Independence appeals to such principles when it proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” You and I want, we expect our lives to be rational, predictable, and comprehendible. We don’t like it when mystery creeps in, when we can’t explain things, when events happen outside of the ordinary. For us to jump to conclusions, to agree to hearsay, to accept willingly the supernatural, without any clear facts, is, well, just plain ignorant! It’s foolish! Wouldn’t you agree? Yet, isn’t this what Jesus is encouraging?
Listen to the words again, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
In the early twentieth century, Max Weber, a German sociologist, wrote an influential essay entitled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, Weber argued a shift was taking place within Western culture: Protestantism was working diligently to disentangle itself from the medieval mindset of the Christian sacrament. In other words, Protestantism felt that a sacramental view of the world—a view that believed God would transform material objects into spiritual matter and then use this matter to transmit divine grace to humankind—that such notions smacked of magic and the occult, and should be dismissed as superstition. In its place, Weber contended, was a growing and pervasive sense of rationality that extended into all areas of western life and thought. It was as though the chant, “out with superstition and in with logic,” was being raised by every voice. The result, Weber concluded, was religion was forced into a state of retreat. Notions of the mysterious and miraculous were dismissed. As such, any associations between the communion bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ were scoffed. “No logical evidence exists to substantiate such a claim. It’s nothing more than silly hocus-pocus. So, pay no more attention to it!”
Yet, with all this being said, Weber, himself having no religious belief, seemed to make his argument with a pessimistic voice. In fact, he described this movement as “the disenchantment of the world,” as though some energetic spark, some shining light was going out, some stirring quality of life now was missing from the human spirit. And as a consequence, he talked of human beings as though we now are confined, as it were, in “an iron cage.” A barren and suffocating image, to be sure!
In our own day, David Brown, an Anglican priest and professor of theology at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, picks up this conversation. In his recent book, God and Enchantment of Place, Brown cites criticism of the present church—that it has become a place where function replaces mystery. Where the purpose of worship is more about strengthening the community for mission and service than it is about adoration of God, and basking in the presence of God. That we are more focused on busy work, doing logical tasks that seemingly justify our sense of salvation, rather than sitting at the feet of Jesus, participating in the presence of God, receiving the love of God’s spirit and offering our love in return.
Brown even extends this criticism to life beyond the confines of the church. He argues that at one time, in the not-so-distant past, it was inconceivable for human beings to think that God and religion were irrelevant to their lives. Yet now, such matters function more like an optional extra to our daily regimen, like just one more competing leisure activity—when we find the time. At one point in our history, the purpose of human experience was to know God intimately, to recognize God’s presence throughout our day, to live our life with the knowledge and love of God. But for many today, they ask, “Where’s the proof?” The evidence in the world around us suggests a distant, disinterested God, if one even exists. Common logic suggests belief in the supernatural is for the weak, the simple-minded, the under-privileged….
But Brown does not leave us to wallow in such disparaging thoughts. No, he suggests this state exists primarily because of our own doing. It results from our insistence that the logical mind is the most important organ in the body. And while survival would be difficult without it, we seem to forget the role the heart has to play. The heart too is critical for our survival—but more than survival, it is critical for living a meaningful and worthwhile life.
For example, how do we logically explain “love?” We can’t, but we know it exists. We know because our heart tells us it is so.
How can we witness the glorious resurrection of spring each year and rationalize the existence of God? We can’t, but many of us look beyond the cherry blossoms, and find it difficult not to believe. Again, our heart tells us it is so.
Perhaps, this is the point Jesus makes with Thomas today. Perhaps, he is saying, “Have you come to believe in the love of God because your logical mind permits you to? If so, that’s fine. But do not rely entirely on your intellect. Use also your heart to guide belief. For peace and contentment will be yours when you listen to your heart and place your trust in God.”
You see Jesus is not asking us to be idiots, nor does he want us to live an extremely, analytical life locked in an “iron cage.” Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ reveals to us an attentive, a loving and merciful God. And the Risen Lord desires nothing more than to engage our heart, as well as our mind, in a meaningful and sustained relationship.
In a few moments, we will be invited to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion—the bread and wine, representing the fruit of our labors, offered to God in thanksgiving for the blessings of life. In return, we believe God transforms these elements into the body and blood of Christ, holy food and drink that will sustain and enliven our spirit for our ongoing life in the world. It is a mutual exchange of love.
Now, if you look for tangible evidence that the bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood, you may be disappointed. (The truth be told, you may have more trouble imagining the wafer you receive is actually bread!) But nevertheless, we are invited to join in this celebration of love and thanksgiving by engaging our heart rather than our mind.
Just as Christ reached out to Thomas in an expression of divine love and generosity, Christ reaches out to you and me. Through these tangible objects, the bread and wine, God extends to us the grace to enable our fruitful lives. By these means, our heart knows that God indeed is present in our midst and we are participating in this divine presence. And as a result, we are free—free from the bondage of sin, free from the limitation of a stifled life, free from the imprisonment of an “iron cage.”
Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”