The Rev. Patrick Keyser: Blessed Are Those Who Have Not Seen and Yet Have Come to Believe
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What does it mean to have faith? To believe? These are foundational questions for the Christian. But the answers to these seemingly elementary questions might not be as straightforward as we initially imagine. Many of us, myself included, were introduced to the idea of faith and believing as a process of intellectual assent, of agreeing to and accepting a set of statements. To believe, in this sense, is to intellectually accept that there is a God, that Jesus is the son of God, that he died and rose again on the third day, to name but a few examples. This aspect of belief is of fundamental importance and explains the development in the generations immediately after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, of statements of faith that outline the contours of Christian belief known to us as creeds, from the Latin, meaning believe. The two most important of these are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. The latter of which is a fourth century statement of belief that we recite together every Sunday in the course of the liturgy, as western Christians have done for nearly a thousand years, in recognition of the importance of regularly grounding ourselves in these essential truths.
As important as this practice may be, the recitation of a lengthy doctrinal statement on its own can feel abstract, detached, and highly cerebral. It can make faith and believing seem to be dependent solely on our own efforts and abilities, assuming little role for God. Such an understanding is limited and incomplete. This morning I’d like to frame this discussion of faith and believing in a broader context by considering the scriptural example of those disciples of Jesus who first encountered him after his resurrection and thus came to believe themselves.
The text before us today from the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel continues and builds upon the story that immediately precedes it, which was that gospel passage we heard last week on Easter Day. That first half of John 20 tells of Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb early on the first day of the week and discovering that the stone had been removed. She summoned Simon Peter and that disciple whom Jesus loved, so that they too might come and see the empty tomb with only the linen wrappings remaining. While those two disciples returned to their home, Mary Magdalene remained weeping outside the tomb where she then encountered the risen Christ, though she did not at first know it was him. As Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him as her risen Lord. She then went and testified to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord”.
Our text today begins on the evening of that same day, the first day of the week. Though the disciples had locked themselves behind closed doors, Jesus came among them, offering them his peace. It was Jesus’ first appearance to these disciples after his resurrection and before they could even ask for anything, he showed them his hands and his side as assurance that it was him, their crucified yet risen Lord. Jesus gave them what they needed before they could even ask. Absent from that gathering on that first day of the week was the apostle Thomas. We’re left to holy wondering as to where Thomas was that evening and what he was doing. But after their encounter with Jesus, the other disciples came to him and said, “We have seen the Lord”, the very same declaration Mary Magdalene had previously offered to them. The first testimony to the resurrection, the first statement of belief we might say, is focused on encounter. “We have seen the Lord”. Not on any claim about a theological truth. Thomas replies to his fellow disciples with a demand, which is in large part to experience the same thing that they had experienced.
Thomas wants to see Jesus for himself. If Thomas is to be faulted, it is for the way his request exceeds what the others had received. He demanded not just to see Jesus, but also to touch his wounds and to put his hand in Jesus’ side. His demanding of more, more than what the other disciples had received, is grounds for criticism, far more than any accusations of doubt. A week later, a week after Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene, then the others fearful, locked behind the closed doors. Jesus appeared again to the gathered disciples this time including Thomas, and again, he offered them his peace. He then immediately addressed Thomas and the directness of his comments suggest that this appearance was primarily, if not solely, for the sake of Thomas. The others had already seen him. Jesus came, not scolding Thomas, but offering him exactly what he had previously demanded before Thomas could even make the request. “Put your finger here and see my hands”, Jesus tells him, “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Face to face with his risen Lord, Thomas did not need to accept Jesus’ invitation to touch his wounds. For beholding his presence was more than enough to cause him to cry out, “My Lord and my God”.
Thomas, like Mary Magdalene and the other disciples before him, believed. They believed because they had encountered Jesus Christ risen from the dead. They had seen him, spoken with him, received his peace, beheld his wounds that bore witness to his suffering and great love for them. This connection, this relationship, became the source of love, of devotion and above all, of trust. Trust in the one who made promises and had fulfilled them. And that I would suggest brings us to something essential for any understanding of faith and belief. Trust is at the heart of believing. Trust in the one who is alive and still present with us, still sharing his peace, still bringing new life out of places and situations that seem gripped by circumstances of death. To believe is to trust this living God.
Now in the very moment of this extraordinary encounter with Thomas, Jesus acknowledges that this exchange is an exceptional one, one that is not to be expected for those who come after. He tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. That my friends is you and me and all those of every generation who have followed Jesus. He who ascended to his father is not present to us in the same way he was to Mary Magdalene and those disciples locked behind the closed doors, but his presence abides with us all the same. And encountering that living and abiding presence is the foundation upon which we must establish our belief just as it was for those first witnesses to the resurrection.
So where then do we find this risen Lord present among us even now? We might first consider St. Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ here on earth. At our best, this community of redeemed sinners we call the church can reach out in love and compassion, in generosity and in care, and ways that allow others to experience the presence of Christ in the most challenging moments of life. In times of loss and grief, isolation and loneliness, of sickness and death. We look of course to prayer and the rhythms of corporate worship, in the sacraments. The ordinary things of this life. Bread and wine, water and oil, human touch, bring us face to face with the very presence of Christ. Scripture assures us as well that Christ is to be found among the hungry, the imprisoned, the lost, and the lonely. And we must remain ever open to the possibility of finding Jesus present among us in the most surprising and unlikely of places and people.
Now these moments of encounter might be fleeting. As soon as we recognize him, he might vanish from our sight and that can be deeply discouraging and indeed confounding. We cannot ignore or deny the reality that all of us know times when God’s presence feels so distant or so imperceptible. Moments when the work of faith and believing feels so very challenging. We should not, we cannot, see these as evidence of weakness or deficiency on our part, but instead they can remind us that faith depends not solely on our own efforts, not on our own devotion. We depend on God to offer us what we need. Just as Jesus did for Thomas and his other fearful friends. We might find comfort and wisdom as well in the example from elsewhere in the gospels. Of a parent who came to Jesus with a desperately sick child and cried out, “I believe help my unbelief”. That is a profoundly faithful prayer. Believing then is as much about trusting the one in whom we put our faith, as it is about assenting to theological claims. That trust flows from relationship with the living God. We believe because we experience Jesus’ presence and love and are nourished and sustained by that love.
And we must remember as well that believing is not an end in itself. The writer of John reminds us that the signs of Jesus contained in that gospel were written so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name. Life, abundant life in Christ, is the end and the promise that is reason to rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. To borrow the language of the first letter of Peter, “Christ rose victorious over death so that we might have life with him. That, that is our joy that has no end. Amen.