Trusting Someone You Have Never Seen
John 20:19-31, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 27, 2014
Every session of the retreat I attended this week began with some kind of relationship-building exercise. The most fun was the invisible ball game. The leader did not merely tell us that we had an invisible ball. He had an assistant go around the room looking for where she had left the two invisible balls. We formed two circles of about ten each and practiced tossing the invisible ball to each other around the circle, making eye contact and grunting “Ha!” But then we were given the freedom to throw the ball to anyone in the circle, just signaling with our eyes that the other person was the intended receiver. People started doing bounce passes, high passes you had to jump to catch, pop flies, and underhand tosses. We got faster and faster, and by the time the game ended we were all pretty well winded.
That exercise was not theological. It was just to make us playful and to get us to notice the importance of eye contact. But I couldn’t help thinking afterwards that this must be the way some people experience church all the time—and the way all of us experience church sometimes. We are tossing an invisible ball around, acting as if it is real, making an elaborate game of it and even finding joy in it. But is the ball real? Does having a group of people agree to act as if it is real make it real? I don’t think so.
What if there is no Jesus in our midst? What if God is invisible because he isn’t there? These are doubts that cross everyone’s mind from time to time—unless, perhaps, you’ve been practicing faith for so long that it’s second nature. And yet if we have such thoughts—what if Jesus is not real?—most of us stop the thought in mid-sentence because we are afraid that it is a sin to ask. Some of us have been trained to think of doubt as a moral failure. And perhaps we don’t want to be the little boy who says the Emperor has no clothes and bring the whole parade to a halt. My own weakness might make the reality evaporate for everyone else.
All the joy and confidence in our Easter songs, which are some our most wonderful songs, mask the truth about the resurrection stories in the gospels which tell us that everyone doubted. It is not the case that everyone else believed at once and naughty Thomas alone refused to believe. He is not the only doubter. They are all doubters. We are all doubters, too, but like them we can be doubters who come to trust Jesus and to trust that he is alive.
No one believed in advance Jesus’ statement that he must rise from the dead. When Jesus died, it was the end of the game. The invisible ball was revealed to be a delusion, as far as Jesus’ followers were concerned. Either Jesus was wrong about the kingdom and his relationship to God, or God turned out to be too weak to defeat the powers of this world. What we had thought was passing from one person to another like a mysterious ball of joy and love had suddenly dissolved. It was beyond doubt; it was disillusionment.
The women who discovered the empty tomb did not conclude that Jesus was alive, but that his body had been stolen. In Mark, the women run terrified from the tomb even after an angel speaks to them. In Luke, the women report the news to the male disciples, but the men think it is an idle tale. Two men on the road walk alongside Jesus, complaining about his death, and do not see that he is alive until they break bread with him. In John, Mary looks right at Jesus—staring at the evidence of resurrection—but does not believe until Jesus calls her name and she feels addressed personally by the Divine One. On that Easter Sunday night, where are Jesus’ disciples? Are they out spreading this great good news that Jesus has overcome death and everything he said is true? No, they are huddled in a house with the doors locked out of fear that the people who killed Jesus will also kill them. One commentator wondered if they might even have been afraid of Jesus, after how they had failed him. If he was alive, he might not be for them. What does it take for them to move from doubt to faith? It takes more than Mary telling her story. It takes Jesus standing right in front of them saying “Peace to you,” no hard feelings, bless you, I still love you. And then what? Jesus showed them his hands and his side so that they could see his wounds.
The disciples were all like Thomas. They all needed to see for themselves. In his mercy, Jesus came to them to show them that it was really him who was alive, and that he was really a fully alive human and not a ghost—because he knew that was what they needed. So it’s not the case that there was just one “Doubting Thomas.” There were doubting humans. That’s the way we are made. And Jesus doesn’t hold that against us. He didn’t say that first Sunday, “They have doubts about me, so they can’t see me.” Or “I have no desire to be among people who do not trust me.” Jesus in his great mercy came right through locked doors and showed himself to the fearful and doubting, proclaiming peace to those who had given up.
What was it about Jesus that demonstrated his Jesus-ness? It was his woundedness. A question that popped up for me this week is: “If God was able to raise Jesus from the dead and put life into all those dying cells, why wasn’t God able to heal Jesus’ wounds?” [Question raised by Richard Hayes of Duke, Christian Century, 4-1-92]. That would be like an ER that could get your heart beating again but couldn’t put on a Band-Aid. Surely God could have healed the nail holes in Jesus’ hand and the spear wound in his side. But Jesus’ wounds had become part of his nature. They were his signature. The most striking line in the hymn we sang, Crown Him with Many Crowns, has to be “Behold his hands and side, /those wounds yet visible above /in beauty glorified.” What is implied here and in the book of Revelation is that Jesus even in power and glory still has his scars. Jesus’ suffering as a human has become forever a part of God’s story and God’s nature, and his visible scars remind us that he knows what it is to be wounded.
Thomas, as you know, did not get to see the wounds for himself on Easter Sunday. It’s a strange detail that they called Thomas “the Twin.” Whose twin was he? Usually you call a pair of people “the twins” rather than referring to one person as “the Twin.” Whose twin was he? I have an idea that Thomas is my twin, your twin; he is the stand-in in the story for the reader, or in the earliest years, the hearer. He is the twin of all of us who did not get to see the wounds for ourselves. He is not so different from us that we can label him the doubter—as if we do not doubt.
The remarkable thing in the story is not that Thomas doubted—you’d expect that—but that Jesus in his mercy came to make himself known to the one who had trouble believing. Jesus met Thomas where he was, making himself available point by point giving Thomas what he said he needed in order to believe.
I don’t think it can be an accident that it was on the following Sunday—today, a week after Easter—that Jesus appeared to the disciples again. Who knows what he did with himself all week, but he wasn’t with the disciples. It was on Sunday, when they met together again in that same house for fellowship and perhaps worship, that Jesus came to them. If you want Jesus to show himself to you, don’t skip gathering with believers on Sunday. And notice one more thing about Thomas. Even though he said he didn’t believe, he still hung out with the disciples. He didn’t say, “I have doubts, so I’m outta here.” You could say that he didn’t give up on being part of the church because he had trouble believing. He must have been hoping that someday he would “get” it.
Jesus comes right through the shut doors of the house—again—and again says “Shalom, y’all.” Then he speaks directly to Thomas: “Put your finger right here in the wound. Put your whole hand in this hole in my side. I don’t want you to keep doubting that I am really here. I want you to trust me.” It’s not a rebuke; it’s a personal invitation. What does Thomas do? Contrary to what you may remember from some famous paintings, John does not say that Thomas put his finger in Jesus’ hand or his hand in Jesus’ side. When Jesus speaks to him, he no longer needs evidence. What moves Thomas from doubt to faith is not evidence but encounter. It’s his recognition that the one who stands before him is real and living. This is the way it is for us. There can never be enough proof. And when we have an encounter with the living invisible God, proof is beside the point anyway. We speak sometimes of trusting Jesus as a leap in spite of a lack of evidence, but I think it usually feels less like a leap than a recognition. It’s the kind of recognition Mary Magdalene had last week: “Oh my Lord, it is you.”
Thomas’ moment of recognition is so profound that it produces the deepest profession of faith in the whole gospel. He doesn’t just say that Jesus is the Messiah or the Son of God. He says “My Lord and my God.” The United Bible Societies has a handbook for translators of this gospel which notes that in some cultures there may not be words for “Lord’’ or “God.” Their advice: You may need to say “You are the one who rules over me and the one I worship” [Translators Handbook to the Gospel of John by B. M. Newman, Eugene A. Nida, 1980]. I love that. This is the climax of the whole gospel. Most scholars assume that the original version of John ended with chapter 20, and this is the high water mark of faith to which the whole thing has been building. And remember, Thomas is the stand in for us, the readers. He is the one who struggled with doubt. He is the one who thought that perhaps his friends were playing a game of invisible ball and wishful thinking, telling themselves that Jesus was alive because they could not deal with defeat—just as we wonder if we tell ourselves Jesus is alive because we cannot deal with our own death. But it is Thomas who after his struggle comes to the deepest faith.
What Jesus says next is not a rebuke of Thomas but a blessing of us: “Have you believed because you have seen me? There’s nothing wrong with that, but even more blessed are those who have never seen me and yet come to believe.” Jesus is no longer talking to Thomas at that point; he’s talking to us. Have you ever seen House of Cards on Netflix? From time to time Kevin Spacey as the corrupt politician stops and looks right into the camera and speaks to the audience. That’s what John has Jesus doing. Blessed are you listeners in Ephesus in John’s community a generation later who have come to trust Jesus without ever seeing him. Blessed are you readers in the 21st century who have never seen Jesus with your eyes but on the basis of the story and the community and a personal encounter with the invisible have been brought to the point of trusting him.
Jim Somerville, the pastor of First Baptist in Richmond, wrote that John is like a revival preacher extending an invitation to come to Jesus. “It is precisely here that John…leans over the pulpit and begins pleading with all those who have not seen the risen Jesus but may yet come to believe. ‘I could have written a lot more about Jesus,’ he says. ‘I could have preached all night. But what I have written I have written that you might believe that he is who he said he was: the Messiah, the son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name. Won’t you come? Won’t you come?” [“Those Who Have Not Seen” Christian Century 4-8-98, p. 364]
These things have not been written so that you can have the facts or so that you can have proof. These things have been written so that you can believe, so that you can trust that the one who encounters you really is your Lord and your God. You know, probably, that in the New Testament the words for “believe” and “to have faith” or “trust” are the same word. It’s not about resolving your doubts so that you can believe in an intellectual sense. It’s about making a decision much deeper than that, in the center of your self, to trust the invisible, to recognize that in your struggle with doubt there is a personal presence, and that not just a wrestling angel but Jesus himself.
I love one verse we read earlier, 1 Peter 1:8, describing Christians: “Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him yet, you trust him and rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words.” I think Peter’s verbs might work better for us than John’s choice of the verb “believe.” What we are invited by the Invisible One to do is to love him, to trust him, and to find joy in him. That’s what John means by “believe” anyway: to love, to trust, to find joy. To all of you who have been ashamed to admit that you are Thomases, to all those who doubt the invisible game the gospels describe, the invitation is open. Out of his great mercy, Jesus has come to make himself known to you, especially you, with no judgment on your doubt, but an invitation to recognize the one who stands in front of you.
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