Seeing, Not Seeing and Believing

Book CoverI’m behind a bit in posting my sermons.  This was the one from last week.  And this week I preached without a net, as a friend puts it, more extemporaneously and not using a written text.  I thought about recording it, but left my iPhone at home.

So, here’s a sermon to reflect on about Thomas.  Check out the passage here: John 20:19-31.

Easter 2A—John 20:19-31

            I think Thomas gets a bad rap.  I mean our reading starts out with Jesus showing up, saying “Shalom” and the other disciples not knowing it was Jesus until he showed them his hands and his side.  Once he does this, John tells us, then the rejoiced.  It took the whole “hands and side” business to get them to believe it was really Jesus.

But Thomas wasn’t there, for whatever reason, so he missed out.  When the others tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, he declares that he won’t believe unless he sees Jesus’ hands and side, too.  In other words, if he sees what they have already seen, then he’ll believe.  Thomas does have a flair for the dramatic with his desire to place his finger in the actual wounds, but in the end, he wants what they already got.

Rather than focusing on the doubting aspect of this, I can’t help but notice once again John using the words “see” and “seeing” in this context.   “Seeing” is all over John’s narrative; he made a point of it right from his prologue about the incarnation “We have seen his glory” he writes at the beginning of the gospel.  When he meets some of the disciples, he tells them to “Come and see.”  And of course, we had the story about the man born blind and how the Pharisees couldn’t really see even though they thought they could.

Now, at the tail end of this gospel, we get Thomas.  When Jesus does show up again on the next Sunday evening, Thomas is in the room.  Jesus greets them all the same way, “Shalom” and then immediately addresses Thomas.  “Put your fingers here in my hand.  Reach out your hand and place it in my side.  Don’t doubt but believe.”  Thomas replies with the most direct statement of faith in John’s gospel, “My Lord and my God!”  To which Jesus replies, “Do you believe because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”

If we are honest, we can admit that there are many times in our lives when we are like Thomas.  There are times when our faith in Jesus wanes because we do not see him as one who lives and works in our lives.  Instead we hear the accounts of others, how Jesus has appeared in their lives, and we stand off in the distance alone.  We have seen the cross, we know that Jesus died, and we think that resurrection and transformation might be a cruel joke.  We don’t see.  And unless we experience Jesus ourselves, unless we see real proof and not just hear the words of others, we won’t ever believe.

The children’s book The Polar Express tells the story of a young boy who is lying awake on Christmas night hoping to hear the sound of bells from Santa’s sleigh.  As he lies awake waiting, he finally hears something, but it isn’t the ringing of bells, it is the hissing of steam and the squeaking of metal.  He jumps out of bed to see a train waiting in front of his house.  He sees a conductor get off the train, look at his pocket watch and wait.  The boy tiptoes downstairs and runs to the train, as the conductor shouts, “All aboard.”  “Where are you going?” the boy asks.  “The North Pole,” he replies, “This is the Polar Express, are you coming?”  Excitedly, the boy gets on the train.

It is filled with other children all still in their pajamas and robes, and they are served the best hot chocolate the boy has ever tasted.  They join together singing Christmas carols as the train continues to travel.  They look outside to see the trees of forests, and the lights of towns in the distance.  After coming over high mountains, they began to travel across the Polar ice cap, and the boy can see the North Pole in the distance, the lights glimmering in the night.  The children learn that the elves are gathering in the center of the city to see Santa give the first gift of Christmas.  “Who gets the first gift?” the boy asks.  “Santa will choose one of you,” the conductor replies.

Upon arriving at the stop, all the children climb out to see the most wonderful spectacle before them.  Hundreds and hundreds of elves are gathered together, with Santa’s sleigh in the middle of a circle.  The reindeer are impatiently moving around and their bells make a magical sound.  Santa walks over to the group of children, and says, “Let’s have this one here,” pointing to the boy.  The boy comes to Santa, they walk to his sleigh, and then Santa asks him, “What would you like for Christmas?”  The boy knew he could ask for anything in the world, but what he really wanted was one of the bells from the sleigh.  Santa smiled at him and asked one of the elves to cut off a bell.  He then held it up, and exclaimed, “The first gift of Christmas!” and gave the silver bell to the boy, who put it into his pocket.

Almost immediately, the boy was helped down from the sleigh and Santa took off, as the children were led back to the train.  When they had gotten back on, the other children clamored around the boy, asking to see the bell, and when he reached into his pocket he felt nothing but a hole.  The bell had slipped out.  Just as they were going to go out and look for it, the train lurched, and began to move.  They were going home.

The boy was devastated.  When he the train finally reached his house, he said good-bye, and walked sadly to his house.  “Merry Christmas!” the conductor shouted, and the Polar Express let out a whistle blast, and the boy waved from his open door.

The next morning, the boy and his sister, Sarah, opened their gifts.  When they had opened all that were there, Sarah found a small package by the back of the tree.  It was addressed to the boy.  “Found this on the seat of my sleigh.  Get that hole fixed!  Mr. C.” Inside was the silver bell.  The boy was ecstatic, and he rang that bell so he could hear the magical sound again.  “That’s a pity,” said his mother.  “It seems to be broken.  It’s not ringing at all.”  The boy learned that when he shook the bell he could hear it, and so could Sarah, but his parents didn’t hear a thing.

He writes at the end of the book, “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them.  Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.  Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all those who truly believe.”

And in the end that is what it comes down to for us.  Jesus can offer us wholeness and peace, but only if we believe.  Jesus can transform us into being Easter people, into people who live in and help bring about resurrection in our lives and in the lives of others through his power, but only if we believe.  Jesus is here each week, and when we come we are given the chance to see him, we are given the chance to reach our hands out and touch him.  We have the opportunity to see him standing here before us for what he is, our Lord and our God.  But to see him, we must truly believe.

As we come to this table to receive his body and blood, we are able to hold him in our hands, and to receive him again.  “Peace be unto you,” he says to us.  “Shalom, completeness, wholeness be yours.”  If we believe he can do his work in our lives, we can become the people he has called us to be.  People of the resurrection.  People who live transformed lives.  And in this way, he can send us out to continue to do his work in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are told at the very end of our Gospel lesson that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which aren’t written down.  And in the next chapter, John says the same sort of thing, claiming that if they were written down that the world itself wouldn’t be able to contain the books that could be written.  I think one of those reasons is because Jesus is still working signs in the presence of his disciples.  Jesus is still working in us and there continue to be signs of his work.  We see it in our lives and in the lives of others. With Easter comes true peace and wholeness for those who believe and declare Jesus to be both Lord and God.  May we always be blessed as those who truly believe because we have seen the very presence of Christ working among us, and may we always go from this place sharing the message of Christ’s peace with others.  Amen.