April 27, 2014
I was co-leading a Lenten Bible study at a church I served for a while in Iowa. Over the course of that day’s lesson, the conversation turned to the movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” It was in the theaters at that time, and it was making waves across the country. One woman who was in our group that morning had just seen the movie. She loved it. As she was describing it to us in great detail, she ended with the comment, “Well, now we know what really happened.”
I responded in my politest voice, “Actually, we only know what Mel Gibson believes to have happened. He based it on Biblical accounts, true, but it’s still his interpretation of those accounts.”
I knew by the look she gave me that she wasn’t thrilled with me for saying that. She wasn’t thrilled with me in general, and I had no doubt that wasn’t a church with which I felt called to engage in a long-ministry. But I wouldn’t back down then, and I still stand by my response to her. Whatever the merits of that movie might have been, it was one person’s interpretation of events brought to life in film. But many of the people who watched this movie held it up as proof positive that everything we as Christians believe is absolutely, incontestably, indisputably true. It was proof.
I’m seeing these same kinds of claims in response to the movie that is in theaters now, “Heaven Is for Real.” I have not seen the movie, but I do know the story. I’m certainly not going to cast aspersions at what was obviously a powerful experience for a little boy and his family. There is a lot in what is described about heaven from this little boy’s near death experience that gives you pause. But I won’t hold it up as proof any more than I would claim that Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” is spot on accurate. In my humble opinion, none of this is proof. But I get it. I understand that when it comes to faith, we search for proof. I understand that need, that desire well. I certainly feel it. I think most of us would like incontrovertible proof. It seems to me that it is human nature to seek it out. If this morning’s passage from John’s gospel proves anything, it is that we are not alone in wanting proof that what we believe is true.
The discipleS, notice my emphasis on the plural, wanted proof as well. Mary Magdalene not only testified to the disciples that the tomb where Jesus was laid was empty; she encountered the risen Lord and shared that good news with them as well. Peter and the beloved disciple both ran to see for themselves if Mary’s story about the tomb being empty was true. They both saw the linen wrappings that shrouded Jesus. They saw. Yet where were the disciples when evening came? They were in a house behind locked doors, fearing the Jews, the religious authorities and powers that put Jesus to death in the first place.
It makes sense that they feared those authorities. If they were willing to put Jesus to death, why not his intimate group of followers as well? One commentator made the case that the disciples might also have feared the risen Jesus. If he was in fact resurrected, as outlandish and impossible as that might be, then he might not be too happy with them. After all, they didn’t make such a good showing at the end did they? They betrayed Jesus. They denied Jesus. They ran away in fear. No matter how often Jesus told them about his death and resurrection in the time leading up to the crucifixion, they couldn’t grasp what Jesus was actually telling them. Even in John’s gospel, they still didn’t get it. So there the disciples were huddling in fear behind locked doors. But those locked doors could not keep Jesus out. He came to them, through their locked doors, but not to punish or condemn. Instead he greeted them with peace. “Peace be with you.” And he breathed on them the Holy Spirit. This is John’s Pentecost. Jesus breathed the power of the Holy Spirit on them, just as the breath of God breathed creation into existence. This physical encounter with the risen Lord, this gift of the Holy Spirit, convinced the disciples that Jesus was indeed resurrected. All of the disciples had their proof.
All except Thomas. For whatever reason, Thomas was not cowering behind locked doors with the others. Thomas wasn’t there, so he missed this moment with Jesus. Just like Mary told the disciples, they told Thomas, “He’s risen! We’ve seen him! He was right here in our midst. We have seen the Lord.” But Thomas didn’t accept that. His response? “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Here is where the misunderstanding about Thomas begins. I know I’ve said this in past sermons, but Thomas was no different than the other disciples. As one biblical scholar noted, Thomas was only different in that he put into words the conditions for faith. The others had to see the risen Jesus as well before they would truly believe, but Thomas said it out loud.
A week later Jesus gave Thomas the proof he wanted. Closed doors did not keep Jesus away. He appeared in their midst, again bringing them peace. Jesus showed Thomas his hands. He told him to reach out his finger and touch. “Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas then said what is considered to be an extraordinary confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!” While it seems to our ears that Jesus rebuked him for this, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” I don’t hear as rebuke. I hear this as Jesus speaking beyond just those present in that room. In that moment Jesus spoke through the centuries yet to come, opening the door for all people to believe. The generations yet to come, including us, would not be disadvantaged in our faith because we did not see Jesus resurrected.
The challenge in this is that we have not seen Jesus resurrected. We don’t have proof. This is not to deny the witness of scripture. But where is the evidence that will satisfy our senses? Where is the proof that we can touch, see, hear, smell, taste?
Here is the problem with seeking, needing proof. I no longer believe that it actually helps our faith. A dear, sweet friend made the mistake of asking me the other night how I was doing on my sermon. Then he had the misfortune to have to listen to me talk through it out loud. As I did just that, I came to this point. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is certainty. I know that sounds strange, but faith and certainty are not the same thing. Faith is the willingness to trust in something beyond our senses. We can’t prove it, not empirically. That’s what makes it faith. Certainty, on the other hand, is more about our need to be right than it is to be faithful. Certainty locks the doors of our minds, our hearts. Certainty keeps us from seeing Christ in one another. Certainty takes faith and uses it as a weapon against those who believe differently. Certainty locks the door to the Holy Spirit. Certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith.
The last verse in this passage states the purpose of the gospel. Jesus did many more signs than could be written down. But the ones that were are given to us, all of us, so that we may believe. But is that proof? Does just reading about these signs and wonders, these miracles especially the miracle of resurrection, give us evidence that God is real, that Jesus is Love Incarnate, and that the power of the Holy Spirit will blow where it will? Faith in John’s gospel is not about proof. It is more than just verbal assent. Faith is active. It is lived. It is something that we do even when we doubt
In one of his many sermons, William Sloane Coffin stated it this way,
“Miracles do not a messiah make. But a messiah can do miracles. If you ask me if Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead, literally walked on water and changed water into wine, I understood, and the more it is lived, the more things become possible.’ I can also report that in home after home I have seen Jesus change beer into furniture, sinners into saints, hate-filled relations into loving ones, cowardice into courage, the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope In instance after instance, life after life, I have seen Christ be ‘God’s power unto salvation,’ and that’s miracle enough for me.”
We are called not to certainty, but to faith. And “faith,” as Coffin also said, “is not believing without proof but trusting without reservation.”
Let us trust without reservation that Jesus is raised, love not death wins, and the power of the Holy Spirit is let loose in the world. Let us live out our faith, not because we are certain but because in spite of our doubts we know that there are no locked doors that can keep out the peace, joy, and love of Christ. Peace be with you. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.
Credo, Coffin, William Sloane, ©2004, Westminster John Knox Press