Sunday, April 7, 2013

Low Sunday Sermon

     John 20:19-31

As children, many of us probably asked if we could see God. My children have asked the question. As children we learn about the world around us through our senses. It is only natural to ask to see God. A child is certain to wonder who this fellow is that you talk about so seriously but that he cannot see. Perhaps at a later age, we wanted to hear God, and to receive some assurance that God was really there. Were you ever in such perplexity that you wanted God simply to tell you audibly what to do? As adults, we are not that different. Many want some kind of evidential proof of God’s existence. Nothing short of that will make them believe. As a result, some readers will undoubtedly feel a bit frustrated when they encounter today’s Gospel. In the reading, Thomas apparently receives such proof when the resurrected Jesus appears to him. Does he get to have that which we will never have? Does he get the proof that we think we need? Tradition has been somewhat hard on him by labeling him doubting Thomas. This is a misleading title, and ultimately the title believing Thomas might be more fitting.

Before I get there, I need to say something about the words for sight or seeing in John's Gospel. There are five different Greek verbs used for seeing in the Gospel. These different verbs contain a range of meaning. There is the seeing of the man born blind whom Jesus heals. Physical sight is given by the healing touch of the Lord. In the Easter morning accounts, Mary sees the stone rolled away from the tomb. Both of these refer to the function of our bodily eyes.

But there is another type of seeing, seeing with the understanding. If I put before you an American flag, you would say that it is more than strips of red and white fabric sewn together with stars. Your eyes tell you that this is a piece of cloth, but your understanding reminds you of the freedom, equality and justice that the flag represents. In John’s Gospel there is a kind of seeing beyond the bare facts of sight, but which does not grasp the fullness of who Jesus is or what his mission is. John 2.23 says that “when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.” As the Gospel develops it becomes clearer that those, who simply believe because of the miracles they see, do not have an abiding and substantial faith. The crowds have a sense of Jesus’ holiness; they can appreciate his miracles, but they cannot understand that his miracles point to a greater reality that Jesus is the Word of the Father, the perfect expression of God's character and person. In a similar way, after Jesus reveals the checkered history of the Samaritan woman in John 4, she says to Jesus, “I perceive, I see that you are a prophet.” Jesus’ power to reveal secret sins of which she is ashamed compels her to this confession, but she does not of course understand the fullness of who Jesus is. He is more than simply a prophet or soothsayer.

There is a third kind of seeing in John’s Gospel. This type of sight leads to substantial faith and trust. In last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Peter and the beloved disciple—usually understood as John—run to the empty tomb of Jesus. There they see the linens from the dead body of Jesus in one pile, and then in another spot, “the napkin, that was about his head. . . wrapped together in a place by itself.” This is followed by the affirmation that the beloved disciple, after he had entered the tomb, “saw and believed.” What did he see that caused him to believe? I think that he saw the way in which the linens were placed suggested that the body of Jesus had not been stolen. If you’re going to steal the body of Jesus, you wouldn’t take the time to unwrap it, and you definitely wouldn’t take the time to fold the head napkin, and place it neatly in another spot. John sees the burial linens with his physical eyes, but with the eyes of faith, he believes that Jesus has risen. It is the resurrection that gives clarity to the cross, by showing the cross to be the means of new life. It is only by the eyes of faith that we can see this new life budding out of the hard wood of the cross. For this reason, it is not morbid or evidence of an obsession with death, that we Christians wear crosses and place them in the center of churches. Faith teaches us the true meaning of the cross as not merely a recollection of a horrible execution. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote of the cross as God’s grace hidden in judgment. The grace of the cross becomes clear and manifest on Easter morning. When we look at the cross we see grace and love.

So, there are at three types of seeing in John’s Gospel, that which is merely perception with the physical eyes, that which sees with the eyes and believes to an extent, and that which sees with the eyes of faith and so believes. These distinctions help to shed clarity on the meaning of today’s Gospel. Thomas who is not present at the first appearance of Jesus says that “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas mistakenly thinks that faith is given simply by seeing and touching. Faith however is an internal power of perception. He should be asking for the eyes of his faith to be opened and not for the eyes of his body to be satisfied with the sight of Jesus and his wounds. A week after Easter Sunday, Jesus appears again to the twelve; this time Thomas is with them. Jesus invites Thomas to reach forth his hands and his finger and to touch his wounds. Finally and most importantly he tells him to be not faithless but believing. Our Lord chastens Thomas for not using the eyes of faith but simply relying on the eyes of the flesh. What follows is surprising, and most people do not notice it: the Evangelist does not say that Thomas reached forth his hands or his finger. He does not appear to do either or any of these things. Thomas simply makes his great confession, “My Lord and my God.”

Here is what is remarkable about this confession. The Godhead of Jesus is not something one can see or touch. As the prayer book reminds us, God is without body, parts, or passions, and this is true of our Lord’s divine nature. It belongs to his human nature, as a man composed of body and soul, to be seen, touched and heard with an audible voice. Thomas' confession shows that he believes Jesus to be more than a mere man. Preaching on Thomas, St. Augustine wrote that, Thomas “saw the man, but acknowledged the God.” It is only the eyes of faith that Thomas could perceive our Lord’s divinity. So, it would perhaps be more fitting to call Thomas, believing Thomas. Thomas does begin with doubt but he ends in faith. It is not a faith that has been proved by some incontrovertible evidence, but it is a faith that has been informed by the eyes of trust and belief.

There is a pregnant application in all of this. Most people live their lives in a kind of sleep-walking state. All they see are the bare facts of their existence. They simply view the world around them only with the eyes of the body. The world for them seems to be governed by chance and accident. Faith teaches us something more. Faith reminds us that God's providence holds all of our lives. The Bible says that God works all things together for the good of those who love him. Everything that happens to us, God makes use of for his purposes. Even the bad things, the things that appear to be evil—like the wounds on our Lord Jesus—bear a role in God's work of bringing all things into wholeness and unity with him. We have to see the trials and tribulations of this life with the eyes of faith, so that when we look at the cross we don't see a man dying but new life budding forth.