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Belief without Sight

APTS Intern Caroline Barnett

April 8, 2018
John 20:19-31

A Reading from the Gospel of John

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The word of the Lord

Thanks be to God.

Well we made it. To Easter that is. After forty days of Lent and of penitence, we can now say: Alleluia! Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We can sing: Rejoice! For death has lost its sting.  We made it.

Since Eastertide seems to be the spiritual pinnacle of the Christian year, I think we should all be feeling pretty good right about now… I mean, shouldn’t we all be on some sort of new utopian spiritual plane knowing that life forever changed a week ago… right?

It’s possible you feel that way—and if you do, I’m glad—but if you’re like me, Sunday all too soon turned into Monday… I had class at 8am and work and approaching deadlines. I needed to go grocery shopping and do the laundry. The resurrection was nice while it lasted, anyway.

I’m joking, but believing always feels a little easier when we’re in this sanctuary with the lilies, the timpani, and the hot cross buns. Last week, as we sang the Hallelujah chorus, I stood in the back of the sanctuary, listened to the choir, and felt chills. The resurrection is at hand.

But on Monday, amidst of our real and at times mundane lives, the resurrection feels a little farther away.

And sometimes, Monday brings bad news—a job lost, a diagnosis with no cure, another bought of violence and terror on the news. On those Mondays—or any day of the week— the resurrection feels downright impossible.

Thomas, he gets it. Those other disciples are so hopeful in their Sunday belief, but Thomas lives in Monday. He saw Jesus, his friend, betrayed by Judas, hung on a cross, Judas, killed in the cruelest way. He saw the nails pounded into hands. He saw the wound in Jesus’ side.

And he knows that as a follower of Jesus, he has a target on his back. That the world is still angry about this Jesus business and they will take it out on him. He is scared, and sad, and traumatized. Even with whispers of the resurrection—the stories of the empty tomb—Thomas knows it is too good to be true.

With all the bad news of the world, the resurrection is just too impossible to believe in.

Unless, that is, Thomas gets some proof.

The funny thing about proof though, is that even when faced with empirical evidence, we don’t always believe it.

It’s that pesky thing people are talking about these days… confirmation bias. Humans, it seems, tend to find proof more credible if it supports their already formed beliefs and opinions. In one experiment, subjects were given two studies about capital punishment—one for one against—and were told to guess which one was credible and which was made up. Now, the trick of the experiment was that both studies were completely made up, but people who were anti-death penalty thought the study that validated their beliefs appeared more credible and the same was true for those who supported capital punishment.

Proof—and what we consider “credible”—is not so cut and dry.

And if you think about it, Thomas is given proof—at least he is given multiple corroborating accounts of Christ’s resurrection by people he probably trusted, and still it wasn’t enough. It is only when he is confronted with so much physical evidence and he is able to touch the scars that his own confirmation bias against the resurrection is no longer adequate.

There are times when we wish we were Thomas. That in the moments of our deepest distrust of hope, Jesus would walk through that door, show us his scars and prove the resurrection beyond a shadow of doubt.

And yet, that’s not what we get. Instead, we have to learn how to believe without seeing. When the good news of the resurrection that feels impossible, we have to believe without asking to see the scars.

One of the truths of being human is that we all have scars. Scars are the evidence of injury and repair on our bodies. Some scars come with a story— a car accident, a surgery, an ill-advised sledding adventure off the roof of your parents’ house—but others simply appear, their story forgotten or never known in the first place.

And underneath our skin rests other layer scars—scars kept invisible to the world. Painful twinges that won’t allow you to forget what has happened. The death of a loved one that stings long after the funeral. A fractured relationship with no clean resolution. A trauma unknown to others, but it’s there. Scars that—even if we wanted to give Thomas some tangible, overwhelming proof—only rely on our words for proof.

Last fall, millions of women asked us to believe their scars even if they couldn’t prove it like you can prove a math equation. Magazines, newspapers, everywhere on the Internet, women shared stories of assault and abuse and harassment in hopes that if enough people did the same, someone might listen.

Actress Ashley Judd broke her silence about the abuse she was expected to endure from Hollywood executives in order to get cast in movies. It started in 1997, and Judd told people what happened, but who would believe her?

Isabel Pascual, a migrant farmworker and an immigrant from Mexico, worries she might lose her job as she speaks about the harassment, stalking, and threats she faces in the fields.  She wants to help others, but fears for the safety of her family. And anyways, who would believe someone like her?

Former football player and male actor Terry Crews spoke up for the about being assaulted in 2016.  When he first told people they dismissed him, because who would believe something like that would ever happen to a big guy like him?

Professors, journalists, housekeepers, engineers, office workers, friends, family, they started telling us about their scars despite having heard the message: “Keep it to yourself, because who would believe you?”

Jesus would.

Jesus, bearing his own scarred skin, would listen to the stories of your scars, and he would believe you. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus meets people in need of healing, and he doesn’t ask for a doctor’s note, he believes them when they say they are in pain.

And he would ask us, just like he asks traumatized and scarred Thomas, to believe as well.

Thomas— poor, doubting Thomas—is so easy for us to identify with. We are most comfortable with proof beyond reasonable doubt, even with our confirmation bias. Because proof that overwhelms our senses contains no complications. It requires no faith; no trust on our end. And this is not to say that fact-checking and evidence are unimportant or unnecessary, but that a Google search for the right answers has never been a cornerstone of faithful Christian belief.

Thomas with his admittedly understandable desire for definitive and concrete answers cannot believe in impossible things. In Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, the protagonist Alice finds herself in a similar situation. She is thrown into a fantastical world where nothing makes sense. Up is down, left is right, animals talk to her. And she meets a slate of zany characters each more confounding than the first. Like Thomas, Alice is always trying to get a straight, credible answer, even when everyone else speaks in circles. When she is asked by the White Queen to believe that the queen is over one hundred years old, she exclaims, “I can’t believe that! One can’t believe in impossible things!”

The queen scoffs at her answer, and says “Sometimes I’ve believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” before she turns her attention to other matters as if the idea of believing in the impossible requires no other explanation.

Though we think ourselves to be like doubting Thomas or logical Alice, we do believe impossible and outrageous things all the time.

We gather here and say we believe in a resurrection. We say we believe in a God who defies all of our sensibilities. We make statements of faith, even if we’re not sure what exactly that means. We read stories of miracles, and yes maybe we quibble with how water turned into wine, but that doesn’t preclude us from believing. We still say we believe, even if the proof is circumstantial, even when we still have questions.

What if, in this newly resurrected world, we took our willingness to believe, however shaky, and extended it to every scar we heard about?

What if we believed women and other people who spoke up about abuse?

What if we believed people who, despite being discredited by the world—because of their gender, their race, or their occupation— kept trying to tell us something true?

What if we believed people who told us they were in pain; people who were grieving, even if we couldn’t tell from the outside?

In the end, Thomas gets his proof. But even with his newfound certainty, he is invited into a new world, one where his own wounds might be tended to. In this resurrected world that contains both Easter Sundays and bad Monday mornings, Thomas’ scars that led him to seek proof above faith might be believed.  Scars of any kind are not dismissed—after all Jesus kept his—but are given the chance to heal without interrogation. And in this new world, we are all asked to do the impossible:

What if we believed without seeing?