Saturday, April 05, 2008

Blessed are the Unseeing

Sermon preached on Easter 2: John 20:19-31

Part of why the resurrection is a dilemma for Christians is that we have to be witnesses to something that nobody saw happen. Nobody saw the actual resurrection event. Now, of course, the Gospel records do relate that the disciples and other followers of Jesus saw him after the resurrection, stories like the ones we have this morning. But even then, only followers of Jesus saw him. He did not appear to the general populace.

I’ve always found that a curious fact. Why didn’t Jesus appear to Pilate and Caiaphas, in a kind of “in your face” kind of way? Why not a general appearance, say, in the Temple? Certainly appearances like these would have lent enormously to the credibility of the resurrection. As it is, it is easy for critics to charge that the disciples simply made up these appearances out of their own wishful thinking.

I think if there is an answer it is this: Jesus did not want to depend on the miracle of resurrection for the faith of his followers. Miracles are like money, you give people some, and they always want more. Jesus knew that the future of his followers could not depend on the continued existence of miracles; that was not to be the basis for people to continue to follow his way. Faith was, hope was, and love was.

Our readings this morning bring these three things to the fore.

First, love. The first part of the Gospel reading is all about love, in the guise of forgiveness. Jesus appears to the disciples—with Thomas missing. He says to them not, “What happened?” or “Why did you betray and abandon me?” but “Peace be with you.” He does not say, “Obviously you cannot be trusted.” He says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Given what these disciples had done—all of them cutting and running, one of them going so far as to deny that he even knew Jesus—Jesus’ response to them is remarkable, amazing, astounding. The depth of forgives—love—is simply breathtaking.

Furthermore, their mission is to do exactly the same thing, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven,” and I take the next part as a warning, not a commandment, “if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” Jesus gives his disciples the same power of forgiveness and love that he has exercised with them.

Notice as well something he does not tell the disciples to do: tell people about the resurrection itself. The implication is that people will only believe in the resurrection if the disciples act on the message, spreading love and forgiveness to all.

Second of all there is hope. The word “hope” occurs in the first two readings and the psalm. The first reading’s mention is actually a quote from this morning’s psalm (16), “Moreover my flesh shall rest in hope.” And 1 Peter speaks about a “new birth into a living hope.”

For Peter in particular this hope is in spite of any present suffering, something the community to which he writes is experiencing much. “In this [hope] you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.”

The resurrection itself is an act of hope; hope that suffering and even death are not the last word in our lives, that there is something beyond these realities, a reality that is unseen.

This brings us to the biggest concept related to the resurrection: faith. There is no resurrection without faith, pure and simple. This is the whole point of the Thomas story.

The writer tells the Thomas story in order, I believe, to get to his main point: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” He is speaking out of the future, as he is writing his Gospel, as the generation of those who did see the resurrected Jesus are rapidly dying off, and the community must increasingly depend upon its faith, rather than its eyewitness.

Peter makes the same point in his letter:

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

There are two great points of faith in the biblical story, points that require pure faith, because there is no way to prove them. The first is at the very beginning, the very existence of a creator. “In the beginning God.” That is a pure faith statement.

The second is the resurrection. Jesus would be the first to say, and does so by strong implication in the Gospel reading this morning, that you cannot believe based on my appearances after the resurrection. You must have faith, and that faith includes what Peter says is the outcome of faith in the resurrection, “the salvation of our souls.”

We are used to thinking that it was the cross that effected our salvation. Jesus died to save us. That is not an untrue statement, but Jesus’ death, as noble as it was, was not enough. Without the resurrection, Jesus’ death is just the death of another hero. Heroes have their followers, but the following always fades over time. There are always new heroes to replace old ones. We call them in our tradition “saints.” Some of them keep being remembered over time; most of the don’t.

The resurrection, however, once believed in, changes everything. It means that Jesus lives in spite of death, that Jesus has conquered the last enemy, which St. Paul rightly says is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). And in that defeat of death lays our salvation, our liberation from fear.

The resurrection means we do not need to be afraid of sin; Jesus comes to us with forgiveness. That’s the first part of the Gospel reading. The resurrection means we do not need to be afraid of suffering, as Peter says in his letter. The resurrection means we do not need to be afraid of our doubt, as the story of Thomas tells us. And finally, the resurrection means we do not need to be afraid of death, because Jesus has finally and definitively conquered it.

But all this we only get by faith, not by sight. It is not always easy to have this faith, especially in the face of sin and suffering and doubt and death. But that is why we are given the church, an idea that we have to admit has its down side. Jesus, however, gives us the church precisely to keep this love, this hope and this faith together. A community can believe these things and hold on to them even when individuals within that community struggle with them. Any sight we have of the existence of God and the reality of the resurrection is in this community we call the church. And that has been true from the very beginning. Jesus did not appear to Thomas until he rejoined the other disciples, an important detail of the story.

So one definition of the Church, something we could put on a banner and hang outside is “the Unseeing who Believe.” That is who we are, and that is what Jesus means us to be.

Now we do not see. One day we shall. In the meantime we have faith, hope, and love to sustain us.

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