Believing without Seeing, a Philosophical Sermon, Second Sunday of Easter, April 7th 2013
Second Sunday of Easter, April 7th 2013
Acts 5:27-32 Psalm 118:14-29 Revelations 1:4-8 John 20:19-31
Believing without Seeing
Let me preach a sermon somewhat different from sermons as they usually go. The story of Thomas in the gospel of John is like the one about Mary Magdalene last time. These stories can stand by themselves and usually we preach about them by saying the angels rolled the stone away, but the disciples rolled it back because they locked all their doors cowering in fear. Or we speak about doubting Thomas in order to strengthen our faith. Or that the risen Christ brings the peace of God, so that with the Holy Spirit, that peace can spread throughout the world.
But the Gospel of John lends itself somewhat to philosophy, the way it speaks about truth and freedom, remember the text: you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. (8:32) Here in a similar way Thomas won’t believe until he has seen for himself and even more, until he has put his fingers into the nail-holes in Jesus hands and put his hand in Jesus’ wounded side. So let’s first look at the issue John is bringing up.
In the Scripture Thomas’ twin is never mentioned, so sometimes we say that we are really the twins of Thomas, because in our scientific way of thinking, we are right there with him wanting tangible evidence just like he did.
Going way back in how we know something, many of us, just like Thomas go by our senses: our touch and feeling, our sense of smell, taste, hearing, and sight. We think like he did that reliable knowledge comes from our senses. But our senses often deceive us. Our senses say that the sun goes around the earth and not the other way around, that our earth goes around the sun and that is a deception that humanity believed from the beginning of time until Copernicus only about five hundred years ago. We now realize that our earth is a planet going around the sun, but we used to think that the sun was like the moon, orbiting around our earth.
Because our senses deceive us, other thinkers believe that only reasoning is the way to reliable knowledge. But although reasoning sometimes helps correct places where our senses fall short, it can also run a collision course with reality, if it does not take account of observations we make and experiences we have.
Zeno is an old philosopher who argued that if you wanted to cross a room to get to a door, you first had to go to the half-way point. But before that you would have to get to the half-way point of that half-way point, etc., etc. In this way he proved by reason that you could not move at all and motion was illusion. We know that we can move across a room to get to a door and we observe motion all the time, so we say, so much the worse for reason. So later you have other thinkers who put these two ways of knowing together and mostly each one goes further in putting their fingers into the nail-holes in Jesus’ hands and their hand in Jesus’ side. This is especially true for the scientific method, where you make observations, you form a hypothesis and then test it by controlling variables and studying just one in an experiment. Slowly you come up with a theory about what is happening in nature and then you hope that other scientists can replicate your experiment so that the theory that you’re proving becomes stronger and stronger with their support.
Now here is the trouble with science. When you study a rock, for example, it just sits there, so it works pretty well. The rock is an object that you as a subject can study. But when you are dealing with other people, you are one subject observing another subject, who is meanwhile also observing you. The kind of an objectivity that science can have over nature is impossible for the humanities. But over and above knowledge, we can attain some wisdom that rivals the knowledge that science can attain.
Now when we speak about God and divine matters, like God being in Christ and the resurrection, then we go up another level. Now we rely not on reasoning and our senses, but on revelation. From it we learn that God is the source of yourself and myself as subjects. We are speaking about the light in which we see light. God is the origin of our life and thought and love out of which our consciousness springs and flows. Thus we have our five senses, as well as our minds that make our reasoning possible, allowing us to have experiences and make observations so that we have identities, have relationships, and enjoy living in society.
When we contemplate God we cannot have the objectivity of science and even our human wisdom falls short. “My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts,” saith the Lord. “But as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways over your ways and my thoughts over your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Now with revelation all we have to go on is belief, in the sense of faith and trust in the goodness and friendliness, in the love, joy, and peace involved in our encounter with the God, the Ultimate. And Jesus taught us how loving this God is and bid us to call him our Father and bask in the knowledge that we are God’s children. Thus he taught us to pray: “Our Father who art in Heaven.” So when we gaze up in awe at this universe, when we wonder at all the plants and animals, the trees and mountains, rivers and oceans, even the cities with their skyscrapers, and other products that human hands produced; even cars, airplanes, computers, and three-D printers that we produce when working together in corporations; and otherwise, the awe we feel when we gaze at master-pieces that are created by the hands of artists: God’s gifts are so overwhelming we become awe-struck!
In order to be honest, however, we have to admit that although we are the crown of God’s creation and wonders of divine handiwork, we did not create our wonderful existence, but we are creatures in it. Thus the psalm says, “It’s the fool who in his heart says there is no God.” (Psalm 14:1) And meanwhile the love of God is drawing all upward into growing and maturing, because we are challenged by the Ultimate, the source and ground of our existence to participate in continuing this creation.
We can participate in continuing the creation or we can participate in the destruction of this wonderful life here on earth that we have received as a gift.
Jesus said, “’And I when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself’ … to indicate the death that he was going to die.” (John 12:32) and many of the greatest minds of the earth and many of the greatest souls have beheld Jesus and realized that God was in him – reconciling the whole world, so that we can escape a nose dive of destruction and pull back into an ascent, in which we participate in the continuing creation, with which God is not finished yet and in which you and I are not finished yet: who you are and who I am are not finished yet. We are being called and sent by God into the great plan of salvation, which is another way of speaking about God’s continuing creation.
God began this plan of salvation by calling Abraham, continuing with Moses leading the exodus out of slavery into the Promised Land, and then, because Jesus is the Lord of all the nations, his globalization of the promises of God that were first made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and of course, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, God’s promises to all the patriarchs and matriarchs for all the races, nations, and people of this world.
Jesus Christ is also calling us to participate in God’s plan of salvation for this world. The Risen Christ represents a breakthrough into a new Passover and Exodus, so that we even speak of a new covenant, now not only between the Jews and God, but between God and all the people of the earth through Christ. The risen Christ leads our new exodus out of sin and evil, death, and destruction into reconciliation with God the Creator, into goodness and love that has overcome the fear of death and knows that in the resurrection of Christ, we have a passage way through death itself in which we become more than victorious, in which we are made more than conquerors. We grow and mature to be able to lead people in our time on the way of salvation.
The risen Lord appeared to all those he had called, like he called us, in order to send us out with the Good News to all people. He comes right into their midst and says, “Peace be with you!” Jesus did this after he had already died. He was already on the other side; he had already experienced the Passover dying on the cross, and from the other side, he appeared to those whom he had called to send them out to show all people the way: love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, be a peace-maker, if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn your other one to him also. In other words, practice non-violence. Gandhi called it “doing the truth.” Have a change of heart; make your love, compassion, and forgiveness as extravagant as the amazing grace Jesus brought down from heaven.
Not even death made Jesus depart from those whom he loved to the end. Those words come from the vows that Ruth made to Naomi. Read that love story, called Ruth. Just look it up in the table of contents of your Bible and read that wonderful story. It comes right after Judges and is only four short chapters, just a few pages long. But the way Jesus says “my Father and your Father, my God and your God” and the way Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!” comes from Ruth and Jesus is revealing that God, the Ultimate One, the Creator, is hopelessly in love with the people of this earth and wants oppression, slavery, violence, wars, environmental degradation, and all things that inflict death and destruction to cease. God’s love in Christ made God die for us, dying to give us life, dying to give us a change of heart.
The word “mission” means “sending” and it will take many, many missions to save this sorry world. It will take many, many loving acts of kindness, forgiveness, love and compassion, and even a new human organization called the Church to bring about God’s plan. The trouble is that our church itself is captive to a large part in participating in the plan that continues the destruction of the creation and our Church has to bank on love and faith to such an extent that it is willing to send us on Christ’s mission from the other side of our dying, than means, making our baptisms real. We have to pass-over into the Promised Land and make an exodus out of a survival mode into mission. The survival mode that our churches are in is based on the fear of dying, while mission is based on our faith in the Resurrection.
It’s the resurrection that the founders of Our Redeemer’s trusted and believed in when they called believers together in this place here in South San Francisco. With your new pastor, you will be challenged to understand what faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ means and what it means that he sends you to participate in saving this creation. Because like Mary, Peter, Thomas, Paul, and all the other disciples, the risen Christ is your Redeemer, who did not purchase you with gold and silver or money, but with his own precious blood and now you belong to God. You are in this world but not of it. Your souls are in God’s keeping, and now you too have to become bold witnesses, who obey God rather than human authorities when they are bent on destroying the creation. You too are called to help the distressed and bring about the Passover from this culture of violence into the gentle and tender reign of God filled with God’s wonderful promises. You too, and I as well, have to take an exodus out of the fear of death, knowing that Christ gave us a passage-way though death into heaven. You and I are called into that marvelous kind of courage and into that strong life that knows of the love of the risen Lord, a love much stronger than death and one that death can never stamp out.
When you rely on the risen Lord, when you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, not seeing but believing, you will experience the promises of God coming true as if you had placed your fingers into the nail-holes in Jesus hands and you hand into the side of Jesus. With Thomas you will exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” and experience your sending to participate in God’s great love affair with this world. Amen.
Pastor Peter Krey