Sermon preached April 7, 2013
Texts: John 20:19-31
The Wedding Song
If you were married in the 1970s or early 1980s, there is a good chance you had this song sung at your wedding – Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary, “The Wedding Song.” As the song moves forward, Stookey sings a series of questions: So then what’s to be the reason, for becoming man and wife? Is it love that brings you here, or love that brings you life? And if loving is the answer, then who’s the giving for? Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before?
Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before? As a society, we tend not to. Show me the money. Show me what you got. Show me the merchandise. Someone said that it is as if we are all Missourians, we all live in the “show me state.”
Jesus is back. Crucified by the Romans, in an apparent conspiracy with some of the Jewish leaders – and we need to be clear about that. John’s language here is sometimes inelegant – “the Jews.” It was only one slice of the Jewish leadership that opposed Jesus, and they conspired with the Roman authorities. In any event, Jesus is killed, but the grave cannot hold him. When the disciples gather behind locked doors, when they gather together, even though they are afraid, they experience Jesus’ presence. Jesus offers words of peace in the midst of their fear.
Thomas, though, missed the meeting, which means they probably elected him secretary of the group. Thomas misses the meeting, and misses Jesus. He is not willing to take the word of his friends about Jesus. He needs to see for himself. Show me. Jesus does. Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Really? In a “show me” world, how can such a thing be true? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. What might this mean for us?
First, we need to be clearer about what John is talking about in this gospel. The Greek word that is translated “believe” has more to do with faith, with trust, than with cognitive assent. Notice Thomas’ response to Jesus presence – “my Lord and my God.” This goes beyond, “so it is you, Jesus.” This is a statement of faith and trust. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams writes: Hence the radical difference from ‘believing’ in UFOs or the Loch Ness monster. To believe in these does not make that much difference to how I feel about myself and the world in general (Tokens of Trust, 5). He goes on to say that the Christian words “I believe” do make a difference in how the world feels and you feel. It is… about where I find the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, home (6).
When I think about Christian coming to believe, I think of the words of Helen Keller – The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before? Do we trust that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, but must be felt with the heart? It makes a difference in who we are, how we feel about the world, and how we live. Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it well: Faith… is not only the assent to a proposition, but the staking of a whole life on the truth of an invisible reality (Man Is Not Alone, 167).
Blessed are those who stake their whole lives on the truth of an invisible reality, who, in fact, trust that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but are felt with the heart. This is a certain kind of unknowing knowing.
Let’s ponder this in relation to God. Of course we cannot see God. The best the Bible offers when it comes to seeing God are fleeting glimpses – burning bushes, smoke, clouds, a quick flash from behind, the sound of sheer silence. We don’t see God, and most don’t claim to. There are some who claim, though, that they see into the mind of God pretty clearly. They are often those who claim that when disaster strikes – Hurricane Katrina, Sandy Hook Elementary – it has something to do with abortion or homosexuality or prayer in school.
While faith invites us to stake our lives on the unseen reality of God, we might also want to stake our lives on the possibility that all we will ever know of God is partial, always capable of growing. Author Sam Keen writes, “All of the great religious traditions caution against getting comfortable with our language about God” (In the Absence of God, 139). In our relationship with God, trust and humility can be, should be companions. There is always more to learn about God, and sometimes that may mean unlearning some things about God as well.
Since I first encountered it a few years ago, I have deeply appreciated the words of William James, “Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas” (Preface to The Meaning of Truth). Such humility should characterize our relationship with God. Our experience with God may boil over making us correct our present thinking about God.
One of the great classics in Christian mysticism is an anonymous work from the 14th century, The Cloud of Unknowing. No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge, but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love (50). Unknowing knowing.
In our relationship with God, we trust God, though we don’t see God. We trust that we know enough about God to continue trusting God’s presence, God’s influence, God’s wisdom and ways. We also trust that there is always an element of mystery and surprise in our relationship with God. We are blessed when we so trust.
For Christians, our most important clue to what we know about God is in Jesus. Even here, we can be surprised by what Jesus means for our lives. Our understanding of Jesus can change. Yet there are some central facts about Jesus that we are not free to change. The Jesus who is our most significant clue to God is the Jesus who had nails driven through his hands. The Jesus who is our most significant clue to God is the Jesus whose side was pierced as he was dying. Human pain, human suffering, human cruelty, make their mark on God. But God does not let them have the final word. The power of love is greater. The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but must be felt with the heart. The unseen marks of love are more powerful than nail marks.
And this power of love that was at work in Jesus, this power that finally overcomes human cruelty, tends to work in the world in a particular way. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued that a concept of God which takes its cue from Jesus “dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (Process and Reality, Chapter II, Part V)
We are blessed when we trust in the God of Jesus who works in the world tenderly, slowly, quietly – in ways hard to perceive sometimes, except with the heart. We are blessed to live this way, to stake our lives on this God of Jesus, because this gives us hope. We are people of hope – a hope that is tough and tenacious.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, who told us that faith entails the staking of a whole life on the truth of an invisible reality also wrote: There are times when defeat is all we face, when horror is all that faith must bear. And yet, in spite of anguish, in spite of terror we are never overcome with ultimate dismay (Man Alone, 154-155).
Sometimes I find things coming out of my mouth before I have thought them through. When I am fortunate, they are either amusing, or things that I can later make sense of. Thursday morning I was meeting with some clergy friends, and we were discussing our sermons for today. We also ventured into some other topics, and some were sharing some really difficult situations. Before I really knew what I was saying, I said, “sometimes we have to trust what we don’t see, because what we see is pretty lousy.” Sometimes it is. I spoke on the phone the other day with an acquaintance who just lost a nephew. She told me that he had struggled with depression and the family believes that his death was a heroin overdose. The leader of North Korea, for reasons known only to him, is threatening war on the Korean peninsula.
2000 years after Jesus, demons still haunt us. 2000 years after the Prince of Peace, war still threatens us. We are not ultimately dismayed because we trust that the God we know in Jesus continues to work in tender, quiet ways. We trust that what is best and most beautiful in the world is not always what we can see, but those movements in the heart that foster love, joy, peace, reconciliation, justice, compassion. We remain hopeful, and I think of the words of Jim Wallis of Sojourners. “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change” (The Soul of Politics, 285).
Do we believe, do we trust, are we willing to stake our lives on the reality of God, who will always be a bit of a mystery, but about whom we know enough, an unknowing knowing? Do we believe, do we trust, are we willing to stake our lives that in Jesus we see something of this God, and thus trust that God is touched by human suffering and tragedy but overcomes it with tenderness, slowly and quietly? Are we willing to trust, to stake our lives, on this Jesus way of life, this way of hope in the world? Are we willing to trust that what is best and most beautiful in the world is not always what we can see, but those movements in the heart that foster love, joy, peace, reconciliation, justice, compassion?
Yes. A blessed yes. Amen.