S. Easter 2.19 “Believe to See” John 20:19-31

            It’s maybe easier to start by saying what this familiar story is not about—what it’s not saying to us. The conventional narrative on this story is that Thomas has doubts. How can the dead rise again, really, in the flesh? How can the finite be capable of the infinite? How would you believe such a tall tale as the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead? And the answers that are conventionally given is that you need to see in order to believe. That really, this is the best way. Thomas wanted to believe, but just couldn’t get his head around the idea that the dead could rise in general (or Jesus, in particular). But Jesus gave Thomas a hand (literally!). He appeared just as Thomas requested, showed the prints of the nail wounds still visible in his hands and feet, the spear wound in His side, and Thomas was like, “Oh! Cool! Now that I see I can believe. Thanks, Jesus!”

            And the “life application” of this is difficult, because the conventional narrative has completely screwed up the faith of many millions of people, I have no doubt (see what I did there?)—having been one of those people, myself. College days: you know the drill. Like many people, the Thomas story was a favorite of mine—or well… not exactly a favorite, but one I came back to over and over, like a sore tooth, or a hangnail. Exploring, picking at it—which only made the pain and the confusion worser…

            Because… Jesus does not seem to give most of us the same hand up into the Faith as He did to Thomas. St. Paul tells us, 1 Corinthians 15, that Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the 12, then to 500 of the brethren at one, then to James, and then last of all to Paul Himself a couple years later on the Damascus road. And, that’s pretty much it! Throw in the women at the tomb, the 2 on the road to Emmaus and you’re just barely over 500 actual folks who literally got that hand-up from Jesus—got to examine, see, and then, to believe

            For the rest, we get this cryptic saying of Jesus… “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And I puzzled over this many years. I finally figured it meant “Well, Thomas and the rest have the easy way: they get to see and examine the evidence that the nail prints and spear wound provide—that the same flesh and blood Jesus who was crucified was raised to life in that same Body—though glorified somehow (because you will note, recognition for the eyewitnesses was always difficult. Was it Jesus? He was the same, but different. The nail and spear wounds were the clincher. Weird.)”. But the rest of us have to go the hard way of believing without seeing and the “Bless your hearts!” I always took to be Jesus saying essentially: “Good luck with that! It’s real tough. Faith probably won’t be your sport. But if it is, hey, all good! I’ll pray for you (but I won’t actually give you My hand like I did to the lucky Few!)”. And I was more annoyed than edified by this reading which I had picked up from many sermons and books.

            A related reading of the Story [which I got from Fred Buechner first-hand (and Kierkegaard, 2nd hand)] was that the glory of Faith how it’s completely irrational and counter-factual and that’s it’s precisely the very shakiness of it is what makes Faith exciting, existential, cool, and “blessed”. And that reading was worse for me than the other one. In his excellent novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany” John Irving shows how stupid this reading is. The Rev. Lewis Merrill (a very lightly fictionalized Fred Buechner who was Irving’s prep school teacher) does nothing but doubt and Owen Meany his parishioner does nothing but believe the Word unshakable. I’ll leave it to you to figure out who is the absurd hero of Candyland. Irving shows faith isn’t an existential, angst-ridden, doubt-fest, but stands firm because God said so! Owen believes not counter to fact but on the basis of all fact, the Word made Flesh! Anyone who praises doubt as the essence of faith is essentially an idiot and a fraudster. I had long thought that, but Owen Meany really helped me eliminate that reading, permanently. It was ironic though, because it was Fred Buechner himself who literally introduced me to John Irving, back in ‘87 suggesting we get him to read to us at the little Christian community college in Connecticut I was attending. I doubt Fred was nearly as taken with Owen Meany as the rest of us. I really like it, and oddly enough, still like Fred too…

            But, back to Thomas. The idea that you need empirical, unshakable proof—that you need to see in order to believe ends up being the takeaway for most readings of Doubting Thomas. But a close reading of the story in the context of Scripture will show you why that’s both stupid and wrong. Inserting a question mark at the end of one key sentence which the careful reader of the Greek will see must certainly be there changes everything

            The sentence is Jesus’: “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed?” Big question mark at the end of that sentence! Irony alert! Jesus isn’t making a direct, factual statement here that seeing precedes believing for Thomas or anyone else. Ancient Greek manuscripts don’t have any punctuation marks, often not even any spaces between letters. You, the reader, have to figure out where the question marks are at by being a good reader, developing an ear and a feel for the Story…

            It helps to notice that John drops massive hints in John 11 that Thomas was brave ready to go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus while the others were afraid. Thomas’ problem wasn’t doubt that the other apostles were telling the truth about Jesus’ rising from the dead and teaching and eating with them in the flesh. No. His problem was Jesus did this without Thomas present. And why wasn’t Thomas present? Irony alert! Because Thomas was brave while the others were cowards. Thomas was mixing it up on those mean streets of old Jerusalem on Easter Sunday evening: “Yeah, I’m a Christian, an Apostle as a matter of fact, so watch your language, heretic! Yeah, that’s right—heretic. I said it! Hey, you want a piece of me, pal? C’mon on over here and git you some!” while the other disciples cowered behind locked doors for fear of such encounters with the Jews. And they got to see Jesus while Thomas did not? Whaaaat? Punish the hero and reward the cowards. No, Jesus. No.

            Thomas, like any child who’s ever missed out on presents given to siblings, demands equal treatment. That’s all. “If Jesus wants me on the team, He can just get over here and let me see the nail prints too!” It’s all bluster, not seriously meant. Thomas declines [you notice!] the invitation to touch and handle. He just worships. Always a good call when Jesus is in the house! “Thomas, because you see, you believe?” As if! Oh huh! No, Thomas believes the same way St. Paul in Romans 10 says every single Christian has ever believed: “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God!” (!!!)

            Thomas was blessed not by sight, but by Word and Faith—same Way you and I are. The seeing was actually downright embarrassing, the ironic call-out—pride destroying. John makes the point at the end: “These things are written that you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing [what is written!] you may have Life in His Name.” The Story teaches us you believe and then you’ll see; not vice versa! So: open your ears to hear, open your mouth to taste at His Table, and believing, you’ll see the Lord is Good (and Risen…!) indeed. Amen.