Second Sunday in Easter
S. Easter 2.22 John 20:19-31
This famous passage is about faith. But not in the way I think modern people have conventionally thought about faith. The problem, I’d say is what modern people have made of Thomas and his demand to see Jesus, inspect the wounds in order to believe. In short: it seems, since the “Enlightenment” (that Descartes kicked off with his rationalistic understanding of belief on the basis of empirical proof—what we would call the demand to “follow the science” as the only way to justified true belief) we’ve projected a whole set of rather lame ideas about “faith” back onto the biblical story of Thomas and have turned it into something it is definitely not.
Descartes and his later disciples thought you couldn’t have a justified, true belief unless you had empirical proof, unless you could see it and touch it and perform some experiments on it to make sure your senses weren’t deceiving you, but that it was “really there” and conformed to the principles of “science” as Descartes, Bacon, Newton and later Einstein and Heisenberg have defined them.
Thomas has been made, for the last several hundred years in Western Christendom, to conform to this scientistic paradigm. The other Apostles told him something scientifically impossible—that a dead man had been restored to physical life, miraculously. They saw Jesus and he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side to prove he was the same physical being who had been their Master for 3 years, was crucified 3 days prior, and has now come back to his same physical life.
And Thomas—quite sensibly for a post-Enlightenment person!—demanded proof. He refused to believe just on the apostolic say-so, but insisted on seeing with his own eyes and inspecting the wounds with his own hands to make sure they’d not been faked, somehow. And if Peter still had that Shroud thingy with the 3d photo negative image, Thomas would appreciate being able to run some tests on that too, because Enlightenment “belief” can never have too much empirical proof.
After stewing in epistemological doubt for 8 days, Jesus meets Thomas’ demands. He appears, tells Thomas: “put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” apparently confirming the rightness of Enlightenment rationalism’s grounds for justified true belief is hard and fast empirical evidence.
Here is where the modern preacher runs into grave difficulties (see what I did there? Grave difficulties? Jesus rose from the grave…?? 🙂 If Thomas was only properly convinced of the truth of the apostolic proclamation of the crucified Christ’s Resurrection and authorization of them to forgive sins on that basis, then wouldn’t this story require that Jesus show himself to all of us in the same physical way, that, by inspecting the wounds, our doubts can be quelled and we can believe?
But that doesn’t happen for any but the early handful of disciples, perhaps a few others like St. Paul! But wait!, the modern preacher begs: the Apostles are direct eyewitnesses who’ve written these proofs down so we can inspect the wounds (2nd hand, yes it’s true) but if only we can be convinced of the complete inerrancy and infallibility of the biblical record (through more laborious historical, scientific inquiry as Paul Maier and his ilk have performed) then we too can believe—and since this is more difficult, more arduous—to come to faith through this process of historical and scientific verification of the Bible’s complete veracity—it is, as Jesus says, an even more blessed (though no less rigorously empirical and science-following) way to believe!
One dilemma dodged only to run into a greater one: it’s not easy in 10 minutes (or 45, or a lifetime) to prove the complete historical and scientific inerrancy of the biblical record!
Which is why literally no one has ever come to faith in Jesus by following the post-enlightenment scientific way! So, the modern preacher, having baptized the Enlightenment scientistic presuppositions as the justified grounds for any rational true belief is in a real pickle, and has to resort either to poetry and a defense of human fantasy as an OK way to believe stuff as well, or to dark comedy—some sort of Kierkegaardian delight in absurdity as better than reason as grounds for faith.
Either of which leave the preacher looking pretty lame and foolish, if you ask me. I’m not going that way, but at least we’ve explored the path and found why it’s a dead end. “Look before you leap” and “don’t read Kierkegaard!” would be my advice.
Fortunately, John isn’t steering us down that empirical road. John is not a follower of science. He’s a follower of the Crucified and Risen Christ Jesus—who doesn’t need Newton, Freud, Kierkegaard, or Paul Maier to prop him up, but grounds faith (and us!) on the Word of Christ alone—a far more solid rock on which to stand.
Here’s how John says faith works: it’s the last sentence of today’s Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Road signs say things like: “Bakersfield: 2,617 miles, this way, down Highway 40”. And if you keep following that road, and all the other signs along the way directing you to Bakersfield, you will arrive in Bakersfield and your desire will be fulfilled. Along the way, you might ask people, “Does this road really lead to Bakersfield?” And they may say, “Yes, it does. I’ve followed it and been there myself. It’s everything you think it will be.”
The first sign Jesus gave was turning water into wine at Cana. Many dismissed it, but it gets the 12 on the way, chasing after Jesus—not knowing what it means, exactly, just knowing they want more, please!
More signs are written in the Gospel, not every one Jesus did, but enough that you can get to the point of believing that, by his wounds, the sins of the world have been healed, forgiven, and communion with God restored—believing this: that Jesus is the Christ, the all-forgiving Son of God—belief granting Life in His Name!
Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to the office the apostles hold—that of shepherd-teachers of the way to follow Jesus. Thomas refuses to believe on the basis of this apostolic word. So, Jesus appears, shows that Thomas was foolish for refusing to believe on the basis of the apostolic word. Wow! Is this guy really going to be an Apostle? Well, yes; because Jesus sends him anyway, and the power of the apostolic word isn’t in the the one sent but in the strength, love and forgiveness of God who sends…
Which is to say: this story is about faith in Jesus and how it comes—as Paul says, by hearing and believing God’s Word…
Which implies a different definition of faith. It’s not Einstein having correct theories about the external world. Nah, Biblical faith is more like… Fleetwood Mac: you hear Jesus “calling out your name” and “you just want to be with him everywhere”. I think Thomas always had faith like that. He just failed to see that seeing Jesus through Peter or John’s eyes is just as good—no, maybe a more blessed way to see, believe, and be with Jesus in His Kingdom, everywhere.
Faith is simply the conviction that Jesus is the Pearl of Great Price; and, believing this, we have life in his name—we’re on the Way, with new hearts, new minds! Even through guys like Thomas (or me!) Christ’s Word awakens faith, the burning desire to follow him everywhere. And, at His Table now, it happens for you, too—you’ll taste and see that He is good, that Christ is risen…