Seeing is not always believing

Delmer Chilton

Seeing is not always believing

Lectionary blog for April 7, 2013
Second Sunday of Easte
Text: John 20:19-31

In today's Gospel lesson, we read of the man traditionally known was "Doubting Thomas." Peter Marty, an ELCA pastor writing in The Christian Century, pointed out that Thomas was not so much a doubter as he was an empiricist; that is, he was something of a scientific man. Thomas was looking for empirical data: facts, hard and sure evidence, measurable and quantifiable, upon which he could base his decision as to whether or not to believe in Jesus1 resurrection. In this he is no different than most of us are about most things, most of the time.

Suppose your minister died on a Thursday, the bishop came and held the funeral on Saturday, and then you missed church on Sunday, just didn't feel like going. Then on Monday, you went to breakfast at a local diner and ran into someone from church who said, "Boy, the minister really preached a good sermon about heaven yesterday." Would you believe them? Of course not; if you had seen your minister dead and buried on Saturday, you would empirically know she could not have been in church preaching on Sunday. It would be an "idle tale." You would respond like Thomas did to the news about Jesus, "I'd have to see it for myself."

In our story, Thomas was presented with the necessary evidence, given the opportunity to examine the evidence: the nail prints in the hands and the gaping wound in Jesus1 side. Convinced by the evidence, he responded with belief, "My Lord and my God!"

Now, we modern folk, with the same desire for proof and evidence that Thomas had, are in the difficult position of not having the opportunity to examine the evidence. Our text admits this problem in verse 29: Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." Those of us who do believe find that trying to figure out how to talk about our faith in a believable way to those who don't believe is very difficult.

That is mainly because our culture has separated fact from faith. It has given up on the idea that faith is based on "real" or "true" or "factual" things and has relegated religiosity to the category of taste or personal preference. Writing in Christianity Today, Tim Stafford talks about an object lesson a minister he knows uses with his confirmation classes. He comes into the first class with a jar full of jelly beans and asks the class to guess how many are in the jar. He writes down all their estimates on the board. Then next to the list of estimates they make another list, a list of their favorite songs. Finally, the class counts the beans to measure it against the guesses to see who was closest to being right.

After they have determined whose guess was closest to being right, the minister then turns to the other list, the list of songs, and asks "And which one of these is closest to being right?" And of course, the students protest that there is no right answer; a person1s favorite song is purely a matter of taste and circumstance, personal preference, if you will.

Then the minister asks the real important question: "When you decide what to believe about God, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favorite song?" Stafford says the minister has done this numerous times over the last 20 years, and always the answer, from teen-agers and from adults, is the same; "Choosing one1s faith is like choosing a favorite song." We have separated fact from faith, mainly because our culture has limited facts to those things which can be discovered empirically, scientifically; through experimentation and proof; therefore, we are highly skeptical of those things, like Jesus1 death and resurrection, which resist such proof.

The truth is, we are greatly limited in what we can prove about Jesus through applying the rules of scientific historical investigation. The best we can say, with almost 100 percent certainty, is that a man named Jesus lived, taught and was crucified by the Roman government of Jerusalem and that, after his death, many of his followers reported that the tomb was empty and that they had seen him alive. That's it, historically, scientifically, empirically.

A second important truth is that even the Bible acknowledges that simply knowing the facts does not necessarily lead to faith. At the very end of Matthew1s Gospel, we find a very interesting short verse. The 11 remaining disciples go up on a mountain in Galilee, where they see him for the last time. Then comes this verse, Matthew 28:17, "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted."

They had left their jobs to follow him, had spent two or three years with him, heard him preach, witnessed his miracles, saw the crucifixion, experienced the resurrection, spent several days and weeks being with the risen Jesus in a variety of places, but some doubted!

Contrary to both science and traditional wisdom; seeing is not always believing. Something besides an informed, reasonable decision is going on here. Some who saw the risen Christ still doubted, while others, who have never seen him, believe fervently.

The problem is not a lack of information. I think our hesitancy is a more a product of what we do know than what we don1t know. Mark Twain said, "Some people worry about the parts of the Bible they don1t understand. Me, I worry about the parts I do understand!"

We know that to commit our life to Christ is to commit ourselves to following Christ and the Gospel wherever it might lead. We know that to commit ourselves to following Christ takes a lot of decisions out of our hands and puts them in the hands of God. We know that to put our decisions into the hands of God is to risk being called to do things we would personally rather not do. We know that the one calling us got crucified, got executed in the cruelest way possible. We know that the one calling us revealed himself by showing his wounds and suffering for the world to the world and that we will be called upon to show our love for the world by being wounded and suffering for those the world has hurt and rejected. We know what it means to believe in Jesus, and our hesitancy to believe may be rooted in our hesitancy to shoulder that cross.

A couple of years ago in Winston-Salem, a couple planned a small family wedding in their Baptist church. The wedding was on Saturday night. There had been an all-day missions conference at the church, and the family had only an hour or so after the conference ended to clean up the church and decorate for the 7 p.m. wedding. It was only after the service that the bride noticed one glaring mistake in their preparations. Across the front wall was a huge banner which read "WORTH THE RISK!"

The question for us today is a simple one: Do we consider the joys of following Christ worth the risk? The witness of Christians for 2,000 years, from doubting Thomas to Teresa of Calcutta, is "Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!" Can we, this day, look at the wounds of Christ, hear him calling us to follow him in love and service to the world, and with Thomas, fall on our knees and cry out, "My Lord, and my God!"

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

Talk back:

• Is following Christ worth the risk to you?
• Is faith a matter of taste to you?


Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

You might also want to read:

After the empty tomb
Wish you were here
Believing Thomas

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