Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sermon: "Proof of Life", John 20:19-29 (April 12, 2015)


I’d like us, for a moment, to consider a scenario. Imagine that someone you trust—a friend, a family member, a mentor, whoever—is a scientist. A brilliant scientist, in fact. Imagine that this brilliant scientist friend of yours has been working for three years to find a cure for cancer. So many people are touched by cancer in some way—including, I’m sure, some of you—that this would change the world. If anyone can find such a thing, it’s this person, but if you’re being honest with yourself, you think it’s too good to ever be true. When this person tells you that she will discover the cure, even though you trust her entirely, you have trouble believing her.

Now, imagine that you’re sitting at home, thinking about your mother or father or sister or brother or friend who is battling cancer, when another friend calls you. He excitedly tells you that the scientist you love has done it; she’s found the cure for cancer!...Now, as wonderful as this sounds to you, you can’t allow yourself to believe it, because you just can’t bear to be disappointed. If it’s true, your life will change; but if it’s not, you’ll be devastated. You might feel many things at that moment: confused…hopeful…angry...excited…incredulous…

What about…doubtful?

Too often, we think of doubt as an evil thing, something that only weak people experience. We forget that doubt is natural, healthy, and sometimes even necessary. Our friend Thomas here in scripture tends to get a bad rap. Many of us jump to label him derisively, using “doubt” as a dirty word. He must not really trust his friends or love Jesus if he can’t believe without seeing. He must be in league with the Pharisees and the Roman Empire! He practically crucified Jesus himself! But let’s not get carried away here. In this passage of John’s gospel, the word that we translate as “doubt” can just as easily be interpreted not as something that is antagonistic to faith, but as a mere absence of faith. Pistis, “faith”, versus apistis, “not-faith”. If we read the passage this way, we realize that “not-faith” must necessarily come before “faith,” or else having faith would not be particularly special—it would be the status quo, business as usual, something everyone has. Thomas wasn’t opposed to faith; he simply needed some hard evidence to help him make that leap.

As descendants of the Age of Enlightenment and disciples of the scientific method, we today rely on doubt (as I’ve just defined it) every day to better understand the world around us. If a person asked for proof before believing that science has found a cure for cancer, we would never question his or her motives or desire for the cure. We would say that in this case, doubt is not only healthy, but necessary for scientific discovery. We often need to be able to touch, feel, hear, and see things for ourselves before we are able to embrace them entirely.

The fact of the matter is, we, as humans, are physical beings. We’re spiritual beings too, to be sure, but our physicality is an important part of our existence. So important, in fact, that God chose to come to earth in order to participate in our physicality alongside us. So is it any wonder that we place so much value on physical proof? That when we can feel the reality of something, we find it much easier to believe than when we must take a blind leap of faith? Sometimes, even when we do have faith, when we do come to believe without seeing, even then we search for something physical to confirm our belief.

Why, then, do we insist on making doubt into such a despised characteristic? I’ll grant you that the Thomas story culminates with Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Faith without proof is clearly an admirable quality, and in many instances, it’s necessary to a solid religious life. But Jesus stops there. He doesn’t go on to say, “Cursed are those who do not believe without seeing.” If he did, the story of Christianity would be a whole lot shorter than it is, and our community would be a whole lot smaller. Jesus doesn’t reject Thomas; he offers his own hands and side to Thomas as a gift of proof. Jesus knows that sometimes we need help believing, and that’s okay. And let’s not forget, Thomas’ friends, the ones that we might be tempted to uphold as paragons of faithfulness, were only able to believe so freely because they had actually already seen and touched the risen Christ, the very thing that Thomas is asking for. Had the roles been reversed, I doubt that the other disciples would have acted much differently than Thomas. And why? Because they were human.

And you guys, God’s not stupid. God knows this. God has a well-documented history of working with some class-A doubters. One of my favorites is the story of Gideon. This guy is so epically skeptical, it makes me cringe. In the book of Judges, we read that Gideon’s not convinced that God will help him to save Israel—even though God personally promised to do so—so Gideon proposes a test. Yep, this guy tests God. He places a fleece on the floor, and says that if he returns in the morning to find the fleece wet and the ground dry, THEN he will believe what God had said. But even after that happens, Gideon’s not satisfied. He says, “Okay, God, don’t get mad, but…I need just a little more convincing. Okay, so I’m gonna do the same thing, but this time, make the fleece dry and the ground wet.” So God gives him the physical proof that Gideon asks for a second time. And yet, does God disown him as “too doubtful” or “unworthy”? No. On the contrary, God makes Gideon a judge, a great leader of Israel, and blesses him with many military victories. All because he moved from “not-faith” to “faith” with the help of a little proof.

But we don’t usually look for wet fleece/dry floor kinds of evidence anymore these days. Nor do very many of Christ’s disciples today have the opportunity to place their own fingers on Jesus’ physical wounds. Very few of us feel like we have the luxury of doubt, since we don’t generally anticipate physical proof of Christ’s bodily resurrection—at least, not any time soon. This was troubling to me as a precocious theologian of 7 or 8: “Why doesn’t God give us miracles anymore, like in the Bible? It would be a whole lot easier to convince people to follow Jesus if we had miracles…”

My mom, who was my first and most influential theological influence, agreed and told me that she didn’t know why we don’t see flashy, magic-like miracles anymore. “But,” she said, “that doesn’t mean that God isn’t still giving us signs each and every day.” How? How are those without faith supposed to see and believe? How are they supposed to move from “not-faith” to “faith”? What kind of evidence, if not wounds in a divine hand, does God give to the Doubting Thomases of today?

My friends, as you might have guessed, we are that evidence. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that we are the body of Christ; Paul is explicit about this in 1 Corinthians. We usually say this in the context of our coming together to do Christ’s work in the world, to take action, to feed Jesus’ sheep as he commanded us to do. But when we do this, are we not also proving God’s sovereignty over our lives to others? Aren’t we testifying to God’s great love? Aren’t we showing God’s salvific power to those around us? To be the hands of Christ is to be the proof, the solid evidence, that God answers prayers, is good, and is Lord of all.

We are the hands of Christ. We are the wounds in Christ’s body. We make visible and tangible the invisible work that God does every day in the hearts, minds, and spirits of those around us. We are the imperfection, the brokenness, that testifies to God’s wholeness. What is it that Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians? That God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Our doubt, our need for proof—and our willingness to be that proof—can lead to humility, which in turn can lead to greater and fuller relationship with God.

It’s tough to say how God is calling each of us to be the hands of Christ to the Thomases around us at any given time. Every person has a different doubt, a different thing that they need proven to them, and it can be frustrating to try and figure out how to go about being that for them without any guidance. If we need a place to start, however, we can turn to today’s reading from Acts. The early Christians had some really good ideas about how to show God to the world. After all, they had a pretty awesome instructor. Since the passage is short and important, I’ll read it to you once more:

…The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

I think that, at some point in our lives, each of us feels lost without something to cling to with our senses. Whether it’s touching Christ’s wounds, seeing an unexpectedly wet fleece, hearing the exact words that you needed to hear, witnessing a miracle, feeling the touch of a loved one, or experiencing any sort of tangible sign—we all long for proof that we are on the right path, that our faith isn’t in vain, and that we are not alone. And God not only embraces but uses even the skeptical and doubtful and imperfect among us for God’s glory. Especially the skeptical and doubtful and imperfect. Every time we say, “I’m sorry, God, but that just can’t be,” we are able to see—or be—Christ’s hands, and God proves to us once again that it can. Keep doubting if you must, friends, so that the “not-faith” of all might be overcome by the wounds of the risen Christ.


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