April 7, 2013

We have seen the Lord

Passage: Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 100, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31

But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’


Columnist Kevin Hunt, writing for the Hartford Courant, recounted a story about one Grace Edwards who lived on Sir Walter Drive in Cheshire, Connecticut.  Grace was never fully satisfied with the explanation for her unusually high electricity bills.  A computer, an extra refrigerator or television, as Connecticut Light & Power had suggested years ago, or a central air-conditioning system or even a whirlpool seemed a stretch.   It was eventually discovered that for 25 years, Ms. Edwards has been paying for the underground electricity that powers two streetlights illuminating the subdivision.

Some mysteries, like this one, are solvable because we understand how it works; in our comprehension we have mastered its logic so we can explain how it happens.  The logic of the electricity bill is that consumption of kilowatt hours has everything to do with the number of things plugged-in demanding electricity.  Though surprised that somehow two streetlights were connected through the metre, we fully understand why the electricity bill was unusually high.

We tend to think, given such experience, that all mysteries are like this; if we simply look hard enough our comprehension of its logic will eventually come to explain the apparent mystery.  In this same vein author and business consultant Peter Koestenbaum wrote, “Face reality as it is, not as you wish it to be.”  On one level I think this excellent advice; if I have ten dollars in my hand wishing it to be one thousand does not change the amount I have.  On another level it is not such good advice because it presumes that I know reality when I see it; I have made myself the measure of what is real.  When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus are the disciples facing reality as it is or is this some account of how they wish it to be?  (Resurrection is not subject to this sort of analysis.)

I much prefer something author Madeleine L’Engle wrote in her book A Wrinkle In Time: “I have a point of view.  You have a point of view.  God has view.”

1. The disciples are locked in their hideout that first Easter day; hiding for fear of the abuse and torment and untimely death that they have seen Jesus himself suffer.  It is while they are immobilized by their fear that the one who has conquered what they still fear steals upon them.  John simply says, “Jesus came and stood among them”.  No disciple can explain how the risen Lord had penetrated their hideout.  They cannot comprehend it; that is in the sense of mastering its logic.  No gospel writer ever attempts an explanation of how it is that Jesus appeared to them. Nonetheless, though they cannot comprehend it (explain how), they can apprehend the fact Jesus is there, bodily, standing among them.

With this in mind, Thomas’ refusal to believe his fellow disciples is perfectly understandable.  Whenever we hear the testimony of a friend about an unusual experience—say of being suddenly healed of some aliment—we smile so as not to offend our friend.  We walk away assuring ourselves that there is some perfectly logical explanation for it though I can’t see it yet.

The gospel writers’ witness is that the resurrection of Jesus is a one-off event of worldview shifting proportion.  The resurrection of Jesus forges its own logic; it creates its own world of meaning; no seismological scale can measure the magnitude of the upheaval it causes.  It stretches credulity to the point that Thomas can’t even be polite about his refusal to believe his companions; “I will not believe”, he thunders.  Thomas thinks he is erecting an impossible barrier when he sets up his criteria for believing; this will never happened so I will not believe.  “As he talks, his rhetoric gets more and more exaggerated, "My friends, I'd have to see with my own eyes the nail holes in his hands. No, tell you what, I'd need to touch those holes with my own finger. Better yet, I'd want to stick my whole hand right into his side where the sword pierced him!" Thomas kept mounting up an ever-larger heap of evidence

It is good for us to keep this distinction in mind between comprehending how something works and apprehending its actuality as we read the Easter narratives.  To this day we cant explain how the risen Jesus looms before any of us; not being able to explain it, however, doesn’t prevent us from knowing it and glorying in it. We can’t comprehend it (in the sense of mastering the logic of it), but we can certainly apprehend it as the risen one apprehends us, seizes us, and we seize him in turn.

2.  Take note with me that Thomas does not say “I cannot believe”, as if to say that he finds the affirmation of his friends too much to think about.  Many today find themselves here with respect to Jesus stealing in upon us.  I have heard it said many times—I’m not sure if I believe the whole story; certain details are troubling for me.  It is for this reason that I spent time underlining the distinction between comprehending how something works and apprehending its actuality.

Note as well that Thomas does not say “I am unable to believe”, as if to say to express that he is emotionally not up for the task, too drained to believe anymore.  “I so want to believe but I just can’t.  We find ourselves here as believers at points in our lives; we are beat up by the blows of life and can’t see beyond our haemorrhaging wounds.  Recall that Jesus came to his disciples at just such a moment as they were huddled in fear in their hideout.  It is great joy that Jesus is so sensitive to the ups and downs of our faith.

Thomas said, “I will not believe.”  I can picture that Thomas finds the testimony of his friends so beyond comprehension that he cannot believe.  I can also understand that Thomas feels beat up by the events of Jesus arrest, trail, and crucifixion, unable to believe.  But I can also see that he might be angry; he had thrown his lot in with Jesus, left home and livelihood to follow, had walked tall believing Jesus to be the Messiah—only to see it all go up in smoke just three days ago at the city dump where Jesus was crucified.  Thomas vows not to get fooled again.

As we observe Thomas in John’s gospel he has showed himself to be a loyal disciple but in demeanour he leaned to a pessimistic view of life.  When Jesus announced he was going to Jerusalem in spite of warnings that a trap was being set for him Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)  In the upper room when Jesus said he was “going to prepare a place for them” and that “they knew the way to the place” it was Thomas who responded pessimistically, “We do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”

There are many who know this moment that Thomas expresses.  We think God has let us down; that he promises more than he delivers.  We are hurt by events great and small and we refuse—“I will not believe.”  The person who says “I cannot believe” or “I am unable to believe” can be expressing an underlying desire to believe; though it is sometimes evasion.  But the person who, in an exercise of the will, says “I will not believe” erects some high barriers.  Thomas shuts the conversation down.  He appears angry to me.

Do you ever wonder how the rest of the disciples felt?  With joy and excitement they share great news with Thomas, “We have seen the Lord”.  Verbally Thomas slaps them in the face with his angry rant.  It makes us tentative to talk of it anymore.  In our world we experience the clear message—we don’t want to hear!  Talk of faith is regarded as private and personal; to be kept to yourself.  The chill has spilled over in the church—we are reluctant to talk of our experience of Christ even with other believers.

But there is more here.  Thomas isn’t merely unwilling to believe the testimony of his fellow disciples; though he surely does that.  We might want to let Thomas off the hook thinking we know our human friends to be fallible; not to believe everything someone says—even a good friend—is likely prudent, even helpful.  Friends sometimes need correction.  I may say to my wife that I searched diligently for some item I am sure she misplaced; she knows better than to take everything as gospel.

Thomas, in his refusal, is impugning the existence of the risen Jesus! When Jesus arrives a week later he plays back to Thomas his very words; obviously Jesus has heard.  Further, when Thomas refuses to believe he rejects a provision that Jesus has made in his life for the express purpose of believing, namely the witness of the other disciples.  These same disciples’ witness, now written, functions in this same way today; it is so that we might believe.

I marvel at our Lord’s love.  Sometimes in the heat of anger we make pronouncements that later we rethink when there has been some time for the emotion to abate.  It was a week later, the disciples are again in the house, and this time Thomas is with them.  Thomas may refuse to believe but he cannot leave either.  There is something going on, more that he can see, and he somehow senses it is so.  At just the right moment for Thomas Jesus came and stood among them.  We have the distinct impression that Jesus came this time especially to see Thomas.  After greeting them all he speaks to Thomas and offers the very things Thomas had so flippantly demanded and rejected as possible a week earlier.  Such love our Lord has; always coming, always wooing, ever looking for the right moment to help us believe.

3. In the messages of this Easter season I am exploring this theme that the resurrection of Jesus creates its own world of meaning.  No disciple, for example, upon seeing the risen Jesus says, “Great, my sins are now forgiven!”  They have no idea of what to make of what they are experiencing. The world of meaning unfolds as Jesus shows them from the scriptures its significance.  I invite you to reflect with me something Jesus said to Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  Apparently some of the crucifixion’s wounds are still visible.

In the gospels the cross is the climax of God's action and God's self-disclosure. The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ means so much that its significance can never be exhausted. Yet it always means this much at least: there is no limit to God's love. The cross means that God exposes his own heart, risks himself defencelessly for our sakes. There is simply no limit to God's mercy.

There is this tendency we have to treat the resurrection as the culmination; to breath a kind of sigh of relief that we don’t have to deal with nasty business of crucifixion now that we have arrived at Easter; it has all been put behind us now.  Yet his wounds are still visible.

In John’s gospel, for example, he has been giving us a number of signs so we could believe Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God; he said there were many other signs but he choose these ones.  In the sequence the crucifixion is the seventh sign; the number seven being the number to signify completeness or perfection.  The crucifixion is the climax or culmination of these signs.

If the cross of Jesus means no limit to God’s love for us, then what does the resurrection of Jesus mean? According to the scripture it means there is no limit to the effectiveness of his love, of his giving himself for us.  The resurrection is the vindication that Jesus’ life given for us is effective for everything God intended through it.

This is a most important truth that the church always manages to fumble. Customarily the church has said that Jesus was wholly vulnerable on Good Friday; come Easter Sunday, however, it was all put behind him. On Easter he put his cross, his suffering, behind him, and he has never looked back.  Oh yes, he had a bad day one Friday, but he got over it.  His resurrection means he has transcended his crucifixion, gone beyond it, and triumphed gloriously in the sense of having forgotten it.

This is wrong.  According to the apostles Easter doesn't mean that the cross is left behind; it means that the cross is made victorious. Easter doesn't mean that our Lord's suffering is a closed chapter of his life; it means that his on-going suffering is victorious.  How can we overlook the fact that Jesus is raised wounded? The church too quickly reads right past John's gospel where we are told that our Lord is raised with his wounds still visible. The church assumes that Jesus is raised healed. No! He's raised wounded! Which is to say, he is raised suffering still. Think of Paul on the road to Damascus. He's been persecuting Christ's people. Yet when the risen One accosts him, he isn't asked, "Why are you persecuting those people?", nor even, "Why are you persecuting my people"? The risen One asks him, "Why are you persecuting me?" Christ's resurrection means that his wounds rendered effective; his wounds gain us admission to his Father's heart; his wounds, rendered effective by the resurrection, are what arrests Paul. It is the ongoing vulnerability of Jesus Christ, the ongoing love of Son and Father alike, that is now the leading edge of God's victory in the world in the face of the world's resistance.

4.  All the threads of John’s gospel come together in Thomas’ response to seeing Jesus: “My Lord and my God!’   For the gospel’s author, Thomas has uttered the greatest declaration of Christian faith; Thomas confession is the paradigm for all subsequent believing with regard to Jesus.  John has been building to his conclusion and now that Thomas’ confession is heard he presses to his point: “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The disciples’ witness still stands, ‘‘We have seen the Lord.”  The witness of countless Christians since then has born witness that the same risen Lord has made himself know to them.  May we each, whatever our doubts and fears, confess with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”