Believing What We Do Not See
BELIEVING WHAT WE DO NOT SEE
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So 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.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But 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.”
I grew up thinking this passage was about Thomas, ‘Doubting Thomas.’ When Thomas is the focus, the passage becomes a story about how to be a better Christian, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Don’t be like Thomas. God will still love you but the higher standard is believing without seeing. The story becomes about us and what we can do to be better. I have come to believe, however, that such an emphasis misses the power and grace in the passage. I believe we are better served to focus on how Jesus loves.
The passage begins with Jesus coming to the disciples while they were hiding behind locked doors. Notice that even though Jesus greets them (“Peace be with you.”), it is not until he shows them his hands and side that the disciples recognize Jesus. It turns out that it is very difficult for us to believe what we cannot see and it is equally difficult to see what we do not expect. The disciples could not comprehend Jesus’s promises made in life that he would return after his death. Then they could not recognize Jesus because no one expects a dead man to walk into the room. Of course they doubted! They had no frame of reference. Such a thing was inconceivable.
So, the first thing Jesus does is meet them where they were. He shows them the physical evidence (his hands and side). He shows them that he, who was speaking to them, was the same man they had seen on a cross. The disciples needed concrete, visible evidence that the man who stood before them was the Jesus they knew. He did not hold their fear, their doubt or their failure to recognize him against them. He met them where they were and he built a bridge to them so that they could recognize him.
How often are we appalled that people do not understand us? We are far more likely to offer an irritated “Never mind!” than we are to figure out how to speak in a way that can be heard. Speaking in a way that can be heard is inconvenient and requires mindfulness. The disciples simply could not hear or see what must have been painfully obvious to Jesus. He did hold their sins against them.
The disciples’ dilemma is one we share in our ordinary lives. We, too, have a terrible time believing what we cannot see. There have been many warnings about a pandemic, but we did not believe. Even when people started dying in China, we did not believe. We did not react until the threat was real to us. Until we reach a crisis threshold, Covid is something that happens elsewhere. It is a problem that is over blown. It is a partisan conspiracy. We have to see it to believe it and it has to be pretty serious for us to take it seriously. When something is outside of our experience, it is really hard to take it in. That’s what happened to the disciples. They resisted Jesus speaking of his impending death and they could not comprehend the life he promised. They had to see before they could believe.
When the disciples finally made the connection, they rejoiced. This time Jesus says: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus gives them the means to think outside of their own preconceptions. Jesus gave them the means to remember and to live the love he taught. The Holy Spirit provided them the possibility of seeing outside of their own thinking. They could finally see that the Jesus who had loved them in his life was the same Jesus they had seen die.
This brings me to the irony of labeling this story ‘Doubting Thomas’. Thomas just put into words the needs of the other disciples. Jesus did not wait to be asked. He gave them what they needed. Most of the participants in FIRL had been raised with the idea that doubting might be ok but needing ‘proof’ was an indication of a weaker faith. Or the converse, our faith is particularly commendable because we have not seen—- Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But the very act of ranking the faithful is sinful. Jesus did not hold the disciples’ need for evidence against them, he offered it freely. He did the same for Thomas.
The verse, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” is better understood as Happy are those who have received the Holy Spirit and who can now see God at work. This story is not about fear and doubt. Nor is a story about comparative goodness. This story is about a God who reaches out to the people he loves. He reaches out in ways we can comprehend. This story is about the way that God loves and when we see that, we too will rejoice and worship his name. He meets us where we are so that we might know him. Jesus’ was teaching with his love far more than his words. Our words often limit us in ways that love does not. It takes the Holy Spirit for us to see such possibilities.
If you have questioned and were not judged; if you have been anxious and depressed and someone sat with you— without trying to fix you; if you have been held when your heart was broken; if you have known someone who could stand firm even as you were lashing out and accusing—then you have met the risen Lord. Jesus recognizes our limitations and calls us forward. Life is found in loving as Jesus loved. Only with the Holy Spirit can we hear Jesus saying to the disciples—and to us:
“The way I am loving you now is the same as the way I loved you in life and is the same as I’ll love you forever.” Let it be so.