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Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title of sermon: Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe
Date/time/service: Sunday 3 July 2022, Choral Eucharist, 11am
Readings: Habbakuk 2:1-4, Ephesians 2:19-end, John 20:24-29
It seems to me, there can often be quite a journey, quite a distance between seeing and believing: a whole world of human responses which range from absolute certainty to faithful doubt, to complete denial. We have, quite possibly, been conditioned to affirm only what we see with our eyes, and if something cannot be seen or touched physically, it might not really exist.
We live in a scientific age, when to be real, to exist, something has to be measured, quantified, observed, analyzed. But speak to any scientist at the top of their game, and they will tell you that Science in its purest form, is often far from a certainty. In any scientific endeavor there are worlds of possibilities too, layers upon layers of things which are not seen and not understood, hypothesis, theories, unknowns yet to be fathomed. Max Plank, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who developed Quantum Theory, said this:
“Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science, are written these words: ‘Ye must have faith.’”
We cannot be surprised that in the face of a world changing event, when the seemingly impossible came to pass, Thomas the Disciple, wanted tangible evidence. Perhaps he is an architype of modern humanity? We who have been formed by the enlightenment and the march of modernity can surely sympathise with Thomas? It’s no wonder that Thomas felt he needed to reach out and touch the risen Jesus, in order to prove to himself, that all that he had heard and seen was true, that Jesus really was alive. Wouldn’t you want some evidence too?
‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in his side, I will not believe.’ Thomas, like so many others since, thought that physical evidence was the basis for belief, that faith was measurable and simply based on quantifiable and observable facts.
Let me rewind for a moment. When I was confirmed as a teenager, my vicar bought me a wonderful book about the archaeology of the Holy Land: The Oxford Bible Atlas. I still have it. This book with its maps and images, set me researching all sorts of things relating to the physical landscape which Jesus inhabited and the artifacts that he may have left behind. I should admit I was probably also influenced by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At around the same time, The Turin Shroud, a linen cloth associated with the burial of Jesus, was being carbon dated. This cloth was said to have an imprint of the face and body of Christ himself- a shadow of a crucified man, even showing his wounds. I was thrilled at the prospect of a proof for faith.
At the time, I asked a teacher what difference it would make to her faith if the Turin shroud turned out to be real? I was so excited by this possibility: if we had physical, scientific evidence that we could see and touch. She said, quite rightly, that it wouldn’t make any difference one way or the other. She didn’t need evidence. She didn’t need facts. She had faith.
I was kind of caught short by her response and it’s stayed with me ever since, and I now recognize her words as the response of a wise and faithful christian. She didn’t need evidence because she was walking by faith, rather than by sight. It turned out by the way, that the Turin Shroud was carbon dated to the 12th or 13th century, but that didn’t detract and doesn’t detract, from its power as an object of devotion and the focus of faith.
Some years later I was lucky enough to go to the Holy Land and see the place where Jesus had walked upon this earth, the pictures from my Oxford Bible Atlas were right there in front of my eyes, and I have to confess, that as I stood there looking at the dusty landscape, and feeling a little tearful, the words of Jesus bubbled up within me ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. Here I was, two thousand years after Christ was in this place, believing not by sight, but by faith; stood in Jerusalem, not because of any physical quantifiable evidence or proofs, but because faith had brought me there.
Read todays gospel very carefully, and you will notice that Thomas doesn’t actually put his hand in Jesus side. In the end, he doesn’t need physical evidence. He is overcome by the love of God standing before him. Thomas has been overwhelmed by faith, he is standing before life itself. In the second letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says that the Christian community walks by faith and not by sight. Seeing is not believing, believing is seeing the world in a new way. In the letter to the Hebrews, we are told that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.
Thomas’s response to Jesus form the climax of John’s gospel. He proclaims, ‘My Lord, and My God.’ It is from Thomas’s mouth that the truth of the Christian faith is spoken: Jesus is the Lord of all creation, the living God. And Thomas the Doubter, becomes Thomas, the Believer. Thomas the Believer, the name he is given in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
You probably haven’t heard of the 17th Century priest Thomas Fuller, but he is famous for the phrase: ‘seeing is believing’. The only thing is, that’s only half of what he said: Seeing is believing, but feeling is the truth, is the quote in full. There are things beyond what we can see and touch, and measure and quantify. A world of the heart where faith, hope and love abide. The truth is, the Gospel must be experienced in order to be believed. Faith, just like hope and love, cannot be bought off the shelf, it takes much more work and will always gather in its wake, all the doubts, all the unknowns, the things not seen, the things hoped for.
The Community created around Jesus is not always going to have all the right answers pre-packaged, or oven-ready, it’s not always going to be in control of things, the community of faith will measure the world differently, not in grams or indeed ounces, but by love given and received; faith felt but not quantified; hope searched for, but never contained or restricted.
If we are to take anything from the witness of Thomas the Apostle, perhaps we are to welcome our doubts and journey through them, happily exploring them in the land between seeing and believing until we find the truth. The most dangerous thing in the world, is thinking we have all the answers and silencing the questions that need to be asked. And as has been said many times before, doubt isn’t the enemy of faith, but certainty is. When certainty holds sway, faith stops.
The church doesn’t have all the answers, but we do, as people of faith hold on to the mystery and look to what is beyond our comprehension. God is over all things, seen and unseen. In this eucharist, for a fleeting moment we hold on to that mystery of faith in our hands, we are invited to touch the body and blood of Christ, taking the bread and tasting the wine, and look at the world with the eyes of the heart.
One day these sacraments, these outward and visible symbols of an inward and spiritual grace, will cease and we will no longer need to touch or see, because we will know. We will stand before Christ with his glorious wounds, and we will fall to our knees and join with Thomas and all the saints, proclaiming: My Lord and My God. Through the doubting of Thomas, Jesus gives us his blessing, a blessing which has sustained the community of faith since its beginning and continues to sustain us today: Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.
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