Actual Proofs John 20:19-31
“Then Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ But Jesus replied, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”
Faith in Jesus as Lord and God only comes through experience. There’s second-hand knowledge of the risen Christ to be gathered elsewhere. We can hear the Bible accounts of how his pathetic, cowering disciples were transformed into daring, confessing apostles when they saw their risen Lord. We can read the lives of the various saints who in the past met the Living One in ways as many and different as they were from each other. We can hear the testimony of people alive today who have come to faith in Jesus as Lord and God through some epiphany and found life piled on life in him. We can gather all that, beloved, but for each one of us there is literally no substitute for a personal encounter with Jesus. And without that encounter, our awareness of who Jesus really is will never reach our hearts, let alone our fingers and our toes. We will never come to recognize him as the only really real thing in a world of shadows and illusions.
So the demand that Thomas makes is not really as presumptuous as it might seem at first. He wanted hard cash as the price of his soul. He knew that it is not enough to simply wish something were true. It has to be. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he told the other disciples, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The unspoken yet operative word here is actually –unless I actually see the mark of the nails, and actually put my finger in the mark of the nails and actually thrust my hand into his side, I will remain an unbeliever. Actual faith is the only kind that deserves the name, and actual faith always comes from a personal experience of God’s faithfulness. So Thomas places the entire weight of responsibility for his believing or unbelieving solely upon the Lord—where it should be, because you and I are incapable of generating that kind of faith in ourselves.
Yet you and I still hesitate to demand that God reveal himself to us concretely, and too often we settle for a disembodied faith, for pale wishes and frail hopes. There are things we each need to make our faith lively and complete, but we have trouble asking for them. Challenging the Almighty seems so risky, like using a hairdryer in the bathtub. But the old saying is still true–if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It really isn’t presumptuous to ask the Lord to disclose himself to you. Indeed he waits for us to ask him to prove himself with actual experiences of his saving power. God does not resent an audacious demand—the Bible is filled with the stories of people like Thomas who tested the power of God—and with miraculous consequences.
What is different about the story of Thomas—whom the scriptures call Didymus, “the Twin”—is that he laid out such very specific requirements. Unless I see. Unless I touch. The operative word here is unless. And for a week we are told his “unless” hung in the air unanswered. He had to wait. But the next time Jesus appeared to his disciples Thomas was present, and he acceded to Thomas’s audacious demand to touch his wounds. But did Thomas actually do it, or was the offer enough? If we read this passage carefully, we notice that it does not say whether or not Thomas actually put his finger in the nail prints or thrust his hand into Jesus’ side. But if he didn’t, he could have.
So to return to our original point, beloved–All of our knowledge of God comes from direct experience, and that experience is available to each of us if we ask. And having asked, we wait for him to do it in his own time and in his own way. If there is one single thing to learn from accounts of his appearances to others it is this—they are never the same. The Lord will not appear to you and me in the way that he appeared to Thomas, as body with still gaping wounds. He will appear as he actually is, as what we need–a concrete answer to an otherwise unanswerable question, a faithful guide through the labyrinth of life, a partner in our great loneliness. How and when he manifests his presence is up to the Lord and not to us. But he will. All you have to do is ask, and then wait.
It took a week for the Lord to appear to Thomas. But when he did—Boy Howdy!—he really did. Thomas is overwhelmed. “My Lord and my God!” he cries out, almost in pain, as if his confession were being wrenched from him. But Jesus asks—“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Then he turns away from Thomas and toward us—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
In other words, not having seen like Thomas did and still having come to believe, you are blessed and so am I. And that is an encouraging thought, beloved. I don’t know about you, but these days I’ll take whatever encouragement I can get, because it is so easy to become downcast. I have all I can do not to slip into sullen despair, and no one likes being around that. The forces of brutality and vulgarity are riding pretty high at the moment, and the menu of the choices of those we are offered to lead us is unappetizing to say the least. When I read the news, those lines written the Irish poet W.B. Yeats keep recurring to me–
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
And full of passionate intensity.
Yeats was writing in 1919, with the horrors of World War I still fresh in his mind. But his words are as crisp and current as this morning’s paper. These days the worst really are the worst, you must agree, and they are filled with nothing if not passionate intensity. And watching things fall apart, I myself have to struggle hard to keep myself from becoming sullen and despondent and short-tempered.
So it occurred to me when I heard the Story of Thomas in church the other Sunday that now is an excellent time for us to put the Lord to the test. He is the One who wants, who desires, who thirsts to reveal himself. So if faith comes only through experience, then we experience the Healer in being healed, the Savior in being saved, the Prince of Peace in that deep peace which passes all understanding. And having that experience of Jesus as Lord and God, in a dissolving world we will be able to claim the blessedness of those who have not seen him but still believe.