See, Believe, Witness 

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 20:1-31

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What exactly is the relationship between seeing and believing? We tend to think that if you see something, you know it’s real, so you can believe in it. Yet everything from psychology to movie special effects tell us that how we see things is influenced by what we think we’re seeing – that how we believe shapes what we see. When it comes to the Good News of Resurrection, what we see and how we believe have to work together to bring us to new life.

And while that is most obvious in this encounter between Thomas and Jesus, that is actually a theme that is building all through the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel. And if we want to see the real significance of Thomas and Jesus, we need to frame that encounter with everything else that’s gone before.

It all starts early in the morning on the first day of the week, when Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and sees that the stone has been removed. That’s all: she doesn’t go to the tomb, she doesn’t look in the tomb, she just sees the tomb is open. She runs and tells Peter and John. So Peter and John run to the tomb, and they go inside. They see the linen wrappings that had been on Jesus’ body, carefully folded up and laid aside, but they do not see a body. And John believes; he doesn’t yet really know what’s going on, but he’s seen something remarkable and he believes it is meaningful.

Then Mary looks in the tomb—something she hadn’t done yet—and she sees two angels. Now Mary knows that there is something divine happening, that this isn’t just the absence of an earthly body but is the presence of a heavenly reality. Turning away from the tomb, Mary sees Jesus—but she doesn’t yet understand that it’s Jesus. It’s only when Jesus calls her by name that she recognizes him, and she calls him “Teacher.” Jesus sends her to tell the others, and she says to them “I have seen the Lord”—not just “Teacher” but “Lord”—and that simple change of title indicates that Mary has seen a little more deeply into the mystery of Resurrection and believes a little more powerfully in Jesus.

Then later that same night, when the disciples are together and the doors are locked, Jesus comes and stands among them and says “Peace be with you.” The disciples rejoice when they see the Lord—seeing him alive again, they also recognize him as Lord and believe in the reality of his Resurrection Life. And because they now believe, Jesus breathes on them the Holy Spirit, and sends them out to do his work in the world.

All except for Thomas. Thomas, for some reason, wasn’t with them on Sunday night, and when the disciples say to Thomas what Mary had first said to them—“We have seen the Lord”—Thomas doesn’t believe them. Thomas wants to see for himself. So, a week later, the disciples are together and the doors are locked, and Jesus comes and stand among them. He says “Peace be with you”; and then he says specifically to Thomas “Look at my hands; touch my wounds; believe that it’s really me.” And Thomas says “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is the first one of them all to call Jesus “God.” Thomas is now the one who sees most deeply into the mystery and believes most powerfully in Jesus: he believes that Jesus is not just “Teacher,” not just “Lord,” but “God.”

At each stage of the story there is a new revelation of Resurrection—the empty tomb, the recognition of Jesus, the giving of the Holy Spirit, the call to believe. At each stage of the story there is a new response of faith—believing even when you don’t quite know what’s going on, knowing Jesus as Teacher, knowing Jesus as Lord, knowing Jesus as God. The whole of Chapter 20 builds this rising crescendo of revelation, until we finally see the Risen Jesus saying “Do not doubt but believe.”

And then comes the kicker: Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus says this to Thomas; but he might as well have said it to all the disciples, because all of them have seen something. Mary saw the open tomb and then saw Jesus standing there, and she believed; John saw the linen gravecloths empty and folded up, and he believed; the disciples saw Jesus showing his hands and side, and they believed; Thomas saw Jesus calling him directly, and he believed. All of them saw something. But now Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Who might those unseeing believers be?

Well, in case we have any doubts, the narrator steps in to help us here. In one of those rare moments in the Gospels when the Evangelists step out of storytelling mode and speak directly to the audience, the narrator of John turns to us and writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.” The whole point of Chapter 20, the whole point of the entire Gospel, has been to help us—you and me—come to believe in Jesus, come to have that same kind of life-transforming relationship with Jesus that Mary and Peter and John and Thomas had, so that we might have life in Jesus’ name. The whole point of the rising crescendo of revelation is to help us learn to recognize the presence of the Risen Christ, even though we don’t see him face-to-face, nevertheless to recognize the presence of the Risen Christ in the New Life we encounter in our lives. The unseeing believers are us.

So how then do we see and believe? What small steps of revelation lead to a rising crescendo of faith for us?

Can you look at the world around you, and see signs of life, and believe that the Risen Jesus is there?

Can you see healing and wholeness and recovery among people you care about deeply, and believe the Risen Jesus is there?

Can you see forgiveness and reconciliation, relationships being restored, justice being done, among people and among communities, and believe the Risen Jesus is there?

Can you see joy emerging out of depression, courage overcoming despair, serenity and dignity given to the dying, hope taking root among those who struggle, people whose lives seemed overwhelmed and lost finding a new direction and a new way – can you see these things around you, can you be part of helping these things to happen around you – and can you believe the Risen Jesus is there?

And if you believe, will you accept from Jesus the gift of life—abundant, overflowing, joyful life—in Jesus’ name?

Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen me, and yet have come to believe.” We are blessed in our believing when we witness the power of Jesus’ Resurrection Life all around us. We are called in our believing to share that blessing with everyone we can reach. That is our Easter mission. That is our Easter joy. Amen.