I know folks often say that “seeing is believing”, but that’s not always true. I like magicians. I like to watch magic shows on TV, and I like it especially when they do what’s called “close-up” magic. That’s where the magician rolls up their sleeves and does whatever sleight of hand they do right in front of you, or in front of a small group like at a dinner table or something. When Penn and Teller were at the Warner Theater several years ago I was in the front row. Teller loaded a bullet into a gun, shot the gun through a plate of glass, and Penn caught the bullet in his teeth. I was the one who got to put my initials on the bullet, and so I was the one that Penn knelt down to with the bullet in his teeth for me to inspect it.
I saw that trick. Do I really believe that Penn Jillette caught a bullet with his teeth? No. But that’s what I saw. Seeing is not always believing.
Now if I knew the trick, if I knew what to look for, I might have seen how they did it. And then I would have believed what I had seen. What I believed depended on what I saw, and what I saw depended on what I was looking for.
Which brings us to Thomas. He’s one of the disciples that has a nickname. It’s almost automatic. If I tell you to think of whose nickname this is, and I say “Babe”, you’ll probably say “Ruth.” If I say “Bing,” you’ll probably say “Crosby.” Those names, at least if you’re my age, just kind of go together in our minds.
And so it is with Thomas. We almost always think of him not as Thomas, but as “doubting Thomas.” The man who didn’t believe. The man who, if he were alive today, would be from Missouri – the “show-me” state. Don’t just tell me about it – show me the wounds in the side and the hands and the feet. Seeing is believing. Doubting Thomas, the last disciple to accept that Jesus is raised from the dead.
You know, Jesus was not the first man who claimed to be the Messiah. There had been dozens of people before Jesus who said they were the Messiah. There had been all kinds of people who whip people into a frenzy, who claimed God’s power and God’s name for themselves, who challenged the Roman rule of Israel. When you get home look up “list of messiah claimants” on Wikipedia – it’s an interesting read.
Maybe Thomas had put his trust in one of those messiah claimants who came before Jesus. Maybe Thomas had believed, and watched his hope rise and soar and then fall, broken and shattered, as this “messiah” was put to death.
And then came Jesus, about three and a half years before our reading from John. He preached, he taught, he healed. Thomas was impressed. Something about this Jesus seemed real; something seemed a little different than the ones that had come before. Thomas thought it over and he said to himself, “You know, I think this really is the one. I think this really is the Messiah.” And so once again Thomas signed up. Once again, Thomas followed his heart and became a disciple, a follower of a man who said he was the Son of God.
Guess what? It happened again. Jesus was crucified. And I’ll bet Thomas was crushed. I can hear him now – “How could I have been so stupid? How could I have done it again? That’s it – never again. No more messiahs for me.”
I don’t know if that’s really how it happened, but it’s a possibility. Some of us are that way – come presidential election time, I am always attracted to hopeless third party candidates. I remember collecting petition signatures for John Anderson. When it comes to presidential politics, I still haven’t learned.
Some people learn quickly. A big dog comes up to greet a little kid, and for some reason the kid gets so frightened that they stay scared of dogs for the rest of their lives. They had a bad experience of some kind, and they’re done with dogs.
Dionne Warwick had a hit in 1970 – “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” You know how the last verse of that song goes? “What do you get when you fall in love? You get a lot of pain and hurt and sorrow. So for at least, until tomorrow, I’ll never fall in love again.”
Maybe that was Thomas. “I’ll never follow Messiah again.” But he does. He joins the band of disciples, and travels with Jesus from town to town teaching and preaching and healing. When Jesus is crucified, who could blame Thomas for being disillusioned and cynical? And when word comes that Jesus is raised, who could blame Thomas for saying, “Right. Sure. Uh-huh. Listen, I’ll believe it when I can touch the wounds in his hands and feet. I’ll believe it when I can see it.”
Paul in one of his letters writes about the Bereans. They were a group that Paul went to visit, and they received him with some suspicion. Paul was teaching some new stuff, and the Bereans weren’t too sure about what he was teaching.
So what did they do? They tested what he said. They tested it by comparing it with what they knew to be true. They tested Paul’s words by comparing them with the scriptures that they had at that time. And they found Paul’s words and Paul’s teachings to be in line with what they knew to be true, and so they believed him and received him warmly.
The Bereans sound like Thomas to me. He tests what the other disciples tell him, and once it passes his test he does believe. When Jesus does appear what does Thomas say – even without putting his hands in the wounds? “My Lord and my God.” When Thomas sees it, he does believe it.
That’s how we need to be. Not necessarily with belief in Jesus. While it is possible, I do not expect and am not waiting for Jesus to appear in bodily form in front of me to prove his death and resurrection. But we need to be willing to see truth. We need to be willing to look for God. We need to seek signs of God’s blessing and watch for the spread of God’s kingdom.
I know that sometimes I wonder where God is in the world. Sometimes I wonder if there is any hope and if there is any future and if there is anywhere to go for the world and for the people in it. If I read the news for too long I can become discouraged. I can become disheartened.
It doesn’t happen just thinking about global issues like war or hunger. We all have friends or family members who are in need somehow. Maybe there’s a financial need, or a need for physical or emotional or spiritual healing. Maybe there’s an addiction or something to fight against. There are times and people where, for whatever reason, it just feels like their situation isn’t going to turn around and things are going to get worse and worse for them. I have good friends and family members that I have felt that way about and you probably do too. It is easy to become discouraged and sad and depressed about those situations.
But every once in a while I see signs of hope. Maybe it’s like a big bold flash of lightning, maybe it’s like a glimmer in the darkness, like an animal’s eyes shining on the side of the road. Maybe it starts small and grows, like the crocuses and the daffodils in our front garden. I try to remind myself to be looking for those signs of hope, and when I see them, I feel good. I feel like it’s not too late. I feel like whatever ministry or healing or action or whatever is needed will still happen the way I’d like it to, and I can believe that my efforts and my prayers and my faith can make a difference.
And when I see that glimmer of light, even if it doesn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, even if my prayers aren’t answered the way I want, when I see that glimmer of light I know that God is still there. My loved one, my friend is not alone whether they know it or not. I can take heart. When I see that glimmer, my faith is strengthened and I can believe.
I’ve seen those signs of God’s movement in this congregation over the last year or two. I hope you have too. Often I see people here I’ve never met before, or people that I have met once back for a second or a third time. I hear the sounds of children, delightful sounds of life, from elsewhere in the building. I read about the new ministries and new growth and new schedules with the Brethren Nutrition Program. I see the help and support offered by other congregations who care about this ministry.
All of that encourages. All of that strengthens my faith and my hope. All of that helps me to believe in what we are doing.
It’s not all encouragement all the time. There are times in my church life or my personal life that I have to look harder. There are times when I am like Thomas, still saying show me.
Imagine yourself at the cross. Where would be the signs of life at the cross? Where would be the hope and the help that would strengthen you?
“See, from his hands, his head, his feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down; Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” Just as Thomas must look for the wounds, for the proofs of Christ’s presence, so must we.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who do not see but still believe.” We will not see the physical body, the physical wounds. But if we look, we will see signs. At the tomb, John saw the linen cloths and he believed. Peter did not. Peter needed to see something else. Mary Magdalene saw Jesus, and she believed. She told the other disciples, and her word was enough for most of them – even Peter – but not for Thomas. Thomas needed to see more, and so Jesus gave Thomas what he needed to see – as long as Thomas was looking for it.
Jesus will give us whatever it is we need to see. Jesus will strengthen our faith, lift us up, and encourage us as long as we are looking. As long as we are looking.
Seeing can be believing, if you know what you are looking for. Let’s be open to God’s light and leadership. Let’s be looking for signs of hope, signs of life, signs of God. And when we see, let’s believe. Amen.