“Unless I see for myself,” Thomas says, “I will not believe.”
What we see has a lot to do with what we’re looking for. This is the premise of a book by Jonathan Haidt – the social psychologist and professor at New York University – whose book is called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Haidt examines why it is that good, intelligent people considering the same data can come to such polarizing conclusions. You’ve all looked at someone and thought with frustration, “Now how can they think that? How can they be so unreasonable?” Haidt surmises that while we think we’re creatures of reason, we’re actually creatures of intuition.
Now, I don’t want to get too political in the pulpit… but let’s talk college basketball for a minute. Take the recent NCAA Championship game, if that’s not too raw and recent. To many of you, that game was a clear case of biased officiating. With all those questionable calls against the Carolina Tar Heels, some even came up with conspiracy theories. While to a whole other group of you, those were perfect calls, especially the ones that killed momentum for the team in blue. Same scenarios, vastly different conclusions.
But take something less polarizing than Carolina basketball like, I don’t know, partisan politics. Why are people so polarized? Well, Haidt claims that rather than looking for evidence and then moving to belief or conviction, we begin with our conviction and then seek evidence that confirms what we already know to be true. This is why no one ever says, “You know, I thought I had my mind made up about this election, but then I read your facebook post, and I changed my mind.” No one has ever said that, ever. That doesn’t mean a post, or a tweet, or a yard sign, or a bumper sticker has no purpose. It just doesn’t do much to shift opinion. Because in most every case, our minds have been made up by criteria much deeper and more embedded from our experience of the world.
What we see, in the end, has a lot to do with what we’re looking for.
When it comes to our faith, some people seem to be able see right away. They’re looking for it. They seem to believe almost intuitively. Some people are like that.
People like Kathleen – a woman I read about recently. Growing up, she dreamed that she was going to serve God as a missionary. She wanted to proclaim the gospel and share the good news all around the globe. But it didn’t work out that way. She got married, had children, the family needed extra income, so she went to nursing school. She ended up as a public health nurse in Asbury Park, New Jersey. If you know Asbury Park, you know that in the 1930’s and 40’s it was a fashionable seaside resort, with great hotels and shops and a boardwalk that rivaled Atlantic City. But then came the 60s. And urban blight. Corruption. Poverty. The boardwalk rotted. The hotels became flop houses. The shops and restaurants closed. By the time Kathleen was there Asbury Park looked like bombed-out Berlin. In one of those dilapidated hotels someone had opened a home for older adults – a retirement home in a flop house. Most of the residents were sick. All of them were poor. The management would not let public health nurses into the hotel, because they did not want them to see the squalid conditions in which those people were living. And, the corrupt city government of Asbury Park at the time backed them up.
So Kathleen took off her nurse’s uniform and put on ordinary clothes and went in cognito into that hotel and hired on as a maid. And every day, she went from room to room to room scrubbing toilets, changing linens, and surreptitiously taking blood pressures, and checking medications, and speaking a word of encouragement. A missionary after all. And she said that she saw in every person in that hotel the face of the risen Christ. She went from room to room to room. From empty tomb to empty tomb. And where most of us see only darkness and death, she saw Jesus. (1)
It’s almost like Peter and the beloved disciple, earlier in John’s gospel, who run to the tomb look inside and they see nothing. Nothing, but grave clothes. They see nothing, but believe everything. Some people are like that. But not everybody. Not Thomas. And maybe not you.
We know the basics: 2,000 years ago a rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth was dead on a Friday but was not found in his tomb on Sun morning. And we are here because we believe he rolled away stones of fear, he broke chains of death, and he stands among us even today. That’s why we’re here. The music is stirring, but there are other places to hear it. The building is grand, but so are plenty of others around. The programming is excellent, but you can find that at the YMCA or scouts, or one of the 3 rec leagues some of your kids are involved in on any given Saturday. We are here because of what John describes in this passage, “Jesus came and stood among them.” And we believe that the living Christ meets us here and stands among us even now.
But we don’t come to believe that, all of us, the same way. We don’t see it, all of us, at the same time. We come to it in different ways. Just think of this church. There are 17 different entrances to our church building, as you know if you’ve ever taken the wrong one. It’s an image of the number of ways we come here to this common place. We have different attitudes, experiences, and assumptions. We have different biases, questions, doubts. We don’t come in the same way.
So the gospels don’t give us just one resurrection story. They give us many, as if to say, “look how many ways people come to belief.” Some run to the tomb, some hear their name spoken, some experience the risen Christ in their midst, some meet him on the road or at the table. But at least one, Thomas, misses it all.
Thomas doesn’t really appear to be looking for anything in today’s passage. I guess he has seen all he needs to see – heartbreak, abuse of power, broken promises, faded dreams. Thomas has stopped believing. He’s almost stopped looking. Maybe with good reason.
In today’s passage, when Jesus enters the room, the disciples are cowering, huddled together in fear and confusion. The doors are double locked. They take turns rising from the corner to keep watch at the window for what might come down the road. And these are no trite and trivial bump in the night frights. Their rabbi and leader – the one who had held the whole thing together – is dead, executed like a common criminal. He had been buried behind a stone. And rolled behind that stone with Jesus is so much of their own lives. Their vision, their sense of direction, their hope, so much of it entombed with their leader. In its place was failure, loss. Maybe shame that they had deserted Jesus? Disappointment in themselves? Definitely some disillusionment and possibly even a bit of resentment of the one who had raised their hopes so high, only to leave them. So we’re not surprised that many of them seem ignore Mary’s stunning proclamation. It’s too improbable. So they had stayed put and waited to see what would happen next. All of them there cowering. All except one.
Thomas is off by himself when Jesus arrives to the locked room. So when Jesus arrives in the middle and breathes on those gathered there, Thomas misses it. Wherever Jesus is, Thomas seems to be on the other side of the wall. He’s locked out. Then locked in. And some people are like that.
Gordon Lathrop, the Lutheran liturgical scholar, once said, “You don’t have to knock very hard on any door in your church to find some sort of pain behind that door.” (2) People locked in suffering, sickness. People locked in abuse. People locked in low self-esteem. People locked in financial crisis. People locked in broken relationships. Most of us are locked in prisons of one kind of fear or another. In her book called Any Day a Beautiful Change, the author Katherine Pershey describes what it’s like to be locked into a prison of fear: “Fear is a physiological response to tomorrow. It is almost always about death. Fear causes us to live in a perpetual state of anxiety. Fear is exhausting and depressing. Generally, the calamities I expect do not come to pass. So I replace them with new ones. Time and energy that could be used constructively – for prayer, dishwashing, learning to quilt – I sacrifice to cultivate apprehension.”
I guess we all know someone like Thomas. Maybe intimately. Twice John calls him the Twin. Some throughout history have seen him as the twin to Jesus. But I wonder if he doesn’t look a lot like me. And, unless my eyes betray me, I’m sure you’d find a resemblance too. Church is full of Thomases, as much as it is any Peter, Paul or Mary. We can see ourselves in Thomas – his doubts, his needs, his tendency to avoid the crowd, his propensity to suppress any hopes for fear of being disappointed again, his inability to see or even give the energy to continue looking at all, his attempts to wall himself off.
But these walls don’t matter to Jesus. Locked doors don’t stop him. And Jesus does what he always does. Thomas dismisses, avoids, turns away. Thomas locks doors and hides behind walls. Thomas misses entirely the peace breathed on his brothers and sisters. And Jesus does what he always does. Jesus comes back for him.
The amazing thing, according to biblical scholar Gail O’Day – dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School – the amazing thing in this passage is not that Thomas ever really got to put his hands in Jesus’ side. It’s that Jesus came to him in a way that he could receive. (3) “Here Thomas. I want you to believe. I’m available to you, Thomas. Here, touch my side. Here, see my hands.” Jesus finds him.
Christopher Henry is a pastor in Atlanta and previously in North Carolina, and shares how several years he was attending a Sunday afternoon book club in a small town in North Carolina. The participants in the club were the pastors and lay leaders of local congregations – Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and Presbyterians. That day the shared personal stories of faith formation. “How did you become a Christian? Where did your faith journey begin?” One by one, members of the group described how they had been raised by loving and faithful parents who brought them to Sunday school and church, told them the stories of Jesus, and helped them to grow in maturity of faith. Some people are like that. But not everybody.
There was one person left to speak. And tears formed in her eyes as she said, “I am a Christian because the Christian church saved my life.” Suddenly, the chatty group fell silent. She described how she had been abandoned by her parents as an infant. Sent to a foster home, she was neglected and abused for the first six years of her life. At age seven, she was adopted by a local family. Not knowing what to expect, she spent the first night wide-awake in her new bed, afraid and anxious, and not hopeful at all. The next morning, it was a Sunday, the family got up early, had breakfast, and got into the car. “It was my first time at church and I had no idea what to expect. We walked into the Sunday school classroom, and the teacher’s face lit up. ‘Welcome, Janet, we’ve been waiting for you.'”
And this woman said, “I knew, knew with all of my heart, that he was talking to me. I knew that I was home. I am a Christian because of that moment.” (4)
See somewhere along the way, while Thomas was looking for proof, Jesus comes looking for him. Jesus knows who was missing when he breathed on those gathered there – Jesus always knows who’s missing. So he does what he always does – he returns and appears before Thomas, right in the middle of his fears and disappointments, in the middle of his doubts. “Peace be with you,” he says once again to them all. And then to Thomas standing there rubbing his eyes, “Put your finger here and feel my hands…here, bring your hand and put it in my side…”
We don’t know if Thomas touches as he said he would. He doesn’t have to. Because while Thomas was looking for evidence, Jesus looked for him. Thomas doesn’t believe because of rational argument or clear evidence. He believes because Jesus comes to find him, and proclaims in doing so his refusal to stop loving even those who have deserted him, those who have denied him, those who have doubted him. The Good News of the gospel is that whatever it is that you’re looking for, Christ is looking for you.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to the point in my life of faith that I’ve had to admit to myself that I missed Jesus’ first appearance. I’m not sure where I was, but I wasn’t in the room. I never felt him breathe on me. I have never seen the risen Christ personally. You know, I’ve never been able to come up with a better rational argument than those who don’t believe. I have only the testimony of the others to go on, passed down, distilled, interpreted. Even if I’d been there, I’m not sure what I’d be looking to see.
Because faith is not what happens in response to the evidence so clear and dramatic. Faith is not what happens when we reach out and touch his hands or his side. Faith is what happens when we realize that something, someone, has come to find us. And he’s walked through every door we can lock in our lives to proclaim his unending love. He’s made it through all the walls we can construct to remind us of his relentless mercy. And regardless of our fear, or doubt, or attempts to walk away, he has never stopped looking for us, spends our whole lives pursuing us, comes and stands among us as the living Christ and says to us all, and especially those who might have missed it the first time, “Peace be with you.”
And once that happens, we can really only respond in the words of Thomas, our twin, “My Lord. And My God.”
- Tom Long, “Easter Sermon” (May 11, 2011)
- Qtd by Alyce MacKenzie, “Jesus Can’t be Locked Out”
- The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John
- In “Where to Begin?” on Day1