believing in the presence

We’re now into our fourth story
from the twentieth chapter of John’s gospel.
In the first story, remember,
Mary finds the stone rolled away in the still dark
and runs to Peter and the beloved disciple,
who in turn run to the tomb.
In the second story, left at the tomb,
Mary encounters Jesus in the garden
and then runs to tell the disciples.
In the third story, Jesus appears to those disciples
in the house locked shut out of fear.

So the stories have all been different—
different locations,
different configurations of people—
who nonetheless know each other.
These the intertwined stories of people in relationship.

And it’s interesting to me, of course,
that there are three stories (did you notice?)
of the resurrected Jesus appearing to people:
Mary’s encounter in the garden,
the disciples’ encounter in the locked room,
and now Thomas’ in that same house.
So a perfect and complete collection of resurrection.

But before the three stories of encounter,
there’s that first story
of the beloved disciple who believed without understanding—
and without encountering Jesus—
and so believing in—well, we’re not sure what!
And that’s gospel truth!

And then there’s the last story.
But, well—we’ll get to that next week!
So for now, let’s just say what we have here
is perfection framed with—what?
Questions?
Perfect encounter framed with—what?
Not encounter and yet belief.
So a variation on perfect.
Perfect and complete added to.

And that’s not even counting the twenty-first chapter!
Because most scholars agree that it was added later—
different language—different style.
A chapter which does add another encounter with Jesus …
and ruins the symbolism of this twentieth chapter.

And so I have imagined this week,
the author of this gospel
encountering the scribe or the church leader
who added chapter twenty-one.
“You did what?”

So on the night Jesus appeared to the disciples,
at least one of the twelve was unaccounted for.
Thomas, one of the twelve, was not present.
And the disciples say to Thomas
exactly what Mary said to them
when she came in from the garden.
Now did they believe her?
Nope.
And neither does Thomas believe them.

And I think it’s truly less a matter of credibility—
so not about the trustworthiness
of the witness of the disciples or of Mary.
Nor is it really about doubt, for that matter,
so neither about the reaction of Thomas—
which was also the earlier reaction of the disciples
(and we don’t call that one the story of the doubting disciples, do we?),
but rather a highlighting of unbelievable news.
He was dead.
“We have seen him.”

And so Thomas says,
“Unless I can verify Jesus’ presence for myself,
this is just absurd.”

Parallel to the previous story,
the disciples are again in the house
with the doors shut,
though perhaps not locked this time.
It doesn’t say.
And there was no fear—
at least no fear mentioned.

But then Jesus is in their midst again,
saying, “Peace with you” again,
and that would be the third time, wouldn’t it?
As if perfect peace maybe has something to do
with including everyone?

And Jesus proceeds to meet Thomas’ every condition—
like he did with the disciples,
but more graphically described.
“Put your hand here. Touch this.”

And even though this story is widely known
as the story of doubting Thomas,
Jesus’ words in Greek literally read not—
“Do not doubt,”
but “Do not persist in your disbelief …
and become a believer.”

Now I’ve spent more time than I probably should have
these last few days,
contemplating the possible difference or differences
between doubt and disbelief,
and so, quite possibly, reading way too much into it!

So a couple of thoughts
that I’ve thought about enough now
that I no longer really know if they’re worth thinking about
or even if they make sense!

First, doubt is questions about what you know,
while disbelief is a rejection of any such knowledge.
so I call it into question—
if I doubt, I call it into question,
versus if I disbelieve,
I don’t even credit it enough to question it.

With doubt there’s still the possibility of belief—
with more evidence, more testimony,
a better argument, more proof,
whereas with disbelief,
even the possibility of belief has been dismissed.
That’s not to say that additional proof—
that new evidence couldn’t overcome even disbelief,
but disbelief constitutes an almost active lack of belief.
It’s more than unbelief—
more than doubt.

“Don’t persist in your disbelief.”

And yet even though Jesus says, “don’t disbelieve,”
the story sets us up for doubt—
what with Thomas outlining, as it were,
what all he would need to see
and what all he would need to touch
in order to believe.

“I will not believe—unless—
unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,
unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails,
unless I put my hand in his side.
Three conditions.
Unless all my conditions are met—
satisfied,
I will not believe.

But then what happens?
Well, the story turns out to not be about someone
whose doubts were allayed—
who was convinced—
whose conditions were met—
who saw what he needed to see
and touched what he needed to touch
to overcome doubt,
but rather—rather,
the story is about someone who found that something truly unbelievable
was nonetheless really true.

So it’s a story of amazement and wonder,
not one of satisfaction and vindication.
Not a story of someone proven wrong,
but of someone whose deepest dream,
the one he couldn’t bring himself to even acknowledge
comes true.

“Doubting” Thomas has sent us, through the years,
down the wrong trail.
“Doubting” Thomas held out the possibility
that people could be convinced of our rightness
and of their wrongness—
that we just needed to present the evidence in the right way—
that we can prove this to you—
as if this all makes sense.
So we’ve been thinking we can convince people to believe.
We can talk about what we believe to be true as if it were believable—
when, in truth, it’s unbelievable.

Because the story was never about the proof.
It was always about the experience
of a relationship.

It was not about needing to see and touch the wounds.
But about the longed for presence
that had been so profoundly missed.

And so it is that Thomas, who disbelieved—
who didn’t think the impossible possible—
it’s Thomas who makes the great confession:
“My Lord and my God.”
Now that’s not news.
It’s what we were told at the beginning of the gospel.
It’s what we’ve known from the beginning.
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

So it’s confirmation.
Satisfaction and vindication, right?
Hypothesis, supporting stories and witness, conclusion.
The gospel all neatly tied together.
Shouldn’t come as any surprise that this chapter
is thought to comprise the original ending of the gospel.
But Jesus, I didn’t think, was interested
in a neatly tied together gospel presentation—
in proof—in satisfaction—vindication,
but in the amazement of deep dreams come true.
And, in truth, Jesus doesn’t seem to be all that impressed,
does he?

Jesus asks “Have you believed because you’ve seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Notice it doesn’t say how we usually take it:
Blessed are those who will not see and yet believe
as if it were about us, don’t you know?
Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed.
And who has not seen Jesus and yet believed?
The beloved disciple!
Remember? Did not see a risen Jesus
(the only one in this chapter not to and yet believe—
not so much in resurrection (as we noted before),
but in Jesus.

So here’s my question:
who believes without seeing?
I’ve seen Jesus, haven’t you?
I would go so far as to say,
I don’t believe because I was told about Jesus.
I believe because I saw the stories about him—his teachings—
take on flesh—in my experience—
lived out in love and commitment.

I believe because I’ve seen Jesus—
typically in those I’ve gotten to know well enough
to better know who they are.
I’ve seen Jesus in my family—
in my family of origin (those who have known me longest
and yet still love me!),
and in my family of girls (who have to put up with me daily
and yet still love me!).
I’ve seen Jesus in friends I know well enough to know
their worlds have fallen apart
and yet they have somehow picked up the pieces
and still proclaim the love and grace of God.

Over the last eleven years, I’ve seen Jesus in y’all—
in your love and your commitment to love.
To celebrate 56 years of marriage yesterday,
Tim and Janet went out to dinner—just the two of them,
and Tim said, “It’s easy. I like her company!”
And I said, “Well that’s part of the secret to 56 years, isn’t it?!”
Course another part is that I’ve seen Jesus in those
whose relationships have survived conflict and even betrayal—
survived not necessarily unchanged,
but with grace and humor.
I’ve seen Jesus in numerous conversations with parents
about the challenges of parenting—
the fears and griefs yet always within the love
and so the hope.
I’ve seen Jesus in the questions of our youth—
in their need to balance our faith claims with our living—
their need for our integrity.
I’ve seen Jesus in the matter of fact assumption of children
that we are here to take care of each other—
that everyone needs to be taken care of.
I’ve seen Jesus in the assurance you offer each other.
“You’ll get through this.”
Oh, not some blasé discounting of circumstance,
but the terrible: “I’m telling you this might be hard as hell—
I know because I’ve been there.
But I made it through, and you’ll get through this.
We’re with you.”
I’ve seen Jesus in the sister who’s there for her brother when he needs her.
I’ve seen Jesus in fellowship hall
in the preparations for Operation Joy
and the Kentucky mission trips
and Wednesday night suppers.
I’ve seen Jesus when you have filled grocery bags for people
in this church for whom the money was tight—
when you’re there for each other
cooking dinners and delivering them where needed—
writing notes, making calls and visits—
when you’ve cried together, holding and comforting each other.
I’ve seen Jesus in your forgiving each other
and in your holding each other accountable—
balancing the highest of expectations
and grace where it’s needed.
I’ve seen Jesus in your care for our earth—
and our responsibility for more than just our share of it.
I saw Jesus one Saturday last month in pairs of adults
and groups of children planting trees.
We’re going to plant a tree for Terry Minton here.
Did you know that?
A Kentucky coffee tree.
He did so love his trees … and Kentucky!
And we will see Jesus in that tree in years to come—
Jesus and Terry and the network of love
we saw illuminated yesterday—
yes, in Terry and Sandy’s love and commitment,
but also in the love we so often see in the community
in the aftermath of loss.
I’ve seen Jesus in your consistent presence here—
your setting aside time—precious time—
to gather in worship and study and fellowship and service.
I’ve seen Jesus in those who sing and play their hearts for us.
And I’ve seen Jesus in your struggles to believe
through the tragedy—through the grief—through the loss—
through the anger and the questions,
because in this story doubt is acknowledged,
and even disbelief is understood
as part of the integrity of Thomas’ believing—
through the doubt and the disbelief.

You see, unless I can verify Jesus’ presence for myself,
this is just absurd!
Unless the way of Jesus is real to me,
it’s just absurd.
So what we do in our ministry together
is make claims and affirmations, that would otherwise be absurd,
wondrous.

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness.
When I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve suggested, several times now,
that we don’t so much see Jesus in the least of these—
or rather that we see Jesus conceptually in the least of these,
but not relationally.
So how does that fit with seeing Jesus so much here?
That’s something we’re talking about and thinking about—
and will continue to.
I think it has something to do with the more you see Jesus,
the more you want to see Jesus.
I think it has something to do with making the absurd wondrous.

I was struck in my study this year,
Thomas is referred to as Thomas the Twin.
Now the name Thomas comes from the Aramaic meaning twin,
and then is identified as the twin using the Greek word for twin.
So first in Aramaic, then in Greek—
which if you understand or translate both
means he’s identified as twin the twin.
And he’s referred to in this way three times in the gospel.
I’m thinking this was somehow important!
So was his twin known to the early church?
Someone important?
There are differing traditions.
According to one, he was the twin of Jesus!
I would suggest
twin the twin is twin to us—
in his inability to believe the impossible,
and then in his wonder, amazement, surprise, joy
when experiencing the impossible—
experiencing a consistency to love committed,
to grace extended,
to hope sustained—
experiencing the impossible
and knowing Jesus to be present with him—
with us.

And then maybe—just maybe,
if we do experience Jesus in community—
in relationship to each other,
then we are, in truth,
twin to twin to twin to twin,
twin to Jesus as well!

Huh.

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