Sermon: “Longing for Evidence”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 2.14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31
Have you ever found yourself longing for evidence? I suspect most Christians long for the certainty which evidence provides. John Updike’s short story, Pigeon Feathers, provides a wonderful example of such yearning. David, a fourteen-year-old boy, is wrestling with matters of faith, the nature of the soul, and his own immortality. It is night-time -- dark. David has not yet dropped off to sleep. Updike writes:
David prayed to be reassured. Though the experiment frightened him, he lifted his hands high into the darkness above his face and begged Christ to touch them. Not hard or long: the faintest, quickest grip would be final for a lifetime. His hands waited in the air, itself a substance, which seemed to move through his fingers; or was it the pressure of his pulse? He returned his hands to beneath the covers uncertain if they had been touched or not. For would not Christ’s touch be infinitely gentle? (Updike, p. 92).
This may bring back memories of our own longing for evidence and certainty. It also provides us a bit of insight into Thomas’ statement: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20.25b; NRSV).
In last Sunday’s lesson from John, we read how Mary visited the tomb, found it empty, conversed with two angels, recognized Jesus when he called her “Mary,” and “then announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (John 20.1-18; NRSV).
It is now evening on the same day. The disciples are gathered behind locked doors – Thomas is missing. Since the Jewish leaders had executed their leader, wouldn’t they pursue his closest followers? The disciples are filled with fear, but not only fear of the Jewish leaders. Each of them had betrayed Jesus after having vowed they would never do so; and now they had heard he is alive. If Jesus comes, what will he say? Will he upbraid them for their lack of courage? Will Jesus further injure their already injured psyches?
Then we read, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side” (John 20.19b-20; NRSV). Look, it really is me! Here is the proof, the evidence, the reassurance you long for and need. The disciples rejoiced! I suspect it took a few moments for the rejoicing to run its course. Jesus then said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 21.21; NRSV). Again, note there was no recrimination; to the contrary, Jesus has commissioned the disciples to continue the work he was sent to do. Jesus then breathed on the disciples and said, “‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20.22-23; NRSV). Many times, we tend to think that the disciples received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Not so! Remember the boldness with which Peter spoke at Pentecost. Such boldness, such empowerment, comes from the Holy Spirit. Jesus not only commissioned the apostles, he equipped them for their task.
When Thomas heard these things, he declared he would not believe unless he too saw the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, placed his fingers in them, and his hand in Jesus side. Jesus met Thomas’ conditions, for a week later Jesus once again appeared in their midst, wished them peace, then invited Thomas to do exactly as he had stated. Jesus further told Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe;” Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus then said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe” (John 20.27-29; NRSV).
Thomas is often called “Doubting Thomas.” He gets some bad press. All Thomas asked for was the same opportunity the other apostles had been granted. Why might Thomas have registered such reservations? I suspect it is because he cared so deeply. He had placed great hope in Jesus only to see him tried and executed. His heart must have been broken. His statement may be understood as saying, “If I am going to believe again, I need to see the resurrected Jesus with my own eyes, to see his wounds – you may have been suffering from a group hallucination. I will only trust my own experience!” Having seen, Thomas can only respond, “My Lord and my God!” After having lost hope, the disciples have come to believe in the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ; their hope has been restored.
In Peter’s epistle to the exiles of the Dispersion located in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), he reminds them of having been “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ.” Peter greets them by saying, “May grace and peace be yours in abundance” (1 Peter 1.2; NRSV); this reflects Jesus’ post-resurrection greeting to the disciples. Peter then reminds the exiles of their hope that comes through Jesus Christ: “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead;” this is accompanied by “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” (1 peter 1.3; NRSV). This inheritance is unlike any perishable, defiled, and fading earthly inheritance, for it is spiritual and eternal.
Peter further tells the Jewish exiles they are being protected by God for their salvation which will “be revealed in the last time.” We can rejoice in this living hope of the resurrection, this hope of our salvation even if it means that we currently suffer trials. Such trials serve to test us, to purify us, to draw us more deeply into relationship with Jesus Christ. Listen to how Peters puts it: “In this [hope] you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 peter 1.6-7; NRSV).
Peter concludes his greeting with words which recall Jesus’ saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.” As Peter puts it: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1Peter 1.8-9; NRSV).
So how does this relate to our situation. We may not be congregating in locked rooms fearful of the authorities, but we are socially isolated during very trying times. If we are honest, we admit to being somewhat fearful of infection by the Covid-19 virus. Our trust, our belief in God, is being tested. Some people I know have recently asked me, “Why does God permit such things to happen?”
People have been asking this question since time immemorial. Job, the most ancient book of the Bible, attempts to address the question head on. In a fit of impertinence, Job goes so far as to state (loosely paraphrased), “God, if I could get you into my court, I would make you answer to me!” When God answers Job, he does not give Job the answer for which he longs – he asks him a series of questions which serve to establish the awesome nature of God and to remind Job that he is only Job. Job repents for having elevated himself, for having believed he could demand an answer from God.
This may not provide all that much comfort. In such periods of testing, we need to reflect on Psalm 23.4: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (BCP). Our love for God assures us that God walks with us. Our longing for evidence amounts to our confession that we truly do not understand the nature of God’s love, or for that matter, of true love for each other.
Would it be reasonable for you to ask me for evidence that I love my wife? No! One who asks such a question has no real understanding of the nature of love. In response, all I can do is relate some of our experiences of deep commitment, concern and caring. Likewise, I cannot give you concrete evidence or proof for the existence of God. All I can do is testify to my experience with God; testify to the hope that is in me; testify to how my relationship with God has been, and continues to be, tested and purified; testify to how God is drawing me ever more deeply into relationship with him. Our quest for evidence, I believe, expresses something even more fundamental – a longing for hope. In these times, and in all times, let us be prepared to share the hope that is within us!