Believing Without Seeing
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
April 15, 2007
Scripture: Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
“Jesus said to him: ‘Is it because you have seen me that you have believed? Blessed are those who have not seen me and nevertheless believe.'” — John 20:29
Here at the end of the shorter version of the gospel (minus Ch. 21), John is concerned with the challenge of passing on the faith. How do people come to believe in Jesus and how might we facilitate that event? The last lines tell us that John wrote this selection of stories from the much longer record of the works of Jesus, so that we might “believe that Jesus is the Christ and that believing might have life through his name (vs. 30-31).” Life is the goal of all our desire and John wants us to have it. He believes that Christ will give it to us, abundantly, if we master the move of faith, and in order to help us he presents here, at the end, three ways of proceeding. You can demand to touch Jesus, you can demand to see Jesus, and you can act on the reports of others, especially accounts of what Jesus did and said, like the ones in this book. So three senses are involved, touching, seeing and hearing, and how shall we use them to win life?
John recommends hearing, or its surrogate reading. (“Blessed are those who have not seen or touched and nevertheless believe.”) He thinks you and I can base a relationship with Jesus on the information we get from reading, and remember, in those days everyone read aloud, or spoke the words loudly or softly, no one read silently as we do. Just before our first reading from Revelation begins the writer says: “Blessed is the one who reads and those who listen to the words of prophecy, and those who observe the things written in it, for the time is near (Rev.1: 3).” Here is a picture of reading in the circles in which this gospel would have moved. Reading aloud and hearing together in a group is the means by which the faith of Christ might take root in you and life come to you.
The story of Thomas and his doubting demands highlight the alternatives of touching and seeing and seem to represent an argument in the earliest strata of the tradition about the nature of the risen Lord; was he raised bodily so that we may have touched him, or did he just appear to the disciples so that we might have seen him but not touch him? In the trade these are regarded as two separate traditions, the empty tomb (touching) tradition and the appearance (seeing) tradition. The later gospel tradition that we inherit presents the two together, claiming that Jesus was raised bodily and that he appeared. There is also the intermediate stage of tradition where he appears to be a body and asks for something to eat, and then he walks away through the wall, or disappears, which indicates blend of the two traditions.
So there is a thicket of data from the earliest strata of tradition to be sorted out, and the sorting can be done, although not here and now. Let me just say that there is no reason that we must choose between the traditions, either the bodily or the appearance accounts; they are far from mutually exclusive, if only you remain unprejudiced, and we can have both/ rather than either/or. Indeed. Together like this they might be closer to the event itself.
But John believes we can be united with Jesus in faith just by hearing about him, “Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have believed.” Here Jesus seems to be congratulating Thomas for not acting on his demand to touch the wounds of Jesus, but rather settling for just seeing him, before confessing him to be “My Lord and my God.” And John wants to remove us yet farther from the immediate experience of touching or seeing him and to settle for reports about him.
The other day in a conversation about these things Rosemary insisted that one couldn’t be said to remember someone whom one has never met, nor an event at which one was never present, which is fair enough on a strict constructionist view, but the gospel says we are to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. This seems to indicate that we can remember him even though we were not there at the last supper or on any other occasion while he was present on earth. We can be said to remember him simply by hearing him read about in the gospels.
Clearly this is a less literal use of the term “remember” than Rosemary insisted on; John remembers and John was there, he writes down his memories and we hear them read to us in the congregation, and we believe. So hearing, remembering and believing are parts of the process by which supernatural life comes to us, that much is clear, but can we understand more about this process so that we might use it more efficiently?
Have you ever asked what it literally means to “believe” in Christ? John seems to take a matter of fact view when he says, “…believe that Jesus is the Christ.” This describes the normal process of hearing a message and assenting to it because we believe it is true. Jesus is the Christ; the Baltimore Colts are the Super bowl champions, Stanford is a great university, these are all similar communications. Can you imagine reaping a great benefit, like eternal life, simply because you believe that the massage is true and that the Baltimore Colts are indeed the champions. Surely there is more to it than that, surely “believe” in this context, means more than simple assent to the truth of the message.
Clearly the message about Jesus being the Christ is being contested in the circles where John moves; people are denying that it is the case that Jesus is the Christ, or is alive from the dead; there is a controversy that is demanding that people take sides. Which side are you on? Do you believe that he is the risen Christ or do you not? I think it is the element of controversy in the context of this story of Thomas’ doubt and demand that makes belief in the truth of the message meritorious. It is not just a matter of fact that we believe; it takes an act of courageous decision to believe in the face of denial. This courage makes the move more that assent; it makes it a commitment, a pledge and a purpose.
Belief in its truth, even belief that takes courage cannot, however, be sufficient in itself. Remember the Letter to the Hebrews says that the devils believe that God exists and they tremble. We might believe that the statement Jesus is the Christ is true, but by its very nature such a true statement demands a further act of a special kind on our part, namely we must accept that he is alive and that he is our Lord and then live as if that were the case, which it is. Faith demands not only an act of cognition but also an ongoing act of the will.
That kind of full acceptance of the truth and its implications is what gives us eternal life, according to John. So the lesson for today is, Pay attention to the gospel stories, affirm that Jesus is the Christ, come together to remember him, and be prepared to live accordingly. When you do that, you will find that the power of life flows into you and the creative energy of God works in you. This is a pragmatic offer with a pragmatic test attached. Read, hear, believe and act, and God will hear, and act towards you. And you don’t have to touch him, or see him, simply pay attention to what the witness of the apostles says, take it as true, in the full sense of that word, and engage your will.