Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Between our journey through Holy Week and today, we’ve gone from being ritual participants in the Passion of our Lord to what today’s Gospel labels as “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” On Maundy Thursday, we were there in the upper room at the Last Supper where Christ instituted the Eucharist. In the chapel of repose, we were there in the garden with the disciples struggling to stay awake and stay attentive with Christ for just one hour as his hour approached. On Good Friday, we were there at the foot of the cross as we gazed in contemplation upon the dead body of the Son of God. And at the Easter Vigil, we were there in the pitch black of the tomb, as the light of Christ returned from death, from hell itself, and gradually illuminated this whole space which might as well have been the world world, because it kind of was.
But now, a week later in the Easter season, the elephant in the room is that despite all of our profound liturgies, we were not, in fact, there. And we are not there now either. We are caught between an experience that we did not have and a belief that we do have nevertheless. We have not seen and yet we have come to believe. Or at least we try to believe or think we should believe or something. But then again, belief is a hazy business. Is it merely a code word for “thinking hard” or “certainty excused from evidence?” Indeed, it’s not difficult to hear Christ’s blessing on the rest of us as a kind of sympathetic consolation prize. “Aw, look at all these Christians: they didn’t even see anything and they believe anyway -- bless their hearts.”
We need to get clear as to what belief actually is before we then consider what it is that we believe.
I’m sure many of you have heard the well-known verse from 2 Corinthians that says that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” Or as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” In both of these verses, faith is distinguished from sight, opposed to it. This makes sense. We don’t need faith about what we can see, because, after all, we can see it. And since faith involves belief, belief is not necessary for what we can see either.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find this biblical contrast between sight and belief as well. It occurs again and again. The disciples tell Thomas that “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas responds that “unless I see… I will not believe.” Thomas later sees Jesus and exclaims, “My Lord and my God” and Jesus asks him in return whether he has believed because he has seen. Back and forth is this interplay of seeing and believing or not seeing and not believing and finally an open question from Jesus as to whether seeing is a part of believing at all.
So what is it that Thomas and the rest of us have we come to believe, exactly? I think many of us would assume that the belief we’re talking about is the belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ. The belief that Jesus rose from the dead. A proposition that we agree with. And if this is what we’re talking about, then what the disciples saw was that Jesus was raised from the dead and therefore believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. Pretty straightforward. An experience leads to a conclusion: Thomas sees the risen Christ in front of me, and therefore he believes that Christ rose from the dead. And then accordingly, we conclude that Jesus then blesses those who have not seen that he rose from the dead, like us, and yet believed that he rose from the dead anyway.
I’m not so sure that this is really it, though. I mean, important disclaimer: I absolutely believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ and you should too. It is an essential component of Christian doctrine without which this whole thing falls apart. But that Jesus had risen from the dead is not technically what the disciples, specifically St. Thomas, believed. It is certainly what they saw, but what they believed is something different.
What I want to say is that the resurrection of Christ definitively reveals who Jesus is; the resurrection itself is not the revelation. And it is therefore this newfound identity of Jesus, revealed by the resurrection, that Thomas and his fellow disciples believe. And because the identity of Christ is not something that can be objectively seen, but only revealed in the glory of God and believed, then we are actually not in much of a different situation than the disciples were in. It’s not that they had the luxury of getting to see it with their own eyes whereas we have to unfortunately do the extra work of belief. If who Jesus was revealed to be was simply something to be seen, they wouldn’t have needed to believe in the first place. When Christ asks Thomas whether he believed because he saw, it’s a rhetorical question. Did Thomas recognize Jesus as his Lord and his God because of the sight of Jesus before him? No, because if he was merely going off what was in front of him, he would merely recognize the Jesus that he had known before. “Yeah that’s you all right.” But instead, Thomas is stunned by the revelation of the Lord; that Christ has risen from the dead confirms an identity that had always been somewhat ambiguous. Now there is no doubt. “My Lord and my God.”
That Jesus Christ has risen from the dead reveals way more than the mere fact that Jesus was physically present among his disciples, in front of Thomas. The glory of his risen body is “the beginning of a new world, a human bodily life in the Kingdom,” as one writer put it. And the belief of that new world is in who this is that has been raised. It is about knowing Jesus as Lord and as God. We did not see him standing before us like Thomas, but we nonetheless receive the same revelation as he from the accounts of the witnesses in Scripture. As our reading today concludes, “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”