By Paul Koch –
People of my generation will remember the first time their parents bought a VCR for their homes as well as the first DVD player, not to mention the creation of the DVR. We went from watching nightly programming when the TV guide said it would be on to streaming it whenever we want on our phones while we wait in line to see a movie based on cartoons we loved when we were children. The visual image comes at us from all sides and we like it. We use it as our guide and security; we say things like, “Seeing is believing.” If we actually read a news story what we really want to do is watch the YouTube video that it references so we can see for ourselves.
This is why movies based on the Bible are so popular even if they are controversial in their depictions or interpretations of events; they make money because we really want to see what it might have looked like. The flood in Noah was awesome, the crucifixion seen in the Passion of the Christ was powerful, even Charlton Heston smashing the Ten Commandments is hard to forget. As matter of fact later this year there will be a new movie about the Exodus, and how cool will it be to see the parting of the red sea with today’s visual effects? We like to be able to see, it makes it all seem more real, more concrete.
Think then of our brother Thomas when the other disciples tell him that they had seen the risen Lord. This man had walked with him and listened to him, he was willing to die with him but instead Jesus was taken from him. He was put to death all alone, a death of the most brutal nature. And when they speak to him words too good to be true he says, “No, unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Are we all that different from Thomas? Would you have made any different demand if you were in that situation?
This desire to see is not a desire only of the past. No, this is our struggle as well, as we have said we seem to depend even more on what we see today than Thomas did in his day. And this causes a conundrum for the church today. For we proclaim that we have a glorious gift in our midst, we have something beautiful and wonderful to offer right here in our midst. What we claim to have is nothing short of the incarnate Son of God himself. We confess that Christ is present in this place this morning to forgive sins and give the promise of eternal life to all who are gathered here. So someone comes in, eager to receive just such a wonderful gift, eager to receive Christ himself and what does he find? He finds a bearded guy standing up front dressed in a white robe, but he ain’t Jesus. And if he sticks around he finds the greatest displays of mercy and love we have are found in water, bread and wine, and words – and that’s about all there is to see. Let’s face it what we gather here to see, isn’t much.
The church has had a long history of dealing with this obvious problem. The problem is that what we confess is far more than what we actually see. If we are dependent upon our eyes for our faith we will struggle. And so throughout the centuries the church has in various ways employed artist and architects to deal with this discrepancy. The great cathedrals of Europe were an attempt to put into stone and mortar, glass and iron the confession of the church. So it’s fascinating that after the Reformation in Germany the next generation of churches actually looked different, highlighting the renewed emphasis of the freedom of the gospel.
Today many churches take a different tact. Instead of the expensive use of building materials and the craft of fine artist they employ the use of modern technology. A few video projectors and a screen or two with the magic of PowerPoint and you can create a visual experience right in the sanctuary. Or perhaps we could do a drama or simply carefully designed bulletin covers that will all help us to see the faith we confess. But the reality is these all fall short, from Hollywood to our own in house publishing efforts we cannot completely capture what it is we believe.
The truth is short of Jesus showing up and saying, “Look here I am , take out your finger and find the place of the nails, reach out your hand and see where the spear pierced my flesh,” short of that our eyes will always be longing more. And our Lord has not promised us that he would do such a thing, in fact he promises the exact opposite. For when he graciously appears to Thomas, Thomas makes that great confession, “My Lord and my God.” And it is worth noting that even what Thomas confesses is more than what he sees. He sees a resurrected Jesus and what he confesses is that this is God himself standing before him. And so Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Blessed are you then for you have not seen, blessed are you for you believe apart from what you can see. Our Lord is telling us that this is not a time of seeing, this is not a faith based in your sight, this is a time for hearing. Recall what the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” In fact all the art of the church; from the architecture to the paintings to the videos presentations to the bulletin covers, all of it can only be of service to our Lord’s mission if it leads us and directs us back to the Word itself.
And our Lord himself prepares us for such an outpouring of his gifts, given not by what we see but by what we hear. For the first Sunday when he greeted his disciples in the upper room with his word of peace he said to them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” He will send out his displace to carry on his work. Christ accomplished what was thought impossible, he reconciled man to God, he bore the sins of all, he alone suffered and died but now he lives. He lives and so there is a victory to be proclaimed there is hope to be spoken there is a Word that must now go out.
And what he does next is shocking, he gives to them the Holy Spirit and says, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them, if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” In other words he says to them, “Here is the plan as I was sent so now you are sent, my victory over sin and death you will proclaim to others. In fact you won’t simply tell them about it, you will actually do it to them, you will forgive sins. This is a time of hearing, not seeing, and you are to make sure they hear.” You then, my brothers and sisters are people who bear a powerful Word. You are sent out into this world, out into you various vocations in life and you go as ones who speak forgiveness. There is no plan “B” for man’s redemption you are the plan.
One day we will see, one day we will behold with our eyes that we now confess in our hearts and hear in our ears. And on that day our struggle and trials will be over, for on that day we will welcome the return of our Lord in might and glory. But until that day you have the Word. The Word that proclaims you to be the children of God, children that are loved and forgiven and promised eternal life. That Word resides now in your mouth so that you may go and speak it to others.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!