Whoever Believed Without Seeing?
Whoever believed without seeing? If I told you that I caught a 16 pound bass, what would you say to me? "Let me see it." After I showed it to you, you would say, "If I hadn't seen it myself, I never would have believed it." Believing and seeing go together.
No one on Easter believed without seeing. Dog Thomas all you want; weld the title "Doubting" to his name, but he's not the only one who needed to see before he would believe. Words weren't enough for anyone. The angel's words that Christ had risen made the women flee the tomb trembling and astonished says St. Mark. The women's words about a risen Jesus were to the disciples "an idle tale, and they did not believe them," says Matthew. And the words of 10 apostles weren't enough to convince Thomas that Jesus had risen. No, "Unless I see," he said, "I will not believe." The same is true of Peter, Mary and the other women. They only went telling the news of a risen Jesus once they actually saw Him. Words weren't enough. They had to see it to believe it. Not till Jesus showed His hands and side does it say that the disciples "were overjoyed." Yes, they were overjoyed "when they saw the Lord" our text says.
Nobody on Easter believed without seeing, so where does that leave us who've never seen the risen Lord? Can we really be expected to believe a crucified, thoroughly dead Jesus arose? We don't believe anything else without seeing, do we? But there are limits to seeing. You'll never see the virus that kills you. You'll never see the air you need to breath to live. You will never see the love between your spouse and you. There are a host of things that you'll never see, but nonetheless are very real and very important. In fact, what does St. Paul say about what we see? He says, "We don't look at the things which are seen, but the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."
Eyes will never see certain things. They'll never see the forgiveness of sins. Jesus forgave the sins of the man let down through the roof, and the Pharisees denied it saying, "No man can forgive sins." No man can see life in death, but Jesus did. Jairus' daughter was dead, but Jesus said, "She's not dead but sleeping," and they laughed at Him because anyone could plainly see the girl was dead. The Lord could see that old Abram was really the father of many nations, so He changed his name to Abraham which means that. And only Jesus could see that impulsive Simon was a Peter, a rock.
Sight is useless in many things. In all of the mysteries of God, it's useless. Can you see anything but water when I baptize a baby? Do you see the devils fleeing and the child being reborn? Can you see anything but bread and wine on that altar? Can you see Christ in Flesh and Blood there and the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven gathered around Him worshiping? Can you see the Holy Spirit coming out of my mouth forgiving sins, and creating faith?
But it's not just that eyes can't see some things, sometimes what you see contradicts what God says. In the hospital room, I don't see goodness and mercy following a person all their days, as Psalm 23 says. No, I see IV machines and monitors. When I stand beside coffins, I don't see one shred of life there, but only death. In suffering, I don't see a child of God but an enemy of God.
Isaiah 45:15 says, "Surely You are a God who hides Yourself." With a God who hides Himself, eyes are useless. Look, stare, gawk, and you still won't be able to see Him. In fact, what you identify as Him probably isn't Him at all. Many a person in the Bible thought they saw God and found themselves bowing before an angel. Many others thought they could see the plans of God only to be surprised. Psalm 73 says that while wicked look prosperous in life and death, the truth is God has really put them in a slippery place in order to cast them down to ruin.
Our eyes are easily deceived. That's important to keep in mind because the devil puts on a great visible show. 2 Thessalonians says he comes with "all power" and performs "lying signs and wonders." Now that's something worth looking at! Paul says that Satan Himself can appear as an angel of light. O how our hungry eyes feast on that! But what our eyes tell us is surely the visible power of God is actually Satan!
In the Garden, the devil brings Eve to destruction by showing her that the forbidden fruit "was a delight to the eyes." He is a master at manipulating our eyes. He sneaks into the grocery store of life and changes prices. On the hamburger he puts 5.49 a pound and on the steaks 1.39. When people go by what they see on the ticket, they judge the 5.49 hamburger to be better than the 1.39 steak. Satan makes reason more valuable than God's Word; adultery more attractive than marital love, and forbidden fruit more desirable than a whole garden of given fruit.
God's people have always had to be rescued from their eyesight. The Old Testament church did fine as long as God was doing visible works of power, but as soon as He disappeared so did their faith. Likewise, Jesus says to Thomas, "Because you have seen Me, you have believed." The way the Greek is written means that as long as Thomas was seeing he would go on believing. But not even the disciples would go on seeing Jesus. He would disappear after the Ascension and never show Himself again.
They needed something more than sight. John shows us this in his Easter account. When John saw the empty grave cloths, it says that he saw and believed, but then it adds the curious statement, "Because they did not yet know the Scripture that it was necessary for Him to rise from the dead." Ah, they needed something more than an empty tomb and miraculously empty grave cloths in they were to go on believing; they needed something more than their eyesight. They needed the Scripture. The Word of God must rescue us from our eyesight.
Jesus, the Word, comes into our life saying, "Peace be with you!" when it looks like only war should be in our life. We're guilty of crucifying and abandoning Him. We don't fear, love or trust Him above all things. It looks like He should be mad as Hell at us. But He comes into our lives declaring peace. He takes the initiative. The disciples didn't approach Him by praying, repenting, or believing. No, they just locked themselves in the upper room and refused to believe the Word that said He had risen. But Jesus comes thorough all of that and says, "Peace be to you."
But He does more than that. He establishes an office on earth to distribute the peace of heaven by means of speaking His Word on earth. He breathes on the disciples and says, "Whoever's sins you forgive, they are forgiven and whoever's sins you do not forgive, they are not forgiven." Jesus opens a branch office on earth from which to forgive sins. He opens up a franchise where we who never see Him can at least hear from Him. And that office has one duty, mission, purpose. Not to make us better, not to entertain us, not to raise money, but to forgive us our sins. It's a spiritual office; it deals with the things of the Holy Spirit.
3 times the liturgy makes reference to this office recognizing that the Lord's is present with us through this office. 3 times the pastor says, "The Lord be with you;" 3 times the Church responds, "And with Thy spirit." This exchange happens right before the Pastor does some special task of the pastoral office: before praying the Collect, before the Sacrament of the Altar, and before he puts the Name of the Lord on the congregation. All things no mortal man could do unless the Lord is with him to do them.
This isn't a friendly greeting. The Church is addressing the pastor and recognizing him as the Lord's man to do what has been given him to do. Chrysostom said in the 4th century, When the Church says, "And with thy spirit," "You are reminded that he who stands at the altar does nothing, and that the gifts that rest there are not the merits of a man, but the grace of the Holy Spirit is present and coming down on all.. We indeed see a man. But it is God who acts through him. Nothing human takes place at this holy altar."
The response, "And with thy spirit," is a threefold reminder in our liturgy that what you see is not all that you get. There's something supernatural not just natural going on; something divine not just human; something heavenly not just earthly. We only see what is natural, human, and earthly; we see something that may be dull and boring. But the Spirit is at work here. He is diving into hearts bringing Jesus' forgiveness of sins. He is breathing the resurrected life of Jesus back into dying souls. The Spirit is afoot working invisibly but every bit as effectively as when Jesus walked this earth on foot visibly.
The Gospel of John was written to rescue us from the tyranny of our eyeballs. John says, "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ..." What sort of miraculous signs does John record? Not as many as the other 3 Gospels. He does record 6 that they don't, but they record 26 miracles he doesn't. John says he writes what he does so that people might believe without seeing.
John puts everything on the Words of Jesus. He alone identifies Jesus as the Word made flesh. He records the long upper room sermon. He records 3 of the 7 last words from the cross that the others don't. John was the last of the apostles. He writes His gospel last. Once he's gone, there would be none left who had actually seen Jesus. People will only have what we have. The Words of Jesus in the mouths of sinful men. In our text, John takes great pains to show us how Jesus put His Spirit in the apostolic ministry of forgiving sins with their mouths. Their Words are Spirit and they are life.
Whoever believed without seeing? Nobody. Nobody, that is, without the Holy Spirit working through the Word creating faith. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday of Easter (4-3-05); John 20: 19-31