Monday, April 13, 2015

Seeing and Believing

Seeing and Believing
John 20:1-18[1]
In the face of all our discussion of suffering during Lent, it may seem like faith in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on that first Easter morning might have little relevance for our lives right here and right now. In comparison with the kinds of experiences we have to endure in this life, something that happened so long ago and so far away might simply not seem to make a real difference in our lives. Beyond that, when you look at the massive suffering and violence that seem to dominate the world in which we live, it’s all too easy to conclude that money and power and violence have the last word in our world. These harsh realities can make faith seem at best quaint and at worst a delusion.[2] The fact of the matter is that we live in a world where it’s not easy to truly embrace the faith that Jesus’ death and resurrection brings new life to us all.
I’m not so sure that the original witnesses to the resurrection had an easier time with faith. Our Gospel lesson for today presents several different responses to the resurrection. Mary Magdalene seems to react initially with fear when she sees that the stone has been move from the tomb. So she runs back and tells the Apostles. In response, Peter and John run to the tomb. John the beloved disciple is the first one to reach it, but he hesitates to enter, perhaps out of the Jewish concern for becoming “unclean.” Later, when he does enter, the Scripture says that he “saw and believed.” When St. Peter gets there, he sees the empty tomb, and examines the wrappings that had been used to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, but it seems he doesn’t understand what to make of all this. The Gospel reminds us that “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).
Three people, witnessing the same events, with three different responses: fear, confusion, and faith. I think the first two responses pretty well explain themselves. When confronted with the empty tomb, I think it would have only been natural for those who had witnessed Jesus’ terrible death to react with fear or confusion. It’s John’s faith that seems to be hard to explain. What was it about what he saw that enabled him to believe?[3] After all, he saw the same thing they did. It could be that John did remember and understand that Jesus had said he would have to suffer and die, but afterward he would rise from the dead. Or maybe John was just one of those people for whom faith comes easily.[4] Perhaps the difference was in the way he saw what they had all witnessed.
When Mary returns, it would seem that she is still overwhelmed with grief and fear. She actually encounters Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. She mistakes him for a gardener and actually asks him if he’s taken the body somewhere. It’s only when Jesus calls her by name that she recognizes him and believes.[5] It takes his voice, his initiative to reveal himself to her, in order for her to get past her grief and fear and to be able to see in such a way that she could recognize that Jesus was alive and standing right in front of her. Once she was able to get past her own feelings and see clearly that Jesus truly was alive, she returns to the Apostles again and tells them she’s seen Jesus.
When I think of this story, I wonder what the Apostles were thinking when Mary first told them she had seen Jesus. Did some of them think she was crazy, or simply hallucinating out of her extreme grief? Were some of them confused? As the Scripture states, they didn’t yet understand that Jesus would rise from the dead. I think it’s a pretty good bet that some of them doubted—seriously doubted—that what she was telling them could be true. As some of the disciples unknowingly tell Jesus, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).[6] In the same place they reported that some of the Apostles had gone to the tomb to “see for themselves,” but they didn’t see Jesus (Luke 24:24). It would seem that there was a wide variety of responses to Mary’s story, but it doesn’t seem that faith was the primary one at first.
The plain truth is that faith is difficult for some of us. There are all kinds of reasons for that. Some of us simply cannot get past bad experiences we’ve had in church. Some of us have a more questioning bent of mind, and we are more prone to doubt than to believe. Others may simply find faith to be mostly irrelevant to the reality of our lives. When our experience in life has been mostly tragedy, suffering, hardship, rejection, and pain, it can seem like faith is just so many pretty words. They may mean something to others, but they don’t have any real significance for life as we have experienced it.
But I think for all of us—those who are quick to believe and those who are slower to embrace faith—what makes the difference is encountering Jesus, alive and present with us here and now.[7] That’s what made the difference for most of the disciples on the first Easter. When we have an encounter like that, it changes the way we see things—whether we’re struggling with tragedy, or whether we’re living the good life, whether we’re prone to believe or more prone to doubt. It enables us to see that God does not operate within the limits of the way things normally work in our world. An encounter with the living Christ can enable us to see God’s new creation already working in hidden ways here among us. It enables us to see the resurrection as a promise that points toward a future filled with hope and joy and love and life.[8]  Having an encounter with the risen Christ makes it possible for us to see the realities of our lives from a completely different perspective: it enables us to see and believe.[9]

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/5/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 182: “when we experience tragic suffering in our own lives and see so much tragic suffering in the world, we wonder whether all talk about a loving and just God is not in fact ... wishful thinking; cf. also John Caputo, On Religion, 91, where he lays out the options: believing that the world of faith is what is “really real,” believing that faith is “unreal” in comparison with the observable forces at work in the world, and a third way, in which faith is directed toward the reality that is beyond what our senses perceive as real.
[3] Scholars speculate about why he was so quick to believe. Cf. Raymond Brown, “The Resurrection in John 20: A Series of Diverse Reactions,” in Worship 64 no 3 (May 1990):194-98. Cf. also Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XII-XXI, 1005: the emphasis on the Beloved Disciple’s faith is not due to “Peter’s hardness of heart; rather faith is possible for the Beloved Disciple  because he has become very sensitive to Jesus through love.”
[4] Cf. Brendan Byrne, “The Faith of the Beloved Disciple and the Community in John 20,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 23 (1985):86.
[5] Cf. Frank J. Matera, “John 20:1-18,” Interpretation 43 (Oct 1989):404.  He says, “Resurrection faith is a gift.  It occurs when God speaks to the hearts of believers, calling them by name.”
[6] Cf. G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 373: “The lack of understanding of the Scriptures concerning the Messiah’s redemptive work is beautifully illustrated in the Emmaus story (Luke 24:25–27, 32).”
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:144, where he discusses the disciples’ ability to recognize the risen Christ. He says that when they did recognize him, it was because ability to do so seems to have been “given them by Jesus Himself.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99, 191.
[9] The Study Catechism,” Approved by the 210th General Assembly Of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) (1998), question 132, says it this way, “there is … a depth of love which is deeper than our despair, and that this love … will finally swallow up forever all that would now seem to defeat it.” Cf. also Caputo, On Religion, 125: in the face of the “specter of a heartless world of cosmic forces,” “Faith is faith that there is something that lifts us above the blind force of things, .... That there is something ... or someone ... who stands by us when we are up against the worst, who stands by others, the least among us.”

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