Monday, May 04, 2015

Believing Without Seeing

Believing Without Seeing
1 John 1:1-4[1]
I’m afraid that the Easter message—that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and rose again—can seem somewhat out of touch with the realities of our lives here and now. After all, it speaks of things that most of us have never actually seen for ourselves. We weren’t there to see him die on the cross. We weren’t there when he appeared to his disciples. And even though our Scripture lessons throughout the Easter season give us their testimony of what they saw and experienced, I wonder if some of us may have a hard time believing that it makes a difference today. I wonder if many of us may have a hard time with this.
We are, after all, a people who have been trained to be skeptical. “I’ll believe it when I see it” applies to everything from the weather forecast to government promises to the simple matter of friends keeping their word. And when it comes to supernatural things, like claims about miraculous signs, I think our skepticism can go into high gear. Many of us want some kind of tangible proof that our faith is real. But at the same time, we reject claims about mystical experiences that supposedly serve as proof. And so we face the dilemma of believing without being able to see for ourselves.  How are we supposed to do that?
I think our lesson from 1 John might help us here, even though it originally addressed a different situation. Apparently the Elder who wrote this letter was concerned that some of the believers in the churches he was serving had embraced the idea that Jesus was so completely the Son of God that his humanity was only a disguise, a kind of make-believe.[2] And yet, the message of the Gospel included the claim that those who were with Jesus were eyewitnesses to his full humanity, to his very real suffering, and to his bodily resurrection. The Scripture lesson puts it this way: “We declare to you … what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1).[3] The point is that those who were with Jesus could attest that they had a very tangible experience of Jesus’ full humanity.[4]
I think this might help us with our dilemma as well. In one sense, the fact that the eyewitnesses heard and saw and touched Jesus can refer to being with him during his ministry.[5] They actually heard him teaching; they saw the amazing things he did. At the same time, however, the language of this verse also relates to the eyewitnesses’ experiences with the risen Christ.[6] As the accounts of Jesus’ appearances tell us, their encounters with him were very real indeed. They heard him as he instructed them and helped them understand the scriptures that pointed to his resurrection and to the good news of salvation. They saw him come into their presence, though at first they had difficulty recognizing him. Nevertheless, they did see him; in fact there were many who saw him—St. Paul recounts an event where over 500 saw him at one time (1 Cor. 15:6).
All of this, of course, at least theoretically could be attributed to some sort of elaborate hallucination, or perhaps a kind of spiritual visionary experience. But the scripture lesson goes on to say that they touched him. That’s hard to explain away. At one of Jesus’ meetings with them, he says to them, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk. 24:39). And while they were overcome with joy, he actually asks if they have something to eat (Lk. 24:41)! It would seem that all of that makes it hard to deny that there was something very real about Jesus after he had risen from the dead.[7]
And yet, for us it happened very long ago and very far away. When faced with the challenges of our lives, it may be difficult to find the faith to believe in the good news that the same Jesus who died for us is the one who rose from the dead. We may wonder how we can believe that he is alive and present with us as we face the sometimes harsh realities of our lives in the here and now. The first believers saw and believed. How can we believe without seeing?
In the first place, I think it’s important to take seriously what our lesson for today says: the witness of the Scriptures constitutes the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to the events; they are not just “cleverly devised myths” (2 Pet.1:16). And so one way to believe without seeing is to rely on the testimony of the Scriptures. I think another way we can approach this problem is by remembering those who embraced the faith before us and who passed it on to us. While none of them were perfect Christians, they not only taught the faith to us but also modeled it for us. In a sense we “see” the effect of faith in their lives. That’s another way to believe without seeing. But finally, we can all believe without seeing because we can have very real encounters with the risen Christ in our own lives.[8] They happen sometimes when we least expect them. When they do, they leave us with a sense of Jesus’ presence through the Holy Spirit who lives in us all. Though this can be hard to explain to someone who hasn’t had this experience, I believe it can be one of the most important ways for us to believe without seeing. In these ways, we can face the challenge of maintaining our faith that the risen Christ is present with us today. As so many before us have done, we can believe without seeing.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/12/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] In fact, it would seem that this became such a problem that they broke fellowship with the main body of the Johannine community. Cf. I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, 105. Cf. similarly, D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 19: “Evidently, the community of Johannine Christians not only is threatened with heresy but also has undergone division. The Pauline Pastorals reflect a similar situation. Already in 1 Corinthians (chaps. 1-4) there were divisions in the church, but channels of communication were still open. In the Pastorals, however, as in the Johannine Epistles, lines of division have hardened, and any efforts at persuasion have long since given way to denunciation and exclusion.”
[3] The reference in the text regarding what they claim to have seen, heard, and touched is “the word of life.” While some aspects of the text point to an identification of the “word” as the gospel message, others point to the person Jesus. The Elder probably uses the terminology with an intentional ambiguity, for the "word of life" is both the life-giving message and the one who brought life (cf.  Jn. 1:4), and “the gospel is essentially a proclamation about Jesus who is the living Word of God” (Cf. Stephen Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 6). On this point, cf. also Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, 163-66; Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 36.
[4] Cf. Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 27: “Jesus is for them [the Gospel and letters of John] no pious fiction or figment of the imagination but the historically real and physically visible and palpable manifestation of God (John 1:14; 1 John 1:1-4).” He says further (p. 39), “Apparently, 1 John lays down the lines along which John 1:14 should be interpreted. The Word’s becoming flesh means that Jesus Christ was a real human being, real flesh.  . . . Jesus was not only audible and visible but tangible.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Theology, 45: “The God of Jesus Christ is not a dark and obscure mystery, which we approach by closing our eyes and by mystical submersion in the inwardness of our own hearts. He is the manifest God of life, whom we encounter in the history of Christ.” Cf. further Jürgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, 47-48: “The women and the disciples didn’t ‘see in their hearts’ or ‘with their spiritual eyes’. They didn’t have intuitions, while they were ‘caught up out of this world’, nor did they receive enlightenment in trances. The accounts tell us that it was with their normal five senses that they perceived the risen Christ.”
[5] Cf. Brown, Epistles of John, 174-75, where he states that the primary effect of this text has been to secure the authority of eyewitness testimony for the Johannine writings (cf. Brown, Epistles of John, 174–75). He insists that this still holds true even if the author of this letter was not John the Apostle but an unidentified leader of the Johannine community because the statement still reflects the reality of the manifestation of the word, but through the means of preserving the eyewitness testimony of the Beloved disciple to the life and ministry of Jesus (cf. Brown, Epistles of John, 175; cf. similarly Jn. 20:29–31; 21:24–25. Cf. further Brown, Epistles of John, 159–61, 183–84, 194, 226-27.
[6] It is not clear whether the reference is to the incarnation or the resurrection, or perhaps as an all-inclusive reference, since the aspect of “touch” is associated with the resurrection elsewhere in the NT (cf.  Jn. 20:24-29; Lk. 24:39), while the aspect of his “manifestation” usually relates to the incarnation (cf.  1 Jn. 3:5; 4:9; 1 Tim. 3:16).
[7] Cf. Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 41: “Very often, exactly at the point or in quarters where Jesus’ divinity is most strenuously extolled, the humanity that he shares with us is lost sight of or threatened. A kind of “Superman Christology” that refuses to contemplate a genuine humanity is as damaging to orthodoxy as its opposite. In such Christology, Jesus humanity becomes only an incognito behind which the true God is hidden. Jesus remains omnipotent and invulnerable, not really subject to the dangers that encompass or threaten us. But according to the New Testament, Jesus was truly human, and, as such, subject to the same temptations and perils as we (Heb. 4:15). His humanity was no disguise. His death is eloquent testimony to that fact.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Ethics of Hope, 56-57, where he points out that eternal life is in the Johannine writings identified with Christ himself. He elaborates that “eternal life” is “the fullness of life, the life that is wholly and entirely filled with livingness. It is a life which by virtue of the risen Christ, the Christ who is present in the presence of God, is liberated from terror, from death, and from anxiety. It is an entirely and wholly human life participating wholly and entirely in the divine life. It is a human life which God indwells and which, for its part, dwells in God. Where do we find a life like this? The answer given in John’s Gospel is clear: it has appeared in Jesus Christ, is experienced in the life-giving Spirit, and will one day become the life of the whole future world.”

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