Seeing Is (Not) Believing

First Sunday after Easter
John 20:19-31
April 8, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of + Jesus.

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About 400 years ago, there was an intellectual movement in Britain called empiricism. Empiricism is the belief that nothing can be known apart from what registers in the senses. It’s like in science class where you have to take measurements and collect hard, observable evidence. In fact, empiricism underlies the scientific method.

This, of course, has implications for the knowledge of God. In its milder forms, empiricism would allow for some intuitive knowledge, such as a “gut feeling” that God exists, even if you can’t see Him personally. But it its stricter forms, God’s existence is squeezed out because God is above the basic senses. You can observe a majestic mountain or a beautiful sunset and conclude that God exists, but the empiricist will say that you’ve only observed a mountain and a sunset, not God.

But the empiricists of 400 years ago weren’t on to something new. In fact, the desire to “see for yourself” is something that’s engrained in human nature. Our state motto isn’t particularly religious, but reflects a common desire of human nature—“Show me!” And so, when Thomas is absent for Jesus’ first appearance following His resurrection, and the other disciples tell him about their encounter, he responds like a good Missourian: “Show me!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nail and put my finger into the imprint of the nail, and put my hand into His side, I will most certainly not believe.”

Apparently Thomas hadn’t gotten the lesson on faith yet. The writer to the Hebrews teaches, Faith is the substance of that which is hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith doesn’t say, “Show me,” Thomas. Faith doesn’t need to see—or feel or taste or smell or touch or hear—right? Furthermore, Jesus reprimands Thomas: “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are those who do not see and believe.” So if you insist on seeing, if you say, “Show me,” you are not believing, but disbelieving, right?

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But that doesn’t account for why Jesus shows up for the second week in a row and deliberately shows Thomas His hands and side. Then He said to Thomas, “Bring your finger here and see My hands, and bring your hand and place it into My side, and be not unbelieving, but believing.” And what’s more, Jesus does the same thing for the rest of the disciples on His first visit. Then during the evening of that day, the first of the week, the doors having been shut where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace to you.” And after saying this, He showed His hands and side to them. Then the disciples were glad because they were beholding the Lord.

The other disciples got a good eyeful of the nail imprints and observed Jesus standing, breathing, speaking. Their faith wasn’t the assurance of things unseen. They saw Jesus! They had empirical evidence.

This was the problem for one of those British empiricists named David Hume. Hume thought that it was quite possible that Jesus actually rose from the dead. His problem is that he didn’t witness it himself, nor had he ever witnessed anyone rise from the dead. In order to believe it, he had to see it for himself.

And so Christians would respond to someone like David Hume, saying, “You just need to have faith!” Faith is the assurance of things not seen; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

But this would miss what both Jesus and the writer to the Hebrews want you to know about faith. Faith isn’t some nebulous, floating thing that accepts any old proposition without any evidence. Faith isn’t some feeling of conviction that arises out of thin air. Faith is nothing like a conspiracy theory.

This disciples’ faith had something to hang on to—not only Thomas, but all of them. Their faith had a foundation apart from their own opinions. The same goes for you. Even though you were not there to see Jesus in that room, or to witness His resurrection, or even to put your finger in the nail marks, your faith has just as much to hold on to. And if we take a closer look at the Thomas incident, we’ll see what it is.

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Thomas sees Jesus and believes that He is risen, but there’s something more to his confession. When the rest of the disciples see the Lord with the marks of His crucifixion, they are understandably glad. But Thomas goes a step beyond the rest of the disciples. Thomas answered and said, “My Lord and my God.” Listen to that one more time. Thomas answered and said, “My Lord and my God.”

Notice that the text never tells us if Thomas actually pressed his finger into the nail mark or not. He doesn’t say anything about the nail marks in his response. In fact, he doesn’t say anything about anything that can be seen at all. He calls Jesus his Lord and his God. This is remarkable, because even the risen and glorified Jesus still has the appearance of a man who eats, sleeps, walks, and talks like any other man. The nail marks are all that set Him apart—and a lot of people have scars.

Jesus’ response to him is quite telling. Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who do not see and believe.” The question is rhetorical. Thomas certainly believes. But was it because he saw with his own two eyes? The implied answer is that Thomas didn’t believe because he saw.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham tells the rich man at the end of the sequence that if his brothers didn’t believe Moses and the prophets, they also wouldn’t believe if someone rose from the dead. Even if David Hume could have been an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection, and had all the empirical evidence in the world, he still would not have believed it. People find reasons not to believe the truth all the time. Likewise, neither Thomas nor any of the disciples believed because they saw Jesus.

In the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism, we learn that I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.

Faith is not something that arises in us spontaneously when we see something that has enough hard evidence. Faith is a gift of the Spirit. And that’s precisely what Jesus gave to His disciples on that first Easter evening. Then Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you. Just as the Father has sent Me, I am sending you.” And after saying this He breathed and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It is this Spirit who gives faith, not by sight, but by hearing—faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ. The Spirit calls me by the Gospel, and He gives the faith necessary to believe.

But still, even with the Word of the Gospel that Jesus speaks—the peace of the Lord, and the word of forgiveness—He still shows the disciples the evidence of His resurrection and even invites Thomas to engage his sense of touch. Could we not have some kind of tangible evidence as well?

Yes! Not only does the Spirit call us by the Gospel, but He also creates and bestows faith when He enlightens us with His gifts. He gives us something tangible for faith to hold on to. As the Large Catechism teaches, Faith must have something that it believes, that is, of which it takes hold and upon which it stands and rests. So faith clings to the water and believes that in Baptism, there is pure salvation and life. This is not through the water (as we have stated well enough), but through the fact that it is embodied in God’s Word and institution, and that God’s name abides in it (LC IV 29).

Just as Thomas had the Lord’s hands to touch, we have Baptism. It’s the sense of touch, connected to the Gospel, in which the Holy Spirit gives us faith by the forgiveness of sins. And just as Thomas was by this faith, able to see His Lord and His God in the appearance of Jesus, we are able to see by the same faith, a washing of new birth by the Holy Spirit in Baptism. It’s the sign of resurrection. Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are you for not seeing, but believing, because

Faith Holds on to the Hidden Promise

In the name of + Jesus.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA