“Believing is seeing” – April 23, 2017
John 20:29 “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This used to be one of my least-liked verses in the Bible. In the many times that I have preached on this Easter story of Thomas and the other disciples, I have often preached on Thomas’ reasonable-ness in not just accepting the testimony of others but holding out for his own personal experience of the Risen Christ. I have often focused on the gift of seeing God for ourselves and God’s faithfulness in coming to us when we need such reassurance. I have often admired Thomas’ persistence and curiosity and so I’ve often chosen to more or less ignore that final, summary verse of the story: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Part of the struggle of this verse is that it takes a core message, a well-developed and central theme of the Gospel of John, and turns it upside down. In this Gospel, ‘seeing’ is about so much more than a simple, physical sense. ‘Seeing’ is about understanding or grasping something deeper… a deeper spiritual knowledge of God lived out in the tangible sense of sight. When Jesus calls the first disciples in the first chapter, they are invited to “come and see.” The testimony of the woman of Samaria with whom Jesus speaks at the well is to “come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” When Jesus finally arrives at the funeral for Lazarus, it is the mourners who invite him to “come and see” Lazarus’ tomb. And finally today, the testimony of the disciples to Thomas is: “We have seen the Lord.”
Seeing is key in the Gospel of John. “Seeing the Lord” is what it is all about… it is what the whole Gospel has been building up to in all kinds of examples and stories. The invitation to faith has always included an invitation to personal and sensory experience. That’s why it is so frustrating that today, as the second last chapter of the Gospel comes to end, all of a sudden, ‘seeing’ is demoted in the scheme of things. When Thomas holds out for his own personal experience of the resurrected Jesus, all of a sudden, the rules seem to have have changed: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks rhetorically, and then concludes, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” After years of frustration, this conclusion finally started to make sense when I realized the power of belief to shape our lives and our choices and actually make seeing possible.
Almost 2 years ago, people noticed that the parking lot side of our building could use a little love and attention. One person thought she would just paint the fence but then noticed that it really needed repair or replacing, along with the wooden retaining wall. Discussions started about completing a small project to address the concerns when someone else imagined something more… what about a new sidewalk? new entrance? renewed landscaping? Slowly, the dream grew as a few more people started to believe in something, an outdoor renewal, before seeing any change; before witnessing any miracle; before knowing whether or not others would catch the vision. Like any new initiative, it is belief that moved the project along. And now several months later, having been through planning and consultation, our governance process of decision-making and with a fundraising campaign almost complete, here we are on the verge of signing a contract to have the work done this Easter season. This project is a testament to the power of belief… belief in taking care of what God has given us; belief that we can be better, not as judgement of the past but as hope for the future; belief in our capacity as a community to get it done together; and, belief in God’s promise of new life. It is this belief that guides and encourages us to do the work that fosters the conditions that help us see the Lord. What else could we believe in that might show us resurrection life?
An important part of some of the initial doubt about the expanded Grounds Improvement Project had to do with finances. It will cost too much. We can’t. What we believe about money and how we talk about our finances plays an important role in our parish life. I have heard a number of stories in particular about a time a little over 5 years ago, when it seemed St. Andrew’s was falling apart. An important part of the way that belief manifested itself was around finances, expressed most passionately at the Annual Meeting on February 5, 2012. In the minutes of that meeting, there is even a comment noting that “we find ourselves in a crisis.” The year in question, 2011, did indeed end with an operating deficit of about $3500, but it is the only year in the past 11 years that this parish has ended with an operating deficit. The anxiety and anger and various other emotions and circumstances at the time were about a whole lot more than finances but still, a year-end deficit of $3500 doesn’t constitute a crisis. More than that, tracing the financial history of the past decade shows that any story of financial difficulty or any belief that we struggle with finances is simply not supported by the facts.
I remember running my first 10km road race and being both pleased and amazed that I had done it. When asked soon after: “ok… so you’re doing a half-marathon next?!?” I thought it was crazy. It was a stretch to run 10km, so to run more than double that… impossible. But I kept running and a few months later I thought to myself… maybe…? I ended up registering for a half-marathon and completed it a few months after that. My fitness and ability changed in the process, of course, because I worked hard to get there. But it really happened because my belief changed. When I started to believe, the impossible became possible, and I saw a miracle. It made me wonder what else I didn’t believe that I was actually capable of accomplishing? I wonder what you are actually capable of that you don’t yet believe? I don’t mean you should take up running, but I wonder what beliefs might be holding you back? What if you risked believing that God really can work miracles? That life can come out of death? That peace or reconciliation is possible? That… all kinds of things! What would you do or who could you be, if you stopped doubting and believed instead?
What if we too, as a community, are actually capable of so much more than we believe? The facts say that we end almost every year with balanced or surplus operating funds. The facts of early 2017 are that while we are in a deficit position operationally, we are within our budget and we are within $3000 of our goal of raising $30,000 for our capital needs. To me this says that we have barely scratched the surface of our capability. We don’t yet know how far we can go or what we can accomplish because we’ve always made it. It isn’t until we don’t make it… until we fall apart, dig deep and keep going, that we build our resiliency to overcome challenges; that is when we go further than we ever thought we could. That is when we discover what believing in the impossible really means. That is when we see the Lord.
Along with completing our Grounds Improvement Project over the next month, we are also working towards advertising a position for a Children and Youth Ministry Coordinator. Like Grounds Improvement, trying something different in how we engage in ministry with our youngest parishioners starts with our belief… our belief in taking care of those whom God has entrusted to us; our belief that we can be better, not as judgement of the past but as hope for the future; our belief in our capacity as a community to get it done together; and, our belief in God’s promise of new life. This is the belief that can help us to see the Lord. But for now, before we see any change and before we witness any miracle, it is another way in which we are called to practice Jesus’s call to believe without seeing. If we want to re-build and renew our ministry with young people, we have to believe in it first and let that belief guide and encourage us to work for it while we pray to see a miracle. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
As we continue to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection this Easter season, let us believe the stories we already know and tell one another our stories of resurrection, of seeing the Lord, so that we may come to believe more deeply and more fully. And through believing, may we have greater life in his name.