Trust God in Christ, even if you don’t understand, and find life.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday of Easter, year A
Text: John 20:19-31 (with reference to 20:8-9 and ch. 9)
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There’s a strange moment in last Sunday’s Gospel, John’s Easter story.
The evangelist says after Mary Magdalene told the other disciples the tomb was open and Jesus’ body gone, two disciples ran to see for themselves: Peter and the so-called “beloved” disciple, whom we assume to be John.
John got to the tomb first, but waited for Peter. Then John went in after Peter and saw the linen wrappings, but no Jesus. Then the evangelist says: “he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.” (vv. 8-9) Wait. John doesn’t see Jesus, and believes – but didn’t understand Jesus was to rise? What exactly did he believe?
A week later, we see Thomas in the Upper Room, having missed the first Sunday night visit. He sees Jesus and calls him “my Lord and my God.” And Jesus wonders if Thomas only believes because he has seen.
Believing without seeing Jesus. Believing because of seeing Jesus. There’s something here we need to grasp.
First, we need to tweak our words a bit.
The word the NRSV translates “believe” also carries the meaning “trust.” I substituted “trust” for “believe” when I read today because as we hear it in our modern day, “to believe” mostly suggests to us “to accept a teaching as true.” But how we use “trust” is closer to what the word really means. Believe feels more in the head; trust feels more in the heart.“I trust Jesus” is very different to our ears than “I believe in Jesus.”
So, both John and Thomas end up trusting in these encounters, not just believing.
But the evangelist also says John trusts, but doesn’t see Jesus, while Thomas trusts after he sees Jesus. Now, “to see” in Greek acts the same as in English. It can mean physical sight, or it can mean understanding. Jesus plays with this in John 9 when he heals a blind man but says it’s the Pharisees who can’t see.
So it’s legitimate to say John trusts without understanding, and Thomas trusts while understanding. I don’t think this is an accident. The whole Gospel of John is meant to invite trust in God’s coming in Christ, without necessarily understanding everything about God, or the world, or life.
That’s great news, because there’s so much we don’t understand about those things.
We trust Christ is risen, that God’s love brought God-with-us to the cross, through death, and into resurrection life. We trust there’s a new life available for us here in Christ, and also after we die.
But it’s extremely hard to see, understand, how God’s resurrection life is working in the world. We don’t understand why God doesn’t just fix all that’s wrong. We don’t understand why suffering and pain persist in a world where Christ supposedly broke death. Or why there is systemic evil, why it’s so hard to change what’s wrong in the world. We don’t understand why it’s so hard for us to follow Christ, love as Christ, be Christ.
We sometimes don’t even understand the cross. We get Jesus wasn’t the military leader some hoped for, that he was killed and that surprised his followers. But now that Christ is risen, we struggle to understand that the cross is still the way of Christ, we don’t get the “lose your life to find it” truth of God, or how death is even now being defeated by God’s life when it looks just the opposite in the world.
But if we look at the words differently, listen to what Jesus says to Thomas: “blessed are those who do not understand and yet come to trust.”
And this is exactly where those first believers found themselves.
None of them fully understood what was happening in those days, or as the years passed. Do you think Mary Magdalene was done with her questions after Easter morning? The couple from Emmaus, whom we’ll meet again next week, still had lots of questions when Jesus disappeared from among them. All of the disciples had much they didn’t understand, had things they doubted. Even after Pentecost.
But the invitation is to trust anyway. Martha, before Jesus even raises her brother, is asked if she trusts that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. She had no idea what that might mean. But she said, “Yes, Lord, I do trust.” We sometimes wish we could be like Thomas: actually see Jesus risen from the dead, see his hands, his side, his feet. But Jesus kindly asks Thomas if he can learn to trust without seeing, without understanding everything. And asks you, too.
Actually, today John says that’s the whole point of his writing this Gospel.
Notice what he includes and what he doesn’t. John says, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through trusting you may have life in his name.” (vv. 30-31)
John says nothing about understanding. He hopes that from this witness you can come to trust – like Martha, like John, like Mary Magdalene, like Thomas, like Peter –that Jesus is God’s Anointed Son, and so have life in Jesus’ name. Life now, filled with God’s hope, and with purpose and direction and grace. And the promise of life to come.
So, Jesus says, “you are blessed if you don’t doubt, but just trust.”
Now, doubts are real, normal. Because we often don’t understand much. Everyone who’s ever trusted in God in Christ has doubts. You and I will doubt, will fear, will struggle, like honest Thomas. We don’t see the whole plan, often don’t understand.
So, honor your doubts, your lack of understanding. Speak them aloud, like Thomas, if you want. But be ready: at some point your God and Lord, Christ Jesus, will look into your eyes and say, “do you trust me and my life anyway?” When you do, you’ll find life like you never knew possible.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen