April 27, 2014 1 Peter 1: 3-9 John 20: 19-31
Rev. Catherine Purves
Our granddaughter, Isla, is already 5 months old. She still has very little hair and seems to spend most of her time eating and sleeping and growing. While she is beginning to experiment with sounds and she has started to smile and watch moving objects, you can’t really have much of a conversation with her yet. Andrew says that she is still a bit of a blob, which is not terribly kind, but not completely inaccurate either. I’m wondering if it is part of the grandparents’ responsibilities to contribute to their grandchildren’s cognitive development. If so, we’d better brush up on some old fashioned baby games, like peekaboo.
I have already begun my research into the cognitive development of children, and did you know that peekaboo is not just a goofy game that makes grandparents look foolish? According to the well-known developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, peekaboo helps infants develop their sense of object permanence. You can’t get very far in the world without an awareness of object permanence. I trust you all have it, whether you know it or not. Object permanence is the perception that things continue to exist even if you can no longer see them.
When you put your baby in the crib and leave the room, even if you promise that you will be right back, a screaming fit is likely to follow. The baby doesn’t realize that you still exist once you’re gone. This is because the baby has no sense of object permanence yet, or perhaps we should say people permanence. Hence, the value of peekaboo. It teaches very young children that something or someone who disappears for a time is still there. Peekaboo. See, I’m still here.
Piaget claims that this is one of the infant’s most important mental accomplishments, and I’m inclined to agree. He also says that it is by touching and handling objects that babies develop their sense of object permanence – that, along with many repetitions of peekaboo. Now we can understand what was going on with the disciple Thomas. He had no sense of object permanence, or in the case of Jesus, people permanence. He said that he would need to see and touch the risen Jesus in order to prove to himself that Jesus was alive, that Jesus still existed.
If we feel some sympathy for Thomas, it may be that we have not completely mastered people permanence yet ourselves, at least when it comes to people who have been resurrected. Fair enough. Resurrection is a unique event, a whole lot more challenging than peekaboo. We know from the resurrection accounts in the Gospels that Jesus wasn’t immediately recognizable to many who saw him after Easter. So how did they know that this was the same Jesus, the Jesus they knew?
I had a young woman stop by the church for help this week. She said that she knew me because she’d seen me at the New Horizons Center. I looked at her, but had no recollection of having met her before. When I was obviously struggling to remember her face she admitted that she did have purple hair back then. It’s hard to hold onto your sense of object or people permanence when someone looks completely different. The resurrected body of Jesus was a challenge because he didn’t really look like the Jesus the disciples had known.
And apart from that, no one had ever been resurrected in that way before. This was an entirely new learning experience for them, a whole new level of cognitive development. A desire to see and touch and test the reality of this resurrection was completely understandable. Object (or people) permanence across the chasm of death had never before been experienced. It’s not like Jesus just left the room and came back. After they saw him crucified and witnessed his dead body being placed in a sealed tomb, where it stayed for three days, it’s no wonder they questioned whether this could be the same Jesus. Death just about undoes any sense of object permanence that we might have.
So Thomas was not simply being stubborn or difficult. How could he believe this unbelievable thing without seeing and touching and witnessing for himself that it truly was Jesus, returned from the dead, in a new, resurrected body. Actually, we really should give Thomas some credit. When he finally was confronted by the risen Jesus, when he saw him and heard his voice, Thomas instantly knew, first, that it was Jesus, and then he called Jesus “My Lord, and my God!” Not only did Thomas realize that this was the Jesus they all knew, still alive and in a resurrected body, but he proclaimed that Jesus was more than any of them had thought. Jesus was their Lord and their God.
But where does that leave us? Are we still having some object permanence problems when it comes to the resurrection? We are, after all, among those who have never seen Jesus. We did not know him when he was alive, and we haven’t encountered him in his resurrected body. We are doubly challenged, and yet, we are called to believe. Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.” If we have faith, then we are truly blessed. But is our faith as vibrant and strong and as certain as Thomas’ faith was? Can we affirm with him, and without reservations or doubts, that Jesus is genuinely still alive and that he is our Lord and our God?
This is our Easter challenge. We are asked to believe in a resurrection that we cannot see or touch, virtually an invisible, untestable resurrection. How do we know that Jesus is still alive? How do we know that it is the same Jesus? It is one thing to read the Bible and to learn the stories, and to come to a sense of who Jesus was, without having seen him. It is something else entirely to apply that sense of object or people permanence to a resurrected Jesus so that we come to believe and to know that Jesus still exists, in a glorious and powerful way, in spite of the fact that we cannot see him, even though he has now left this earth.
Anyone who implies that faith is easy has not quite understood all that faith demands of us. Trying to generate blind faith is hard. And while we cannot test our faith in the resurrected Jesus, our faith is constantly being tested. In Peter’s first letter he says that our faith is tested by fire, and in that way it is refined like gold. Trials and suffering can actually help us mature in faith. And just as babies need to learn the truth of object permanence as part of their growing up, we need to develop our perception of people permanence with respect to Jesus as we mature as Christians. Our faith needs to grow and develop and deepen. This can be a stressful and a demanding process.
The good news is that our faith in Jesus and our maturing in faith is a gift of grace. Peter writes joyfully, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Faith is that “new birth into a living hope,” and it is given to us. Part of the power of the resurrection itself is this gift of faith in the resurrected Jesus, a gift of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus first appeared to the disciples on Easter evening, John tells us, remember, that Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And then they believed.
If faith truly is a gift, what we have to do is receive it, and treasure it, and guard it through the times when it is tested. Faith, after all, is just an ability to trust in something that is true. When I put my granddaughter, Isla, down in her crib and leave the room, I do still exist, whether she perceives that yet or not. When Jesus was resurrected and then returned to the Father, he did and does still exist, whether or not we can literally see or touch or perceive him. Object permanence is a gift that Isla will soon have. Our perception of people permanence with respect to our risen Lord is also a gift that we are given in the form of faith. And when we receive it, cherish it, and guard it, our joy in knowing that Jesus is alive need not be threatened by fears or doubts. God will enable us to say, along with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
So, this is the double blessing that we have been given by the Holy Spirit. This is the nature of our faith: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” Jesus is alive! And though we cannot see or touch him, we can know him, through the gift of faith, as our Lord and our God.