April 7, 2013 Psalm 118: 14-24 John 20: 19-31
Rev. Catherine Purves
Proof is a good thing. You may be surprised to hear me say that, since we in the church always seem to be talking about faith. But the familiar post-resurrection stories of Jesus appearing first to his disciples and then to Thomas are not implying that proof or a desire for proof is bad. This much seems obvious to me: Jesus came into that locked room in order to give the disciples proof. He reappeared the following Sunday in order to give Thomas proof.
They needed proof. An empty tomb was just empty. It was no proof of the resurrection. The women’s testimony about angels was not that convincing. Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen the Lord, but she was distraught in her grief; was she really a reliable witness? The fact that the disciples still needed proof should not make us think any less of them, especially since Jesus was more than willing to provide it!
I enjoy reading crime stories and novels about lawyers and their pursuit of justice. So I know that the challenge a prosecutor faces is to provide proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that what he or she is claiming is true. The state presents its evidence in order to prove the prosecutor’s interpretation of the facts that are under dispute. And the judge and jury must weigh this evidence to see if it amounts to proof, beyond a reasonable doubt. This proof does not mean that there are no more unanswered questions. It doesn’t mean that everything has been explained. It certainly doesn’t mean that everyone agrees about everything. But the proof that is provided is absolutely necessary, even though there may still be some mystery about exactly what happened and even though reaching a final verdict will still involve something like a leap of faith for the judge and jury.
It was the same for the disciples, and it is the same for us. Proof that helps us confirm what we believe is something that we must seek. Evidence must be accumulated piece by piece. The testimony of witnesses who are convinced about the truth is something that we need to be collecting throughout our lives. Using our minds to delve deeper and deeper into the truth is part of our calling. The fact that we are purposefully piecing together proof to support our faith in Jesus and his resurrection is not something that we should be ashamed about. Our search for proof is not a questioning of the fact of resurrection; it is an effort to understand the truth of the resurrection. That is a far more complicated and challenging task, and it will always involve faith.
Let’s get specific now. When Jesus appeared to the disciples and then to Thomas what he showed them was physical proof of his resurrection which convinced them beyond reasonable doubt. The piercings in his hands and the slash in his side were proof that this was the same Jesus who was crucified and who had died. Now, he was obviously alive again. He was resurrected. That proof did not answer all of their How? What? When? Where? Why? questions. It did not map out for them what must come next or how this would change their lives and the world. The proof that Jesus provided for the disciples, and for us, is not the end of the story. It is the essential beginning of the story in which we all must continue to grapple with the truth of the resurrection and what it means for our lives going forward.
I have said all of this because I think that some Christians still seem to feel that it is somehow a betrayal of faith to look for proof. Other believers may even think that there is no proof to be found, and that all we can do is take a very large leap of faith. And those who are intentionally not Christian appear to have a very limited view of what would constitute proof, and they use that as an excuse for unbelief. I don’t think that any of these three perspectives can be supported by our text from John’s Gospel.
Let me address each of these points of view in turn. First, is the position that looking for proof is a betrayal of faith. The assumption here seems to be that faith is not based on anything, and that faith has no actual content. Does this perspective, perhaps, assume that faith is an emotion and not subject to rational thought which always seeks reasonable justification for what we say we believe? Is it suggesting that Christian faith is something that has no relationship to verifiable facts, historical events, or written accounts which require interpretation? When viewed in this way, you can see that faith and proof are not antithetical; they do not work against each other. The desire for proof and the on-going search for evidence in support of faith are, in fact, the way in which we live into our faith, the way we grow in faith.
The second possible point of view, that there just is no proof to be found 2,000 years after the fact, and that we are therefore called to take a very large leap of faith, is also not justifiable. This perspective will be very comfortable for those who are theologically lazy and who want an excuse not to think about their faith at all. If proof does not exist, then why spend time looking for it? Why search the Scriptures? Why talk about your faith at all? Why consider the historic creeds, the traditions of the church, or the experience and testimony of other Christian witnesses through the centuries?
This perspective gets you out of a whole lot of work. But it also means that you will have nothing to say to someone who is not a believer and who wants to know why you believe. How on earth can you convince anyone to have faith, to take such a huge leap in the dark, for no reason? We must be willing and able to talk about why we have faith. We must be able to provide proof.
That brings us to our third possible perspective, that of the non-believer who operates with a very limited definition of proof, and who therefore has decided that there is no real proof of the resurrection. If we as Christians are not willing to think about proof for what we believe, then we have no counter to this non-believer’s argument. We have to be able to address the question, “What is proof?” Can you say what constitutes proof of the resurrection for you? Then, can you say why this should be proof for someone else? Do you even know how to talk about your journey into the truth of the resurrection which involves far more than an affirmation of the simple fact of the resurrection?
I’m not suggesting that this is easy, but we need to get off of square one. We need to start thinking about it and talking about it and praying about it if we are ever going to be able to converse with non-believers about this most important aspect of our faith. As Christians we cannot afford to raise the white flag and surrender as soon as the conversation turns to issues of proof. Non-believers don’t get to define “proof.” They do not own the word or the concept.
Let’s begin at the beginning, and let’s go back to our text from John. One obvious and important aspect of our perspective on proof is that we as Christians trust the witness of Scripture. The Bible doesn’t necessarily answer all of our questions, but it points toward the truth, as God would have us perceive it. What is written in Scripture is given so that we may come to believe. Sometimes, God’s truth has to penetrate locked doors and our fearful inability to accept the evidence that we already have. That was the situation of the disciples and Thomas. Into that stalemated situation in which the disciples were frozen in fear and unbelief walked the risen Jesus.
Now let’s look at the nature of the proof that they were given. First, we must say that the proof was personal. In fact, it was about as personal and concrete as it could be. It was the person, Jesus. The proof was in the person. It was not ideas about resurrection, or interpretations of resurrection, or debates about the possibility of resurrection. It was Jesus. He stood among them, spoke to them, showed them his hands and his side, and invited them to touch him. As Christians, we don’t just have debatable beliefs about resurrection. We know and have been encountered by a resurrected Lord Jesus. Our proof is always personal.
Secondly, our text tells us that Jesus said to the disciples three times (!), “Peace be with you,” or, more literally, “Peace to you.” This was a standard greeting in the first century, but it becomes a characteristic of the nature of our proof. Peace is a huge biblical word. It conveys the notion of everything being put right, of wholeness, contentment, reconciliation, fulfillment. We are invited to enter Christ’s peace, to be at peace with God and with one another. This “peace that passes all understanding” is part of the nature of our proof, because it is so much not of this world. It is a gift of Christ. This restoration of relationships and this profound awareness of peace is a fruit of the resurrection and it constitutes proof of the resurrection.
Finally, we have in our passage what is sometimes called a mini-Pentecost. John says that Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Many Christians are rather shy about the Holy Spirit. Often the Spirit is treated like the third and silent partner in the Trinity. Yet, this does not stop the work of the Spirit. It just hinders us from talking about it and seeing it as an important aspect of our proof. It is because the Holy Spirit is active in the church and in our lives that we have faith in the first place. Our faith is not, then, something that we have conjured up or cobbled together; it is a gift of the Spirit. When Thomas looked at Jesus and proclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” that was a Spirit-inspired declaration, and, as such, it was proof of the resurrection. And when we declare our faith it is further proof that the Spirit is still at work and that Jesus is alive.
Of course, there will always be some people who will say that this is not enough proof. The testimony of the Scriptures, our personal relationship with Jesus, the reality of our peace with God, and the activity of the Holy Spirit in the church will not constitute proof for everyone. The important thing we must realize and own is that these are our proofs, and that they are God-given, so that we can have life in Christ. It is these realities that take us beyond reasonable doubt. We must continue to seek for the truth beyond the mere fact of the resurrection. This is our lifelong calling. But here is our proof which we present with conviction and confidence.
Our passage ends with this strong statement, claiming that there is even more proof of our Lord’s resurrection. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” Many other signs and proofs. “But theseare written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It is because of this proof, written, experienced, and lived, that we join Thomas in his faithful affirmation of the risen Jesus, saying, “My Lord and my God!”