In this wild ride of following the risen Christ, are you hanging on with both hands?
All through the Gospel of John there has been this tension between seeing and believing. It is fascinating to me that our post-modern tension, between (on one hand) objective and (on the other hand) subjective “truth”, seems to be an under laying structure of this Gospel.
Central in John’s Gospel is the story of those who couldn’t (wouldn’t) see what Jesus’ healing of a blind man must mean. They had personal and probably political reasons not to follow the logic. This tension is presented once more in the experience of Thomas. There is a tale about parents asking their little girl what she learned in Sunday school. She responds” “We are learning how to believe things that we know aren’t true.”
How much we identify with Thomas will determine which of two applications we might make from this story. One application is that when we are honest about our own thinking, we can identify with Thomas in his doubt. Under the influence of prevailing modern scepticism our faith can feel lonely or silly. It some circles it may actually be embarrassing to admit that we believe in Jesus’ resurrection. And so we are encouraged by the Thomas story. If one of Jesus’ first disciples had trouble accepting the testimony of others, we don’t feel so alone in our own scepticism.
(By the way, this is the way science works: the testimony of scientists who observe the experiments is accepted by the rest. The only empirical difficulty so far is simply that the conditions for Jesus’ resurrection experiment have not been replicated!)
Beyond modern scepticism is the growing post-modern cynicism about knowing anything “true” at all. Faith is only valued for its utilitarian function. An insidious relativism suggests: it really doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe in something. In other words if it really helps you to believe something like the resurrection, go ahead and believe it. Why bother worrying about whether Jesus’ resurrection really happened? Even if it is not true, if it helps you cope with life then that’s a good thing.
On the other hand those moderns who think the gospel is primarily a matter of “facts” may feel good because unlike Thomas we are able to believe without seeing. And so we pity those who like poor doubting Thomas have trouble accepting the objective propositional truth presented to them.
These two ways that we might apply this story are common ways that we expect God’s word to minister to us: either to comfort us in our weakness and failures or to confirm our sense of rightness and let us know we are on the right track. But perhaps there is another possibility for us in the interaction between Thomas and Jesus. Thomas got the confirmation that suited him in the form of a personal encounter. Jesus responded to his doubts with the very evidence he had hoped for. Perhaps it was this personal touch that made the real difference. Earlier in the same chapter Mary didn’t recognize Jesus until he spoke her name. It seems it was Jesus’ personal response to Thomas that made him not only a witness of the resurrection, but also a worshipper. It is one thing to believe the resurrection happened, it is more as Peter says to “believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy“.
Does our tendency (need?) to subjectify and personalize our faith require that we cease attempting to also grasp what is objectively real? As long as we know the “facts” is it irrelevant to our faith that we might also experience an overwhelming intuition that we have encountered the risen Jesus? In this wild ride of following Jesus, the gospel of John seems to allow us to hold on with both hands. One is what has been objectively observed in the material world (the apostolic witness) and the other our personal subjective encounter with our risen Lord.
Is our preaching bold enough to suggest that people might have the kind of personal encounter with the risen Lord that would address their doubts? Does it take even more boldness to suggest that the proclamation of the resurrection has the right to enter into our discussions with the philosophers as did Paul on Mars Hill?
Will you be strengthened by a review of the logic for God and for Jesus’ resurrection? Or do you need to meet Jesus at a point it your life where you know it is really him?
Are you holding on with both hands?