Sermon by Father Richard Viladesau
Second Sunday of Easter 2013 at the Church of Our Redeemer
In a recent conversation with a graduate student, I parenthetically mentioned the statement of the late English novelist Iris Murdoch: some Xian teachings “have become so celebrated and beautified in great pictures that it almost seems as if the painters were the final authorities on the matter,” rather than the scriptures or the theologians. The student was struck by this, and asked for examples. It is easy to think of instances where the common Christian conception comes from the way things are portrayed in art: we assume there were three Magi, although Matthew gives no number; that they were Kings, while for the gospel they were “astrologers.” People imagine the two disciples journeying to Emmaus as two men; but from text more it is more likely they were man and wife. The whole scene of the pietà is an invention of art. And today’s gospel is another prime example. Paintings of the Thomas scene almost invariably show Thomas putting his fingers into Jesus’ side, as he is invited to do. [Examples: Caravaggio, “Incredulity of St. Thomas” shows Thomas actually putting his finger into Christ’s side, his hand guided by Christ; Romanesque cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos; Duccio, “Maestà”; Hendrick ter Brugghen; Verocchio; Guercino; Signorelli]. If you ask people what happened, this is what they think. But it is not what the gospel says. Thomas does not touch the resurrected Jesus: he believes when he sees. “When Jesus appears and somewhat sarcastically offers Thomas the crass demonstration of the miraculous that he demanded, Thomas comes to belief without probing Jesus’ wounds.”[i] If he had accepted the invitation, would have been like those who are condemned for demanding signs and wonders before believing (Jn. IV:28).
Thomas believes when he sees; but what he sees is an appearance of Christ. He still has to believe that this vision is of a reality. The Apostles who saw Christ still had to have faith; we are told by Matthew that even after these visions, some doubted (Mt. 28:17). Seeing is not believing. External signs are still signs. What faith is about cannot be proven or shown physically, because it is about something more than a physical reality: it is about a relationship of trust in God’s goodness and triumph over evil and death.
"Blest are they who have not seen and have believed." If we exclude from consideration the "epilogue" or second ending added by an early redactor (Jn. 21), these words are not only the last to be spoken by Jesus in John's gospel, but are the concluding words of the entire work; the final thought that the original gospel writer wished to leave us with.
While most of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels have to be carefully considered in their lived situation and in the context of their original addressees before we can discern any relevance to our contemporary situation, these words are obviously meant by the author for us: we are the original addressees; we are those who believe without having seen, and who are called "blest" for that reason.
It is clear that the intent of this saying is to indicate the superiority of faith over vision. But why should this be so? Is it somehow more meritorious to believe "blindly" on the testimony of others? Is faith ultimately an irrational act of submission or of wishful thinking?
If not, then what can be the basis of such belief?
Obviously, our Christian belief is based on the testimony of others, beginning with the first disciples. But we don’t believe simply on others’ testimony. How could we take the word of people or writings 2,000 years old? Here we meet Lessing’s problem of the “foul wide ditch” of the impossibility of certain historical knowledge. We believe in that testimony not simply as testimony from past, but as lived out in community of faith. Combined with.
And that testimony from the past cannot stand alone. It must be joined to the “testimony” of God. In today’s first reading, Peter says, “we are witnesses, and the Holy Spirit is witness.” The exterior testimony is believable insofar as it corresponds to our interior experience of God: something interior and of its very nature invisible: the “testimony” of God that is experienced and lived in our hearts. This is a testimony of experience: the “outward” testimony of others is believable insofar as it corresponds to the rest of our experience, and gives us a meaningful way of interpreting it.
This “experience of God” is not a separate mystical kind of experience: it is found in our experience of ourselves and the world. It is found in experiences of goodness, beauty, generosity, value; in love that sacrifices self, in hope in face of death. It is the “pointing beyond” or transcendence that is implicit in all positive experience. It is also found indirectly in experiences of evil that call out for a reversal: a reversal that is impossible within our human history, however hard we strive. Even where we do reverse evil and improve our world, we cannot reverse the evils and injustices of the past, and we cannot avoid the inevitability of randomness and death.
In these combined witnesses we can find reasons for belief in resurrection, in the triumph of God’s life over sin and death. But there is a condition: belief is not forced on us; it is not merely intellectual. It is a commitment and a way of life. It is believable if - (and this is why the blessing appears) we are ready to receive and live it.