Yesterday, enjoying the holiday after the busy week of worship through Holy Week and the Easter Weekend, my wife and I went for a walk along the Sea Point Promenade. It’s a beautiful stretch of grass with a paved walkway right beside the Atlantic Ocean on Cape Town’s coast. As we walked, I found myself slipping into a kind of reverie, absorbed in the beauty of the day and the surroundings, and enjoying the quiet connection with my best friend as we walked. Then I noticed a couple jogging toward us. I briefly appreciated their strength and fitness, and then moved my gaze elsewhere. But, as they reached us, they stopped and greeted us, and I realised that it was colleague and a friend, both of whom I know from church circles. They laughed as I apologised and explained that, while I had seen them, I hadn’t really seen them.
Through Lent and Easter I have been spending a lot of time in John’s Gospel, and I’m convinced that, perhaps more than anything else, John is concerned with what we see and what we really see – what we grasp, what we take into ourselves, what we understand, and what we believe. The connection between believing and seeing is significant in John’s Gospel. There is John the Baptiser’s seeing of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus (John 1:29-34). There is the disciple’s seeing of Jesus’ glory when he turns water to wine at the wedding in Cana, and the believing that follows this (John 2:11). There are the people in Jerusalem who see the “miraculous signs” (John 2:23) and believe in Jesus, and there is Nicodemus who comes to Jesus under cover of night because he, like the crowd, has been touched by the miracles he has seen and wants to know more – and yet he is unable to understand (to see) when Jesus calls him to be “born again” (John 3:1-8). There is the blind man who is given sight by Jesus, and who then learns to see who Jesus really is, while the religious leaders, who claim to see, remain blind (John 9). There are the sisters of Lazarus who are told by Jesus that they will see God’s glory if they believe (John 11:40), and whose brother is raised. There are the moments – many of them – in which Jesus laments that people won’t believe unless they see miracles, and in which John connects seeing and believing (John 1:50; 2:18; 4:48; 12:37; 15:24).
For John there is seeing – without understanding or believing – and there is seeing – discovering a truth that goes deeper than the eyes or the mind, into the soul, and leads to a believing that is more than signs or miracles, but a connection with the person of Jesus. Throughout the Gospel John draws a distinction between those who have seen miracles and say they believe (but with the fickleness that Jesus does not trust (2:23-25) and that does not really “get” who Jesus is) and those who truly encounter Christ and are changed into true, committed believers. There is no question that John hopes his Gospel will move people from the former state into the latter. He wants them to go beyond seeing (with the eyes) and learn to see with the heart.
Which brings us to Thomas. The title of “doubter” is both unfair and misplaced when it comes to him. In many ways he has been one of Jesus’ most courageous and devoted disciples. When Jesus decides to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus, Thomas is the one who encourages the other disciples to go with him, even if it means death for all of them (John 11:16). Thomas is the one who admits that the disciples aren’t getting it when Jesus tells them that they know the way to where he is going, which inspires the famous words about Jesus being “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:5,6). And now, after the resurrection, Thomas refuses to believe on the basis of a second hand faith. He wants to see the resurrection the same way the other disciples have. There is a raw honesty in this, but for John, it is also the occasion to move his message to a climax. Throughout the Gospel John has been calling people to a deeper seeing, and now Thomas is offered, initially, as the epitome of shallow, miracle-based believing – the faith is not really faith. He wants the sign, the proof, the miracle, that enables him to believe. This is exactly the kind of believing that Jesus has been lamenting and that John is contrasting with true belief throughout the Gospel. It’s not that the other disciples had real faith, and Thomas was deficient. It was that none of them had really seen yet.
But, here is where it gets interesting. A week after the first appearance, Jesus meets the disciples in the Upper Room again. This time Thomas is there, and Jesus immediately offers the proof – the scars that Thomas wanted to touch. Clearly, though he wasn’t ‘present’ when they were voiced, Jesus knows about Thomas’ questions, and engages them seriously. But, then, Thomas responds in a way that none of the others have yet: “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28). This sets the scene for Jesus’ famous words: “You believe because you have seen Me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing Me.” (Vs.29). This statement is the climax of John’s Gospel. This is the point he has been trying to make all along. To people who long for proof, John offers a challenge: you can see – miracles, signs, proofs – or you can see.
This is the shift that happens for Thomas. I don’t know what he saw with his eyes on that day, but I do have an idea of what he saw with his heart. Where he had been looking for proof that Jesus was risen, he now discovers a whole new reality. He recognises Jesus in a way that he has not done up to this point – as Lord and God. He believes, not just in a resurrected teacher, but in an incarnate deity. And he doesn’t just believe as a kind of intellectual assent. He encounters this new realty, he experiences it, and he is changed by it. This is the kind of faith that Jesus has been seeking throughout the Gospel. And this is the kind of faith that John is seeking to generate in his readers, because this is the only faith that is worthy of the name. To drive the point home, John remembers Jesus’ words that the first kind of “faith” – seeing miracles and signs – is not necessary to get to the second – really seeing who Jesus is and moving into an intimate relationship with him. In fact, the first kind of believing may even be a hindrance to the second, which is why those who “believe without seeing” are especially blessed by Jesus.
Which leaves us with a searching question. Do we continue to get all hung up on the proof – the ‘how’, the ‘when’, the ‘if’ of the resurrection event? Do we make faith all about the miracle, the sign? Do we continue to seek signs and miracles to support our faith? Have we seen Jesus as an insurance policy, a super-hero who will swoop in and save the day? Or are we ready to lay aside proofs, signs, miracles and guarantees and enter the mystery? Are we willing to see Jesus as the incarnation of God, as the invitation to intimacy with God, and as the Giver of life that transforms us and everything else? Make no mistake, the first kind of ‘faith’ is much easier. But, if we will open ourselves to a real encounter with the risen Christ, to true intimacy with God, we will find ourselves living differently, seeing the world differently, embracing different values and morality, and we will become obsessed with bringing life wherever we can. In the end, the resurrection is not about a scientific or historical fact. It’s about an eternal truth. And until we have really seen this, we haven’t encountered resurrection at all.