Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." - John 20:27
Last week we considered the ways that we foolishly trust our eyes. Some of us, like Flannery O’Connor’s character, the proud atheist Shepherd, need to see to believe. Sight makes us certain. Vision provides veracity.
Such an immature approach to the world, however, comes with consequences. Think about what happens when we focus on the outward, and not the inward. What happens when we trust our eyes and ignore the alarms of our intuition? Anybody who has lived long enough, and lived well enough, will tell you that vision is so much more than the physical eye.
Moreover, our reality is not just about what we see. It’s about what we interpret. And what we interpret, quite often depends on what we already believe. The areas our eyes choose to focus upon are typically informed by what we already feel.
Maybe this is why Mary Magdalene looked at the empty grave on Easter Sunday and declared, “They’ve taken away my Jesus, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” The pain of imperial oppression; the anguish of Roman apartheid; the cruelty of crucifixion — all of these factors may have caused Mary to perceive her reality through the frames of fear.
She forgot the truth of Jesus’s teachings. She couldn’t perceive the comfort of his presence nor the beauty of his ubiquitous bearing. So, even with Jesus’s resurrected presence in her midst, she declared, “They’ve taken my Jesus, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.”
This week we meet another character who puts all his trust in the ocular. His response to the risen Lord has cast him in biblical infamy. His name is Thomas, better known as Doubting Thomas.
Thomas is a little different than Mary. He does not dispute what the disciples have seen. But he does not entirely trust his eyesight. Maybe it’s an illusion. Perhaps he is hallucinating. Maybe they see a ghost.
Maybe we should give Thomas some credit here. Let’s not be so quick to throw him up under the bus for his so-called doubt. What if we viewed Thomas as holding a healthy hermeneutics of suspicion. He is understandably calling into question his initial interpretation of events.
Thomas might have something to teach us. We shouldn’t always trust our initial interpretation. Nor should we confuse sight for vision.
Might this be part of the problem with the Christian church in America today? We have sight but no vision. We see economic inequality. We see racial and religious hatred. We see how misogyny, materialism, and spiritual mendacity are corrupting our pulpits from sea to shining sea. Yet the most we can muster is a helpless gaze, an ineffectual stare.
So we use the language of vision while we stare at the sins of empire. Many churches talk about spiritual vision while turning a blind eye to evil, greed, and corruption. We employ the language of vision, as some of us are solely trying to envision how we can better connect to these corrupt systems of power.
This is what happens when we put faith in what we see. Particularly when most of what we see is less than seemly.
What happens to us? What happens when we look around and see greed and gangsterism rewarded? What happens when we see will-to-power prevail and selfishness framed as success? What happens when we embrace Donald Trump’s interpretation of the beatitude? The first shall be first, and everybody else is a loser.
You and I will act accordingly. We will compromise ethical principles for so-called realpolitik. We will exchange ultimate values for immediate gratification; displace the primacy of the moral and the spiritual in exchange for power and access. We will start singing with the Wu-Tang Clan, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.” We will embrace the gospel of Tupac, “I’ve got to get mine, you’ve got to get yours.” And we confuse the Latin Veritas (truth) for Vis (power).
But today’s gospel lesson teaches us something different. Consider what Thomas asks to see. And look at what Jesus shows him. Of all the things the risen Lord could have done to prove his power and glory; of all of the mighty acts that he could have performed; of all of the worldly power that he could have displayed; when it was time to identify himself with his followers, what does Jesus do? He reveals where nails pierced his flesh. He reveals the scars along his side.”
Jesus’s response here runs contrary to all of our cultural inclinations. Few people take pride in their scars. That Americans spent over $16 billion on cosmetic plastic surgery is in some ways a metaphor for our spiritual condition. We like to hide our imperfections. We incline to cover and conceal. If people see our scars, they may make negative determinations. If someone were to see our bruises, they might conclude that we are blemished.
Jesus shows us another way. Our scars are not signs of defeat. They are not signs of frailty. Scars testify to the trials we have faced. Scars signify the obstacles we have overcome.
I’ve told you this before. My very first sermon from this pulpit was precisely seven years ago. It was from Luke’s account of this scene. “Don’t be Scared of Scars.”
And I’ll ask now what I asked then: What do you see when you see your scars? What do you see when you see the marks of yesterday’s heartbreak and last night’s heartache.
It depends on whether you are looking through the frames of fear or lenses of faith.
Fear would show your defeat. Faith would reveal your endurance.
One would show weakness, the other your strong will.
One would show your pain, and the other your potential.
Our scars are our seeds. They may not look like much. We can’t physically see right now what they shall become. But we know that new life and creative possibility lie within them. Henry David Thoreau once said, “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed….Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” But we must be led by our faith, not our fears.
I’m not just telling you what I think. I’m telling you what I know.
When President Faust appointed me the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, this community had much to fear. Change and the unknown always evoke fear and anxiety. And I was definitely change and an unknown. My accent was southern, not British. I was a fan of hoops and hip hop, not antiques and the opera. And neither of us knew anything about the other beyond what we could see on the surface.
I can recall calling Brother Cornel not long after my appointment and saying that this was a big mistake. I can’t lead this congregation. He replied, “Don’t worry about leading them, my brother. Worry about loving them.”
Over time, as we got to know one another, as we began to see one another through the lenses of God’s love, it’s amazing how what once felt like stark difference receded to the background. Our shared passions and moral commitments became the focal point. Our shared human experiences and even our scars knit us into a diverse quilt of a Christian community.
We united over our love for poetry and literature. We connected over our commitment to children and grandchildren. We joined our many helping hands one with another to serve this community. We’ve celebrated births, baptisms, and weddings. We’ve laughed over wine and cognac. We’ve cried over lost loved ones. And we’ve held one another up during moments of disappointment and despair. More importantly, we’ve banded together on a sincere spiritual and intellectual quest to become more faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
This is why when I look across this congregation today, I don’t see strangers. I don’t just see your lofty positions or titles. I don’t see solely your age, skin color, ethnicity, or accomplishments. I see love. I see family. I see beautiful people in whose scars I can take comfort. For it’s our scars — the most fundamental feature of our humanity — that connects us. They bring us into a beloved community. And it’s this beloved community that should give us all confidence to seize the future in faith. No matter what we see, we can yet believe. God raised Jesus from the dead. And that same God will continue to breathe life into our scarred bodies. Not because of who we are, but because of whose we are. That’s what it means to be a community of faith. That’s what it means to be a space of amazing grace.
For Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found.
T’was blind, but now I see.