Seeing is Believing
April 8, 2007 – Easter Day
Seeing Is Believing
John 20:1-18 (with reference to Luke 15)
Seeing is believing. In order to believe, most of us need some tangible, visible evidence. Fortunately, the Risen Christ gives us what we need to believe. He overcomes our distorted, inadequate vision and shows himself to us in countless ways. Our faith in the resurrected Christ is a gift of the resurrected Christ.
John 20:1-18: John tells the story of Easter and the miracle that happened as Jesus’ astonished disciples are encountered by the Risen Christ.
Risen Christ, show us your glory! Come to us, reveal yourself and your will to us, be with us, prod us, lead us, and give us the vision to see you among us, give us the guts to follow wherever you take us. Amen.
When it comes to the resurrection, John’s Gospel stresses the important role of vision. This is the message that Mary gives the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” When it comes to Easter, there is no knowing, there is no real believing, without dramatic seeing. O. Wesley Allen, Jr., in his very helpful book Preaching Resurrection (Chalice Press, pp. 107-108), helpfully lists the various visionary experiences characterized in the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel. Mary saw that the stone had been rolled away but she did not know where they had taken the Lord (20:1-2). The disciple whom Jesus loved looked in the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there (20:4-5), but not Jesus. Then Peter arrived, and saw the clothes lying in separate places (20:6-7). The beloved disciple followed, and saw the linen cloths and believed (20:8). Just what he believed is a bit unsure, because John says that, “For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20:9). Perhaps he believed that the body had been stolen. Then Mary looked in the tomb and saw two angels sitting at the head and the foot where Jesus’ body had been (20:12); still she did not know where they had taken the Lord (20:13). But when she saw Jesus (20:14), she knew it was Jesus.
It was not much help to Mary to focus on the linen cloths and the empty tomb. It was only when she was able to see Jesus that she was able to believe. Just being there at the empty tomb is not enough. One must be encountered by the risen Christ.
In our sermon on this Easter we will focus on the important role of vision in the resurrection experience, taking our cues from the Gospel of John’s treatment of the resurrection. We shall affirm our faith in Easter as a gift of a God who comes to us and gives us what we need to believe.
I recently heard a distinguished historian of the modern world declare that, “Once the modern world convinced itself that nothing
is real except what we can see, taste and touch, the modern world has gone down hill ever since.” The modern world was dedicated to the principal that there is no reality, nothing afoot, other than what we can see.
This seems to be the attitude of the salesclerk who waited on me the other day. I was thumbing through the cantaloupes in the vegetable department. None of them looked too appealing. So I asked, “Do you have any more cantaloupes?” The reply from the vegetable vender was, “Well, what you see there, is all there is, either take it or leave it.”
I found this a grand summary of much of modern higher education. You look at the world. There are some things about the world that don’t seem right to us. A number of aspects about the world, and ourselves, displease us. But growing up and becoming a mature adult means to be the sort of person who is able to say, “Well, this is all there is. What you see is what you get. Either take it or leave it.”
Most of us, as we grow up, learn to take it rather than leave it. We take the world, asking only that we have the guts to take the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. What we see is what we get. And there is a certain dignity, a kind of courage to not whine, to not console ourselves with fairy tales, and living on the basis of what appears before us to be what it is. This is all there is. Live with it.
And yet this approach does not do justice to the complexities of vision. How do we see? You don’t have to live very long before you realize that what you see might not necessarily be what there is. The brain filters out so many of the visual impressions we see. What we see seems to be connected to some sort of template in the brain. When sensory images are fed in through the optic nerve the brain sorts through its collection of previously experienced images, makes matches, fits what we see into a pattern, and we are led to say, “There it is! That’s a tree.” Thus we are somewhat justified in saying, “If you have seen one tree, that enables you to see them all.”
And yet what does the brain do with things that don’t fit into previously experienced patterns? What if our vision is out of focus? What if our seeing is sometimes limited by what we expect to see, or have the courage to see? What if it is not so much a matter of “you get what you see,” but also a matter of “you see what you have already gotten?”
Thus, Mary Magdalene appeared at the tomb of Jesus early Easter morning. When she saw that the huge stone at the door of the tomb had been rolled away, and that the tomb was empty, she immediately saw what had happened. Obviously someone had stolen the body of Jesus and she did not know where they had put him. Even when an angel appears and asks her why she is weeping, Mary still says that someone has stolen the body of Jesus.
It is not until Jesus himself appears to Mary and calls her by name that she begins to see. Even then, she at first thinks that the risen Christ is a gardener. Mary just can’t get out of her mind that she is at a cemetery, a place of death and loss. She can’t refocus her eyes, even when an angel, even when the risen Christ is standing in front of her.
And then there is Thomas. When he hears the report that Jesus’ body is missing and that Jesus has appeared before some of the other disciples, Thomas says that unless he sees the wounds that killed Jesus, he won’t believe. After all, the one believable thing about Jesus is that he is dead, crucified and buried, with large holes in his hands and a gaping wound in his side. That’s reality.
And then the risen Christ appears, tells Thomas to touch his wounds, and Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
I don’t think it’s fair to call him “Doubting Thomas.” It wasn’t that Thomas refused to believe. He believed. But he believed in what he could see. And what he could see was death, failure, annihilation and destruction. Mary was the same. Until Jesus called her by name, her vision was out of focus. Until the risen Christ asked Thomas to touch his wounds, Thomas could not see.
What does it take to get us to see what is there? It is not enough simply to say, “Well, what you see, is what you get.” There is a matter of failed vision, inadequate perception. We’ve all had that frustrating experience of seeing something at some distant point across the landscape. And then we say to the friend beside us, gesturing as we speak, “Look, over there!”
The friend looks, squints, but can’t see. “Over to the right!” we say, “Just beneath that first hill to the left of that house.”
It’s a frustrating experience. The thing is so obvious, so apparent. But the friend just can’t get it. We attempt to point to certain landmarks, hoping that the friend will move from seeing those apparent objects to this less apparent thing we are trying to show. It is very frustrating.
What enables us to see? What is it that can grab our heads, turn our eyes in the right direction, and bring everything into focus?
For Mary and for Thomas, it was the risen Christ. He did not leave them to their own devices. He did not expect them to build upon their past experiences. He did not rely on their misperceptions, but rather he came to them. He spoke to one and then he encouraged the other to touch his very body. He turned their gaze away from what was expected and accustomed toward what was being revealed.
Maybe that is why we call Christianity a revealed religion. You can’t see it until it is revealed, given to you, until one has experienced the gift of the presence of the Risen Christ, and then one’s eyes get in focus.
Most of the time we “see through a mirror dimly” as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians. Occasionally, by the grace of God, things come into focus and we see, “face to face.”
That’s Easter. It wasn’t just that Jesus was raised from the dead. It was that he was raised for us. He returned to his friends, revealed himself to them, and enabled them to see and to believe.
I know a man who, through his 33rd year, lived a rather dissolute life. We always thought him to be a person of high intelligence and great gifts, but he really seemed to have difficulty focusing that intelligence and developing those gifts. I knew him during his college years. He was quite the party animal. We thought that when he got married that might make a difference, but it didn’t. He and his wife spent far too many evenings carousing. He had a good job, but he seemed uninterested in his job and unable to get his life moving.
Even at 33, another friend of mine was able to say of him, “He has really wasted his life.”
But a couple of months ago, his wife presented him with a little baby girl. I had never thought of him as the parental type. But there was this baby.
The change was dramatic. He totally settled down, settled in, focused. If you met him on the street, you hardly knew you were talking to the same person. The main pleasure he now sees in life is in providing for his child’s future, in being a great father, and living a good family life. What happened?
Well I think he got encountered. I think in a moment his life was intruded upon, and it got refocused, redirected. It was as if in an instant everything came into focus and he saw. He got a vision of who he was meant to be, of who he could be. His world changed. For the first time he saw true reality.
I think it was something like Easter.
Relating the Text
You’ve seen those images that, when you first look at them, look like a black and white picture of the head of a cow, some sort of black and white cow staring back at you. But when you linger a bit longer, you see that it is the head of Christ.
Or somebody has shown you a card that seems to have some scrambled black and white letters on it. You look at it, and it is hard to recognize any familiar letter of the alphabet. But when you focus on it again, you see the word “Jesus.” Philosopher Wittgenstein drew a simple looking round head with two long ears sticking up. At least that is what it looked like to me. What is it? Well of course it is a rabbit.
But then the philosopher says, “No, that’s a duck.” And the minute he says it, suddenly the drawing is transformed and it really does look like a duck, looking up. What was earlier perceived to be the ears of a rabbit, as the rabbit looked down, now appears to be the beak of a duck, looking up.
I think that Plato said that most of philosophy was founded on the principle that you can’t trust what you see. Our perception is conditioned, warped, constricted, and unreliable.
I have now endured three successive versions of The Matrix, the phenomenally successful film. Many students just love it and eagerly await the next Matrix sequel. The film seemed much too complicated for me to figure out, but I did carry away from it one simple truth. That is, that I think lots of our students have a hunch that the so-called “real world,” is not real at all. It may be just a façade, a front.
What we call real may be real in the sense that Disney World is real. On top, what we can clearly see is this wonderful clean, colourful, and bright world, but underneath there is quite another story. Underneath is all the machinery, and all the employees that make the fantasy world appear to be real when it is really a construction of the imagination.
I’ve tried to argue people into believing in Christ. I have found it a frustrating experience. If I had the wits to argue someone into belief in the risen Christ, someone smarter than I could just as easily argue them out of belief.
I believe that deep, life-changing Christian belief is based not upon arguments and reasons but upon encounter with the risen Christ. We believe simply because he comes to us and gives us that which we cannot give ourselves – a reason to believe, a way to go on, a path out of doubt toward faith.
I had to laugh. Joe had just been involved in an accident just down the street from his home. It wasn’t too serious, but his car was broadsided by another car coming down the street.
Joe said, “I looked down that street before I pulled out of the driveway and there was nothing coming down the street. Nothing! I go down that street a dozen times a week and there are hardly ever any cars on the street. I looked! Not a car in sight!”
Well, there must have been at least one car in sight. But it was not a sight that was given to Joe on that fateful morning.