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Sermons

A Willingness to Believe

May 29, 2011

Bible Reading

On the evening of the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were . . . Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you!” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. . . . Now Thomas (called the Twin), one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Eight days later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

(John 20:19-29)

Reading from Swedenborg

No one ought to be persuaded about truth in a moment... [so] that there is no doubt left, because the truth so impressed becomes persuasive truth, and is devoid of extension; and it is also devoid of what is yielding.... Hence it is that as soon as any truth is presented ... before good spirits by manifest experience, there is presently afterwards presented something opposite, which caused dubiousness. Thus it is given them to think and consider whether it is so, and to collect reasons, and so bring that truth rationally into their minds....

(Spiritual Diary #468)


There are those who are in doubt before they deny, and there are those who are in doubt before they affirm. Those in doubt before they deny, are those who inciine to a life of evil. When that life sways them, they deny things spir1tual and celestial to the extent that they think of them. But those in doubt before they affirm, are those who incline to a life of good. When they suffer themseives to be turned to this life by the Lord, they then affirm things spiritual and celestial to the extent that they think of them.

(Arcana Coelestia #2568)

Sermon

Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus had appeared a week earlier after the resurrection. So they told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” But Thomas said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” It is this insistence upon sensory evidence for confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection that differentiates Thomas. After all, the rest of the disciples doubted Jesus’ resurrection at first, too. But when the other disciples saw Jesus and heard his greeting, and when Jesus showed them his hands and his side, they were glad.

Thomas wasn’t there when all this took place; he was absent for some reason when Jesus mysteriously and suddenly appeared in their midst while they were behind barred doors. So because Thomas required physical confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection, he earned the dubious distinction of being forever the archetypal figure of one who lacks faith. And if by “lacking faith” is meant not believing blindly what others say, Thomas is guilty as charged.

But Thomas was not so very different from the rest; he simply asked that he might have the same experience the others had had of seeing and touching the Lord. “Seeing is believing!” Or so Thomas thought. ”Let me see, and then I shall believe!” And touching, he felt, would provide even more proof of the miracle his fellow disciples spoke about. To ground one’s belief in physical sensory experience is simply to be natural-minded.

The most important point here is that Jesus did not condemn this quality. Rather, he gave Thomas the chance to exercise it and simply said, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

We can be glad that Thomas was the way he was: that he was able and willing to articulate his need to see and his desire to actually touch the Lord before he would believe he had risen. That is, we can be glad so long as we do not believe in external authority (for example, the testimony of others) alone for our religious beliefs.

We can be glad for Thomas’s perspective because Thomas was not so very different from men and women of every generation who simply do not wish to be taken in or deceived. In fact, I’ll bet there is a little bit of Thomas in each of us.

Emanuel Swedenborg, in his concept of biblical correspondences, states that all the people, events, and things in the Biblical narrative represent spiritual realities within each of us. In this view of the bible, the disciples represent the spectrum of guiding principles from affection and love we have for the Lord and for living a useful life.

Specifically, Thomas represents the sincere element of doubt that precedes belief, the spiritual need to see clearly and understand a matter before being willing to confirm it as a matter of belief. In short, doubt signifies a willingness to believe.

From our reading from Swedenborg:

“There are those who are in doubt before they deny, and there are those who are in doubt before they affirm. Those in doubt before they deny are those who incline to a life of evil. When that life sways them, they deny things spiritual and celestial to the extent that they think of them. But those in doubt before they affirm are those who incline to a life of good. When they suffer themselves to be turned to this life by the Lord, they then affirm things spiritual and celestial to the extent that they think of them.” (Arcana Coelestia # 2568)

The desire to see in order to believe that Thomas so clearly represents is a basic and necessary element of our spirit. Jesus recognized this and did not hesitate to show himself to Thomas. Jesus did not hesitate to give physical confirmation of his resurrection. He did not hesitate to show people—to show us—how to believe. He did and does so even while challenging people toward a more believing stance. Because things are never exactly as they seem to be, we are, on occasion, misled into believing what we think we see.

For this reason, Jesus also kept endeavoring to help his disciples see another way, another side of life, an element we might call “the believing of seeing.” It is a believing that takes place prior to seeing—we believe first, and therefore see. It is a mental imagery process that many of us have experienced, a process that often occurred in people healed by Jesus. Jesus said many times, “According to your faith, be it done to you.” He sought to nurture and strengthen this ability to believe and then see.

Near the beginning of John’s gospel (4:46-54) we are told about an official whose son was ill. Jesus told him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” He wanted Jesus actually to visit his son in order to heal him. But Jesus showed him another way: he sent the official on his way and healed the boy without visiting him. To shift the official’s thinking, Jesus sought to move him to accept and believe Jesus’ promise, to change from the “seeing of believing” to the believing of seeing. To Thomas and to all who will hear, Jesus now declares, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

You may recall a man named Nicodemus who came to Jesus in the middle of the night (so as not to be seen, for he was an important official and did not wish to jeopardize his position). Jesus declared that one had to be born anew to enter God’s kingdom, which confused Nicodemus. So Jesus continued, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the spirit” (John 3:1-8).

Spiritual realities, such as love, matters of belief, and one’s relation to God, cannot be seen or tested by our physical senses. It is pointless to try. Yet love is no less real simply because it cannot be seen. For love can be felt and shown. Love can be manifested and experienced.

Our trust and faith in the Lord can be experienced, felt, demonstrated. The Lord invites us to obtain practical proof of his presence in our lives by recognizing our need for his sustaining presence and by turning to him for guidance and insight to help us follow his principles in our daily natural life in this physical world. Jesus invites us to know him: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be fa1thless, but believing.” Let our response be like that of Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

Prayer

I did not know you, my Lord, because I still desired to know and delight in things. Well and good if all things change, Lord God, provided we are rooted in you. If I go everywhere with you, my God, everywhere things will happen as I desire for your sake.

- St. John of the Cross, 1542-1591

Rev. F. Robert Tafel