We’ve been talking these past few weeks, since Easter, about what it means to believe. There’s a reason we’ve been doing that, of course: following along behind Jesus and his disciples, we’ve lived through quite an unbelievable turn of events. And with resurrection hanging in the air, we all—at some point—have asked ourselves whether or not we can really believe.
We’d like to be able to be a bit formulaic in our understanding of what it means to believe—institutionalized religion has been working for centuries to articulate the parameters of belief. But the truth is that coming to believe is less cut and dried and more, well, messy. Not unlike human life itself! Each of us has the experience of coming to believe in different ways.
And the same was true for Jesus’ first disciples. For some, the foundations of their belief were formed through relationship. The ritual and liturgy of the faith community is how belief came for others. For some, faith was an intellectual exercise. Others came to believe through experience. And some needed proof. Tangible, gritty proof they could get their hands on.
There were so many different ways that even Jesus’ first disciples came to believe; it’s curious to me that we’d think it would be any different for us.
Today we’re talking about coming to believe by tangible proof. Guiding our exploration today is a passage from John, chapter 14, a beautiful passage that is often read at funerals. It’s part of a section of the gospel of John, chapters 14-17, known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” John chapters 14-17 are words of Jesus delivered after the Last Supper on the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Here Jesus tells the disciples again that he is leaving; he prays for them and blesses them; he tries to prepare them for what’s ahead.
And Thomas, perhaps the most well-known Jesus follower to first voice a need for tangible proof in order to believe, features prominently here in John 14. We’ll run into Thomas later, you’ll remember, in John chapter 20, Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in the upper room when Thomas wasn’t there. You’ll recall that Thomas didn’t believe the disciples’ report because he hadn’t been there and he was very clear that he’d need to see for himself, to touch Jesus’ wounds and to have a tangible experience, before he could believe. But even before that famous story, by which Thomas earned the nickname “Doubting…,” he’s here in John chapter 14, asking for concrete information.
As Jesus explains he’s going away, and that they will be reunited with him later, Thomas needs to know: where, exactly? When? Could I please have directions—written out—so I have everything I need in my hands, right there in front of me, proof?
As you may know, I am a big fan of the Myers-Briggs personality test. I’d bet that many of you have taken the test and know your personality types. By that test there are four categories by which your personality is ranked: Introvert/Extrovert; Intuitive/Sensing; Feeling/Thinking; Judging/Perceiving. (We may or may not have spent some significant time in our Wednesday Night Words small group last year debating what personality type Jesus was.)
As I considered these two stories about Thomas from John’s gospel, I got to thinking that Thomas must have been an ISTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality scale. That is: Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Judging. ISTJs are nicknamed, “Duty Fulfillers.” Here’s some description of this personality type: “As an ISTJ, your primary mode of living is focused internally, where you take things in via your five senses in a literal, concrete fashion. ISTJs are quiet and reserved individuals who are interested in facts …. [They] tend to believe in laws and traditions, and expect the same from others. ISTJs have tremendous respect for facts.”
I suspect Thomas was an introvert because of the fact that he wasn’t there in the upper room the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples as a group. I think he wasn’t there that day because he was worn out by all the events of that week, utterly exhausted by the grief, and the last thing he wanted to do was to be in a group of people hashing and rehashing everything that had happened, talking over and over about how they felt. Exhausting!
I expect Thomas needed some quiet, some time to internally process how he was feeling—maybe journal a bit—and regroup, gather his energy to go back into the group to process as a whole. (While I myself do not fully understand this approach, I know and love many of you who do!)
And Thomas’ other personality traits come out strongly in his need to understand, to tangibly know something, in order to make sense of it. Thomas needed that kind of tactile, incontrovertible experience in order to make a leap of faith, to believe.
And thank goodness for Thomas, for the courage he had to ask questions, to demand proof, because some of us need that kind of experience in order to believe, too. Part of that need may be our personalities, but in a way all of us need evidence…some kind of tangible proof if for no reason other than the vantage point by which we see the world.
You’ll remember that theologian and author Marcus Borg points out that until the 1600s “the English word believe meant: ‘to hold dear;’ ‘to prize,’ ‘to love;’ ‘to give one’s loyalty to;’ ‘to give one’s self to;’ ‘to commit one’s self.’” But with the start of the enlightenment the word “believe” began to take on a different meaning, to mean something more like: “to prove the veracity of.” To believe began to mean, “to establish scientific proof that something was real.”
As you know, that lens by which we see the world changes the questions we bring to our faith, especially during the season of Easter. In general, we hold out for ourselves a standard of belief that has very little to do with “giving our heart” to something or someone, and much more to do with establishing scientific proof before we’ll agree to anything. And because of what we all learned in junior high about the scientific method, on some level all of us would just like a little bit of…proof. It’s what we’ve come to understand as a critical piece of believing.
One only has to look at popular culture to see that that’s true.
Perhaps some of you have read the book or seen the movie, in theatres now, called, “Heaven is for Real.” The movie is based on a New York Times Bestselling book published in 2010, and it tells the story of four-year-old Colton Burpo, who undergoes an emergency appendectomy. As he recovers he begins to tell his parents about an experience he had in heaven, where “Nobody is old and nobody wears glasses.”
Struggling to understand what he’s telling them, Colton’s parents attribute the things he says to a lively four-year-old imagination. But as they listen harder they begin to hear him talking about things he did not know and could not have known prior to that experience. The story is largely about Colton’s parents, gathering proof as they listened to him talk, that heaven is for real. Skeptics abound, but Colton’s parents become convinced and come to believe because they have proof, tangible evidence that they cannot dismiss.
Some of us come to believe through tangible means. We need proof, actual evidence we can touch and feel and know in order to, as Marcus Borg says, “give our hearts” to something—to believe. Even pre-enlightenment, the first disciples did, too.
While he’s probably the most famous, Thomas is certainly not the only disciple who came to believe because of a tangible experience. In fact, you could say tangible proof was a large part of all of the first disciples’ journeys of faith…because they had the experience of the resurrected Jesus there, in person.
I like to talk about believing as jumping into the lake on a hot summer day. As you stand on the shore surveying the expanse of the lake, you want to go in—the cool water would feel great. But you’re not sure what’s in the lake. You can’t see through the murky water, so you don’t know what’s on the bottom—rocks? Mud? Nothing? And you don’t know what kind of animals are in the lake, or if there are boats passing by, or if the lake feeds into a river, or any of those things.
And, not knowing these things, some of us see the water and run straight in from the shore, no hesitation. Some of us need a bit of a construct, like a big rock on which we can walk out over the water and survey the situation before we jump in. And still others of us need a really, really long, elaborate pier, with a roof and hand rails, and a set of stairs at the end that we can climb down one by one, easing ourselves into the water with as much solid ground under our feet as we can muster.
Whatever it is we need to believe, we are not alone. Like Jesus followers from the very beginning, we all find different ways by which we come to have the experience of believing.
Some of us need hard, tangible proof. And when we do, we join thousands of years of Jesus followers who have asked for tangible experiences of a reality bigger than ourselves, and who got them: an unexpected gift when finances were desperate; the image of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich; a dream to reassure you in times of fear; a stranger who comes to your rescue; the voice of God ringing in your ears….
However we make our way on this Easter journey of believing, God will meet us there. This we declare for each other today, as we join Thomas, who upon putting his hands on Jesus wounded body, said with a clarity he couldn’t muster until that very moment, “My Lord and my God!”
In whatever way we come to believe, may we have the courage to do the same.