Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. April 25, 2021 The Fourth Sunday of Easter Psalm 116 John 20: 24-29
To Set Our Hearts Upon
Two weeks ago, Rev. Rick preached “you don’t have to be a “believer,” any more than Jesus’ listeners could say for sure what and whether they believed.” All of the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus relate the surprise and disbelief of his disciples. Last Sunday, we heard about Jesus’ appearance to the disciples – minus Thomas. None of them asks Jesus to prove who he is, but Jesus recognizes their disbelief, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Today’s Gospel reading begins with these same disciples telling Thomas what they have seen. Thomas scoffs and insists he will not believe in the resurrection unless he put his hands into Jesus’ wounds. A week later, Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly this. The encounter with Jesus in the flesh causes Thomas to proclaim “My Lord and my God”.
Christian tradition chastises Thomas for his disbelief– “doubting Thomas” remains a turn of phrase two centuries later. But I am not sure this is fair. The eleven who met the resurrected Jesus first were unable to trust what they saw in front of their eyes. Jesus sees their disbelief so clearly that he voluntarily offers his hands and feet for the disciples’ inspection and then reinforces his corporality by asking for and eating the fish. Thomas only makes his doubt explicit – he asks for the same showing the eleven received, although he is clear he wants to touch the wounds; we often overlook that Thomas does NOT touch Jesus, he believes without touching. Yet Thomas remains the odd man out, the worst of the disbelievers. Jesus responds “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I suspect that most of us are like Thomas more than we would like to admit. We “believe” in Jesus’ resurrection, but . . . just what exactly does believing mean? We say “seeing is believing” and we accept it as proof that confirms truth. Since the Age of Reason, the English definition of “believe” is: “to be persuaded in the truth or existence of something with demonstrable facts that are ordered rationally.”
You do not need to be a non-stop consumer of information in our present culture to know that truth is up for grabs. Conspiracy theories abound, the principles of science are challenged – to “believe” something because it feels true for us seems to be the only criteria that matter. This not only affects our politics, it affects the Church as well – what must we “believe” to call ourselves followers of Jesus?
In his seminal work Stages of Faith, James Fowler begins his discussion of belief this way: “For the ancient Jew or Christian to have said ‘I believe there is a God’ or ‘I believe God exists’ would have been a strange circumlocution. The being or existence of God was taken for granted, and therefore, it was not an issue.” But 21st century Christians do not take the existence of God for granted. William Smith writes in Faith and Belief:“A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort:‘Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life so-and-so reports that the idea of God is a part of the furniture of his mind.”
The word “believe” is problematic for 21st century Christians – but the difficulty is not so much the act of believing, but the verb “believe” itself. “Believing” in our context demands certainty and it implies that we have rational, provable facts to support what we believe. We are constricted by the word “believe” because our language has no verb for “faith;” we cannot say “I faith,” This is not true for biblical Hebrew or Greek. In both, there is a verb form for “faith,” and the meaning of that verb translates as “to set one’s heart upon something or someone.” This holds true in the Latin translations of Scripture as well – “Credo - creed” means “to trust or rely on.”
Does it open up our understanding if we translate “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” to “Blessed are those who set their hearts upon me without seeing, and yet have come to rely on me.” This translation offers us the opportunity to expand our response to the Resurrection. Rather than focusing on whatever propositions we assert as belief, it invites us to ask “What do we set our hearts upon? In whom do we place our trust?”
The Easter season calls us to align our individual lives and our communal life with that upon which we set our hearts. Setting our hearts on Jesus is to proclaim that we will follow Jesus’ teaching and his example to love one another as God has loved us. To set our hearts upon Jesus leads us to work for justice and peace, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to heal the deep wounds in ourselves and in the structures of the society in which we live. Setting our hearts upon Jesus demands we build our lives on the hope that resurrection is true. We trust the promise that resurrection will transform us, our lives, and our world. We will be uncomfortable at times and go to places we never imagined. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it in her book, Hope in Disarray, “The Christian faith is different from what the world teaches. The Christian faith is not “seeing is believing,” but rather “believing is seeing.” We must open our eyes and hearts to see Jesus’ presence in our lives. We need to see him in the places we dare not to look and dare not to think about.”
The resurrection of Jesus is NOT a proposition we assert from logic; it is the revelation of our hearts’ longing for love, truth, healing, justice and abundant life, relying with confidence on Jesus who loves and forgives us. Resurrection gifts us the courage to imagine the world as Jesus would have it to be and the persistence to work for that vision in the face of all obstacles. When the weight of collective wrongs seems overwhelming and outcomes are not guaranteed, Resurrection calls us to hope and persevere.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who set their hearts upon me without seeing, and yet have come to rely on me.”Alleluia. Amen.