by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Perhaps you would like evidence of God’s existence, of Jesus’ resurrection, of Christianity being true.
That would be lovely. Especially for me. People seeking a spiritual path would come to me, and I would be able to share with them something akin to scientific evidence proving God’s existence, Jesus’ resurrection, and the certainty of our creeds and confessions. As with scientific evidence, there might be some reticence to accept what’s true, but eventually, people would succumb. Instead of endless questions without definite answers, instead of generations of religious conflict due to many different groups’ certainty, there would just be clarity. Unfortunately, no proof of God’s existence or Jesus’ resurrection as defined by the scientific method exists, a topic that often comes up on the Sunday we read about poor Thomas, known nearly universally as “Doubting Thomas.”
In the gospel of John, on Easter day, Mary meets Jesus in the garden and then runs to tell the disciples: I have seen the Lord! Later, Jesus enters the locked room where the disciples are gathered, minus Thomas, and they tell Thomas after: We have seen the Lord! Finally, when Thomas sees Jesus, he exclaims: My Lord and my God! Mary, the disciples, and even Thomas receive something akin to scientific proof of Jesus’ resurrection: Jesus standing in their presence in the flesh. And then Jesus says: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Us. Me and you and all those gathered in worship across the world this morning. We have not seen Jesus resurrected in the flesh yet have come to believe.
The gospel of John was written around 100 of the common era, a full 70 years after Jesus’ resurrection. 70 years after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus’ early believers had moved past the point of anticipating Jesus’ return at any moment. For the first 50 or 60 years, Christians expected Christ’s imminent return, but it hadn’t happened. Plus, the Roman Empire continued to persecute them—and would continue for the next two hundred years. Frankly, Christianity was a disappointment. In this context, the gospel of John was written, and it’s pretty clear in today’s passage why it was written: “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Because John includes very few of the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the writer or writers of John clearly did not have Matthew, Mark, or Luke in front of them as they wrote John. Instead, the gospel of John reflects its own teachings about Jesus, the stories the people of John’s community told about the one they followed, the stories John shared with them about Jesus. New Testament scholars believe that a Christian community originally founded by the disciple John likely wrote the gospel of John, not John himself. Of course, by 100 of the common era, John, the disciple of Jesus, was surely dead. The Christians of this community wrote this gospel at a time when their community needed encouragement, when Jesus had not yet come back, when Christians were being persecuted. They wrote “so that you, reader, may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The ones who wrote the gospel of John were among those who had not seen and yet had come to believe 70 years after Jesus’ resurrection. They did not expect that readers of their gospel would suddenly believe, that people would immediately make a decision to follow Jesus. Rather, they hoped that, over time, the people who read their gospel who were discouraged and persecuted would come to believe—even though they hadn’t seen Jesus in the flesh.
Personally, not seeing Jesus in the flesh has never been a big problem for me. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve encountered many a stumbling block in my faith. As I de-mystified some of the mystery of our religion by studying it in college and seminary, I learned how scripture was written and chosen for our canon, how creeds and confessions developed, how and who determined orthodoxy and heresy. I learned the ugliness of patriarchy and corrupt power and an institution that silenced dissonant voices. Just like any other part of our life, we get squeamish when seeing how the sausage gets made, me included. But not seeing Jesus in the flesh, not a problem.
And it’s not a problem because, though what I see is not proof as defined by the scientific method, what I see is the body of Christ standing before me. What I see is not the literal, physical body of a first century Jewish man named Jesus. What I see is the body of Christ raised up for the world. Not just every week here at church but raised up in the world as people of faith love and forgive, work for justice and show grace, care about people, especially vulnerable people, and show up for their community. The body of Christ raised up for the world includes not only those I know and love, of course, but generations of Jesus followers who heard the same stories and were inspired to build churches and schools, hospitals and nursing homes, social services agencies and a host of other institutions that bring health and wholeness to our world. For two thousand years, the body of Christ raised up for the world has put their hands to work and opened their hearts to the call of God. I don’t need to see Jesus standing before me with his nail-pierced hands and spear-pierced side. I can see the body of Christ raised up for the world.