Must You See To Believe?


I am at Sugar Loaf (NY) United Methodist Church this morning. The Scriptures are Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 20: 19 -31. Services are at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

This has been edited since it was first posted.  I will be at Monroe UMC (Monroe, NY) on May 12th; services are at 8:30 am and 10:15 am and you are welcome to attend.  I will also be at Sugar Loaf again on May 5th.

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I began working on this message back on March 13th, the day that just happens to be the anniversary of William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781.

Now, to be sure, Herschel wasn’t the first person to observe this planet in its journey across the evening sky. In fact, its presence had been recorded as early as 1690 but it was considered more of a star than a planet because it moved slower and was far dimmer than the planets known at that time.

It speaks of our own natural skepticism that those who first saw Uranus as it traveled across the sky were unwilling to characterize it as a planet. Even Herschel thought, despite the lack of evidence to support his thought, that what he had discovered was a comet rather than a planet. But as others looked at what Herschel described and gathered their own data, it became apparent that what was being observed was, in fact, a planet and not some other stellar object.

Science is very much an observational experience and others must be able to replicate what has been observed. The validity of one’s observations is predicated on the ability of others to see, for the most part, the same results that you have reported.

We are reminded of this by the announced discovery of cold fusion in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fusion, in chemistry and physics, is the combination of atomic nuclei to form a new nuclide. The fusion of hydrogen atoms to form helium atoms is the reaction that gives our sun and all the stars their source of energy. If we could develop reactors here on earth that could replicate what takes place on the sun, then we would have a relatively safe and relatively unlimited energy source. But such replication requires that we create on earth a mini-star with its accompanying high temperature and pressure. There are those who feel this is a possibility that will be accomplished within the next few years.

But what if we could some how force hydrogen atoms to fuse together and form helium atoms at room temperature and pressure? We would be saved the expense that comes with high temperatures and pressures and have an easily developed power source that ran on our tap water.

And this was what was announced in 1989 – the discovery of cold fusion, the combination of hydrogen atoms to form helium atoms at room temperature and pressure. Unfortunately, the discoverers of this process were more interested in gaining the fortune that would come with the discovery and they rushed their announcement. As others attempted to replicate their discovery, flaws in the process were discovered and ultimately the discovery was discounted.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the theory behind “cold” fusion; in fact, it was first proposed in the mid 1930s. But because others could not replicate what was first proposed in 1989, very few people are willing to pursue such research today.

The failure of others to replicate what was first reported is a natural extension of Thomas’ thoughts to his friends that night in the closed room some two thousand years ago, “if I don’t see it, how can I be sure that it happened?”

It is only natural that Thomas would ask for proof. It is in our nature to do so. Now, we also read in today’s Gospel reading that Jesus told Thomas that others would believe though they would not see the evidence that Thomas wished to see.

My question this morning is how those who did not see will come to believe. John gave part of the answer when he wrote that the stories were written down so that others will believe.

In Hebrews 11: 1 we read, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Clarence Jordan translated this in his Cotton Patch Gospels as “Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds; it is betting your life on the unseen realities.

We are here today because something brought us here. Perhaps we have come because we have questions about our faith that could only be answered by things seen and unseen, in this time and place. But these are difficult times in which to question faith or even to begin asking questions about God, Christ, Christianity or religion in general.

And the answers that we often get don’t help our seeking.

We see a world of hatred and violence, death and destruction, and we want to know where God is in this world.

We see the church today, both in general and in denominational and local terms, as a dying church and if it is not dying it seems to be one that is no viable in today’s society. Somewhere along the line, the church that began as a movement and gathering has lost its direction, its ability to show others what it is that they first saw. The skeptics in today’s society see the church and they do not like what they see; they see a church that is closed and inflexible, unable to meet the needs of the world in which it lies.

And there are those who would say that the answer lies in a strict adherence to a set of rules and regulations that are to be accepted without question or hesitation. What we need today is a society grounded in some sort of Judeo-Christian law such as was first expressed in the Old Testament. And those who offer such solutions tell us that they and they alone understand what it is that God wants and that we are not to question our faith or their authority. To do so is to destroy one’s faith.

But it is the challenge that allows our faith to grow; it is the challenge that gives us the ability to help others come to know and understand. It was Jesus’ own challenge to the rigidity and inflexibility of the religious authorities that was the central focus of His mission. It was Jesus’ challenge to the power of the religious authorities to dictate to the people what they were supposed to believe that gave rise to our presence here today. And it was how Jesus taught the people and showed the people what was possible that gave them hope that tomorrow would be better.

But this is not possible in a church today that is more of a social club than a place to know and meet Jesus.

In Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar”, Cassius tells his friend Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The cartoonist Walt Kelley had his cartoon hero Pogo expressed it this way, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Most people, if you were to ask them, would probably say that Jesus Christ is very much the image described in Revelations, a man cloaked in the whitest of white robes and bathed in the brightest of bright lights.

But we are also reminded that Jesus Himself told us that

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I am afraid that many people have encountered Jesus sometime during the journey but they did not know it.

Laurie Beth Jones, in the prologue to her third book, Jesus in Blue Jeans, described her encounter with Jesus as follows,

Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that it was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans.” (from “A Chance Encounter”; I first mentioned Laurie Beth Jones’ encounter with Jesus Christ in a message I gave at Tompkins Corners back in 2003 (“And When You Least Expect It”) but I didn’t really explain what happened to her; I would do that in “A New Vision” (which is also a companion piece to what I said last Thursday – “To Offer a New Vision” ) and “By the Side of the Road”.)

We are more apt, as Laurie Beth did, to meet Him in a casual encounter during the day; in fact, we are probably not even going to know that it was Him until later. The prayer that guides us when we are in “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen” includes a statement that one of those who come to be fed each Saturday might well be Jesus.

And if they did not know they had encountered Jesus, it is highly unlikely that they can help others see Jesus. If our own lives mirror the society that rejected Jesus two thousand years ago, how will those who society has rejected today see Him today?

During this past week, I heard something that reminded me of a Yardbirds song from the early 1960s. For those who remember such things, this was the rock and roll band that Eric Clapton was first a member. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page also played for this group. The particular song that I was reminded of was a post-Clapton song, “You’re A Better Man Than I.”

You’re A Better Man Than I (B. Hugg / M. Hugg)

Can you judge a man,
By the way he wears his hair?
Can you read his mind,
By the clothes that he wears?
Can you see a bad man,
By the pattern on his tie?

Well then, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Oh, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I.

Could you tell a wise man,
By the way he speaks or spells?
Is this more important,
Than the stories that he tells?
And call a man a fool,
If for wealth he doesn’t strive?

Well then, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Oh, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I.

Can you condemn a man,
If your faith he doesn’t hold?
Say the colour of his skin,
Is the colour of his soul?
Could you say that men,
For king and country all must die?

Well, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Oh, Mr, you’re a better man than I,
Yeah, Mr, you’re a better man than I.

What exactly was it that got Peter and the other disciples in trouble with the authorities two thousand years ago? Was it that the just preached that the authorities hanged Jesus from a tree? Or did they, the disciples, do the same things that Jesus did, the same things that John as well as Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote about – heal the sick, feed the hungry, found clothes for the poor, and give comfort to the oppressed?

Was it that they disciples continued what Jesus began? Were the things that got John Wesley in trouble with the authorities the same things that Peter and the disciples did, heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give comfort to the oppressed and give those forgotten by society knowledge that they are part of society and not simply on the edge?

We are challenged today to see the world in the same way that Jesus saw the world; as those who have come before us have seen the world. But to see the world with these new eyes, we need to understand and believe that which cannot necessarily be seen, our faith in Jesus. It is very easy to do the things that others have done – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and bring comfort to the oppressed – but if we do it solely as a cognitive exercise, we have done little for ourselves.

We may feel good about what we have done but we really haven’t shown Jesus to others. If we have not experienced Jesus, then all of our works are done with our mind and not our heart.

I began this message by talking about the discovery of Uranus. Many had seen the planet before it was “discovered” but it was only when the proof was confirmed that everyone understood that they were seeing something new.

Must you see to believe? It is an interesting question because to believe, to have faith is to trust in the unseen. But you trust in the unseen, the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit, because others have and you have seen the change in their lives. Jesus told Thomas that others would believe even though they had not seen but Thomas went out into the world and told them what he had seen and that is why they believed.

Will others see Jesus in you and what you do every day because Jesus is in your heart and soul? Will what you do each day to help others be because you have encountered Jesus, not in some whiter than white robe, bathed in the brightest of bright lights but rather as someone walking along the street dressed in blue jeans or a business suit?

When we proclaim to the world that we have decided to follow Jesus, we proclaim that we have opened not only our mind but our heart and our soul. Is that what others see when they encounter you? There is an opportunity today to open your hearts to Jesus, to say to Him that you want to walk with Him, no matter where that walk takes you. You make that decision on faith and on faith alone. But others will see where you are going and they will see Jesus and they will come to you.

It may be that you have accepted Christ into your heart but have been looking for ways that in which you can show the world that you have encountered Jesus. Today is the day to open your heart to the power of the Holy Spirit to lead you to that solution.

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