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Seeing Is Not Believing
April 7, 2002
by Tony Grant
Sometimes, seeing is believing. Police in Fort Smith, Arkansas, were pretty sure they had the man they were looking for in the robbery of a convenience store: James Newsome, age 37. They had Newsome on the store's surveillance videotape. Plus, the coat worn by the robber was found in Newsome's car. Newsome's wife said the family car had a radiator leak, and a puddle of antifreeze was found where the robber had parked. Also, the robber wore a hard hat with "James Newsome" written on the front. [Chuck Shepherd, "No doubt about it," The Washington Post, January 24, 2001, C15. ] Yes, I think the Fort Smith police can be pretty sure that they have got their man, but often seeing is not believing.
Let me tell you about Jerry. After 36 years of blindness, Jerry can see again. Thanks to an "eye opening"--forgive me for that pun--technology, a 63-year-old man who went blind in the 1960s can once again view the world around him. The patient, identified only as "Jerry," is one of the first people to receive an experimental seeing device that restores sight by artificially stimulating the brain. Jerry had to see it to believe it. Or, more accurately, he had to be able to see with it to believe it. He is a doubter no more.
Dr. William Dobelle created the innovative device after 30 years of research in vision correction for the blind. The invention includes a mini-camera connected to a pair of sunglasses and a dictionary-size computer that a patient carries on a belt pack.
Getting the device to work was no easy task. First, Jerry had to undergo brain surgery. Surgeons implanted a small piece of platinum foil between Jerry's brain and the dura, the membrane that surrounds the brain. The foil is covered with electrodes--tiny metal pieces that conduct electric pulses which connect directly to brain cells that control sight. The electrodes are attached to a wire that protrudes from Jerry's skull through a small hole and hooks up to his computer.
For Jerry to see an image, the camera on his sunglasses first snaps a picture. This image shoots through a wire to his portable computer, which translates the data into a series of electrical pulses. The pulses then race through the wire connected to Jerry's brain. Finally, the electrodes stimulate his brain cells into thinking they are seeing. "Each electrode produces dots of light in the patient's visual field, like stars in the sky," says Dr. Dobelle. "It makes the world look like a photo negative."
The view that Jerry now enjoys may not be perfect, but it has made him a believer. Emerging from a world of darkness, he is suddenly seeing dots of light in his visual field and a photo negative view of the world that is infinitely more than his eyes experienced before. Like the disciple Thomas in today's lesson from John, a man who has been blinded by grief and doubt, what Jerry is able to see makes all the difference in the world.
In our text today, Jesus has already appeared to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. Now he appears to his disciples. The gang was all there in v19 (except for Judas and Thomas), meeting in a house behind locked doors, cowering in "fear of the Jews." They had heard the report from Mary Magdalene and the other women that Jesus was alive, but they had dismissed it as the vivid imagination of some hysterical women. They were afraid that the authorities would accuse them of pillaging the tomb and making off with the body of Jesus. Though the doors being were "shut", Jesus appears to them, which would seem to indicate that his resurrection body was not like an ordinary body; nevertheless, we see in Jesus later conversation with Thomas that a resurrection body was a touchable body.
They must have been a disheartened and fearful lot as they met in the evening on that first Easter. Their mood changed, however, when Jesus appeared among them. According to v20, "He showed them his hands and his side." It is then that the disciples believed. Jesus then lays the apostolic mantle on the ten of them, saying, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (v. 21). In a foreshadowing of the day of Pentecost, he then "breathed on them" and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit" and gave them the authority to forgive sins or not to forgive sins (v. 23).
Missing out on all of this excitement is Thomas. His name is a transliteration of a word from Hebrew and Aramaic that means "Twin." His Greek nickname, Didymus, also means twin. However, we do not know anything about his twin.
Thomas is a doubter, the doubter--the doubter's patron saint. His name is forever conjoined with that epithet: Doubting Thomas. But, it is hard to find fault with either Jerry, the man with the photo-negative vision, or Thomas. After all, in most of our daily activities, we live by the adage, "Seeing is believing." If someone says that they want to offer you a classic car with low mileage and a perfect finish, you want to take a look before you fork over any money. If a friend offers to arrange a blind date for you and you ask how the girl looks, you are not encouraged if he says, "she is nice, she has a nice personality." You might want to have a look before committing to the date.
Seeing is believing, we say.
When you think about it, the disciple Thomas is more like most of us than he is like the blind man Jerry. We must give Jerry credit. He took a leap of faith that involved brain surgery and the installation of experimental technology. He had not much assurance beforehand that it would all work to give him some sort of vision. For Jerry the believing came before the seeing. For Thomas, and in so many cases for us, believing does not happen without seeing.
When news reached Thomas of the clandestine appearance of Jesus to the others, Thomas was not impressed. As a man not given to hysterical devotion to lost causes, Thomas insisted on reserving judgment until he could put his "finger in the mark of the nails" (v. 25). Clearly, when Thomas made that statement, he did not believe that such an opportunity to examine the revivified, corporeal body of Jesus would ever occur.
Thomas thinks he's a Medical .Examiner on a TV show like "Crossing Jordan" or "CSI." He wants visible proof. He wants to see physical evidence that the crucified Christ has become the Risen Lord. He wants to see the blood, the nail prints in the hands, the gash in the side. Forensic evidence is crucial, so he thinks.
A week later, however, when the disciples were again gathered behind closed doors in the same house, Jesus again appeared to them. The meeting seems specifically convened to address Thomas' skepticism. After greeting them, Jesus invites the critic to put his "finger here and see my hands" (v. 27). Thomas, without doing so, responds, "My Lord and my God!" (v. 28). Apparently, forensic evidence was crucial after all.
This single sentence, seen by many scholars as the climax of the gospel of John, contains one of the earliest Christian confessions of faith: Jesus Christ is my Lord and my God!
The Ninth Beatitude
But the scene doesn't end here with swelling music and closing credits. Jesus isn't finished with Thomas yet. He says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (v. 29). Jesus wants Thomas and the other disciples to know that believing doesn't depend on seeing. Jesus' reply to Thomas is called sometimes the ninth beatitudean addition to the beatitudes given in the Sermon on the Mount. The only other reference to the "blessed" condition of those who believe is recorded by Luke when Elizabeth says to Mary: "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord" (Luke 1:45). Mary was blessed because she believed. In John 20, Jesus indicates that we also are blessed by belief.
Jesus' words are sometimes perceived as a specific admonition to Thomas: "Have you believed because you have seen me, Thomas? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (v. 29). Yet, these comments were directed not only to Thomas but to all of the disciples who had acted just like their doubting friend. Not one of them had believed in the absence of evidence either.
Believing is not seeing, and seeing is not believing.
In v31, the writer of John's gospel tells us that he has written his book 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" (v. 31). Jesus is challenging us to make a leap of faith--to leap without looking. John is encouraging us to believe in Jesus based on what we hear in his gospel--not on the forensic or empirical evidence.
Are we ready to see? Are we ready to believe?
Most of us say, I believe but I would like some evidence if possible. We would like to see a few dots of light in a visual field, like stars in the sky. In times of stress, we would settle for just one electrical impulse that reminds us of the presence of God.
When we're faced with a debilitating illness
When we struggle with family problems
When we're burdened with the sheer boredom of life
When our spiritual well has run dry
Yes, we would like to see something of God, anything of God.
It is in those times that we especially need to remember what Jesus said to Thomas, what Jesus said to us. There is a blessedness, there is a power in belief. Be like Thomas then, not as he was in his doubt, but as he was at the end of the passage. Let Thomass confession be your confession. Jesus Christ is my lord and my God. Amen.
Weinstock, Maia. "Seeing is believing," Scholastic Magazine, March 6, 2000.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 5/6/02