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"Believing without Seeing"
“Faith is a gift. But faith is also sought and gained by struggling with doubt. For the disciples or the people who want to follow Jesus today, faith is based on the venture of entrusting oneself.” Margot Kassmann was a national Lutheran bishop in Germany.
“Believing without Seeing” by Margot Kassmann, December 2003
[This sermon by the national Lutheran bishop Margot Kassmann is translated from the German in: Evangelische Zeitung Online on the World Wide Web,
May God teach us to hear his word and preserve it in our hearts. Amen.
What a beautiful time together! Community and feast times strengthen our faith for everyday life.
Everyday faith is certainly not simple today! A rabbi who journeyed through Palestine, preached impressively, healed people but still was executed as a seducer of the people. Was the one who died, resurrected and overcame death God’s Son? Can that have a meaning for me 2000 years later? How hard it is to believe! Some say they don’t need this faith as enlightened persons of the postmodern. Others make fun of backwoods Christians” You in the church, do you really need that? Still others attack sharply: the church has too many privileges in the state. And what about us in the church? We withdraw all too often, wounded, despondent, reproachful and not attractive. We must speak of faith today to critically accompany and form the future of the world. This future must be built on faith and reason. We urgently need both.
The Johannine community had to struggle with the phenomenon of unbelief almost 2000 years ago. The story of unbelieving Thomas is a good example. In the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, we read:
(24) Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.
(25) So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
(26) Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you”.
(27) Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing.”
(28) Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God.”
(29) Jesus said to him “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Thomas overcame doubt and found faith. How is faith possible? Perhaps we can best approach John’s answers by considering the protagonists of the narrative more closely.
Thomas belonged to the close circle of the disciples. He was not present when Jesus appeared to the disciples and sent them into discipleship, authorizing them to forgive and retain sins. Self-confidently they declared: We have seen the Lord. Thomas must have felt excluded. You were not there when the most important event occurred. You did not experience like… Thomas doubted or as we say pretended to be a scientist. I do not believe what I have not seen and experienced myself. He wanted more than to see; he wanted to probe and grasp, to put his hand in the open wound. Thomas could not forget the suffering. He saw it himself. Jesus really suffered and died on the cross. What was central to the evangelist John was that the resurrected was the earthly. Christ was none other than Jesus himself. This is centrally important for discipleship.
As Thomas could not simply accept the faith of others, he also could not gain his certainty himself. For eight days, he had to wait until Sunday the first day of the week. This time he did not miss the chance of understanding the meaning of his life… Remember Thomas could have just gone shopping…
What then convinced him? His answer to the appearance of the Resurrected was “My Lord and my God”. There are moments in life when immediate trust or presented faith happens. Anxiety tightens my neck and suddenly I find words to pray. A child is born and I can be thankful because I see. That is a miracle, more than I understand. None of us can create, achieve or attain such a faith. However such faith needs open hearts and open doors, attention for God. Thomas waited and hoped for this encounter. He stayed in the community and did not leave with his first doubt and his first disappointment. His questions of faith were existentially important to him. His own wrestling which could not be diverted by what is sometimes annoying in the church was also part of faith.
Thus faith is a gift. But faith is also sought and gained by struggling with doubt. For the disciples or the people who want to follow Jesus today, faith is based on the venture of entrusting oneself.
Thomas was not the only one who doubted. The others also first started moving when they had seen themselves. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Our story deals very critically with all the described wounds and appearances. God’s word visible in Jesus is in the center as at the beginning of the gospel: In the beginning was the word. We emphasize this in the Lutheran tradition. Faith is the starting point for the renewal of the church. We must retell the experiences and stories of faith in our time and turn again to the Bible. Too often we speak about every possible subject but not these texts. As a woman from the Pacific said, I don’t know what problems you Germans have with faith. Even the dullest person in my village understands the stories that Jesus told of the mustard seed, the leaven and the sower.
Christian faith is not suspended somewhere in the air but refers to the Bible as the foundation and critical counterpart of one’s faith experience. The faith of the church still rests on the faith experience of the first witnesses. However these are not proofs that make faith superfluous. We encounter the Resurrected today in word and sacrament, in meditation, prayer and other persons. That must be proclaimed in our time and language. We can bear witness to our children, our fellow-persons and the world.
In this hearing and narrating, Jesus calls men and women to discipleship. All the baptized are authorized persons according to our evangelical understanding, not only pastors and bishops. Each and every one can testify from his or her own faith. Priestly existence to one another is turning to one another. According to John, Mary Magdalene was the first. She directly received the commission to go and report to the brethren. She was the first who said: I have seen the Lord. Thus she was an apostle. If John later only spoke of the male apostles, that reflects the fact that full power and authorized persons in the early church are reflected in our text. Women were the first recognized as witnesses of the resurrection. However envisioning women as leading the church would have demanded too much in 100 or 300 A.D.
What is central is hearing and speaking the word of God. The word became flesh and did not remain abstract, intellectual and top-heavy. Dear protestants, let us relearn the material reality of the word with celebrating and dancing, laughing and crying, mourning and praising, meditating and singing!
Faith must stand on its biblical foundation and be attested and made alive in word and praise.
Finally Jesus comes with the greeting of peace. Jesus appears through closed doors and exclaims “Peace be with you”. This is his leitmotif that he repeats again and again. What does it mean that peace is actually promised us? God knows we are unpeaceful, each and every one of us! Malice is poured out when someone breaks down or rails at another or when a government struggles around the right way. Fear of all foreigners and exclusion of others persist. Hatred can be sown quickly and easily on all this discord. We all have seen that phenomenon in the last months in Kosovo and beyond Kosovo, in Ruanda and Burundi, in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in China and Taiwan, in Indonesia, east Timor and northern Ireland. We make no boasts about our own land. God knows this world is full of discord. Can we, dear community, promise peace in a world torn apart by discord in little things and great things? That we as Christians existing in many countries and cultures can promise peace to one another and contribute to local peace and the peace of the world is always my great hope.
Peace be with you! The peace greeting creates community. Dear assembled, we are a kind of crowd thrown together today, here inside the church and outside on the plaza, people from the Hannover church circle and invited guests, members of the family of archbishop Hirschler and my family, foreigners and friends. Let us become a community here today through God’s spirit. So I ask you, look at your neighbor and say: Peace be with you. Whether a television broadcast intrudes or not, we should take these few moments.
Jesus does not say: Thomas, I am disappointed with you. You should have believed right off! Then the beatitude of those who do not see but believe would be a true preaching of the law. No, Jesus has an incredible patience with unbelief and doubt, far greater than his church. He lovingly approaches Thomas. Jesus in his lifetime went to people, to the woman at the well, the tax collector. Following Jesus means for me today turning to people in their fears and distresses. This is part of the greeting of peace: openness, attention, tolerating, seeing, tenderness, understanding for others up to love of the enemy.
How does faith arise? Not through seeing! In the last week, I have had some talk show experience. What would happen, it occurred to me, if we could see the Resurrected there? He would be the new sensation… If he showed his wounds, what an event that would be! And how quickly the fame would fade and this sensation be replaced by others! Faith does not arise through proofs! Faith only occurs through a trustful relation, a relation with one whom I can say my Lord and my God, my mother, my brother and my friend.
Thomas was convinced that Jesus would show him his wounds and injuries. Touching wounds and sharing pain is a very sensitive and intimate process. I only show my wounds and my vulnerability to a person whom I deeply trust. Then the protective layer is taken away. (Jesus appears to Thomas in the vulnerability of life. He overcomes the basic human experience of reserve and creates an encounter that opens up trust. Doubt is removed since touching the painful becomes possible.) In this contact, Thomas wants to feel something of the shock of a very different life, something that goes beyond our time and world. Whoever relies on God knows that what we see is only patchwork.
The Evangelist John shows us three approaches to faith. Faith is presented but also is gained through struggle. Faith is constantly grounded on God’s word. This is possible because Jesus Christ promises us peace. What follows from that promise for faith today? For the Christian community, beholding and listening are vital. The school anxieties of the little girl and the loneliness of the old man, the overstrain of the single mother and the pride of the successful entrepreneur, the joy in the ascent of the businessman and the election victory of the politician are realities. My hope is that the church is the place where they hall know themselves welcome with their anxiety and care and also with their joy and success, where they find the community of trust which is often lost in our time.
Seeing and listening do not only boost people’s ego or confidence. In the last weeks, I was admonished not to lose sight of sin, guilt and offense. The one whom we follow confirms and encourages people in the middle of their little petty conditions. Still people feel their forlornness, loneliness and meaninglessness in all their satiety as soon as they turn off the diversions from life. The church has to help people up and not keep them small. We need people with dignity, backbone and powers of resistance. Is the church the place where people first know themselves accepted and develop the freedom to speak of their own failure? A protective space arises in which my mourning and tears are not embarrassing to me. Injuries and open wounds can become visible. We are transposed into the position of confessing. Where faith is, there is also doubt and temptation as well as joy, will to live and courage to face life.
(The Resurrected is known in that he opens uncommunicativeness by showing his injuries and making possible faith and trust. Jesus is approachable, attentive and merciful in the best sense of this old-fashioned word for those who follow him, Christians and the church. We can give up our fears of physical contact! Christians have a treasure and a great inner freedom through their faith. We can joyfully radiate this outwards and invite people to wrestle for faith. We can be attentive for the situation of people and the world, inviting and capable of dialogue. We can put our hands in the open wounds. Prophetic testimony is one of our challenges. Let us be the church with others, with those who seek and doubt. Whoever struggles resolutely is ultimately in the truth.)
In the commission of his messengers, continue what Jesus lived himself. On the foundations of the biblical tradition, we are strong in faith and joyful in hope in the midst of our time and world. We can walk through closed doors and say: Peace be with you. Faith as I learned from Heinz Zahmt is the wholehearted trust in God as the answer to the fear of the world.
May God help us today and tomorrow to such faith.
May the peace of God that is higher than all our human reason keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
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