Not by Sight
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Well, that didn’t take long. One week out from Easter, and already we’re back to doubt. The questions that were temporarily drowned out by the trumpets and timpani, by the beauty of the lilies, have risen to the surface once more. It’s as if our questions aren’t meant to be drowned out forever, that our doubts might actually be part of a living, breathing, embodied faith.
In our first reading from Acts, we’re just fifty days out from Easter – less than two months from the empty tomb, and already the case for resurrection has to be made again. Here we have Peter using every tool he can find to argue for the possibility of a risen Christ. You see, the crowd he’s addressing on the street on Pentecost didn’t get all those strange Jesus sightings spoken of by the inner core in those early days – the oddly formal greetings at the tomb, the breaking of the bread at Emmaus, the breaking of Jesus into locked rooms to show his friends his wounds. It begs the question - where do we go for faith in new life after death when we don’t have all those sightings to rely on?
Peter, for his part, starts out by reminding his fellow Israelites of what they actually had seen – the deeds of power, the signs and wonders, the healings and miracles they saw Jesus perform when he was still walking and talking among them. They might not be able to see them now, but they can still remember, can’t they? But then he catches himself mid-stream making a less than airtight case and switches tactics. I mean, how convincing could all those signs have been if the people ended up calling for Jesus’ death anyway? Seeing alone doesn’t seem to be enough to engender a lasting faith.
So where does Peter turn next? He – or rather Luke, the author of Acts and Peter’s inadvertent speechwriter, feels around in his rhetorical toolbox and pulls out Scripture this time. In this case, it’s a portion of Psalm 16 – the psalm we just read together/heard sung in its entirety. You may have noticed some differences between what we just read/heard and what Peter ends up quoting. It’s not just creative license that accounts for the difference. I’m going to head into the tall grass for a bit, but sometimes translation differences do matter. Our psalm is essentially a translation from the Hebrew, something Luke didn’t have access to when he wrote Acts. For Luke, the only Scripture he knew was a Greek translation called the Septuagint. And already, some of the subtleties of the more earthy Hebrew had been lost in translation to the more polite, abstracted Greek.
But even without translation difficulties, Psalm 16 posed a real problem for its earliest interpreters. For centuries, people had to wonder what in God’s name the psalmist was talking about: “For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit.” Back in those days, avoiding the Pit – or Sheol – wasn’t an option. It was the realm of the dead, where everyone went when they died. It wasn’t a punishment; back then, there was no sense of an eternal reward for good behavior or for theological correctness. You didn’t get upgraded for being right or downgraded for being wrong. All the divine rewards and punishments were realized in this life, or so all the religious experts of his time told him. So what exactly did the psalmist know that others didn’t, and more to the point, how could he have known it?
Fortunately for our psalmist, he had more than just his eyes to rely on. He knew things in his body, even if they weren’t fully accessible yet to his rational mind. He says, for example, that “my heart teaches me night after night” – or to read the Hebrew literally, “my kidneys teach me.” Kidneys? You heard me right. You see, the ancient Hebrews located their unseen faculties, things like their conscience and intelligence and will, in various body parts. They had to live somewhere, right? The kidneys, for instance, were the seat of one’s conscience. We don’t know how they made these associations, but some of them at least make sense. Those late night, early morning trips to the bathroom – who knows? They might be keeping you up for a reason. Maybe they are occasions for conscience to call. It’s possible.
Likewise, compassion was found not in the heart, where we might locate it these days, but in the bowels. Yes, that’s right – the bowels. So when the King James Version talks about people’s bowels being moved, they’re not being graphic or naughty, unfortunately; they’re translating literally. And as for the heart, it wasn’t the seat of our emotions or affections back then; it wasn’t the realm of sentimentality or of Valentine’s Day. No, the heart was where arguments were weighed and decisions were made. Our intellect, our reasoning, our wills – these could be found not in the brain (where we might put them now), but in the heart. And it’s this part of himself – including his rational mind - that the psalmist says is made “glad” by the presence of God.
Part of the reason it’s so difficult translating from Hebrew to Greek, or to English for that matter, is because of how the ancient Hebrews understood human life. They didn’t divide us into a mortal body and an immortal soul, as the Greeks did and as we still tend to do – judging by your average funeral consolation. To be alive for the Hebrews was to be one thing – body, mind and spirit combined, indivisible. That’s part of what made death so final for them, Sheol or the Pit so incomprehensible. How could we relate to God outside of our bodies, they wondered? Why would God bother being somewhere where true relationship with us was impossible?
The psalmist here is stretching beyond what he can see; he’s trusting in what his whole being is telling him – that there is absolutely no point where God abandons us for good. We’ll still die, of course; but we are always in God’s presence, whether we feel it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. Or as another psalm puts it, “if I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there…I come to the end – I am still with you.” It’s that realization – that knowledge in his bones, beyond any need for proof - that brings the psalmist not just feelings of happiness, but lasting joy.
I wonder if that’s what Thomas finds by the end of today’s Gospel reading. For him too, it’s just a week or so from Easter. He’s remembered primarily for his doubt, but I’m not sure he gets a fair shake in the press. He wasn’t the only one struggling with a risen Christ, not by a long shot. He was just more direct about what he needed.
For whatever reason, he wasn’t with the rest of the disciples Easter night when they first saw what they saw. We’re not told why. Maybe he wanted to be alone. Or maybe he just wasn’t as paralyzed by fear as his colleagues. Maybe he didn’t need to stay behind locked doors shaking in his boots; the government, the religious leaders had already done their worst. Jesus was dead. If they rounded him up too, so what? He wasn’t afraid to die for the sake of following Jesus. Back when Jesus was contemplating a return to Judea after Lazarus’ death, it was Thomas who convinced the others to go too. He said, “let us also go, that we may die with him.” It wasn’t death he feared or doubted; it was resurrection.
Jesus in the Gospels has a way of meeting people in precisely the way they need. Mary knew him by his voice, others by the breaking of bread. Thomas, for his part, needed more than eyewitness testimony. He needed more even than what his own eyes could see. He needed to know with his hands, with his body that death hadn’t separated him from the love of God. So Jesus comes to him and invites him to touch the wounds that are still there. It’s interesting that we’re never told if Thomas actually reaches out and does so. The invitation alone is enough to make him say “My Lord and my God.” Knowing that he’s in Christ’s presence opens him up again to all his different ways of knowing – his body, his mind, through contemplation; he can hear Jesus’ words now not as reproach but as experientially true, knowing now that seeing alone is overrated. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
So where does that leave us? If the people around Jesus questioned what they’d seen less than two months after that first Easter, if doubt was present after just a week, what about us who are over 2000 years removed? The good news today is that seeing isn’t our only way of knowing God. It never has been. The ancient Israelites followed an unseen God all their days and still found ways to know the joy of God’s presence. And as for us Jesus followers, well, he’s still here with us too as the Almighty always has been – in our conscience, in our emotions, in our intellects and will – or as the ancient Hebrews might have put it – in our kidneys, our bowels, our hearts. That’s a pretty startling realization for a recovering evangelical like me – that the body isn’t the enemy of the spiritual life but could actually be a trusted friend. Our bodies aren’t failsafe witnesses, of course; I’m not sure there’s any part of us that isn’t open to some self-deception. That’s why we need communities of faith over time like this one to help us test our knowledge and stretch our reason, to give us rituals and practices like Communion that help us embody our faith even when we do have questions, to help us know we’re not alone in our doubts – that we’re not alone, period. To the God who opens us up again to all our ways of knowing and promises to find us there – Amen.