Did you know the word “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary?
Yes, I fell for that one. I was in 7th grade at Whitney High when an upper classman told me that with a completely straight face, and then promptly laughed when I said “Really?” A little bit of my trust was peeled away that day. My birthday is on March 31st, same as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Ewan McGregor, former Vice President Al Gore, and hockey legend Gordie Howe. I wonder if any of them got a fake present for their birthday? I was about six years old and someone thought it would be funny to give me one of those box-in-a-box-in-a-box presents, but after opening the last box there was nothing inside. I can’t remember who gave it to me, but I do remember their words, “Early April Fools!” Except it wasn’t funny. I was so disappointed. More of that built-in trust eroded. In high school, we used to play basketball together every Friday. I wasn’t very good, but I enjoyed hanging out with my friends. That is until the day they told me to go to the wrong park. I suspected what was going on because I rode my bike over to the other park we play at and sure enough they were there. All of them. They saw me. I saw them. Only one of them called out to me. The only one I’m still friends with by the way. Again, and again, and again. Trust broken.
It’s sad, but it’s far from unique.
We have all suffered disappointment in our lives one way or another. It’s what changes us from innocent children to the less innocent and somewhat less trusting individuals we are today. How jaded we become depends on many things, but we all seem to lose that veil of innocence. Maybe that’s why it’s hard sometimes for people to believe in God. He just seems to good to be true and we all know if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. At least, that’s what the world pounds into us. It seems the longer a child goes without knowing God they are less and less likely to be connected to a church later in life. Studies show that 61% of adults who went regularly as kids still attend today compared to only 22% of adults who didn’t go regularly as kids. 61% versus 22%. Children are far more open to the idea of God than adults, because as we get older, we become more cynical and it becomes harder to believe in the things we can’t see or touch. We become rooted in the material instead of the spiritual and our hearts become hardened. Whether that’s from watching television or watching our parents or from school kids who tell us “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary, we gain a more critical eye and a more cynical heart. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t there. It means we have a harder time recognizing God even when He is the most active in our lives.
Jesus knew this. Most of his adult life was spent dealing with people who didn’t believe.
He even tells us in Matthew 13 that people don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear. And he wasn’t just talking about the people who kept persecuting, harassing, and trying to set him up. There were thousands of his followers who were struggling to get an understanding of who he was and what he was trying to tell them. Even his disciples had trouble believing he was truly the promised Messiah. Now when we come upon this reading, Jesus has just been resurrected. Mary Magdalene and most of the apostles have witnessed him alive, but for some reason Thomas wasn’t there for any of it. I don’t know if he was out buying milk, baking some bread, shepherding a couple of goats or whatever, but he wasn’t there. And that’s where we pick up the narrative. Thomas comes into the room just after Jesus has left and all the apostles are like, “You just missed him!” And this is what happens.
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” 26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:24-31
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands…I will not believe it.”
Sounds like something any one of us might have said. It’s hard to fault Thomas for being skeptical. We’re often skeptical about things far less out there than a man coming back from the dead. And Thomas KNOWS Jesus is dead. He may not have been there to see it, but he knows the people who were. You can understand how tough it must have been to wrap his mind around Jesus NOT being dead. No one doubted Jesus died on the cross. They were in mourning over it. They were hiding from those who wanted to persecute his followers. So, when they tell Thomas that Jesus is alive, he must have been mad. That’s what I imagine he would have sounded like when he responded. Mad. Mad that the other followers would play such a cruel joke on him and mad they would take Jesus’ death so lightly. He tells them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” But when Jesus comes back, Jesus shows him exactly what Thomas wants to see and Jesus tells him, “Put your finger here; see my hands…stop doubting and believe.” And then Jesus says the most profound words of all. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” That is the very definition of faith. The Bible tells us later in Hebrews 11:1 that faith “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith is being sure of what we hope for and CERTAIN of what we do not see.
But that can be hard for us sometimes – believing in things we cannot see.
Sometimes people take it to extremes. Have you heard the term “flat-earther”? It’s used for people who believe in outdated ideas, who can’t let go of their old preconception of things and hold on to the past. But it also comes from a very real group of people called the Flat Earth Society who literally think the earth is flat. They believe the Earth is shaped like a disc similar to a big Frisbee or a chocolate chip cookie and they think the edges are surrounded by a wall of ice that today we call Antarctica. Really. That’s what they believe. That the edges of the world are surrounded by a wall of ice that today we call Antarctica. Never mind the mountain of evidence against them – the pictures, the theories, the scientific data, the observations of others. They believe all of it was either made up or built on faulty premises. Funny as it is, this group has been around officially since 1956. And after over all of these years of evidence, these people still can’t accept the truth because to them it just doesn’t make sense. They haven’t learned that the reality of something doesn’t depend on our perception of it.
Just because we can’t see a thing, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Frances Church, the editor of the New York Sun back in the early 1900’s, had an answer for this that touches my heart and rings true. He was answering a letter from a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon who wrote to him explaining, “Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun, it’s so. Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” And Mr. Church responded with elegance as he wrote.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds… Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist… Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence… The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see… Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
The most real things in the world are those that we cannot see.
How true that is. When we reflect on our lives we find that the most important things in life, the most valuable things are those we cannot see. Love. Life. God. These are the things that are important. These are the things that make the world a very real place. And we can’t see them directly. But it doesn’t make them any less real. Is the love you have for family and friends any less real because you can’t touch or see this thing called love? No, of course not. Because it IS real. Just because we can’t see it with our eyes or touch it with our hands doesn’t take away the reality of its existence. Indeed, the things we CANNOT see are the most real things in the world. In those moments when you are inclined to doubt, allow for the possibility that there is something greater in this crazy universe that loves and cares about you. Open yourself up to that childhood innocence that got buried under the dirt of disappointment and allow it to come to the surface again. Yes, the world can harden us and make us more cynical, but hold on to the hope that Christ gave you now and always.