Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Seeing Heart

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

On April 3, 2016 we will celebrate the Second Sunday of Easter. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of John:

John 20:19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Here is Frederick Buechner's sermon called "The Seeing Heart" from Secrets in the Dark:

There was a great teacher of the Old Testament at the seminary where I studied for the ministry years ago, and one thing he told us that I have always remembered is that we really can't hear what the stories of the Bible are saying until we hear them as stories about ourselves. We have to imagine our way into them, he said. We have to imagine ourselves the prodigal son coming home terrified that the door will be slammed in his face when he gets there, only to have the breath all but knocked out of him by the great bear hug his father greets him with before he can choke out so much as the first word of the speech he has prepared about how sorry he is and how he will never do it again, not unlike the way Sunday after Sunday you and I say in our prayers how sorry we are and how we will never do it again. We have to put ourselves in the place of the good thief spread-eagled in the merciless sun saying to the one who is dying beside him, "Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power," the way at the heart of every prayer we have ever prayed or will ever pray, you and I are also saying it in one form or another: Remember me. Remember me. Jesus, remember.

I don't know of any story in the Bible that is easier to imagine ourselves into than this one from John's Gospel because it is a story about trying to believe in Jesus in a world that is as full of shadows and ambiguities and longings and doubts and glimmers of holiness as the room where the story takes place is and as you and I are inside ourselves.

It is the evening after the resurrection, and all but one of the disciples are gathered together in this shadowy room. The door is bolted tight because they are scared stiff that the ones who seized Jesus in the night will come and seize them next, and every sound they hear--the creaking of the house, the stirring of air through the trees, a dog barking--becomes for them the dreaded sound of footsteps on the stair. If they speak at all, you can imagine them speaking almost too quietly to hear. The room is small and crowded and the air acrid with the smell of their fear. That morning just after dawn, Mary Magdalene told them that she had seen Jesus alive again, but even the ones who believed her were not much comforted because he was not alive again with them there where they needed him. Then suddenly he was there. "He came and stood among them," John says, and he spoke to them.

"Shalom," was what he said, "Peace be with you," which was of all words the one that in their un-peace they needed most to hear, but the way John tells it, it is as if they were too stunned to understand what they had heard, even to know who had spoken. So Jesus had to show them what had been done to his hands and to his side, and it was only then that they recognized him. ''As the Father has sent me, even so I send you," he said, and then he breathed on them.

Can we imagine ourselves into that part of the story, I wonder? Can we put ourselves into their place as they breathed his breath into themselves, his life into their lives? I think we are often closer to their experience than we believe we are. I think that Christ dwells deep down in all of us, believers and unbelievers both, and that again and again, whether we realize it or not, he brings us healing and hope. I think there have been moments for all of us when the hand we reached out to another's need was not our hand but Christ's hand, and moments when the tears that have come to our eyes at another's sadness or joy, or even at our own sadness, our own joy, were Christ's tears. "Receive the Holy Spirit," he said to them there in the shadows, and I think we have all of us received more of that spirit into our own shadows than we dream.

The one disciple who wasn't in the room when Jesus appeared was Thomas, of course, although he was as much a friend and follower of Jesus as any of them. As far as Thomas knew, Jesus was dead and that was the end of it. He was aware of what Mary Magdalene claimed she had seen, and now, that evening, his friends were claiming the same thing, but Thomas himself had not seen him, and the words he spoke when they told him about it have the ring of unvarnished truth. "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," he said, "I will not believe." Thomas is called the Twin in the New Testament, and if you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you. I am the other twin, and unless I miss my guess, so are you.

How can we believe that Christ is alive when we haven't seen him? I believe the sun rose this morning because there it is in the sky above us. I believe you and I are alive because here we are looking at each other. But when it comes to this central proclamation and holiest mystery of Christian faith that after his death Jesus returned to life and is alive to this day, how can we believe that?

There are lots of other things we can believe about him. We can believe that of all good people, he was the goodest. We can believe that no one else in history embodied the love of God so movingly and unforgettably. We can believe that although down through the centuries endless follies and barbarities have been committed in his name, the beauty and holiness of his life remain somehow untouched, and that of all the great saints the world has produced, he remains the loveliest and the one most worth following. But when Thomas says that unless he sees him with his own eyes, he will not believe that he is actually alive the way you and I are actually alive, I think we all know in our hearts what he is talking about.

What we have to remember is that our eyes are not all we have for seeing with, maybe not even the best we have. Our eyes tell us that the mountains are green in summer and in autumn the colors of flame. They tell us that the nose of the little girl is freckled, that her hair usually needs combing, that when she is asleep, her cheek is flushed and moist. They tell us that the photographs of Abraham Lincoln taken a few days before his death show a man who at the age of fifty-six looked as old as time. Our eyes tell us that- the small country church down the road needs a new coat of paint and that the stout lady who plays the pump organ looks a little like W. C. Fields and that the pews are rarely more than about a quarter filled on any given Sunday.

But all these things are only facts because facts are all the eye can see. Eyes cannot see truth. The truth about the mountains is their great beauty. The truth about the child is that she is so precious that without a moment's hesitation we would give our lives to save her life if that should somehow ever become necessary. The truth about Abraham Lincoln is a humanness so rich and deep that it's hard to stand in his memorial in Washington without tears coming to our eyes, and the truth about the shabby little church is that for reasons known only to God it is full of holiness. It is not with the eyes of the head that we see truths like that, but with the eyes of the heart.

Eight days after Jesus's first appearance to the disciples, John says, Jesus came back to them again in the same room, and this time Thomas was with them. Again Jesus said "Peace" to them. Then he turned to Thomas and spoke only to him as if there was no one else in the world just then who mattered, and you can imagine the two of them standing there looking at each other with maybe no more than an oil lamp to see by and their shadows flickering on the wall. Less as a reproach the way I hear it than as an enormous kindness, Jesus said, "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." It was an extraordinary thing for him to offer, but it is as though Thomas didn't even hear him. It's as though maybe for the first time in his life it wasn't just the fact of Jesus that he saw but the truth of Jesus and the truth of who Jesus was for him. In light of that truth everything else became suddenly unimportant, and there was no need to touch him with his hands to make sure he was real because suddenly Thomas was so moved by the reality he was experiencing within himself that all he could do was to say something that I suspect he said in a whisper--"My Lord and my God!" He had seen him with the eyes of his heart, and there was nothing more he could say, nothing more he needed to say. Can we imagine ourselves into that part of the story? Have we ever even come close to seeing the truth of Jesus the way Thomas did just then?

I believe we have, more than we know, and I believe that, in the last analysis, those glimpses more than anything else are what bring us to church Sunday after Sunday. I believe we have glimpsed the truth of Jesus in the faces and lives of people we know who have loved him and served him, and let each of us name their names silently to ourselves. I believe we have glimpsed him in the pages of the Gospels when by some miracle of grace those pages come alive for us and it is as if we ourselves are the ones he is speaking to when he says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11 :28). I believe we have caught sight of him in works of art that have been created to honor him, like the St. Matthew Passion of Bach, or the flaking, faded frescoes of old European churches where he moves like a dream across the walls.

I believe we have seen him once in a while even in our own churches, especially when there is a pause in our endless babbling about him and for a moment or two he is present in the silence of waiting and listening. I remember how once when the minister was administering the chalice to me he made my heart skip a beat by calling me by name and saying "The blood of Christ, Freddy, the cup of salvation," and I saw suddenly that Christ not only remembers us but remembers each one of us by name as surely as he remembered the good thief, and that he welcomes us to his table not in some sort of impersonal, churchly sense but as if the party wouldn't be complete without every last one of us the way the father in his story threw his arms around the prodigal and welcomed him home.

I believe we have seen him in those rare moments when, moved by his spirit alive within us, we have been able to be Christs to one another and also at those moments when we have resisted his spirit within us and turned away from each other full of a kind of dimness and sadness. Most of all, I believe, we have seen him in our endless longing for him even when we don't know who it is we are longing for.

"Have you believed because you have seen me?" Jesus asked Thomas, our twin, and my guess is that Thomas believed not because of what his eyes had seen but because of what his heart had seen. With his eyes he had seen only Jesus the son of Joseph and Mary, a man much like any other man-so many inches tall, so many pounds heavy, hair this color, eyes that color-but with his heart he saw, maybe for the first time in his life, the one he was destined to love and search for and try to follow as best he could for the rest of his days when Jesus was no longer around for him to see with his eyes any more than he is around for us to see with ours.

The last thing of all that Jesus said to his disciples that day was, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe," and I think that among others he meant you and me. We have not seen him with our eyes the way Thomas did, but precious as that sight would have been, I wonder in the long run what difference it would have made. What makes all the difference in the world is the one whom from time to time, by grace, I believe we have seen with our hearts or who is there to see always if we will only keep our hearts peeled for him.

To see him with the heart is to know that in the long run his kind of life is the only life worth living. To see him with the heart is not only to believe in him but little by little to become bearers to each other of his healing life until we become finally healed and whole and alive within ourselves. To see him with the heart is to take heart, to grow true hearts, brave hearts, at last. That is my dearest hope and prayer for all of you and also for me.