Note: the movie is Tarkovsky's Mirror, the actor is Margarita Berekhova, and the scholar I quote is Debra Rienstra, from her blogpost for The 12. Thank you, Debra.
Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:91-31
Last week I spoke in terms of the Story, the Doctrine, and the Vision. This week the Vision is Belief. You believe to be true what you cannot see. The Doctrines for this week are three. The first is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead—the doctrine we already got last week. The second is new today, which is the divinity of the Lord Jesus, that he actually is God, and the third is how we can believe in him.
So, in the Story, first, the disciples witnessed the Lord Jesus back from the dead, and they saw his scars, the sign that he was in his body, his same body, but his body transformed by a power beyond the ordinary boundaries of the world, the sign of which was the locked doors. Second, Thomas recognized him as God, as more than a resurrected man. Thomas was the first person ever to call Jesus "My Lord and my God," the titles of the God of Israel. Third, the story displays the complexity of belief, including skepticism, and reading the signs, and going beyond the signs, and making a leap, and converting your mind, and coming to terms with your own self.
Jesus does not judge Thomas as a doubter. He honors his request, and he invites him to verify the signs of the marks in his hands. In the original Greek, he doesn’t even use the word "doubt". He says, "Don’t keep unbelieving but believing." Thomas stands for all of us. We all have to keep converting our unbelief to belief, and doing that on the basis of not so many facts, and on facts which can always be contested, as I said last week.
What do you need in order to believe? What level of evidence, how certain the signs? We vary in our satisfaction-levels for belief. I find it easier to believe in the resurrection than my wife does, and certainly more than my son does. For Thomas the testimony of the disciples that they had seen the Lord was not enough—he wanted stronger signs. You might feel like Thomas did, that the testimony of the Bible that people had seen the Lord is not enough. Can we believe it simply on testimony of an ancient book? One scholar has written that "the stories in the gospel function as the signs for us. The stories are a mediation through which we can see a Jesus we have never seen, as Jesus himself is a mediation through which we can see a God we have never seen."
"So Thomas is not a counterexample for right belief, then, but a metaphor in his own way. He signals in his passionate insistence how we are to respond to these stories. See the nailmarks in these stories; put your finger in these words." And blessed are we who believe these stories, even when our belief is seasoned with the skepticism that comes from never having seen it for ourselves. We have to live by our vision of what we cannot see, and our vision is our belief. That it is this way has benefits: in what kind of a creature you become when you live by vision beyond mere sight, when you live by faith beyond your knowledge, and when you live for love beyond yourself.
Thomas leaps to a new belief about Jesus and thus a new belief about God. But when he looks at Jesus there’s also a change within himself and his vision of himself and what he can believe about himself.
In your own life, you came to know yourself by watching the faces of other people: the face of your mother (you couldn’t take your eyes off her), the face of your father, and then others you could recognize, and in learning them you were discovering yourself, measuring yourself, developing your awareness of yourself. In Tarkovsky’s great movie Mirror, the unseen narrator spends his life watching the face of his mother and his wife. She is played by a single actress, Margarita Berekhova. She is luminous, you can’t take your eyes off her, and she is the mirror in whom the narrator is always looking for himself.
In the wonderful new book which we will celebrate this afternoon, Jeff Chu tells the story of his pilgrimage in search of God, and his method is to tell the stories of how other people deal with God, but of course it is also a pilgrimage of his own self-discovery, for the people he meets with are more or less mirrors for himself—some distorted, some bright and clear, so that in looking for God by means of them he has to develop his vision for himself. What can he believe? What can he believe about God, and what can he believe about himself?
I have said before that belief is a combination of knowledge, imagination, and desire. The anchor of belief is knowledge of some fact, some event, some truth, some news, some sign. For Thomas the fact was a dead man now alive again, and the sign was the nail-prints. He could know that, but he also had to imagine that the impossible could be true, and stemming from that, to imagine even more: that the God of Israel was in this man with his hands held out, and to imagine that the God of Israel would come to this.
Having imagined it he desired it, and the sign of his desire is when he says, "My Lord and my God." Self-referential words, for self-discovery. How suddenly that desire rose within him, after the last whole week when he was standing firm on his demands. And now, not only is he able to believe what he did not think he could believe, he can even to desire it. He gives himself to his desire, and he will start to imagine his own life in ways he did not know before.
Here is the take-home for today. To believe in Jesus as the Son of God is how you can come to believe in yourself. To desire the Lord Jesus permits you to desire yourself. To imagine him directs you to imagine yourself. To know him is how to know yourself. This is a feature of the Christian faith which it offers you when you practice it. To come to know God is how to come to know yourself.
Now there are many ways beside the Christian faith to get knowledge of yourself. You can learn about yourself from reading literature, and doing therapy, and from how other people respond to you, both in confirmation and critique. I’m talking about yourself at your root, your deepest self, your naked soul, how you love yourself and desire yourself and imagine yourself and even believe in yourself as the beloved of the Lord.
I am not saying only Christians can know themselves, nor am I saying that Christians necessarily do. I was reading on the internet the comments on the reviews of Jeff Chu’s book, and many of them written by Christians are mean and hurtful. You can tell how these people must see Jesus, and what they desire from his Lordship, and you wonder at their self-knowledge. But Jesus does not force on us what he offers us, even though his offer is an obligation. The obligation is real and the offer is well-meant: to keep on digging your fingers into these stories of Jesus every week, from which to imagine yourself and desire the self that he envisions for you. He is the living God, the God of the universe, who bears the signs of nail-prints for the love of you.
When I sing out to you, "Alleluia, Christ is risen," I’m offering you the knowledge and I’m appealing to your imagination. And when you sing back, "The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia," you imagine it as well, and you signal your desire by the word "indeed." These words are the sign of the Holy Spirit within you, bearing witness to your soul that what Jesus offers you is true, and that you can give yourself permission to believe it, and that love wins. Love always makes the leap, the leap across the skepticism of your doubt, because the love is God’s own love in you.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.