Sunday, May 01, 2011

Believing beyond seing

Once there was a jellyfish named Joshua. Joshua the Jellyfish. Have you heard this story? Well Joshua was a very peculiar jellyfish. But maybe to understand why Joshua was peculiar you first have to understand a bit about jellyfish. Jellyfish are pretty simplistic as creatures go. They do not have any senses other than touch. They cannot see or smell or taste. They travel in packs called “blooms.” They float around in the ocean, eat plankton, usual stuff.

So one day Joshua was floating around in the ocean and thinking, which is hard for a jellyfish because they have no brain, when he rubbed against one particular jellyfish names Thomas. “Hello who’s there?” asked Joshua.

“It’s me Thomas”

“Oh, Hey Thomas. How’s life?”

“Oh, you know,” replied Thomas. “Same ole same ole. Floating around trying to find plankton. Trying to stay away from the surface.”

“I heard that,” replied Joshua.

The surface you see was a very dangerous place. A jellyfish could be taken by a wave and washed ashore. Or worse, it could get caught in a net and be taken to certain death. The surface was not to be messed with. Jellyfish were constantly trying to figure out how to stay away from the surface, which was difficult for the them because as I said they had no brains. Joshua continued, “There has to be a better way to figure out where the surface is.”

“If you find it let me know,” Thomas replied.

“Actually I have been thinking about it,” said Joshua, and this is where the peculiar part comes in. Joshua said, “I think that there is a way to detect differences in places and objects without having to feel them. I think there is a way to know where the surface is from far away.”

“How?” Thomas asked.

“Well,” continued Joshua, “If we could develop a sensor that monitored these differences from afar, then we could tell where the surface was. And we could avoid it.” Joshua concluded.

“I seriously doubt that anything like that is real,” Thomas said. And he floated away.

But that did not stop Joshua. He continued to think about this theory. He came up with names for his concepts. He called the phenomenon: light and the difference in the light: colors. He called the detection concept: seeing. If only he could see the light he thought. Then he could tell the difference between the water and the dangerous surface.

Joshua told everyone he met about his concept. He told the jellyfish in the bloom and the young jellyfish developing in the coral reef. Some would dismiss him like Thomas did. Others believed even though they too could not see.

After a long and prolific life, Joshua died, but his ideas lived on. Each generation told his story and shared his concepts. And eventually after many, many years something remarkable happened.

A jellyfish was born that could see the light.

This jellyfish was named Jenny. Now, you may not have heard of Jenny because you are not jellyfish. But if you were, you’d know she is legendary. Jenny was made with tiny sensors that could tell the difference between light and dark. She could tell that the surface had more light than the depths. She directed jellyfish away from the surface and all those who followed her were spared the surface’s harsh consequences. Jenny was the first jellyfish to have sight. She laid many eggs and had many children all of whom could also see the light. After many generations, all jellyfish could see the light. As a side note, many years later, evolutionary scientists, you know those people who study creatures, would conclude that Jenny was the first creature in the whole planet to have sight.

Now I ask you, who is more remarkable: Jenny who was born with the ability to detect changes in the visible light spectrum, or Joshua who believed in it without seeing?

Believing without seeing. This was a concept that Jesus taught so many years ago. It is what we call faith.

This brings us to our scriptural story, the story we fondly title “Doubting Thomas.” This account is actually two parallel stories. In the first one the disciples (minus Thomas) are locked in a room and without opening the door, Jesus appears among them. That is a good trick. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” Then, He then breathes in them the Holy Spirit. Another amazing moment. And then He commissions them to go into the world with the power to save, to forgive sins. That’s 3 great things: A miraculous appearance, a holy transference, and an important (one might even say great) commission.

By all accounts the story should end here. But it doesn’t. One of the disciples was missing. Thomas! Where was Thomas? Maybe he was out on a wine and fig run. We don’t know. Now at this point, you have to try and put yourself in Thomas’ shoes. He comes into the room and the other disciples are telling him that Jesus, the man that he saw die, is alive again. What’s more, they have seen him. How would you feel if you were Thomas? Upset? Sure. He missed it. It is like showing up at a party after all the cake is gone. Total bummer.

Or maybe he felt like the others were putting him on. That’s understandable. It seemed impossible. And of course, Thomas’ skepticism was perceived as doubt. Poor guy. He makes one doubt and he is dubbed Doubting Thomas for all of history. I think it is a bit unfair. All he is asking is for the same kind of proof that the other disciples got. Shouldn’t he deserve that much?

Perhaps you identify with Thomas and his skepticism. Well here is the thing: I think that you are supposed to. I think that is why it was added. Why else would the authors tack on this episode to a perfectly complete disciple story? What is the point of telling the story again?

Well, I’ll tell you what think. I think that the author of John was trying to address issues in their audience. Issues of doubt. Because they, like Thomas, like us today, did not get the pleasure of seeing Jesus when the disciples did. We sit with the skepticism and doubt that Thomas sits with. So when Jesus does appear to Thomas, we are to pay close attention. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” This is a good lesson for Thomas, but since he then gets to see Jesus, this lesson is really for the benefit of us, and our doubt. We are the ones who are blessed for our belief. We are the jellyfish waiting for the light. We are the ones for whom faith is so important.

What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to believe without seeing? I think that we can take a cue from First Peter. For First Peter faith is not something that we follow mindlessly or without reason. Rather it is a belief beyond what we can perceive. It talks of a birth into living hope. A world that has yet to come. A future that has been promised and has yet to be realized. Faith presses onward. It moves forward from generation to generation as “An inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” Our faith does not die with doubt but is strengthened to move forward.

But as we look deeper at the audience of First Peter, we can see that this progress does not come easy. They face trials. They face suffering. Perhaps even suffering until death. But for them death is not the end. Nor is it for us. For ours is a not a story that ends in death. It is a story of rebirth. Of renewal. Of resurrection.

First Peter concludes this thought by saying, “For you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” For him, faith ends not with a blind hope but with salvation. That is a very loaded word: salvation. What to do with it? We could narrowly apply it to sins, and use it for the purpose of separating the saved from the unsaved but I rather like what Theologian Paul Tillich does with it. He claims that salvation comes from salvus which means healthy or whole. If salvation is thought of in this way, it is not something that lies far beyond us, but rather something that we can encounter every day. Every time we do something to heal another’s pain, salvation is there. Every time we seek to correct an injustice, salvation is there. When we move toward progress, when we strive toward wholeness, when we live toward a future where persecution is no more, where peace is the goal, where equality and support thrive, then we are living in salvation.

But seeing this future is not easy. Believing in the unknown is difficult. Just ask Thomas the apostle or Thomas the jellyfish. It takes tremendous courage to think beyond what you know. It takes faith. I will leave you today with a reading of Patrick Overton’s poem, “Faith”:

When you have come to the edge

Of all light that you know

And are about to drop off into the darkness

Of the unknown,

Faith is knowing

One of two things will happen:

There will be something solid to stand on or

You will be taught to fly”

When Jesus told Thomas that he needed to stop doubting, perhaps he was really talking to us. He was giving us something solid to stand on, his hands, his feet and his side. But he was also teaching us to look beyond what know. To put it another way, he was teaching us to fly.

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