Would You Believe it? – August 9, 2020
August 9, 2020
One of the funniest and most innovative TV shows in the 1960’s was “Get Smart.” It premiered on September 18th, (what year, do you think?)1965. And it was a take-off on James Bond, and the other popular “spy movies” of the time. I’m sure many of you remember it. But if you don’t, Google it, and see if you can watch a few episodes! It’s well worth it!
One of the things that made the show great was that it was created by Mel Brooks, one of the great comedic minds of our age! (But relatively unknown at the time.) The show relied on many memorable sight-gags, verbal exchanges, and “spy gear” – like “shoe phones,” and secret cameras, and of course, “the cone of silence,” which hilariously never worked quite right.
The show also relied on a number of recurring catchphrases! Do you remember? You often heard Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, saying things like, “Sorry about that, Chief!” and “Missed it by that much!” (It’s hard not to say those things with the Don Adams, Maxwell Smart accent!)
Well, one that came to me this week – because that’s how my mind works! – is the one I’m using for my sermon title for today. Max would often say, “Would you believe it?” Do you remember that one? The way he used that phrase often went something like this. Smart was captured by a Chaos agent. Remember, Chaos were the “bad guys.” (Somebody comment and tell everybody who the Good Guys were! What was the agency Maxwell Smart worked for?) So Smart was captured, and in order to try to intimidate his captor, he would say, “At this very moment, and entire squadron of Marines with automatic weapons is surrounding this building! Would you believe it? An entire squadron of Marines!” And the Chaos agent would say, “I find that hard to believe, Mr. Smart.” So, Max would reply, “Would you believe a police commando unit with tear gas?” The agent would say, “I’m afraid not.” And Max would say, “How about three Boy Scouts with slingshots?”
We lived for that stuff in those days! It was such a great show! And when I think of that catchphrase, “Would you believe it?” I can almost not do so without hearing it in that iconic Don Adams accent! And that’s what came to mind for me when I read this story for today!
The women came from the tomb saying to the disciples, “Jesus is alive! Would you believe it? Jesus is alive!” And the disciples – all of them – said, “I find that hard to believe!” And that was the feeling that first Easter day. The disciples thought the women’s story to be an idle tale – a fairy tale! And they would not believe them!
Well, the next thing that happens in Luke’s Gospel is the story we looked at last week. Two travelers were returning from their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where this year, a lot had happened! And that’s an understatement! Everyone in Jerusalem had witnessed all the “fervor” over this rabbi from Nazareth, a man they had probably heard about before! Remember, Jesus traveled all around the region for three years, preaching and teaching and drawing huge crowds! So, people knew who he was!
But Passover this year was different. Because now Jesus had brought his preaching ministry into the Holy City, into Jerusalem itself, at the Passover! And he had caused a lot of commotion! He took on the Pharisees, head to head! And there was a lot of buzz about what it all meant! Some people were thinking “Messiah.” Some were thinking freedom from Rome. Many had hoped, as the two men said on the road to Emmaus, “That he was the one to ‘redeem Israel.’”
But now, as we’ve been saying, all of that was gone! All of their hopes died with Jesus on Friday! And many saw him die. Because, after all, crucifixion was a public spectacle. It was meant to dissuade the masses from any future rebellions. It was just like “public hangings” that we used to have in this country. We don’t have them anymore, but when we did, they were meant as more than just punishment for the guilty. They were meant as a deterrent against future crime!
So, many people had watched Jesus die that Friday. And they were devastated! And now, almost in a mockery of the public grief over this man and the loss of all he represented, some were saying that he was alive again! How could they say such a thing?! Who could believe such a thing? Would you believe it?
With that, we move to John’s Gospel. And as I’ve said before, John often gives us the most detail, the most dialogue, and of course, the most emotion in these stories. And that’s certainly the case here! Here, we find a lot of all three of those things – detail, dialogue, and emotions!
Here’s how John describes it. And remember, we’re still on Easter day here. “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.” That was true and we’ve been saying that. The disciples thought they were next! The authorities had arrested and executed their master, and they thought it wouldn’t be long before those same authorities would be coming for them! They had every reason to believe that!
Well, three things then happened. First, as John continues, “Jesus came and stood among them.” That’s the first thing. Jesus appeared to them. And we can talk about that. Was he “physical?” Was he “Spiritual?” Each time he appeared, Jesus offered some kind of proof that he was there in a physical form. Because just seeing didn’t seem to be enough. John tells us of that proof here. That’s the next thing. “He showed them his hands and side.” He proved it was him. And that would figure prominently in the rest of this story!
So, Jesus appeared, he offered proof that it was him, and then the third thing that happened was this. “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” The word “Then” is a very important word there. What it means is, “Then they believed!” That is, when they saw his hands and feet they believed! Up until that moment they didn’t believe! This story wasn’t about, “The women told us he was alive, and we can’t wait to see him ourselves.” No! They still didn’t believe a word of it! Who could? Would you believe it?
Well, now the disciples did believe it! And then I think right in the middle of that, or shortly thereafter, the two men came in from Emmaus, telling their story. Remember them? After their encounter with the risen Jesus, they came back to Jerusalem that night. But even before they could say what they had come back to say, the others told them that Jesus was alive and had appeared to them! I think those two stories are connected that way. And I think it was an amazing moment!
There was only one problem, though. They weren’t all there! That’s right! The Bible doesn’t tell us why Thomas wasn’t with them when Jesus appeared, only that he wasn’t. And when they told him later what had happened, that’s where we have this famous exchange. Thomas said – and I’m sure with great emotion – that he wouldn’t believe it unless he saw it with his own eyes! That is, unless he saw Jesus’ hands and feet – just like they did! You see, they all needed the same means of proof! Not just Thomas!
Think about that! And ask yourself this. Who would you believe if they were to tell you something like this? Who would you trust, that they were telling the truth? And are there some things you would refuse to believe until you had seen them with your own eyes – no matter who told you?!
I believe that this is a story of unbelief! If you’ve heard me before, you know that I don’t believe Thomas was any more of a doubter than any of them. That’s right! None of them believed this until they saw it with their own eyes! And I know Thomas has been seen as the “quintessential doubter” ever since. Just like Judas has been the quintessential traitor. And I know people have built entire “personality profiles” about Thomas, based on the doubt he showed this particular evening. “Thomas was the skeptic of the group.” “Thomas was the pragmatist.” “Thomas had a healthy desire to see things for himself.” I’ve heard all of that. And those “profiles” have been accepted over the years, as though they were part of the scripture itself.
But I’m sorry, folks. I believe what was being highlighted in this story was the unbelievable nature of this great miracle, not one particular man’s doubt. And I believe emphatically that what this story tells us is that none of them believed it, no matter who told them, until they saw Jesus himself! (So, get out the tar and feathers if you must, but I stand by my story!)
And that lends itself very well, I think, to the end of this story. Look what Jesus says at the end of this! He says – to all of them, not just to Thomas – “You have believed because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” And even if he directed those words to Thomas, I’m sure the others knew it applied to them, too! They all believed because they had seen!
And that, my friends, is where we come into this story. We are “those who have not seen,” “and yet believe.” In fact, Jesus knew that most, if not all, of people over the coming centuries would be in that category. Those men had “seen with their eyes” the risen Christ. “They had looked upon and touched him with their hands” as John said in his first letter. It would now be their job to convince “those who have not seen.”
So, do we ever need to be convinced? And even after we’re sure, do we ever need to have proof once again? Do our doubts ever return? I think you’ll agree they do. We don’t get to see Jesus’ hands and feet like the disciples, but we can be convinced (or re-convinced!) in other ways, We can see the belief in others, we can read these stories again, and we can seek the Holy Spirit, which, as Jesus said, “Teaches us all things, and brings all things to our remembrance.” In other words, the Spirit helps us to remember the assurances of our faith. That Spirit would soon be coming to the disciples. And it would be the spark that would launch this amazing, and frustrating, and exhilarating thing called “The Church.”
We are that Church! And together, as God’s people, we celebrate the risen Christ, we help each other to remember the truth about him. Together, we can know that he is risen, and with his power, we carry on his ministry here on earth. It has now fallen to us to convince “those who have not seen.” And as he said, we are his witnesses, to the ends of the earth!
Eternal God, help us in our times of unbelief. We are sometimes skeptical, or unconvinced. Sometimes we forget your great love for us, and your amazing Grace. Help us in those times to know the risen Christ, to rely on your promises to us, and to believe even more. For we pray in His name, Amen!