"Catch a Tiger By Its Tale"

Sunday sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 12, 2015
Text: John 20:19-31
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

I feel bad for Thomas. Thomas gets a bad rap. Every year we come to this week after Easter, and every year the lectionary serves up this story from the Gospel of John, the story of the disciples hiding in the upper room and having Jesus burst through the door, but Thomas isn’t there, and when he hears about it, he reacts the way I think any of us would react upon hearing that the friend you just buried unexpectedly crashed the only party you chose not to attend and all your friends are going on about seeing your friend up and walking around and you say, not without cause, and not not without merit, you say, “Um. Yeah. Right. I’ll believe it when I see it. Show me the mark of the nails in his hands.” It’s worth noting that of all the responses to hearing of the resurrected Messiah that we have cataloged in scripture — the women running from the tomb, the disciples elsewhere failing even to recognize his face — Thomas’s seems to me the most credible, and the most sympathetic. It seems to me the most fundamentally human of all responses to the preposterous Gospel that we proclaim every Easter Sunday, the Gospel of God triumphant over the grave, the Gospel of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. And Thomas looks this Gospel in the face and says: really? Really? REALLY? I’ll believe it when I see it.

Of course, Jesus does come back and give Thomas the what-for. He shows him the wounds, and Thomas sees for himself, and Thomas gives his own little affirmation of faith, and Jesus seems to give him a little grief for needing something so ridiculous as “proof.” But it’s a whole week later. There’s a whole week between this first appearance in the upper room, the one without Thomas there, and this second one, where he gets to see for himself. And I imagine that would have been a painfully long week in Thomas’s social circle. You know Jesus is the talk of the town, at least among these friends. You know everybody else was there, everybody else saw it, and you know Thomas must have been going a little paranoid. There might have been a few options going through his head, like, well, maybe my friends are playing an elaborate practical joke on me, like we’re all going snipe-hunting and the joke’s on me, or, you know, maybe, all my friends have just lost their collective minds, maybe they had one too many sips of the Holy Spirit, if you know what I mean, maybe I am the only sane person left at this establishment. Great. I think that would have been a long week.

It can’t be easy being unsure whose reality to believe. One thinks of the fine line between a small child’s imaginary friend and a grown-up talking to the voices in his or head. Who are we supposed to take seriously? One thinks of the toys in Toy Story that come alive and terrorize the neighborhood bully, because who will he tell? Who will possibly believe him? Perhaps with a bit more subtlety this morning I think particularly of the comic strip of my childhood, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. In its day Calvin and Hobbes was the most popular comic strip on the planet, and this was back when everybody read newspapers, so I’m assuming you all have a passing familiarity with the setup: a small boy named Calvin, a trouble-maker, sarcastic beyond his years, philosophical beyond his understandings, growing up in a typically suburban house with a typically suburban family and, of all things, a tiger named Hobbes. Notice that I did not call Hobbes an “imaginary” tiger or a “real” tiger, because it’s never entirely clear just what sort of Tiger Hobbes is. When adults are around, Hobbes very often takes the form of a stuffed toy, but when they turn their backs, Hobbes emerges fully-formed, the voice of Calvin’s conscience, the voice of the better angels of his nature, the voice of reason, if you will, in the form of a tiger who may or may not exist.

Now, there are schools of thought on the matter. It’s easy enough to conclude that Hobbes is simply a product of Calvin’s imagination, that he’s a simple toy tiger for whom the comic strip becomes an almost unlimited palette. But this interpretation meets a couple of roadblocks — first, Watterson denies it, claiming that something much more complicated is going on, and second, there’s the matter of the chair. In one particular storyline from the fall of 1987, Calvin is trying to learn magic tricks and arranges for Hobbes to tie him to the chair in his own room so that Calvin can learn to escape. When his parents start calling him to come to dinner, he can’t, because he’s tied to the chair, and even when his father eventually comes upstairs and opens the door, yes, he finds a stuffed toy tiger lying on the ground, but also Calvin, tied to a chair. “You tied yourself up? What on earth were you doing?,” he asks, to which Calvin replies, “Hobbes tied me up, Dad! It’s his fault!,” to which Dad retorts, “Don’t make up lies, Calvin. How did you get yourself like this?” How, indeed? You can explain away most of Calvin and Hobbes’ adventures with arguments about imagination and whimsy, but you can’t explain how he gets tied to the chair. It’s not much to go on, but it’s evidence. There’s something here. Something to go on to help us believe the unbelievable. It’s evidence, and if we’re being honest, there’s a lot more evidence for the real existence of Hobbes the tiger — at least in this comic — than there is in our lives for the real resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

If we’re being honest. We don’t have the access that those disciples had. We don’t get to stand in that upper room and see him face to face, marks of the nails in his hand, wound in his side. Jesus pillories Thomas for his questions: “Do not doubt, but believe!,” but of course he says it right after he’s already appeared and made Thomas’s belief that much easier. Frankly, to me, the whole scene smacks of a kind of privilege, an evidentiary privilege, like, it’s easy for them to say, it’s easy for them to make it sound so obvious, it’s easy for them to make it sound so easy, they’re the ones standing in the room with the one they saw strung up on the cross. It’s not so easy for us. We can’t see the marks of the nails. We can’t see the wound in his side. We have pretty good historical evidence for the life of a Jewish prophet named Jesus and even for his likely crucifixion at the hands of the Roman empire. It’s easy enough to trace a line between this figure and the movement he inspired and the church that grew and became our church. We have evidence. But as for this empty tomb. As for this resurrection. As for this central Gospel proclamation. We weren’t there. We can’t see it with our eyes. We can’t touch it with our hands. We have to take it on faith. We have to take it on faith. And “taking it on faith” just means that doubt comes with the territory.

This is the life of faith, and doubt comes with the territory. In our text today, it sounds like Jesus gives doubt a bit of a bad name: “Do not doubt, but believe!” he says to Thomas, and so paints Thomas with this eternally unhelpful label. But in fact “doubt” isn’t even a very helpful translation for the word that Jesus uses: the choice he gives Thomas is really between becoming one of faith or becoming one without faith. Elsewhere in the New Testament the same word consistently translates as “faithless,” which is surely a far cry from simply having doubts. So let’s not take from this moment a total theology of doubt, and especially not one that casts doubt as the very opposite of faith. Remember: it’s easy for them to make it sound so easy. It’s not so easy for us. These disciples talk about faith but they have no idea what our faith is. They can’t — they have Jesus, standing there, right in front of them. They can’t know what our faith is. They can’t know what it is for us to believe in this risen Christ when there’s no evidence in his favor. They can’t know what it is for us to believe in this victory over death when the only evidence we have is grief and darkness and longing. They can’t know what it is for us to believe in this new heaven and new earth when all the evidence we have is corruption and decay and despair. They believe because evidence presented itself, and if we formed our beliefs purely on the evidence presented to us, I’m pretty sure we would all have given up this cause a long time ago. So if you have doubts — right at this very moment, or all the livelong day, or occasionally, in the dark spaces of the night, or on the second Tuesday of the month, or whenever — if you have doubts about this thing we proclaim, don’t let this story get you down. We don’t get to see the hands. We don’t get to see the wounds. Faith is something we do despite the evidence, so if you get your doubts from time to time, well, I get mine, too, and we’re all in good company together.

But here’s the twist. The important thing is to be a community of faith and doubt that still believes in evidence. Let me try to explain. There’s one theory about Hobbes the tiger that we haven’t discussed, and it goes like this. The theory is that Hobbes is neither real nor fantasy but rather exists entirely in the assumptions of the beholder. So, because Calvin presumes Hobbes to be real, he is real; and, because his father presumes Hobbes to be a stuffed tiger toy, he is a stuffed tiger toy. In this theory, Hobbes occupies no one central existential reality, and the back and forth we see in the comics between real tiger and stuffed toy isn’t a fact of Calvin’s imagination or his dad’s lack thereof but rather represents a kind of rupture in the very universe of the comic. Now, admittedly, this is philosophy without a purpose. It sounds like something drummed up around a late-night campfire just before a conversation about whether or not our whole universe is just one speck of a giant’s thumbnail. But that’s what happens when the comic strip abandons the standard of evidence entirely. Everybody gets what they want: Calvin gets a real tiger; his dad gets a fake one; but the world itself gets split in two, and evidence goes out the window.

And isn’t this precisely where we all find ourselves in 2015, in a world where everybody sees what they want to see through whatever lens they choose, evidence goes out the window, truth follows close behind, and Christians are hardly immune. Whether in questions of scientific ethics, in climate change or evolution, or in questions of social and economic justice, or in questions of sexuality and human behavior, Christians are getting pretty bad reputation — and perhaps deservedly so — for looking at the world solely through the lens of faith, for seeing in the world exactly what we want to see, for not allowing evidence into the conversation. And truly, seeing the world through the lens of faith can be a wonderful thing. I should be a wonderful thing. It should be a hopeful thing. But if the incarnation means anything at all it means that God has entered this world as it is and that God calls us to live in this world as it is and that there aren’t separate laws of physics just for those of us who believe. Quite to the contrary: Jesus came to this world, to the real, material, historical, broken place of this world, not metaphorically, not symbolically, not just on faith. Jesus came to this real place. Jesus loved us as real people. And if we are finally and forever to believe that this real Jesus really rose from the dead, eventually, we’re going to need some evidence.

That’s what I’m holding out for. Evidence. That’s what we’re praying for. Evidence. We missed the party where the risen Jesus showed up in person, and it’s a long wait from that party til the next one. We’ve been waiting a long time. And it’s not like we don’t have witnesses. We have the words of scripture to guide us. We have the creeds and confessions of the church to help form us, words that have been passed generation to generation some even back to those who themselves first saw this risen Messiah. But let’s be clear: we’re taking this on faith, and waiting for the evidence yet to be fully revealed. And this I believe: that the time is yet to come when the real Jesus of Nazareth will walk through that door, when the real Jesus of Nazareth will burst through the threshold between this world and the next, when he will show up bearing the mark of the nails in his hands and the wound in his side. I believe in the day when we will see this all for ourselves. I believe in the day when we will know for sure this thing we have heretofore taken entirely on faith. I believe that the call of the Christian life itself is to respond faithfully to evidence yet fully to be presented. And I believe it will present itself, when the time is right. When the time is right, he will present himself, fully alive, fully risen, fully for us. Until then, we walk only by faith.

After all, somebody tied me up in this chair, and someday, I’m gonna meet him, face to face.