Beyond Seeing – The Rev. Michelle Meech
April 24, 2022
It had been 3 days since Jesus was taken away by the police. 3 days since he had been with his friends. Those 3 days in Jerusalem had been tumultuous for this movement that Jesus led. A movement whose message is: love of neighbor, and justice for the poor and disenfranchised, and peace for all of creation. Love, Justice, Peace.
But Jesus, the leader of this movement, had been killed. They saw the death. And, because of the turmoil created by Jesus and his followers in the previous weeks and months, this death put his friends in danger. The worldly powers, it seemed, had won. The body had been placed in a tomb and it had been sealed – a legal seal placed by the state. Perhaps even soldiers were sent to guard the tomb.
In response, the disciples went into hiding. They holed up in the place that had become their home in Jerusalem. Too afraid to be seen in public, they dug in… maybe to figure out what to do next, maybe to make plans to leave, maybe even to pray.
But that morning, that Easter morning, as we heard last week, the women of their small community came to tell them what they saw when they went to the tomb. The shocking discovery that it was empty. The rock rolled to the side. Wide open. The legal seal destroyed. So they understood there was a problem, even if they thought it to be an idle tale that there was no body.
This must have made the fear worse for them: not seeing, not understanding, not knowing who or what to trust. Their situation was now more desperate. They were the people who supported and followed the one who was executed by the state. He was their teacher. They followed him and helped him to gather the people. And now, the legal seal on the tomb had been destroyed so the law had been broken yet again. Who was going to be held accountable for this?
We have no Gospel account of the conversations amongst the followers of Jesus in those first days. It must have felt as though the walls were closing in on them. What did they talk about?
Were they fearful? Maybe they were wondering: Would they be blamed? Should they run? Go back to the country? Should they just keep their heads down and stay out of trouble?
Or, had they really heard the words of Jesus? And, even in their fear, prepared and able to carry on his mission in the world? Were they capable of moving beyond what they saw, beyond their fear, so they could share his message of Love, Justice, and Peace? What might have been holding them back?
In college, over 30 years ago now, one of my areas of focus was art history and I remember in one course we studied Caravaggio for several weeks – an Italian painter born in 1571. He is known for developing a particular style of painting in which he employed close physical observation of his human subjects and, working quickly, he often painted directly to the canvas rather than sketching things out first. This created a sense of immediacy and intimacy in his work. It feels like a physical presence.
To help with this, Caravaggio used bright light and heavy shadows as dramatic, contrasting elements to highlight the action in his paintings, helping them to come alive and almost leap off the page. It was called chiaroscuro, literally – clear and obscure in Italian. The balance of the two makes you believe that you’re in the room.
Perhaps this is the perfect artist to portray the disciple that we’ve come to know as “Doubting Thomas.” This image on the bulletin today is a Caravaggio painting called “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.”
And in this image we see a pasty figure on the left, clad only in some dirty white sheet-like material, his head bent over looking down as his hand pulls back the fabric so that your attention is drawn towards a wound in his right side. Meanwhile, the rest of the frame is filled with a murky darkness out of which three men of varying complexions have emerged. All of them appear to be advanced in age and their foreheads scrunched with brows furrowed as they all bend over and stare at the wound. The man in the front leans in close and we see that his right index finger is poking into the wound, the tip of the finger completely underneath the pasty flap of flesh.
This person with the finger poking into the side of his friend is Thomas, as John’s Gospel describes Jesus’ interaction with him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Seeing is believing, right?
I have to admit that I’ve been here before – this cynicism, this disbelief, this incredulity. I find myself here usually when I have lost faith in another, which is akin to losing faith in God. For I have lost faith in this person’s inherent connection to God’s love and God’s wisdom, in their ability to allow Christ to shine forth in their souls.
And I often wonder, especially at this time of year, if I am the Thomas in the group of disciples. Do I have the faith I need? Am I too demanding of God? What do I really believe? Do I only believe in what I see, in what I have experienced?
Ana and I watched a show the other night that demonstrates just how our brains are easily misled by visual patterns and cues around us because our brains have all been trained through experience to observe certain phenomena in the world, anticipate what it means, so that we know what to do.
And phenomena like shadow and light play a big role in this. We have learned things like distance, height, and the direction in which an object travels based upon the shadows they make. But sometimes shadow and light, as well as other visual stimuli, are not all that trustworthy. They don’t tell the whole story and they even may throw us off, causing us to believe something is real that is not. Or that something is not real that is.
Similar to how Caravaggio uses paint to make our brain see something that is not really there. The folds in the fabric, the wrinkles in the skin, the flap of flesh covering Thomas’ finger… they are not really there. It is paint constructed in such a masterful way to make our brains believe that it sees something.
So is seeing really believing?
Thomas’ incredulity isn’t really about seeing. His cynicism isn’t really about not having proof. Thomas’ pain, expressed through his demands, are much more fundamental than that. Thomas needs to know he is not forgotten, that he has a place in this world of changes and chances. He needs to know that he is safe, that he belongs.
Thomas needs a God who will come to him and meet him in the obscuring bondage of his own fear.
And can we blame Thomas? Because sometimes all we see is a twisted reality, the truth obscured by self-judgment and fear. That person over there thinks I am… Or this is happening because that person over there is doing… I suspect that is what was keeping the disciples holed up in their small Jerusalem house in those days after Jesus’ death.
And when we cannot cross that chasm of fear, the endless pit of self-doubt and self-judgment that leads to death, we need God to come for us. In some real way that breaks down the illusions of the world, where shadow and light befuddle and obscure our mind, we need God to show us what is real and what is true and who we are.
What is true, is love. And who we are is the beloved. This is who we were always created to be.
And this is nothing that can really be shown or proven.
Rather, it is a deep knowledge that comes to rest in the center of our being, a sense of liberation and calm, like water washing over our skin on a hot day.
In the Resurrection, God establishes a covenant of reconciliation. Where God’s love is a bridge over the chasm of our disbelief, our pain, and our collective grief and institutional sin. God reaches out and says, “Here I am. Just touch me. Do not doubt but believe.”
Because then, what happens is miraculous, mysterious even. Christ comes to our small, dim, obscure place where we have painted ourselves in and breathes on us and says, “Peace be with you.”
And as the veil is lifted, clarity emerges from the murky depths of our pain. We feel connected again. Seen. Known. At home. A new creation breathed into life.
This reconciliation we experience is the Resurrection. The place where God reaches out to us so that we may rejoice our spirits uplifted, by this incarnate love, by this breath of God.
This breath, breathed with them, with us. This blessing of the Holy Spirit.
This breath that brings calm and nourishes our bodies.
This breath which signifies that life is present.
This bread. This wine. This flesh and blood.
In the beginning God breathed, God spoke creation into being. God formed humanity out of the dust of the ground and breathed life into our nostrils. And God, once again, breathes us back into life. Reconciled to God in the breathe which inspires us to become Christ in and for the world. To take Christ’s message of Love, Justice, and Peace into the world. To have the courage to take up Jesus’ work. And continue Jesus’ mission.