Sunday, April 12, 2009

“I Have Seen the Lord”

[A sermon based on John 20:18-31 for Easter Sunday 2009; this is the fifth and last sermon in my Holy Week series Eavesdropping on Holy Week]

When Mary Magdalene, upon leaving her encounter with the resurrected Jesus, said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”, she was not making a faith statement; she really had seen the Lord! Let’s not lose sight of the fact that our Bibles report to us that she had an encounter with the resurrected Christ that left with her with no doubt that he really was there and that she really had seen him and really had talked with him. Why, Jesus even had to stop her from grabbing hold of him! Keep in mind, though, that Mary saw the resurrected Jesus—saw his resurrected body with her own eyes—so she could say with assurance, “I have seen the Lord!”

Later, Jesus appeared to his disciples, but Thomas was absent from the meeting. So when the disciples reported to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!”, they were not making a faith statement, either; they really had seen the Lord. He had shown himself to them and they had no doubt that it was he whom they had seen. Keep it in mind, now: the disciples really saw the resurrected Jesus—saw his resurrected body with their own eyes—so they could say to Thomas with assurance, “We have seen the Lord!”

I cannot say that; neither can you.

We cannot with Mary and the disciples say, “I have seen the Lord”, at least not in the sense that they could say it. We were not privileged to be there during those wondrous days between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus when he appeared not only to Mary and to the disciples but also to many other people. We have not therefore seen his resurrected body with our physical eyes. Although there have been some since who have claimed to have had a vision of the resurrected Christ, so far as I can tell the only dependable account of such an appearance since the Ascension that we have is that of the one to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road and the exact nature of that one is not clear.

So we cannot say “I have seen the Lord” and mean it in the sense that Mary and the disciples did.

But that does not mean that we cannot say “I have seen the Lord”; indeed, we have in fact seen the resurrected Lord in many ways.

We have seen him when someone forgives in a way that is not humanly possible.

We have seen him when someone sacrifices in a way that defies rational explanation.

We have seen him when someone loves in a way that thinks all of the other and nothing of the self.

We have seen him when someone lives and dies in a way that betrays no fear of death.

Yes, when we see the members of the Church, which after all is the Body of Christ, live and die in ways that are supernatural in their power, we are seeing the resurrected Lord in action in the world. So in a very real sense, we have seen the Lord, haven’t we?

Moreover, we have to be very aware of the truth that people out in the world who don’t know the Lord are very likely going to see him, if they see him at all, in the ways that the power of the resurrected Lord is seen in the ways that we live. It is quite a responsibility, isn’t it? But it is also quite a privilege.

But there is something that we followers of Christ have had to come to terms with and something that all who will come to follow Christ must comes to term with and it what I will call the “Thomas predicament.”

Remember, now—Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and shortly after that Jesus appeared to them, too and then they told Thomas, who had been absent, that they had seen the Lord. Thomas responded like any rational person would respond and because of that he responded like most folks in our modern Western culture would respond: “I won’t believe it until I see it for myself; I won’t belief it until I have physical proof that I see with my own eyes and touch with my own hands.” Now, let’s not be too hard on Thomas because all he was asking for was what Mary and the other disciples had experienced; perhaps they had a hard time believing what they had seen but Thomas was being asked to believe something that he had not seen at all.

When Jesus appeared again to the disciples, this time with Thomas present, Thomas did not say “I have seen the Lord” (although I am sure he said it many, many times in the years to come); instead he offered a confession of faith in Christ that was based on what he had seen with his own eyes: “My Lord and my God.” It is a good confession.

Look, though, at what the resurrected Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That line was given for all who would come to believe after the first generation of Christians, those who were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ, died out. Thomas was challenged to believe on the basis of the testimony of the witnesses and he could not do it; people ever since have been encouraged to believe on the basis of the testimony of the witnesses.

When you get right down to it, though, if you are going to encounter the resurrected Christ, if you are going to experience his grace and love first-hand, if you are going to know the blessing of eternal life, then you are going to have to take the leap of faith; you are going to have to bet your life—to trust—that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God. Yes, you can gather evidence from the lives of faithful Christians and yes, you can gather evidence from the records of the eyewitnesses and their interpreters that are found in the New Testament—and that is all good evidence—but you will never have a first-hand encounter with the resurrected Lord until you let God carry you past your doubt, past your fear, past your stubbornness, past your assumed self-sufficiency and take the leap of faith into the arms of the Savior who gave his life for you on the cross and who rose on the third day from the grave.

You may try to persist in insisting “I’ve got to have my proof before I take the leap of faith” but if you do I have to tell you the truth: you’ll only get your proof after you take the leap of faith.

One of my favorite stories of how this works is found in the Old Testament book of Exodus. Moses had just been told by God that he was to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian captivity and Moses very reasonably asked God who in the world Moses was to attempt such a feat; implied in the question was a request for some proof, for some sign. Listen carefully to what God told Moses: “Here is your sign, Moses: after you lead the people out of Egypt, you will worship me on this mountain.” How about that! God told Moses that he would get the proof he wanted after he took the leap of faith and did what God had told him to do. Moses took that leap and he did in fact worship God on that mountain.

Will you take the leap of faith today? If you do, you still won’t see the resurrected Lord in the literal physical way. But you will come to know him in your heart and in your life and all through your eternal life; you will know his grace and love and mercy and forgiveness and peace.

You will, in every way that really matters, be able to say, “I have seen the Lord.”

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