I know a woman who has a little boy, who never picks up after himself. He’ll be in a room playing with his toys and, afterward, leave them scattered across the floor. He ignores his mother’s requests to pick them up and put them away.
One day his mother went to the room, fully expecting to see it littered with toys everywhere, as usual. Imagine her surprise when she opened the door and saw nothing on the floor. Everything was put away.
When she recounted the incident to me, she used the words: “I would not have believed it, if I had not seen it with my own eyes!”
As far as we know, the women at the empty tomb did not use these words when they discovered that Jesus was not there. But it is worth nothing that the angel that they did see there appealed to their sense of sight. “Come, see the place where he lay” (Matt. 28:6).
Afterward, the angel instructed the women to go and tell the disciples to go up to Galilee. For there they would see him. And when Jesus appeared to the women, he repeated to them the same command: “Go to my brothers and tell them to meet me in Galilee. There they will see me” (Matt. 28:10).
Now Thomas was not among the women on that first Easter morning. Nor apparently was he among the other disciples when the women came to them to deliver the news of the resurrection.
And yet today he demands the privilege that Jesus granted to the women and later to the disciples. He demands that unless Jesus appears before his very eyes, he will not believe. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
In throwing down this gauntlet, Thomas is not in good company here. In a desert long ago, the wandering children of Israel needed water. They turned in desperation to Moses: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and our livestock to die of thirst?”
Moses responded in frustration. “Why do you grumble against me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
At the direction of the Lord, Moses then went out ahead of the people, stood by the rock at Horeb, and struck it with his staff. Water came out of the rock for the people to drink. But Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord, saying: “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7).
Is Thomas essentially asking this same question? And if so, is he putting the Lord to the test?
There is a command in God’s law: “do not put the Lord your God to the test” which Thomas arguably is breaking here.
But just as God was merciful to the Israelites and gave them water, so too Jesus is merciful to Thomas: A week later Thomas joins the disciples in the house. Jesus appears before them and bids them his peace. He then turns his attention to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27).
The climactic moment in the scene is Thomas’ dramatic confession. “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
But note that Jesus does not praise Thomas for making this sublime confession. Instead, he says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
It is for us, for us gathered here today, that this blessing is intended. For what essentially distinguishes us from the women, from the disciples, and finally from Thomas except that we have not seen the risen Jesus?
We have not seen him and yet have come to believe.
That is why the First Letter of Peter (our first lesson) is closer to us, at least experientially, if not chronologically, than our Gospel lesson. For the original recipients of that letter are like us: “for even though they do not see him now, they believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (1 Pet. 3:8).
If the Gospel answers the “what” question, the Epistle answers the “how does it apply to me” question. If Jesus says that those who believe even though they have not seen are blessed, the Epistle answers “how” they are blessed.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).
The first verse in our first lesson is indeed a blessing—but it is a blessing directed to God in the form of praise.
God is blessed because of what he has done by his great mercy. This is a basic rule in biblical prayer. God’s people recall a great deed that God has done for them. And then they bless God.
For example, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharoah and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians” exclaims Jethro, Moses’ father in law (Exodus 18:10).
But our author today has even greater reason to bless God, for in the resurrection of Jesus Christ God has begun a salvation, a salvation that has radically transformed the lives of human beings, especially those who accept this message.
Singer and songwriter Christine Wyrtzen, reflecting on the transformation in her own life when she came to faith in Christ decades ago, wrote this: “I was reborn by the Spirit, reparented by the Father, and made resilient like Jesus.”
If God’s great mercy can be seen as a manifestation of God’s Spirit, then her experience resembles more or less what’s in view here.
New birth is no small thing, as Nicodemus in his late night conversation with Jesus realized, as you will recall from our Gospel on the Second Sunday of Lent.
Here we learn that it is made possible by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In raising Jesus from the dead, God overcame sin, death and decay, to which we and the world were subjected, and gave us a new birth into a living hope.
The word “birth” implies a relationship. The one who is born is related to the one who gives birth as a child to the parent. By God’s great mercy, through which God has given us a new birth, we relate to God as children to a Father.
Fathers, both in the world then and in the world today, leave an estate to their children. This is known as the children’s inheritance. But the inheritance of the children of God is no ordinary one. It does not consist of cash, investments, jewelry, art, antiques and real estate. To be sure, these can make this life more comfortable for the heirs in this life. But all these things, if they don’t run out first, serve them only as long as they live. And because they are of this world, sooner or later, they too will one day perish and become worthless. It is inevitable. This reality is characterized by a coming to be and a passing away.
The author contrasts these thigs with the inheritance that God the Father has stored up for God’s children, one that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [them]” (1 Pet. 1:4).
The Apostle Paul expresses this hope of God’s children in similar language: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and coheirs of Christ—if indeed we share in his sufferings, that we may also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17).
Christine Wyrtzen makes the observation that whomever I am born of determines in large part whom I am like. Children do inherit the traits of their parents. More than once, for example, while growing up, I was told that I looked like either my dad or my mom, depending, I guess, on the angle of view.
But in the realm of the spirit, it does not happen as it does in the realm of the flesh. When we were children of darkness, before we were reclaimed by God in Jesus Christ, we did not look at all like God our Father.
But God showed mercy to us and gave birth to us as his own children through his Spirit, who transforms us to resemble our new Father. But this does not happen right away; it is a process.
“Be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect” Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:48).
I always found these words daunting, until I realized, through experience, that the Father’s perfection is not the outcome of my own effort. It is the outcome of what God is doing in me.
This work of God is what the author of our Epistle lesson has in mind when he acknowledges that his readers have had to suffer various trials (1 Pet. 1:6).
God’s children are not spared from suffering. They are subject to trials, sometimes very severe and protracted trials. These are not evidence that God has turned against us, or has withdrawn his favor from us, although it can often feel like this.
On the contrary, God uses our trials to work in us that which is pleasing to him, that which serves purposes of the divine glory and our ultimate good.
This teaching is not unique to 1 Peter. It is found throughout the New Testament—indeed, throughout the entire Bible.
Thus the Apostle Paul writes in a familiar passage the following: “therefore, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).
James likewise counsels God’s people to consider it pure joy “whenever we face trials of many kinds, because we know that the testing of our faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:2-4).
Similarly, testing, according to 1 Peter, proves the genuineness of our faith, which is more precious than gold. When the process it complete, it will be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Pet. 1:7).
Again, the Apostle Paul expresses a similar thought when he writes: “our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
In reflecting on her faith journey, Christine Wyrtzen notes that what can be seen by physical eyes is least important. Real life happens behind a veil.
God’s promises are at work in our lives, but they are invisible. Jesus has been raised from the dead and reigns victoriously at God’s right hand, but he’s invisible. As our Great High Priest, Jesus intercedes for us at God’s right hand, but again he’s invisible. God is sanctifying us, making us to be more like him, that we may share in his holiness, but that work is invisible. The prayers that we pray are heard by God, but that’s invisible.
The truth is that we trust and serve One who is unseen and in a kingdom that is not yet seen.
Wyrtzen concedes that we do have occasional glimpses into what she calls “kingdom realities.” We see evidence of the work of God’s Spirit among us. People change. Needs are met, desires fulfilled, diseases healed, lives restored. God is everywhere. And we can see his traces in this world if our eyes are sensitive to him.
But it is nevertheless true that as long as we live in this body, in this world, we live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).