The Most Blessed of Believers

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, April 8, 2021

 

The Lord is risen!

He is risen indeed!

This familiar Easter litany, dating back to the church’s earliest days, is more than emphasis by repetition. It underscores the importance of testimony in generating Easter faith – witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection recite the first line, inviting those who have not seen the risen Lord to affirm the witnesses’ testimony.

On Easter evening the ten disciples start the litany right, saying in effect “The Lord is risen!” (John 20:24-25) A very-much-alive Jesus has visited them physically, showing them the wounds of his crucifixion. But when they tell this to their colleague Thomas, who was away at the time Jesus showed up, his response is all wrong. He needs to learn better his liturgical lines. “We have seen the Lord!” they declare, to which he responds, “No way.” Eventually he gets it right, but it takes him a while to get there.

Aren’t we all like Thomas, slow to accept the story of Easter? It flies in the face of everything we know to be true about life and death. The only grounds for accepting it is to trust those who say they have seen the risen Lord. But even that wasn’t enough for Thomas.

Thomas apparently has learned well from Jesus, who inculcated in his disciples a healthy skepticism about claims people would make about seeing him here or there. And so when the risen Jesus finally shows up in person to Thomas, Jesus does not scold him, but simply offers Thomas the proof he demands.

During his ministry, Jesus was often asked for proof of his identity, a request he routinely turned down. But not so with Thomas. Thomas needed to see the risen Lord for himself, in order to believe. Jesus understood that need, and gave Thomas what he needed. Then he added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The risen Jesus continued to prove himself alive to his followers, eating and drinking with them to establish that he was present bodily and not just as an apparition. Paul reports that on one occasion Jesus appeared to five hundred witnesses at once. The New Testament tells far more about Jesus creating a community of witnesses to his resurrection, than it does about his resurrection itself.

I have often thought – and perhaps you have too – that it would be so much easier to be a believer if I had seen the resurrected Lord in person. But Jesus privileges me above those witnesses, by pronouncing an extra blessing on believers who have never seen him yet believe, simply because of others’ testimony.

We live in an era that has set aside the wisdom of our forebears who have taught us that we are entitled to our own interpretations, but not to our own facts.[i] Recent decades have revealed that with big social, political, and theological issues, people are more ready to believe as “fact” what they want to believe, than to accept facts that are scientifically verifiable. “Alternative facts” they have been euphemistically called. Thus, for example, large swaths of Americans sincerely believe that it is a matter of fact that President Biden stole the election despite no actual supporting evidence. They trust the people who make that declaration more than those that cite evidence to the contrary – whether academics, investigators, or courts.

I am sometimes reminded of the ancient philosophers’ question, “How many angels can dance on a pinhead?” Any answer is possible, because no answer can be falsified given that angels are invisible by definition. Simple assertion of a fact that cannot be disproven can bring comfort, but it is hardly sufficient grounds for shaping our lives. And for some, that is precisely the nature of belief in Jesus’ resurrection – an assertion of a fact that cannot be disproven.

But in truth it is something very different. It is an affirmation of the testimony of those witnesses for whom it could easily have been disproven. We believe because they declared what they saw, heard, and touched.

Those who believe the testimony of Jesus’ resurrection, without having themselves witnessed it, are especially blessed because in so doing, they become part of a community that has been formed by those witnesses. They are doing more than making a judgment simply by what they have seen. In affirming the word of eyewitnesses, they become part of the eyewitnesses’ fellowship, part of a society that will sustain them through the thick and thin of life.

Yours in Easter faith,

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The saying goes back at least to 1946, attributed to Bernard Baruch. It was cited by James Schlesinger in post-Watergate hearings, by Alan Greenspan, and perhaps most famously by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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