Eyewitness Talk

John 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Many television stations throughout the country have what they call “Eyewitness News.”  But eyewitness news can be problematic. Is eyewitness news trustworthy? Can we believe everything we see?

One of the primary reasons Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead is because of eyewitness testimony. Without the eyewitness testimony of those who saw him alive after the crucifixion and said so, it would be hard to make a case for the resurrection.  In court cases and the reversal of criminal convictions, eyewitness testimony has often been a problem — a huge problem.

Take the case of Kirk Bloodsworth, for example. In 1984, he was convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl and sentenced to the gas chamber. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of five eyewitnesses. But after he served nine years in prison, DNA testing proved him to be innocent.

A report by the Innocence Project (an organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate those wrongfully convicted of crimes) says that since the 1990s, when DNA testing was first introduced, 73 percent of the 239 convictions overturned through DNA testing were based on eyewitness testimony. One-third of these overturned cases rested on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses.

There’s research showing that 75 percent of false convictions are caused by an inaccurate eyewitness statement. This is attributed to factors such as memory decay, poor eyesight, induced stress and something known as eyewitness talk, where witnesses discuss what they saw with each other after the event and then change their minds about what they thought they saw based on the statement of another witness.

One survey found that 86 percent of real eyewitnesses claimed to have discussed the event with other witnesses prior to giving testimony. Researchers say that this talking among eyewitness can result in the process called “co-witness conformity” where eyewitnesses are influenced into including in their statements things they didn’t actually see.

Today’s story is a very familiar story in fact it is how Thomas got his name Doubting Thomas.  This fall when I preached on the Faces of Faith, he was one of our faces. We know quite a bit about Thomas and his refusal to believe the other disciples. We know that Jesus then returned and showed him his hands and feet and then he said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” When we hear that we get a feeling of superiority that yeah buddy we have not seen and yet here we are sitting in church believing.

Yet, Thomas teaches us something very important especially in today’s world. Seeing is believing and depending on the circles we run around in, if we tried to tell a story without eyewitness accounts today, we would be laughed out of the coffee shops known as Arby’s and McDonald’s. In calling Jesus’ statement to Thomas, a scolding, we have perhaps misread it. Maybe it’s more of an observation wherein he pronounces a special blessing on those who believe without the eyewitness testimony: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (in fact, it reads like a beatitude).

In other words, “If you need to have evidence, fine, but you are really blessed if you can believe without it.” Certainly, Jesus’ statement tells us that what’s required in this earthbound world in terms of evidence, testimony and proof is not currency in the kingdom of God. What’s required for our spiritual lives is faith, which the writer of Hebrews describes as the “evidence of things not seen” (11:1, KJV).

C.S. Lewis once famously remarked that he believed in Christianity just like he believed in the sun: “Not only because I see it,” he said, “but because by it I see everything else.”  What does it feel like to have unshakeable faith in something you can’t see? I wish I could tell you because for me there are things that shakes my faith. Things like how can someone who is created in the image of God be mean to other creations of God. We see it in Sri Lanka and in Latin America. We see it at the border and at the houses of worship that are blown up. We see it in hate messages and a resurgence of the Confederate flag and swastikas. We see it in a Jewish synagogue that was shot up yesterday.

Carol Howard Merritt, whom I met at Omaha School for Pastors several years ago is a pastor and author in the PCUSA tweeted, “The beauty of moving from evangelicalism is knowing that you don’t have to control other people’s beliefs. They may have different experiences, different paths. You can still honor them. We ask people three things in the PCUSA when joining the church Do you trust Jesus? Do you turn from evil? Will you be a faithful disciple?”

Thomas responded when he saw Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” That’s with an explanation point not a period. John of Patmos wrote in the book of Revelation vs. 5-6 “from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Our faith is not an eyewitness to the resurrection. Our faith is a belief that we belong to something greater than each other. It may not be an unshakeable faith but it is a growing faith and that’s OK. That there is more to this universe than can be seen with the naked eye. Think of everything we have discovered in our universe since the Hubble telescope. If it were not for science and technology we would be missing out. We don’t have to always be right. We don’t have to agree 100% with everyone. What we gain in relying on the wisdom of one another and listening instead of defending is a chance to love even more neighbors.

God’s Word for us today is to allow ourselves to let it go and trust that Jesus is who he said he was, our Lord and Savior. I don’t think it is blind faith, but it’s still faith. The more we can share and do for our neighbors the more we can see with our eyes the love God has for all of us. Amen.

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