Welcome + Worship + Witness

Revd Jonathan Cain: Seeing is believing?

17 April 2016
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Jonathan Cain
Acts 9:36-end; Jn. 10:22-30

Whenever I see a prison scene on the TV I am reminded of a visit I made a few years ago to the Wetherby Young Offenders Institution. The visit was part of an initiative designed to close the gap between the boardroom and the community called ‘Seeing is believing’; an initiative established by HRH the Princes of Wales in 1990 to give business leaders first hand insight into pressing social and environmental issues.  The vision – to create a fairer society and a more sustainable future.  I will never forget being eyeballed by a group of young men who were working towards trade qualifications at Wetherby.  They asked whether the company I represented would employ them on release.  Now I knew that for every one place on our apprentice programme we received at least ten applications and so their question was a challenging one.  I didn’t dodge the question, but answered honestly; my response may have been realistic, but I regret that it may not have inspired much hope for those young men.

The name for the Prince’s initiative, ‘Seeing is believing’ is in tune with a scientific age, and apparently has ancient provenance. Google credits the Roman playwright Plautus with this quotation …

“One eye-witness bears more weight than ten hearsays. Seeing is believing the world over”.

Seeing is believing – Is that right? Martin Luther King Jnr suggested that “seeing is not always believing”, something that is evident from the Gospel today.  Let’s listen again to the exchange between Jesus and his questioners …

“[They] gathered around him and said to him ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’  Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe …’”

Of course, Jesus told them; Jesus revealed his identity in a variety of ways. Those gathered saw Jesus unpack and explain the Jewish scriptures, they saw him interacting with people from all segments of society, and they saw him perform miracles or signs; all to provoke the belief that he is Israel’s Messiah.  The narrative testifies that some believed and some didn’t – it would seem that seeing is not always believing.

In this vein the theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas writes …

“We say that ‘seeing is believing,’ but it seems in matters having to do with God that ‘believing is seeing.’ But believing does not mean we must accept twenty-three improbable propositions before breakfast.  Rather, believing means being made participants in a way of life unintelligible if Jesus is not our Lord and our God.  To so live is not to try to make the world conform to our wishes and fantasies, but rather to see truthfully the way the world is.”

Believing is seeing then, in matters having to do with God … and yet the prologue to John’s Gospel affirms the indissoluble link between Christ and all things … I would therefore dare to suggest that in all things we see through the lens of what we believe.  Evidence the outcry from one side of the political spectrum in matters of tax-dodging mirroring outcries from the other side of the political spectrum in matters of benefit-scrounging; I simplify to make the point.  We see and judge the protagonists in these scenarios through the lens of what we believe.

Hauerwas again …

“But we do not see the way the world is just by looking. We must be transformed, we must be freed from our ill-formed desires, if we are to see that [Jesus] is God’s Son and declare here is the Creator and Redeemer; he has come not to condemn the world, but rather he has come that we might see the world through the eyes of its Creator and so be saved through him.”

Jesus’ promise of abundant life made earlier in the chapter 10 of John’s gospel is, in today’s reading the promise of eternal life. He affirms that not even death can snatch his believers from his hand or the hand of the Father.  It is with this understanding, through this lens if you like, that we come to see what is going on with Peter and Tabitha.

Last week we heard of Peter’s three-fold reconciliation with Jesus, and Jesus’ command for Peter to feed and tend the flock. Today we hear of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead; an action not primarily for Tabitha, already assured of the resurrection to eternal life, but for the flock …

“[Peter’s raising of Tabitha] became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

Notice it says ‘many’ not ‘all’. It was the same when Jesus raised Lazarus …

“Many … who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.”

Signs do not make believers. Seeing is not always believing.

Why not? Because of the lens we see through, one that is obscured by our own experience, prejudice, fear even …

My ‘Seeing is believing’ visit to Wetherby was not, on its own, enough to give ex-offenders an equal chance in the job market. What’s needed is a transformation of me, and of wider society.  A transformation that cultivates belief that society really can and really should be a place of mercy, justice, righteousness.  A transformation that arises from following Christ.

To be so transformed would be to see the world through the eyes of its Creator. To be so transformed is to be free.

As we walk together as God’s Easter people, may we believe so that we may see.