There's More to Truth than Meets the Eye


Rev. Dr.  Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

April 19, 2020

Texts: Psalm 12; John 20:19–31

       In 1984 Jennifer Thompson-Camino was raped in her Burlington, North Carolina, apartment. Presented with photos of six men who could have been her possible assailant, she pondered over the photos and identified Ronald Cotton. “Are you sure?” she was asked, and she said she was positive. He was sentenced to life plus 54 years. 

       In Missouri Larry Johnson was sentenced to life based on a lineup identification in spite of the fact that the defense was not permitted to test certain items that the police actually had in its possession. Cotton and Johnson both languished in prison until 1995 when The Innocence Project took on their cases. After more than six years of work, they were both exonerated by the technology of DNA evidence. In both cases, the women had misidentified the wrong people. There is more to truth than meets the eye. 

       The same is true with optical illusions, those puzzles in which the picture or frame of something is hidden in something else. Looking at a series of blocks or wavy lines we are often amazed by what we see. Children have the “Where’s Waldo” series and adults have the intriguing paintings of Bev Doolittle who showed us how we had to really look for horses in the woods. 

        What artists and playwrights have known for centuries, scientists investigate, of course, and look for the hidden truths beyond the appearances we see. Our notions of truth and trust are founded on an underlying faith that more information is better, and that information, all things being equal, should be made available. 

        To begin with, for the most part, we really believe that life presents “problems” to be “solved.” And we also believe that the more exposed a problem is, the easier it is to solve it. In some cases that’s true; however, sometimes, more information only creates more complexity to the issue and makes the problem even more difficult to “solve.”  

        We are often told that we can “know too much.” What does that mean? And what does that have to do with faith—and doubt? These are the very questions presented by this morning’s reading. What is it that we are supposed to not know before believing? In certain parts of the United States, some people oppose having evolution taught because it will “destroy” faith. It’s a pretty shallow faith that can be destroyed by a few dinosaurs. 

        Over a thousand years ago the French theologian Peter Abelard said, “Doubt leads to inquiry and inquiry leads to faith.” In some sense that is what this morning’s reading is all about. The facile words attributed to Jesus by the Gospel writer, “Blessed are those who have not seen but believe” were used to calm down the anxious who were part of a new generation who had not known Jesus personally but relied on the testimony of others. 

       I submit that those words are not in keeping with Jesus’ approach to life and faith. Jesus brought a radically new vision of God to his age and to ours. Rather than a deity fixed in a specific place and time, rather than something that had to be worshiped in a temple or a church––Jesus offers us the opportunity to experience God in a radically new way. 

        Jesus showed us the face of God in humanity––not an amorphous concept of humanity but in the persons whom we meet every day. We can experience God in the face of grief and in the faces of joy. We can experience God in the kindness of others as well as God’s absence in cruelty. We can see God through the images from the Hubble telescope and the beauty of a single insect. God is all around us and in us and as Scripture so beautifully puts it. Finally, we can experience God in our hearts. 

       We live in an age of doubt. So how do we have faith in this age, this age of doubt? By allowing God’s spirit to enter our hearts, and opening us to the truth that is far deeper than intellectualization. If we really think about it, we can experience God even in the most mundane of places.

       We also experience the reality of God in dark times, times of fear and trembling. The psalmist does not only sing of the beauty of God’s creation but when we are in the deepest mire, when water is about to cover our necks. The past several months and especially the past several weeks has forced us to go beyond what we do see into a new reality.

       This past week Ed Yong, the health reporter for The Atlantic said we are not asking the right questions about the pandemic. As Devi Sridhar, a public health expert at the University of Edinburgh, said, “Everyone wants to know when this will end. That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”

       As a society that crosses international boundaries, we must increase our testing ability and fast. The problem is that the tests measure a point in time. I may be okay today, but what about tomorrow? We also need to increase the production of medical supplies and drugs. It’s time to call the pharmaceutical industries to task. This is more than about making money.

       Then there is the question of what the “new normal” will be. One symbol of the new normal is the wearing of face masks. East Asian societies have been doing this for years, even before Covid-19. It is a symbol of civic-mindedness and conscientiousness. The mask for us should be the same, a statement of our concern for others as well as for ourselves. 

      The question for us is how will we continue to experience God in this new reality, one where we have to live much in the same way as did our ancestors who had the constant specter of illness and death before them. For the most part, we have not faced those same adversities.

       Experiencing God and the Risen Christ is more than simply looking at wounds in a hand or the side. It also means looking at our own wounds, even the ones we hide from ourselves. It means caring for the other.

        Theology is our response to the world around us, and our theology and faith as Christians requires that we call the powers and principalities to task for their inaction, not to mention willful blindness. 

       As part of his so-called “America First” politics, the President significantly reduced funding for the Global Health Bureau, part of USAID, the Agency for International Development; in fact, it did not even have a director for the last three years. We are now paying the price of the willful blindness, not to mention hubris, of our political leaders who worry more about money than public health.

       As a people of faith, we are called to be on top of our elected officials, to call them to task, to make them understand that we have a new normal. We need to make it clear that public health should not be an episodic event, a response to a crisis because it threatens the stock market.

       What does this mean for us as a community? That is, of course, our question. The community of followers of Jesus went into hiding after his crucifixion, reasonably fearful that they would be next. But as they began to experience the presence of Jesus the Risen Christ in their lives, they began to look for new ways of being together and of being in the world. 

       For now, we have a new way of being together. We will slowly but surely be able to gather again physically as well as spiritually as the numbers of infections are reduced. The really important thing for us as Christians is not to forget that our community will survive. We will experience the new face of God as shown to us through Jesus of Nazareth, who became the Christ as our crucified and risen Lord. 

       Let us pray: Open to us your face, O God, giving us the new vision of you shared with us through Jesus of Nazareth, who died because the world shunned his vision, and who lives in us as we accept it. Amen.