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." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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." 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." 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." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 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." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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. (John 20:19-31)
In November of 2008, a man was eating breakfast with friends in a Florida café. He was enjoying both his company and his French toast, and was about to eat his last piece of it when he looked down and saw something strange. There, in the golden brown skillet-marks, was the image of Jesus. He showed it to his friends, who also saw Jesus in the French toast, claiming that not only did they see the face of Jesus, but they saw two birds over his left shoulder and a cross held in his arm. When interviewed, he said that he had no plans to sell the toast on Ebay or anywhere else, but rather that he hoped people would “renew hope and faith” when they looked at it.
Not many of us, I daresay, have ever seen Jesus in our French toast, our waffles, our potato chips, or our grilled cheese sandwiches. And not many of us, I am guessing, put too much stock in news stories like the one above. They seem sort of, well, silly to us.
Maybe we assume that if we looked hard enough at the patterns on the outside of our grilled cheese, we too could see Jesus, or birds, or the silhouette of the White House, or really anything, in the same way that we could pick out shapes when we stared at the clouds as kids. Maybe we think people like these are a little crazy for caring so much about what their food looks like, and caring so much about a Jesus-shaped scorch mark that they’d call the news or sell the item online for thousands of dollars, or treat a waffle like an object of devotion. Maybe we look at those people and shake our heads, thinking it’s a shame that they need to see Jesus in their toast in order to have faith or to strengthen their faith – why they need to see to believe.
But maybe, just maybe, the people who see Jesus in their toast are more like Thomas, and more like ourselves, than we’d like to admit.
Thomas was not present with the other disciples when they were locked away in an upper room, scared and confused after Jesus’ death. Thomas was not present when Jesus passed through the locked door and appeared to them, offering them the peace that could only come from the Prince of Peace. And when the disciples find Thomas after the fact, Thomas doesn’t believe them.
Thomas tosses out a challenge: “Unless I see the nail marks and touch the wound in his side, I will not believe that Jesus is alive; I will not believe that you’ve seen him. I will believe once I’ve seen it for myself.” And even though we might expect Jesus and the disciples to look down on Thomas for those words, Jesus instead chooses to appear to Thomas in the flesh, to take on Thomas’s challenge, and to indulge Thomas’s need to see in order to believe.
“Seeing is believing” is a strong theme in John’s gospel. John is writing to a group of people a generation removed from the time of Jesus. And so John is writing a gospel that sets out to show, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus is human face of God’s divine love. John does this by organizing his gospel around the signs and miracles of Jesus, beginning with Jesus turning water to wine at Cana. In John’s gospel, signs and miracles reveal God’s glory and lead people to believing. Early in the gospel, Jesus makes the statement, “unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” So for the characters in John’s gospel, it is clear that seeing is, indeed, believing. In this context, there is nothing particularly special about Thomas’s request. Mary Magdeline and the disciples have all seen Jesus and thus believed the resurrection; Thomas is asking only to have the same opportunity to see the resurrected Jesus and thus to believe. And for Thomas, as for so many others in John’s gospel, seeing quickly leads to belief. He comes face-to-face with Jesus, and his first and only response is to proclaim “My Lord and God!”
The people who see Jesus in their toast want to experience what Thomas did: a tangible, touch-able, unmistakable encounter with the face of Jesus. And because we are human, our faith will always seek out a steady diet of signs, symbols, and images of Jesus at work in the world. But we are not and cannot be people who stare at our breakfasts, waiting for an image of Jesus’ face to appear before us. The resurrected Jesus sent out the disciples, to see God and to be God in the world. This is our charge as well: to look more broadly into our world to see where God is at work, and to look more deeply into our lives to see where God gives us reminders of the resurrection.
When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe," he is talking about us, for we are living in a day and age post-resurrection and post-ascension. Jesus is not walking this earth in the flesh. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t see the resurrected Christ in our world. We see the resurrected Christ in a variety of images and experiences in life.
One of the strongest images that we cling to is the empty cross. Right here and right now, we can look at the crosses here in the sanctuary, count the crosses in the stained-glass window, or trace the outline of the cross on the front of the hymnal. But wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, when we see the empty cross, we see the resurrected Jesus.
We also see the resurrected Jesus in images of new life that rise up around us, especially right now, during spring. When we watch the world transform from gray to green, when we see new buds on bare trees, when we watch flowers spring up from the once-dead earth, or when we watch the birds return home, we see glimpses of new creation. These glimpses show us the resurrection and give us hope in God’s promise of life.
We see the resurrected Jesus when we see people caring for one another. Jesus had compassion on the needy, healed the sick, welcomed the outcast, and forgave the sinner. And so we see Jesus whenever we see compassion, healing, welcoming, and forgiveness.
And if we are desperate to see Jesus in bread, we could certainly go online and purchase special waffle-makers and special toast presses that imprint the image of Jesus onto our breakfast (trust me, they exist!), or we could look no farther than the bread of communion. When we long to look directly into the eyes of Jesus, and to touch his very body, then we need go no farther than the table. For here we remember how Jesus showed himself to his disciples at supper before his death, and here we look ahead toward seeing Jesus in the eternal feast we will share with all the saints in glory.
And at this table, along with the disciples, with Mary Magdalene and Thomas, with all the witnesses of the resurrection, with all people of faith, and even the people who find Jesus in their toast or waffles or pancakes, we can proclaim with confidence, “We have seen the Lord! Alleluia!”