Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about unbelief. The kind of unbelief that makes the news quite often has to do with climate change, also called global warming.
Almost half of the American population does not believe that the recent spike in global warming results from human activity, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Some disbelieve very aggressively. They say global warming is a hoax. Some disbelieve more cautiously, saying we need to wait for more information or to see how things turn out. And then some people disbelieve in a way that is just plain lazy: they just hope it will all go away.
The disbelievers either don’t know, or don’t care to know, that the carbon that is clogging our atmosphere has gone up while oxygen has gone down in direct proportion. That indicates burning. And the carbon is a particular kind of carbon: carbon 12. Carbon 12 comes from plants long dead. It is not carbon 13 which could come from recently living plants (because carbon 13 becomes radioactive and dissipates). Nor is it carbon 11 which comes from the molten geologic core of the earth when it releases through volcanoes. If the carbon is from burning, and it is not from volcanoes and not from recent plants, but is from plants long dead, then it can only be from fossil fuels. Last I checked no monkeys were burning fossil fuels. So I’m going to “believe” it has been some of the 7 billion humans on earth who have put over 380 parts per million of carbon into the atmosphere, which is drastically altering climate.i
Then there are some religious people who say, “Well, the planet is going to end anyway, when God blows it up or burns it up”—or whatever apocalyptic narrative you choose. The bad signs, the evidence of global warming and the troubles it will cause are warnings, and we must appease, they indicate, an obviously angry God before it is too late. If it gets to be too late for everyone else, at least a few who are on the right side of God could escape like Lot and Abram running away from Sodom.
So we have a set of disbelievers who don’t like the bad signs and deny them. And then we have another set of people who seem to relish the bad signs as a curse or judgment of doom that can inflame their religion of propitiation or appeasement.
In the closing chapters of the gospel of John, the disciples are being reassembled from here and there, drawn into good news, good signs, that Christ is risen, and that Christ abides with them, and they can respond to God’s world with love.
Thomas missed an earlier meeting where the disciples saw the wounded but resurrected Christ in person. The others are waiting for Thomas to join them, but Thomas is holding out for his own signs. Unless I see and touch to verify, I will not believe, Thomas says.
To me, it is interesting that even though Thomas gets to see and touch, and consequently expresses belief, he also in the same moment says “help my unbelief.” And then Jesus blesses all those who would not get the same signs that Thomas got, and yet would believe. I can’t help but imagine a kind smile on the face of Jesus when he says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
A couple of things are going on in John’s gospel here. It is a message of comfort to all those believers who would encounter Jesus through the written gospel, and the preached gospel and the acted gospel, rather than hearing and seeing Jesus in exactly the same manner as the first disciples did. And it is part of an ending to the gospel that is very consistent with the rest of the book—a book that had so much attention to signs, from water jars at Canaan to post-resurrection appearances. The blessing is for those who will NOT be eye-witnesses to the signs narrated in the gospel of John, but who WILL see and touch other signs in the days and years afterwards. Those signs would include bread and wine, words of good news spoken, baptismal waters splashed, and acts of compassion and justice.
The signs can change. The array of signs in John makes John a great piece of literature: from jars of water to bread and vines and sheep and gates and light and dark and descent and ascension and authority and subversion of authority and more. The signs are many. But Christ is one, and grace is one.
It is hard to imagine the narrative in John 20 going any other way, but try this as an exercise. Thomas sees Jesus and touches his wounds. Then Thomas says, well, I need a bit more evidence. Please eat a fish right here in front of me.
Eating fish is a different sign, by a campfire, on the lakeshore, in chapter 21. Nobody falls on their knees saying “my Lord and my God” when they see Jesus eating fish—maybe because they were stuffing their faces with fish. But that sign is another physical sign, like touching and seeing for Thomas, that showed Jesus is bodily resurrected and abiding close by within creation.
If Thomas had asked for a fish [comp. Luke 24:41-42], it would have changed his experience but it would not have changed the cross. Not one bit. His belief and yours and mine do not make the cross of Christ more or less of what it is, the once and central triumph of God’s grace over all that would oppress it—and the resurrection is its twin sign of God’s good intent and faithfulness to Christ and to creation forevermore. Thomas and the disciples find that Christ is still one, even after the cross tore him and them apart, and grace is one in the resurrection forevermore. That’s why the blessing of all those who don’t see belongs in the narrative with the really fine Jesus-sighting that Thomas received.
In our time, when the climate is warming, many signs are not good. The bad signs ought to be evidence for us that we must care for our planet and our neighbors in new and better ways. Some of the denial and disbelief ring suspiciously similar to our old human unwillingness to change because it is going to cost something to care for neighbor and planet.
But all who gather around the signs of grace have an orientation and centeredness to face the bad signs in their stark reality, without denial and without avoidance. The church is already learning to change and respond in new ways, because from the source of grace we can respond beyond denial and fear, with love – love just like the gospel of John features from beginning to end! In other words, go ahead and ask for a fish or any other signs—the work of our time still lays before us. The cross and the resurrection are still what they are, and from that orientation, we’re going to be able to move and respond.
When the floods come, and hurricanes and winds and storms—or when the drought cracks the land and the people and animals and plants perish—we humankind will indeed lament our deeds which have brought these conditions upon us and upon our home, planet earth. The disbelief and denial is but the first whimpering before the real wailing (Rev 1:7). But the church of Jesus Christ, abiding in his presence and the cross accomplished, stands with the sign of resurrection at the center of all other signs. The cross flowers into the renewed tree of life on the last page of the Bible (Rev 22::2; cf. Acts 5:30), after apocalyptic waves pass, and wailing gives way to hymns of grace and courage, hope and joy. In the meantime, the church can and will be a community of resilience with open doors to which the flooded and parched alike may come, to hear not a word of curse but a word of redemption and grace. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.
iInformation in this paragraph is from Earth: The Operator’s Manual DVD by Richard Alley (PBS, 2011)
iiThanks to Dr. Matthew Sleeth for attention to the tree on the past page of the Bible, as an object of focus by God. Sermon, Sunday, March 10, 2013, Washington National Cathedral (http://tinyurl.com/cz2w762)
iiiThanks to Mary Minette, ELCA Director of Environmental Education and Advocacy, for the term “communities of resilience” that she suggested to me in conversation about the widening attention to sustainability/greening in congregations, synods and church wide that is fostered by Lutherans Restoring Creation (lutheransrestoringcreation.org) & GreenFaith (greenfaith.org).