Sermon for April 16th, 2023
In the original version of the movie King of Kings, not the 1960s film with Jeffrey Hunter, but the 1920s silent movie directed by Cecil B Demille, we get one of the most brilliant introductions to the character of Jesus in the history of Jesus movies. It was also, fittingly, one of the earliest depictions of Jesus in film. In Cecil B Demille’s movie, the first time we ever see the face of Jesus is through the eyes of a blind little girl that he heals. We hear about Jesus. We meet his disciples and even his mother, but his face is revealed to the audience through the eyes of a blind person as the screen transforms from darkness into light, and in the midst of the light, there is Jesus, for the first time.
That one little scene was an inspired triumph of Demille’s. Brilliant. What better way to meet Jesus than through the eyes of someone who cannot see without him? The little girl is blind. She cannot see at all without Jesus. She needs help. She knows that she needs help. She is looking for help. She is looking for Jesus. The disciples and Mary give her a hand, they guide her and bring her to Jesus, but only he can heal her. And he does. His power gives her sight. And when her eyes are opened, this little girl instantly knows that this is her saviour, literally at first sight. But here is the little twist: she doesn’t believe in Jesus because she sees him; she sees because she believes in Jesus. She believed in Jesus before her eyes were opened, before she ever saw him. Her belief in him didn’t come from something she saw; it didn’t come from an examination of the evidence; it came from someplace deeper. Her heart was open to belief, her heart was open to God, before her eyes were. She doesn’t believe in Jesus because she sees him; she sees because she believes in Jesus.
In stark contrast to this blind little girl are the Pharisees and the scribes and the temple authorities, all of whom can see with perfect vision. They can see Jesus just fine. We are told actually that they are watching Jesus. They aren’t searching for Jesus, they are watching him. What are they watching for? A mistake. They are using their eyes to judge Jesus. Is he going to heal on the sabbath? Is he going to observe the law the way we think he ought to observe the law? Is he up to our standards? That’s what they want to know. Is he worthy enough for us?! Their hearts are so closed to Jesus, that even when they see him perform miracles, right in front of their eyes, they don’t believe.
So the movie begins with a blind girl who believes in and trusts in Jesus before she ever sees anything, and a bunch of folks who never believe in or trust Jesus no matter how much they see. Believing doesn’t come from seeing. It comes from a disposition of the heart. It comes from someplace within. It is worth mentioning, or worth remembering, that I am talking about a film here, and a silent film at that. Who is Demille’s audience here? Who is he talking to? Well I would venture to say that it’s not the blind. This is a visual medium. Demille is talking to sighted people and he is reminding them not to put too much faith in what they see.
You can’t always believe what you see and you don’t always need to see in order to believe. It is a message that we find woven into John’s gospel. A few weeks ago we heard a story about Jesus healing a little boy who was blind from birth and at the end of that story Jesus says “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
It is dangerous to put too much trust in what you see. Sometimes your eyes can deceive you. And it is possible to have perfect vision and to be completely blind to the spiritual realities of the world around you. You don’t need to see Jesus in order to believe in him. We are reminded of that again in today’s gospel which we always get the Sunday after Easter. Thomas didn’t see the risen Jesus on Easter Sunday, and he doesn’t want to believe the report that he is being given by the other disciples. He doesn’t trust them. He wants to judge for himself. He does see the risen Christ. He sees the marks of the nails in his hands and the wound in his side. But he is reminded by Jesus that you don’t need to see him in order to believe in him. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
As the good news of Jesus’s resurrection began to spread throughout the region, it was only natural that the next generation of believers would be people who never saw Jesus in the flesh and never witnessed the Resurrection. Peter was aware of this too in his letter this morning when he writes “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” From the very beginning there have been people who saw Jesus and didn’t believe in him and people who believed in Jesus without seeing him. Belief is more about the heart than it is the eyes.
A few weeks ago I sent out with our weekly parish email a recording of one of my favorite Fanny Crosby hymns My Saviour First of All. Now if you don’t know the story of Fanny Crosby, you should. She was one of the most prolific hymn writers ever, composing something like 8,000 hymns. She was born in 1820 and died in 1915. Think about that for a second and everything that happened during her life. That was the entire Victorian age, plus the Edwardian age and a little more to spare. She wrote some of our favorite hymns: Blessed Assurance, To God be the Glory. She was a woman of profound faith who memorized vast passages of the scriptures. She was also blind her entire life. In her entire life she never saw one crucifix or stained-glass window or gilded icon or friendly sepia-toned Jesus picture. She never watched a movie about Jesus’s life. She never saw him with her eyes. At one point someone asked her how she would know Jesus when she got to heaven. That night she sat right down and wrote a hymn as an answer:
When my life work is ended, and I cross the swelling tide,
When the bright and glorious morning I shall see,
I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him
And redeemed by His side, I shall stand.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
By the print of the nails in His hand.
I think of that hymn every time I hear this passage from John’s gospel and Thomas’s request and insistence to see Jesus’s wounds. Do we need to see them first in order to believe like Thomas, or can we like Fanny or the blind little girl in Demille’s film, can we choose to believe first and then through believing receive a more glorious vision than our earthly eyes could ever behold?
I don’t condemn Thomas at all; he’s like so many of us. It is easy to only trust yourself and what you see with your own eyes. Jesus doesn’t condemn him for his skepticism and neither do I. And if the risen Jesus can get through locked doors maybe he can get through locked hearts too and convert the most recalcitrant souls. But still, I think it’s better if he doesn’t have too.
Fanny Crosby knew that you could have life in Jesus’s name long before you ever meet him face to face. She didn’t believe because she saw, she saw because she believed.