While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ ~Matthew 28.11-20
The tomb has been opened and the angel has pronounced it empty. The witnesses have scattered, the guards to report the incident to the priests and the women to tell the male disciples hiding in the city. The priests gave the guards bribe money to tell a fabricated story that implicated them of sleeping on the job (never a really good explanation for why something did or didn’t happen on their watch) while the disciples listened to the women and actually went where they were told to meet him. What a meeting that must have been!
There’s an old saying, “Seeing is believing,” that pretty much says something isn’t really true unless someone witnesses it for themselves. Even the word of someone else, no matter how trusted a someone else, is always open to a bit of skepticism and sometimes outright denial. Eleven men, followers of Jesus who had been with him for years, gathered on a mountain in Galilee and there met Jesus, the Jesus who had been crucified and pronounced dead just a few days before. Now you would think that seeing should be enough (unless you’re Thomas in the upper room — but that’s another story), but evidently somebody (or several somebodies) weren’t sure their eyes weren’t playing tricks on them.
It reminds me of the story of the three children from Fatima, Portugal, who saw the apparition of the Virgin Mary a number of times. The word got around about the visions and many followed the two girls and the boy as they went to the designated spot to meet Mary. For those who did so, all they saw were three small human beings, kneeling with faces and eyes uplifted to heaven. Many in those crowds believed Mary did appear, even if they didn’t see her themselves, but then, there were probably some who just couldn’t make the leap of faith without visual proof. There are always doubters, whether or not they trust their eyes, it seems, but there are also those who believe, again whether or not they trust their own vision.
There are lots of ways of expressing incredulity, whether stating belief or disbelief. The reading today said that “some doubted,” evidently more than our friend Thomas who was openly disbelieving until offered visual proof. I have to wonder, who else had doubts? And after being with Jesus for some time, seeing miracles, signs and wonders, what about his appearance still made them doubt? I wonder, would I be one of those “I’ll believe it when I see it” followers or an “I just can’t believe it!” one. How much do I believe based on what I observe and how much because of what I feel? How much do I trust my instinct and how much do I require visual (or tactile) reinforcement when it comes to believing something?
The gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus pronouncing what is called the Great Commission, the instruction to go out and evangelize the whole world, but also put in words of great comfort, ” [R]emember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” What a great last line — leaving on a word of hope with an open-ended promise. Hope can’t be seen, but it can be most powerfully experienced. That is what Jesus offers us, even if we don’t see him walking down the street or living next door. He is still as close as a breath and as present as a heartbeat. It can’t be seen, but only experienced — and passed along.