“Seeing (Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, Touching) Is Believing”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 23, 2017 (Earth Sunday)

John 20:19-31


Thomas gets a bad rap.  He often gets interpreted as a sort of negative example, the one who shows what not to do.  The other disciples believed; why couldn’t he?  We often read Jesus’ words to him in a critical tone, almost as though Jesus is telling Thomas that he is disappointed in him.  We have even turned his name into a common admonition:  “Don’t be such a Doubting Thomas.”

Thomas gets a bad rap, but I don’t think he deserves it.  After all, he is only asking for the same experience the other disciples got to have.  He missed out the first time around—maybe he had gone out to pick up milk at the corner store, and it just so happened that that was the moment when Jesus chose to show up.  Thomas didn’t get the chance on that first Easter evening to hear Jesus speak those words of peace, to see him show his wounded hands and side, to witness that he was really alive, not a wishful-thinking figment of their grief-clouded imaginations.  You can’t really blame Thomas for being skeptical of the stories the others told him, or just being sad that he had missed seeing their beloved friend and teacher risen from the dead.

But God specializes in second, and third, and fourth, and tenth, and millionth chances.  And so Jesus appeared again, a week later.  The disciples had again shut themselves up in that house, and Jesus came and stood among them and repeated his previous words:  “Peace be with you.”  Then he turned to Thomas, and looked him in the eye, and said, My friend, here I am.  It’s really me!  He showed him his hands and his side, just as he had done seven days earlier with the other disciples.  And Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

His initial doubt and skepticism doesn’t seem to have hindered Thomas from there on out.  Tradition holds that he became the apostle to India, that he sailed there about two decades after Jesus died and founded the earliest Christian communities on the subcontinent, the descendants of which still claim the name “Saint Thomas Christians” today.  Other legends claim that Thomas traveled to Paraguay, in South America, and served among the indigenous Guaraní people there.  Still other stories say that Thomas was miraculously transported to the tomb of Mary, mother of Jesus, where he witnessed her ascension into heaven and caught the girdle that she dropped on her way up.  I must confess that I harbor some, well, doubt about these legends… but nevertheless, Thomas has been, and remains, an important figure in Christian piety, in spite of his “Doubting Thomas” reputation.

And here’s the thing.  What the story of Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Christ teaches us is that our senses are God-given gifts, and by using them, we discover important truths about our faith.  Thomas wanted to see and to hear and to feel that Jesus was really alive, and when he did, he discovered a depth of his faith he had not previously known.  Our sight, our hearing, our smell, our taste, our touch—these are ways we reflect God’s image, and these are ways we can encounter God.


So here we sit, on an April morning on Woodstock Hill, surrounded by signs of new life bursting forth all around us.  God’s artistry is revealed in the riotous joy of forsythia and the quiet dignity of magnolias.  God’s harmony is revealed in the whistle of robins and the twitter of sparrows.  God’s allure is revealed in the fragrance of daffodils and the scent of warm, wet earth.  God’s sweetness is revealed in maple syrup and the promise of strawberries.  God’s creative movement is revealed in the gentle breeze and the touch of sun on skin.

Like Thomas, we can use our senses—our sight, our hearing, our smell, our taste, our touch—to encounter God, to sense God’s presence, to appreciate the way God works in our world.  In the next few minutes, we will take the opportunity to do this with a time of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and reflection.  I will take us through a series of suggestions of things you might notice, ways you might pay attention.  If your body, mind, or spirit goes in another direction, that’s fine.


Let’s start with our sense of sight.

Look around you.  Look left and right.  Look down and up.  Take the time to really see.

Notice the colors that catch your eye.

Notice the shapes you see:  branches, leaves, petals, blades of grass, columns, doors, cracks in the sidewalk.

Notice the way that light and shadow play.

Where do you see signs of God’s presence, God’s work, God’s artistry?


Now let’s move to our sense of hearing.

Listen.  Really listen.

Notice the sound of birdsong.

Notice the sound of wind in branches.

Notice the sounds of human activity.

Notice what is loud and what is quiet, what is common and what is surprising.

Where do you hear signs of God’s presence, God’s work, God’s harmony?


Now let’s move to our senses of smell and taste.

Breathe through your nose and smell the air moving through your nostrils.

Breathe through your mouth and taste the air moving across your tongue.

Notice the scent of earth, of plants emerging, of leaves composting, of farms fertilizing.

Where do you smell or taste signs of God’s presence, God’s work, God’s sweetness?


Now let’s move to our sense of touch.

Notice the feeling of the air on your skin.

Notice the feeling of the earth under your feet, the chair that supports your body.

Notice gravity that keeps you anchored to this planet as it whirls through space.

Notice your heart beating, your chest rising and falling, your muscles holding you upright.

Notice any aches and pains.  Notice any pleasant sensations.

Where do you feel signs of God’s presence, God’s work, God’s creative movement?


Christ said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  We may not have the privilege of seeing the Risen Christ in the flesh in the way those disciples did in the early days after the first Easter, but we can nevertheless see and hear and smell and taste and feel God’s presence.  Like Thomas, we can use our senses to perceive and to believe.  Not everyone has access to every sense; some of us may be more able or less able or differently able in our hearing, or our sight, or our smell, or our taste, or our touch.  But everyone has access to some sense—whether it is a sense of the body or a sense of the spirit.  Everyone can use the senses we have, whatever they may be, to perceive the presence of God.

By paying attention to the signs of God’s presence, the things so ordinary we sometimes don’t even notice them, we can deepen our faith and be reminded of all the myriad ways in which God’s love is made manifest all around us, day and in and day out, new mercies every morning.  And on this Earth Day weekend, we can notice in particular the traces of God’s fingerprints all over this glorious creation.

So let us notice.  Let us see.  Let us hear.  Let us smell.  Let us taste.  Let us feel.  Let us believe.


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