Monday, April 20, 2009

Sermon -- 19 April 2009

2ND OF EASTER — 19 April 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00

Acts 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26 Ps 111 1John 5:1-6 John 20:19-31

Do not be faithless, but believing.

The Gospel on the Second Sunday of Easter is, every year, the account from St. John about Jesus’ appearances, first to the Ten (the Twelve, less Judas of course, and also with Thomas missing) on that first Sunday evening, and then a week later to the Eleven again, this time with Thomas present. Thomas, we are told, refused to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead until he saw Jesus with his own eyes and touched Jesus’ wounds with his own hands. And hence poor Tom has been nicknamed “Doubting Thomas” ever since. And we’ve been reading this Gospel passage on this Sunday in the year almost ever since; and it gives us good occasion to talk about faith and doubt.

Faith and doubt are often seen as opposites, as incompatible with each other. If you experience doubtfulness about something - especially something “religious,” something the Bible says, something the Church says - then you obviously “don’t have enough faith,” and folks use this as a club to beat you over the head with. Maybe you even use it on yourself as a club to beat yourself over the head with.

I don’t think God expects us to give our assent to things blindly and uncritically. God does not expect us to hang our brains on the hat rack when we walk into church (although, God knows, plenty of us do just that!). On the contrary, I think genuine faithfulness includes a readiness to use our minds rigorously, to think critically, to judge on the basis of credible evidence, though always in a spirit that humbly seeks truth, rather than one that proudly seeks power.

But back to our story. There’s nothing in the Gospels that suggests that Thomas was a skeptic by temperament. On the contrary, he was fervently devoted to Jesus. When Jesus starts up to Jerusalem the last time, even though the disciples warn him that the establishment has it in for him, it is Thomas who convinces the others, “Let us go with him too, and die there with him!” Thomas doesn’t have any trouble believing in Jesus; he just has trouble with pious platitudes and wishful thinking.

St. John’s Gospel, we might note, comes out of an early Christian community which (among other things) was trying to deal with people who tried to be more spiritual than God. (Later on some of this kind of super-spiritual religion would take forms which we would later refer to as “Gnosticism” - sort of the “New Age” of the second century - very lofty, anti-materialist, anti-worldly, esoteric stuff.) One of the things which the Fourth Gospel is at some considerable pains to defend is precisely that in Jesus “the Word became flesh, and pitched his tent right here among us.”

And so in John’s Gospel, when Thomas hears that the rest of the disciples have seen the risen Jesus, he says, “I don’t want to hear a bunch of inspirational stuff about the triumph of life over death, I don’t want a meaningful experience, I don’t want to be uplifted, I want to know the truth! I want to see his body, nail-holes and all!”

And note that Jesus really doesn’t seem to have any big problem with this. Look at the Gospel story again. That first Sunday night he appears to the Ten, and they’re all scared blue (fair enough!). (Incidentally, have you ever noticed in the accounts of the resurrection appearances, that people normally don’t recognize the risen Jesus when they see him? The women don’t, until Jesus speaks to them; nor Mary Magdalene; nor the disciples, in Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus, or in Galilee; nor Paul on the Damascus Road. We don’t find him; he discloses himself to us.) (Anyway.) Jesus appears to the Ten, and says, “Peace. Don’t be afraid.” And he shows them his hands and his side. “Look, it’s me.” Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. It’s okay that they should first experience the reality of his body. And it’s okay for Thomas, too, a week later. “Come and look,” Jesus says. “Come and touch. It’s really me. I’m really here. Do not be faithless - be faithful.” (That’s what the Greek says. It isn’t really talking about “doubt” in an intellectual or conceptual sense at all - it’s talking about personal commitment, personal trust, personal relationship.)

Thomas believed, Thomas placed his faith, Thomas let Jesus disclose himself to him. Because he saw.

“Blessed are those who believe, even though they don’t see,” Jesus says. Well, yes. He’s talking about us. Because we’re not going to see Jesus the way Thomas did (well, probably not.). We’re not going to, not exactly that way. The folks for whom and among whom St John’s Gospel was written weren’t going to see Jesus exactly that way either. That’s why the Gospel was written (and it says so, right there): “These things are written down so that you may believe.” Thomas needed some evidence, and that was okay. We need evidence too, and it’s still okay, and we’ve got some. The real crunch comes when we do meet Jesus, when Jesus does disclose himself to us through the people around us; do we recognize him then? Do we commit ourselves then? Are we faithful, rather than faithless?

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