Thomas

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Easter 2A, 2017 John 20:19-31

Thomas

An Open Ended Future

“In dealing with people, Jesus did not condemn those who questioned or doubted. While Jesus was harsh with scribes and Pharisees who claimed to have all the answers in water-tight belief containers, he was always ready to encourage the genuine doubter” (Webb 1995: 15).

Allen Dixon asked me during the week what being progressive means and my first thought was about how we as progressives might proclaim our point of difference? What is it that distinguishes our approach to Christian life? My reply to Allen in the end was chapter and verse as to what I thought it meant acknowledging that there is not simple one phrase answer to that question. I have since attempted to find a response that contains what I think are key elements that are inclusive of a variety of ‘progressive expressions. It is that I think progressives attempt to rediscover a direct engagement between scripture and the whole human experience within the timeless conversation of tradition.  Human concerns and questions are recognized and addressed in the biblical texts which know the human condition thoroughly and, simultaneously, bear witness to the holy.   The progressive teacher/preacher hosts a “sacred conversation” between all past texts and the present occasion they are read and interpreted in public.

In simple terms the progressive does not ask whether or not God exists but rather acknowledges that that which we call Mystery is a given and the progressive task is to connect the human stories of old with the human experiences of today in search of understanding acknowledging that what we search for is always Mystery.

Applying this approach to our texts for today we find that even Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Then when the disciples heard her news they were huddled behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews.” Here we as followers of the Galilean, a northern Jew the disciples are in fear of the Judean Jews and we could say especially the Sadducees, the very Conservative and Empire collaborating Jews. Without fanfare, John writes simply, “Jesus came and stood among them….” We need to remember here that John is not deriding the faction that exists within the Jewish community but rather acknowledging the diversity of thinking that existed in Jesus time. Unfortunately over time and in defence of Christianity the Church has misinterpreted John making his story anti-Jewish. What is interesting is that some Jewish scholars now find John more pro-Jewish that even they thought.

The author of John then echoes the promise and invitation to “peace” made the last time they were all together, Jesus says: “Peace be among you.” He offers his body, in particular his hands and side, to his disciples with the words: “receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then John’s narrative abruptly jumps forward a week when the disciples are again “in the house.” And here we meet Thomas, who was absent the previous week, insisting that unless he sees and touches the wounds left by the nails in Jesus’ hands and can put his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side left by the spear, he will not believe. This point about believing would suggest a later time of writing for John in that the shift from practice as central to faith to belief as central is linked to the cultural shift that demands a more obvious identity for the Christ following movement. We noted recently this development from the sermon on the mount being about doing and the Nicaean Creed being about believing.

Jesus appears again with the same promise of “peace.” and invites Thomas to touch the wounds in his body and to “believe.”   Thomas blurts out: “My Lord and my God.” John’s narrative continues with two crucial sayings with great importance for the future. First, Jesus now offers a specific blessing for a particular group of people: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Secondly, John pointedly writes that Jesus “did many other signs” that he did not write about, but the ones he did write about “are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” and that this “believing” will bring you “life in his name.”

Having wrestled with the story retold some 2 centuries later than the event and tried to acknowledge the earlier context and the context of the author we return to the very familiar story of Thomas. The lectionary reminds of this story close after Easter almost every year and in its familiarity we sometimes fail to critique it thoroughly.

Because we tend to hear it nearly every year it becomes a difficult story to tell or preach on, and the reason for this is that we all tend to assume we know the story and jump ahead to ‘our’ endings and miss the story itself. There are also a couple of strange things about this Thomas story. Strange, in that the story is often entitled ‘doubting’ Thomas, in a negative way, and this happens even though we are told that there is no such word as ‘doubt’ in the Greek! It is strange also because it assumes that asking questions is the same as raising a white flag of surrender, and can be understood as evidence of faithlessness! We progressives know that asking questions about our faith is the only way of keeping it active, alive and above all relevant despite cultural influence. Asking questions is less about being unsure and losing one’s faith and more about seeking a viable, practical faith that lives into the future. It also says that an evangelical faith is not about proclaiming a belief as unassailable truth but rather about exhibiting a wondrous, peace-filled life that speaks to others.

It was the German/American theologian Paul Tillich who in his small, blue bound book, called Dynamics of Faith, claimed that authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation. And that questions were not a sign of faithlessness, but rather a willingness to take faith seriously. We progressives would say that our faith walk has to be one of intellectual integrity. Doubt is a prerequisite and parking one’s thinking brain at the door is not a faith journey. Others have followed Tillich’s lead, such as Val Webb in her excellent book of some years back: In Defence of Doubt.  An Invitation to Adventure. And as we have explored the progressive study resource called ‘Living the Questions.

Returning again to the story Rex Hunt commented on some things he hadn’t noticed in earlier years. One of these was that the storyteller we call John sets his interpreted story within a particular community which was experiencing debates on mission strategy, leadership issues, and discipleship. This raises the point that Thomas does not receive a blessing as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement? This is an unexpected realisation. The second thing Rex noted was that the storyteller John seems to be making it fairly clear that the faith which marks a true disciple relies on the witness of others rather than a personal experience of the Christ.  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

A true disciple is in the place where they can practice belonging, practice hospitality, practice respect, practice humility, practice conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004). Faith is a safe place in the company of others, and that place is a place where we can be shaped and reshaped by our questions and our search.

Greg Jenks from Faith-Futures Foundation, puts it another way: He says: “Faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a personal miracle that removes all opportunity for doubt.”  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

Rex acknowledges that he had not heard that before in this story. And then he suggests that the third thing he heard, is what some claim is the underlying theme running throughout the whole of John’s collection of stories: namely; that we experience the creative, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life, not as an, other-worldly, supernatural, experience but as an everyday routine experience. Bruce Epperly of Process & Faith notes it as often subtle, unpredictable and evasive. “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, he says: “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.”  (Epperly/P&F Web site, 2008)

These are wonderful images that transform faith from a ‘what if’ ‘tit for tat’ sort of contract into a shared, co-creative experience born out of the positive potential of questioning and thus out of doubt.

I have told this particular story before but I think it bears retelling.

During his 1990 Edward Cadbury Lecture given in the University of Birmingham, England, Brazilian Rubem Alves told a story of a boy who found the body of a dead man washed up on the edge of a seaside village. There is only one thing to do with the dead: they must be buried. In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial, so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral. As they did, the women began to talk and ponder about the dead stranger.

He was tall… and would have had to duck his head to enter their houses. His voice… was it like a whisper or like thunder. His hands… they were big. Did they play with children or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman’s body. The women laughed “and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection: a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead, returning… their bodies alive again”.  (Alves 1990: 23)

The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening, became jealous of the drowned man as they realised he had power which they did not have.

And they thought about the dreams they had never had…

Alves ends this part of the story by telling that they finally buried the dead man. But the village was never the same again.

This suggests that to know the reality of resurrection is to experience it. Not as some doctrine which involves belief in a supposedly empty tomb. Or an insistence on the literal historicity of the biblical stories.

Again Bruce Epperly says: “we all experience it by simply being alive, and going through all the normal, routine transformations of human growth and love and death”.   (Epperly, P&F Web site, 2008)

So, the good news of Easter, is not the so-called final scene as it is in fairy tales that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. Nor is it the horrific death at the hands of betrayal and evil but rather it is the beginning of an open-ended future. The faith moment, the wondrous infectious experience is the moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return, and our bodies – individually and as a church community – are alive again.

Amen.

Notes: Alves, R. 1990.  The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press. Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to See God: Prayer and Practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press Webb, V. 1995.  In Defense of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St Louis. Chalice Press.

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