Easter: An Open-ended Future, Alive!

Posted: April 16, 2020 in Uncategorized

John 20:19-31

Easter: An Open-ended Future, Alive!

We have all heard it, or at least all of those who have some affiliation with the church and the Christian faith. I am of course talking about the story about Thomas. It is a very familiar story.  Too familiar, perhaps. And therein is one of its problems. We hear it every year at this time, the first Sunday after Easter, that is, if ministers and preachers follow the set lectionary. And because we tend to hear it every year it is a difficult story to tell or preach on, because everyone, preacher and listener, reckons they know the ending, and often we all jump ahead to ‘our’ endings and miss the story itself.

So, this year hopefully with our Zoom meeting up and running I now invite you all to tell the story as you remember it. What do you remember about it? And remember you don’t have to get it right because what you remember is right anyway.

(General sharing/telling of the story)

Thank you.

What we might have gleaned from that exercise (if we did have a discussion) is that there are many interpretations of this story. But there are some similarities and the first is that it is often titled ‘doubting’ Thomas, in a negative way, yet we are told there is no such word as ‘doubt’ in the Greek! Another is that it is as if asking questions is the same as raising a white flag of surrender, and evidence of faithlessness!

It was the German/American theologian Paul Tillich who blew that latter criticism right out of the water for many of us when in his small, blue bound book, called Dynamics of Faith, Tillich claimed that an authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation. And that questions were not a sign of faithlessness, but a willingness to take faith seriously. And others have followed Tillich’s lead, such as Val Webb in her excellent book of some years back: In Defence of DoubtAn Invitation to Adventure. And latterly, the progressive study resource called ‘Living the Questions. You might recall here St David’s Mission Statement at the beginning of the Liturgy pew-sheet, Honour The Mind, Live the questions and Explore the Adventure of Humanity that seeks to encapsulate the call to recognise our ability to make language say what we want, the inherent need to embrace a life of doubt as a positive and enlightening opportunity and that such a life is an adventure that brings the novel as safe, encouraging and life enhancing.

So perhaps we can sense some of the dilemma we face each year as this story comes around in the lectionary. Despite that however, if we are true to what has just been said about doubt there have to be new things to be heard in its retelling.

One of the things might be 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 sounds like it might be helpful for Northern Presbytery does it not? And how often have we heard those words in the last few years as the City parishes face a new world driven by business models, uniform expectation and top down management? This makes more sense when we can we hear that Thomas does not receive a blessing as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement?

Some of us have felt this concern in the last few years have we not?

For me, hearing this from our text was an unexpected realisation.

Second, our 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) In other words, it is in the place of doubting that is the place where we can practice belonging, practice hospitality, practice respect, practice humility, practice conversation and disagreement. (Bessler-Northcutt 2004). This also suggests that doubt provides a safe place in the company of others, and that in doubting we can be shaped and reshaped by our questions and our search.

Greg Jenks from Faith-Futures Foundation, puts it this 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) Maybe some of us haven’t heard it being put like that before in this story.

And the third thing we might have heard is what some claim is the underlying theme running throughout the whole of John’s collection of stories we experience the creative, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life. As doubt is so much a part of our lives so is the transforming power of our God, our serendipitous creativity. Often subtle.  Unpredictable.  Evasive. “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests Bruce Epperly of Process & Faith, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.”  (Epperly/P&F Web site, 2008)

I like those images because they introduce both an alternative way of seeing things as well as a hint of humour as a vital component of life

And talking for a minute on laughter; Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox, in his book The Feast of Fools, suggests that the “comic spirit is somehow closer to Christianity than is the tragic”.  (Cox 1969:150) Then 18 years later, in April 1987, he published in the journal Christianity and Crisis, an article called “God’s Last Laugh”. In it he suggested: “God laughs, it seems, because God knows how [Easter] all turns out in the end.” Cox went on to say: “On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil. But, without a trace of irreverence, can we not also say there is something genuinely comic about Easter? Could it be God’s hilarious answer to those who sported and derided God’s prophet, who blindfolded and buffeted him, and who continue to hound and deprive God’s children today?”  (Cox 1987)

He had in mind, no doubt, the custom found in some Orthodox churches, where members meet in the church – usually on the Monday after Easter (through to the following Saturday), and called ‘Bright Monday/Week’ – for a feast and festival. Games would be played. And there would be much laughter, dancing and joke telling. Why? Because, they said, it was the most fitting way to celebrate the ‘big joke’ God pulled on Satan in the resurrection. That has to tickle one’s fancy does it not! But it leaves us with the over-all question: Why does laughter hold such a meager place in our religious life?

Returning to our test we come to the realization 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. 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)

The good news of Easter, then, is not the so-called final scene as it is in fairy tales that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. Easter is the beginning of an open-ended future. A moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return, and our bodies – individually and as a church community – are alive again. That sounds like a pretty good message from and Easter during our Covid-19 experience. Yes; the world will be different and while we might doubt our ability to recover, our doubting contains the possibility of remaking the world. Amen.

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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