Today is the Second Sunday of Easter, and it is the day we always read John’s Gospel account of Thomas, the apostle who refuses to believe, as he says, “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.” As one who has been going to church regularly for the past 40 plus years, I have never much liked the sermons I’ve heard on this day. There are two entirely contradictory and unsatisfactory Thomas sermons. I know this because, at various times over the years, I have delivered both.
The first Thomas sermon is the one that essentially beats him up for not having been there. He is the guy who missed the meeting and now wants you to give him a private executive summary of the key takeaways and deliverables. The argument goes: sorry, Thomas: you snooze, you lose. Thomas sermon one attacks him as someone whose refusal to believe seems stubbornly willful, especially since he’s the guy who wasn’t there. The call is to suck it up and deal with what the other apostles tell you. This sermon is favored among the people who call themselves traditionalists.
The second Thomas sermon does not attack Thomas. On the contrary, it exalts him as the patron saint of existential doubt. If the first sermon treats Thomas as an absentee loser, the second turns him into a philosophical hero who demands proof—kind of a first century Christopher Hitchens. He’s lauded as an empiricist before his time, an enlightened, humanistic guy who stands for all those who cannot believe some of the harder things Christianity asks us to swallow: the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection itself. The call here is to admit that most of the stuff we’re asked to accept on faith goes against rationality, science, and modern best practices. This sermon is favored among the people who think of themselves as progressives.
Now by sketching these two types of Thomas sermons I am not really trying to minimize either point of view. I know Christian people who cheerfully affirm every article of the Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian Creeds. I also know Christian people who have to cross their fingers 2/3 of the times they open their mouths in church. Some people accept the Christian creedal program entire, as a seamless garment of Bible, history, theology, worship, and ethics. Others need to test extra-rational proclamation by an appeal to empirical evidence and scientific laws. On any given Sunday, the pews are filled in thirds: 1/3 by people who have no questions, 1/3 by people who have nothing but questions, and 1/3 by others who are on a continuum somewhere between those first two positions.
My problem with Thomas sermons, though, is that they usually ask us to make a false choice. I don’t think it’s quite fair to castigate Thomas merely because he doesn’t trust the testimony of his friends. And, try as I might, I don’t admire him all that much for making such a big deal of it, either. There is, of course, a lot to admire about St.Thomas: tradition says that he went eventually to India where he established the Mar Thoma Church, one of the great, ongoing, Syriac Christian traditions that flourishes to this day. So he was a passionately committed Christian witness and evangelist. We fail to see his greatness as a saint who took Jesus’s words, “I send you” seriously when we turn him into the poster child for our own limited, partisan ideological agenda.
So let me tell you what I do think of Thomas. This week I heard an interview with the exiled Libyan novelist Hisham Matar on National Public Radio. When asked why Libyan writers had been rounded up, tortured, executed, and disappeared by Gaddafi, here is what Hisham Matar said:
Dictatorship by its essence is interested in one narrative, [an] intolerant narrative, and writers are interested in a multiplicity of narratives and conflicting empathies and what it would be like to be the other, to imagine what the other is thinking and feeling. And that sort of completely unsettles the dictatorial project. [Hisham Matar, on Morning Edition, NPR 4/28/11]
A mature, open community can live with multiple narratives. This is true for nations and it is true for faiths. Notice that there are, in our Bible, four versions of the Jesus story—one each by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four versions differ greatly in the factual details they present of Jesus’s life and ministry. Over the centuries, some Christians have made a case for settling on one Gospel or making a harmony of them to smooth out the differences, but the church has consistently maintained a preference for keeping all four, despite the discrepancies. We feel we get a truer picture of Jesus by seeing him from four disparate viewpoints than by narrowing our vision down to one.
In this way, the church has shown considerable flexibility and health. At our best moments, we Christians have exhibited considerable openness and breadth in ordering our common life. But all systems—even church systems—are subject to the kind of institutional hardening that we also see in totalitarian states. At its least healthy moments, the Christian community (and any religious community, for that matter) can find itself hijacked by one party that wants to declare its understanding of the tradition to be the one, timeless, incontrovertible truth. We see that in some Protestant (Fundamentalist) and Catholic (Papal-centric) expressions of Christianity. When we’re in that kind of reactive mode, we lose the ability to live creatively with multiple narratives and insist, in Matar’s words, on one, intolerant, narrative. And we do our best to label those who don’t buy our version of the truth as “heretics” or, more recently, “revisionists”.
Seen in this light, Thomas’s Easter night recalcitrance ceases to look like either heroism or stubbornness. It seems to me that Thomas is arguing less for scientific rationalism and more for the freedom of his own mind. His ten apostolic friends who had been in the locked room with Jesus on Easter night insist that Thomas accept their version of things as, well, “Gospel”. He is asked to believe something simply on authority, because the majority tells him to. He refuses. And in refusing he makes a case for something else.
For me, what Thomas makes the case for is God’s call to us to trust our own experience of life and to ground our faith in that. The other ten apostles are asking him to believe what they believe simply because they say so. In refusing to believe until he has a ground for his own faith, Thomas is telling us something radically new: he’s telling us that we people have, within ourselves, the grace, the discernment, the agency to reflect theologically on life and to tell our own truth about what God is doing. When an ecclesiastical bureaucratic hierarchy or a fundamentalistic sect tell you that they already have it all worked out and you do not need to trouble yourself with the details, they are essentially telling you that your role in this process is to be passive. But when Thomas announces that he will build his faith on what he himself knows, he is claiming his own authority, his own agency. Thomas refuses to be a mere consumer of religion. Thomas insists on being an agent, a partner, a voice in his own spiritual life.
Last Friday many of us watched the royal wedding of William and Catherine. It was a day to feel great about being an Anglican, seeing a particular strand of our liturgical tradition at its stately best. A few days before the wedding, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams issued a statement about the royal marriage, and in it he said two interesting things. First, he said, “There’s a mystery, a delight at the heart of human beings, and it’s possible to spend a lifetime and more exploring just that.” Christianity is an invitation into mystery, and in today’s Gospel, the risen Jesus offers not only a miracle of new life, but an invitation to explore the mysterious depth of life. In reaching literally into Jesus, Thomas ventured to explore that mystery. He was ready, perhaps as none of his fellow apostles were, for a journey into the heart of what it means to be in relationship with God and others.
The second thing Rowan Williams said was this:
A marriage is good news because it says something so deep about our humanity. And it tells us that we can have grounds for hope: that there are still people around who want to spend their lives with each other, who want to make this great act of generous commitment to one another.
In other words: in witnessing a marriage, we witness two people promising to spend their lives getting to know each other and to tie their own fulfillment to each others’ fulfillment. Marriage, then, is an act of openness to divine and human mystery. It is an act of generosity of commitment. And it is an occasion for hope that the world can actually be the way we see it in the coming together of two people before the altar. Mystery, openness, generosity, hope: these are what Jesus offered his companions when he appeared to them on Easter night. His resurrection was neither a magic trick or a litmus test; it was an invitation into mystery. Jesus’s words to his companions were simple words: "Peace be with you." "Receive the Holy Spirit.” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He offered them not only a fact but an adventure, the opportunity to go more deeply into mystery, openness, generosity, and hope. One of his companions, Thomas, was not there for the first appearance, but at the second he took Jesus up on his offer and it transformed his life.
God did not raise Jesus so that some people who think one way about it could use their certainty to browbeat others who think about it differently. God raised Jesus so that you and I and God’s world could give ourselves over to mystery, openness, generosity, and hope. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is not to memorize by rote every doctrinal point in the catechism. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is to claim your true identity, as Thomas did, as someone to whom Jesus offers a relationship and a journey.
Jesus wants you to love him not because of what somebody else told you to think about him. Jesus wants you to love him out of your own delving into the depth of God as you see that depth lived out in Jesus and as you experience it in your own life. On this Second Sunday of Easter, Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends you. Learn not just to tolerate but to exult in the multiplicity of narratives that are working themselves out in the pews and in the world all around you. Don’t take any of this on even my (or my priestly colleagues’) say so. And don’t reject it because some blowhard thinker tells you not to believe in the kind of vengeful God that I don’t believe in, either. Learn, know, and live it for yourself. The story you tell, the song you sing, should be your story and your song and not somebody else’s. Thomas knew that. He acted on his knowledge and became a witness to Jesus and his resurrection. You can know and do that, too. Amen.