Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Doubting Thomas (Easter 2)

Acts 2:14a,22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31
Psalm 16

Today we hear the story of doubting Thomas.  At least that’s how we’ve always named this story.  For generations, we have focused on this story as a moral tale about taking a leap of faith.  We have thought of doubting Thomas as the disciple who should have believed in the resurrection as a result of his faith, but because he was weak in faith, he needed to touch Jesus’ wounds to know the resurrection.  I think our reading of this passage has been significantly shaped by the art that depicts this scene.  Maybe the most famous is the Caravaggio painting—Jesus has opened his cloak and is putting Thomas’ finger into the wound in his side while the other two disciples (scholars think that one of them was Peter) look on.    When we see that painting, we are inclined to feel justified—we are the blessed ones, the ones who have believed without touching the wounded body of Christ.  We are good, faithful Christians who accept the resurrection as the truth even though we don’t have physical evidence.

When we read this story this way (the most popular way for generations), we are suggesting that the best way to be a person of faith is to put aside our rational, reasonable minds and focus on miraculous, the unbelievable truth which is God’s way.  We are suggesting that a good Christian doesn’t need to see or touch God, they just need to have faith.  I wonder if this isn’t like “alternative facts”.    We’re asked to reject what we know is true about the world (that people die and are buried) and accept what is least plausible—that a man who was dead and buried returned to walk and live among his friends.

I want to suggest that there’s another way to read this story—not as encouraging us to believe the unbelievable, but instead as a story about God breaking into our human existence and showing us something that is generally hidden from us.

Let’s go back to the text (putting aside the Caravaggio image that we carry of this scene).  In verse 19, we see the disciples locked in a room, afraid that they will be found and persecuted by the Jewish authorities.  They have seen what happened to Jesus and they are afraid that this could happen to them too.  While they are all together, they have a collective vision or a collective experience.  Jesus comes to them and says,  “Peace be with you.”  He shows them his wounds and then he repeats his statement,  “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. 

The key to this exchange is not the state of mind of the disciples who are locked in a room, wondering what’s going to happen to them.  The focus of the story is on Jesus’ actions—Jesus comes into the room to comfort and encourage and empower the disciples.  Jesus knows their fears and brings them a message of hope.  He refers to the Father—reminding them that this is how the God of Israel has always worked—just like the Father sent me, so I send you.  We can hear in this sentence, the reminder,  God sent Moses to lead the people out of Egypt.  God sent the other prophets, then God sent Jesus to do God’s work.  And after those prophets died,  God continued working.  God sent his only Son, to live and die as a human being to know our suffering and pain, but also to continue God’s work in the world.  Jesus comes, fully divine,  the Son of God to the disciples to assure them that God’s work is not yet done.  Even though his physical body has died (as all human bodies die), still God’s work is continuing—and they are the ones empowered to do it.  Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them.  He commands them,  “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."  Forgiving sins is not about pardoning someone who has done something terrible so that they can continue going out and doing terrible things.  Forgiving sins is about repentence and reconciliation.  Forgiveness is about encouraging and building up the community so that every person is oriented towards God’s way, not towards the human ways of oppression and violence.  We can hear Jesus’ words as a reminder to the disciples that they are on the right path.  He is saying to them, “Carry on!”  “Keep building up the community of followers.  Keep showing the people what real freedom looks like.  Keep fighting against the oppressive rulers of your day.”  And then warning them,  “if you don’t do it—if you aren’t out there forgiving, reconciling, healing, preaching and teaching and showing the people God’s way forward, then the sins will continue.”  Jesus breaks into the disciples’ closed room, their locked minds with a vision of hope.  As he shows them his hands and his wound, he is showing them that the truth is different than what they thought it was—the truth is that his death on the cross is not the end of God’s work with them.  The Holy Spirit is working in them.  They can go forward and build up the Jesus movement, even after the devastating death of Jesus. 

What an amazing experience it must have been for them.  Hope in the midst of sadness, assurances of peace and new life, right after the death of Jesus. 

So with this scene in mind,  Jesus has  acted on the disciples in the locked room,  now we see Thomas coming.  He was the one left out, but Jesus doesn’t want to leave him out.  Jesus comes to him too.  Thomas says to the other disciples,  "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, I will not believe."   Thomas is expressing his reality.  He is in a crisis.  Just like the other disciples, he needs reassurance.  I don’t see him as any less faithful than the other disciples,  he’s just expressing his reality—he’s afraid, he is discouraged.  Everything he has come to believe about God’s way in the world has been challenged by Jesus’ death.  He’s been following Jesus, preaching and healing and feeding people--building up the community of God’s people and now the authorities have killed his leader.  He is not willing to accept the “alternative facts”—that Jesus has risen--on the say so of the other disciples.  He needs to have a real experience. 

And so Jesus comes to Thomas just like he came to the other disciples.  This account of Thomas’ interaction is prefaced by the naming of Thomas as “the twin”.  Bible scholar and theologian, Dr. Charles M. Stang,  from Harvard Divinity School suggests that this naming of Thomas as the “the twin” is about Thomas being the other half of Jesus.  They are not just two human brothers, they are like twins—sharing essential DNA, two expressions of one being.  Thomas is the one who has fears, Jesus is the one who provides hope.  What is remarkable in this dialogue is not Thomas’ doubt, what is remarkable is Jesus’ reassurance.  Before Thomas says anything to Jesus,  Jesus knows that he has doubts and fears.  Jesus recognizes Thomas.  Jesus, Thomas’ other half,  his twin,  steps in and offers comfort.  “Peace be with you.”  And then "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."  The emphasis is not on what Thomas does.  In fact, the passage never says that Thomas did reach out and touch Jesus.  The passage emphasizes Jesus’ reassurance. Jesus is inviting Thomas to see the truth.  Thomas’ other side, his twin is showing him that death was not the end of God’s work. 

Does Thomas recognize his twin, Jesus?  Instead of just feeling hopeless, he has been given the promise that God is still working in the world.  And with that promise comes a blessing.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."  Jesus is reaching out to all of us,  blessing us, offering to show us his wounds, present us with the hope of life after death.  Whether or not Thomas did actually reach out and touch (and the passage doesn’t say he touched Jesus’ side), the issue is how Jesus, Thomas’ Lord and ours, is working.  He is blessing those who are willing to follow Jesus, even when their human vision is limited by the finality of death. 

Today, I want to encourage us to read this story as a story about God working in our lives.  Our twin sides—the human “Thomas” side of us is stuck with limited vision.  The Jesus side is full of hope, seeing in a different way that God has saved us and is saving us—working in our lives to build up our divine nature—that goodness that is always in us.   Jesus recognizes and blesses us.  Jesus by his resurrection, breaks into our human experience and grants us peace.  Jesus breaks in collectively,  when we are all together, facing doubts.  And Jesus breaks in when, like Thomas, might feel like we’re the only one who is not sure about the right path forward. 

The response to this passage is not “blind faith”.  This is not a passage about hiding from the truth and wishing for a miracle.  This is not about accepting “alternative facts” just because it soothes our worries.  We know that bad things are happening—God’s work isn’t done on this planet.  Human beings continue to hurt one another, just as they did in Jesus’ time.  There is still inequality, oppression, pain and death.  We know this reality.  We’re not expected to act as though death doesn’t happen. We’re not supposed to pretend that the planet is not getting warmer, that people of color aren’t being imprisoned at higher numbers than white people, that income inequality is still rising or that some of us are not getting our basic needs met.  We’re not being asked to make a leap of faith that is contrary to our reason.   Jesus recognizes us, knows our truth AND blesses us with a new reality—a reality of hope and promise.  Jesus steps in to show us that He is Risen.  Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on us so that we will be empowered to go out and change our reality.  Jesus is sending us all, just as the Father sent him.

We are being called to go out and work with God to bring God’s forgiveness, God’s justice into a broken and sinful world.  We are not being asked to sit back and wait for Jesus to prevail as a result of our faith.  Jesus is acting in us—recognizing us and building us up to work with Him.

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