Thursday, April 13, 2006

Faithful Thomas 1.0

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
April 23, 2006

St. Paul's Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ

April 13, 2006

Year B: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26, 13-15, 17-26
1 John 5:1-6
John 20:19-31
Psalm 118:19-24

“Faithful Thomas”

I’m not just saying this because I’m a Thomas too, but I think the Apostle Thomas has gotten a bad rap thanks to our reading today from the Gospel of John. Obviously, John criticizes Thomas as someone who actually needs to see Jesus in order to believe in Jesus. Now, before all the Peters and Andrews of the world start congratulating themselves, let’s remember that the other apostles didn’t believe Mary Magdalene’s story of the resurrected Jesus, either. They needed to see Jesus too. But we don’t use the expression “Doubting Peter” or “Doubting Andrew,” do we? No, it’s only Thomas who seems forever to be stuck as the doubter.

And let’s face it, Thomas does say “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.” And so Jesus gives Thomas what he seems to need – Jesus shows him his wounded, resurrected body; invites Thomas to touch, to believe. And then Thomas says maybe more than he actually understands, crying out to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” It’s Thomas more than the others who really recognizes who Jesus really is – “My Lord and my God!”

Yes, Thomas is a doubter. But, I would like to suggest to you that Thomas is also for us a model of faith. One of my professors at the seminary has said something a few times over the past semester that has gotten stuck in my head. This professor has suggested that we are wrong to say that doubt is the opposite of faith. No, he says, the opposite of faith is certainty.

I’ve thought about that a lot these past few months. And I think he’s right. I could be wrong, but certainty seems so easy – it seems almost dishonest. It’s like enjoying the happy, sunny Easter Sunday morning without living through the drizzly gray Good Friday. I mean, honestly, how can we go through our lives, seeing and experiencing all the mindless and purposeless suffering that we do, and not sometimes wonder – where is God? Why does God allow these terrible things to happen? Maybe this sounds strange to say in church, but it is very healthy and normal to doubt, to question, to be skeptical.

Now, if we think of faith as having convinced ourselves of something, if we think of faith as something you either have or you don’t, if we think of faith as something that you can get but can also lose, then doubt can be a truly frightening experience. As a young man, Martin Luther was very concerned about how he could know he had enough faith. He wondered, what if I need just a little more faith? Or, what if I was supposed to say just one more prayer? What if I don’t have enough faith? What if I haven’t done enough? He called the predicament the “terrified conscience.”

After agonizing about this for a while, Luther finally came to realize that it’s not about us, but instead it’s about God and God’s grace. Luther came to understand that faith is not a thing that we can possess, but instead faith is opening our hearts to let God’s grace work within and through us. In a real sense, faith is a way of living, it’s not a thing that we either have or we don’t have. Faith is a verb, not a noun.

If we recognize what faith really is, then it’s pretty easy to see Thomas as a man of faith much more than a man of doubt. Faithful Thomas, not Doubting Thomas. Truthfully, we don’t know too much about Thomas, but he seems to be a man of action, a courageous man, a true disciple of Jesus. Back in Chapter 11, Thomas says to the other disciples, “let us go, that we may die with him.” Despite that boldness, the events leading up to Good Friday must have been shocking and frightening to Thomas as they were for others. Like nearly all of Jesus’ followers, of course, Thomas stayed away from Golgotha. He didn’t hear Jesus cry out from the cross in agony or ask God to forgive his persecutors. He didn’t see Jesus breathe his last.

What happens next is crucial. If faith is just a thing then it’s very easy to imagine Thomas giving up in the face of this horrible execution. I was fooled. I thought this Jesus was the messiah, but I was wrong. Look at what’s happened to him – the most shameful death of all. I should have listened when people mocked me and said I was crazy to follow this carpenter.

But, faith is not a thing, it’s an openness to the power of God. Faith is not having everything figured out, it’s a trust that God is at work in the world, restoring the world to the way things were meant to be. So what does Thomas do after Jesus’ death? Well, we don’t know, but we do know that he is not fearfully hiding with the other disciples. Maybe he went off by himself to pray and to try to make sense of these horrible events, this huge disappointment. Maybe he cried out to God – Why did you let this happen? Jesus preached the Kingdom of God was near – why did you let his enemies arrest him and kill him? Was it all fake? Was I fool for following Jesus? What do I do now?

Maybe that sounds like doubt. But, really, it is faithfully reaching out to God. It’s honestly admitting to God that this does not all make sense – but I’m not going to give up, I’m not going to close myself off, no matter how much I’m afraid, or confused, or skeptical.

So what does Thomas do when the other disciples tell him about the resurrected Jesus? Is he doubtful? You bet. But the story doesn’t end there. He doesn’t say some first century equivalent of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” He goes back with the disciples to the house – despite his doubt, he is still open to the possibility that God is at work, that things are not quite as they seem, and that death is not really the end of the story.

It’s that openness that gives Thomas the insight and the wisdom to say to Jesus more than he probably understood, “My Lord and my God!”

Faith - that openness to God, that trust in God, is easy to talk about but not so easy to live out in our daily lives – it’s not even easy when you’re like me and surrounded by church nearly all the time. It’s a constant struggle to be open and mindful – to really pay attention for God at work in the world around us. But, here’s the good news - we don’t have to do the work. If we’re open even a little, if we leave even just a little room for God, then God will do the rest.

My Good Friday experience this year is a good example. This year I was in charge of the Good Friday service at the seminary chapel. Since this is an important service, and everyone there is sort of an expert who knew how it was supposed to work, there was a lot of pressure on me and others involved, to do our jobs right. Everything turned out fine, although honestly I didn’t get to really experience the service because I was paying attention to all the little details. After that was done, I literally had to run in the rain carrying my vestments in a garment bag, ten blocks north to Penn Station to catch a train to get to House of Prayer in time for the beginning of the Good Friday walk at noon. Again, not a very open and mindful experience.

I just made it, and when I walked into church someone said, “Oh good, our crucifer is here.” Now, no one had told me that I was to carry this big wooden cross from House of Prayer to the next church a few blocks away on Broad Street. So I sat there, feeling irritated and taken for granted, angry that no one had bothered to even ask me about this ahead of time. Stewing in my negativity I wondered, what’s the point of this? What am I doing here? This is silly, just a waste of time. I have to admit, I was also trying to figure out how I was going to carry the cross and I was also hoping that I wouldn’t embarrass myself if the cross turned out to be very heavy. Needless to say, again, not very open or mindful.

Once the service was over, I stepped up to the altar, picked up the cross, put it over my shoulder and slowly walked down the aisle. Somehow, there was just enough space for God to cut through my bad mood and my self-centeredness. I began to forget my irritation and began to realize, to feel - It’s true, our story is really real – God came into the world and the world rejected God, but God transformed that defeat into victory.

As I walked down the aisle, I touched the roughness of the wood; I felt its weight on my shoulder. As I led the procession out of the church, wearing my black cassock, carrying this large cross through the streets of downtown Newark I could see the mix of curiosity, surprise and even sadness on people’s faces as they looked at me, and looked at the cross. I could hear the hush that seemed to fall even though cars and buses continued to drive by. After all these years the story has lost none of its power. And when we arrived at the next church, I felt an odd bond to the person I handed the cross over to – that in some way we were sharing a very special experience of discipleship. For a moment anyway, the doubts and fears fell away – the wounded Christ was really present - “My Lord and my God!”

I am sure in the years after seeing the still-wounded, yet gloriously resurrected Christ, Thomas still sometimes wondered and doubted. It was all so amazing. Had it all been a dream? What did it mean? In a way, it seemed like everything had changed, and yet nothing had changed. Death was defeated, yet there was still plenty of evil and suffering and death all around. According to a wonderful tradition, Thomas brought the Good News all the way to India. Wherever he ended up we can be sure that, despite his doubts, despite his uncertainty, he remained faithful - he remained open to God’s work all around, and within, him. And as he faced a martyr’s death, even if he had doubts, even if he was not totally certain, “Faithful Thomas” must have cried out to Jesus once again, “My Lord and my God!”