“OMG!” John 20.25
Who among us wouldn’t sympathize with Thomas? We depend on science, engineering, statistics and information technology – all of which demand or anticipate accuracy and precision. Thomas is a realist with a rational and concrete approach to life. He comes across as a religious literalist who finds it difficult to live with contradiction and with abstract thoughts. There are many today who think and breath like him. They find it difficult to remain assured of things hoped for, and are unconvinced of things unseen.
There is nothing more damaging than the presumption of absolute certainty. Nevertheless, it has its appeal. When he was around seven years of age, my grandson Owen had a library book from which he was reading about the Loch Ness monster. When his mother suggested the Loch Ness monster could very likely be a myth, Owen pointed his finger to the printed words, and protested, “But . . . it’s in the book!”
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget helps us understand Owen’s unequivocal acceptance of the printed word. Piaget theorized that children go through four separate stages of cognitive development. In early childhood we are so pre-occupied with developing patterns of concrete thought, that our facility to process abstract and logical thought doesn’t fully kick in much before the age of twelve. That’s when they begin to develop abstract thought and logic and require a theology and religious teaching that will take this into account. This is not to suggest that any one of concrete thoughts, logic, and abstract thinking is superior to the other.
We need them all to help us better understand our world and to facilitate our human search for meaning. Unfortunately, too many of us remain stuck in the kind of literal concrete thinking that served us well in Sunday School, but which may no longer be adequate for us as adults.
I refuse to accept the adequacy of former understandings of that which will remain beyond our human understanding. I wish to embrace the unknowable mystery that lies within and among all that is known and unknown. In his monumental book The Courage to Be, the late systematic theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote “Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is one element of faith.” And, “Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.” I am prepared to take up that challenge. Jesus invites us to consider God as the Ground and Source of All Being; an eternal Presence that calls us to step beyond the dependent security of every boundary, and into the fullness of life with all its expanding insecurities.
We find ourselves within a universe among other universes in unchartered space which expands beyond our wildest imaginations. We are on this planet earth, a living organism which is shrinking rapidly with globalism. It has also getting a whole lot more complicated. Globalism encourages the interaction of ideas, and our movement away from linear concepts of thought, leadership, and power, toward circular, expansion and retraction models of exploration. Nothing appears clear cut with this interchange of products, energy, and expansion of ideas.
We are the beneficiaries of contemporary biblical scholarship. This indicates there is no such thing as a New Testament doctrine about Christ by which the apostle Paul, any of the four gospel writers, the writer of letters to the Hebrews and to others, would assent in precisely the same sense. There is no wholly adequate image of the eternal, invisible “God”. Nevertheless, for me, Jesus represents our human relationship with “God” by his dramatic exemplification of the triumph and tragedy of faith – on the one hand, that we have communion with God and, on the other hand, that we must die and be bereft of that assurance.
When Jesus assured Thomas and the other disciples that they would ultimately be with him in glory, just so long as they followed him along the way, Thomas asked for a GPS with clear directions. When he realized Jesus was heading for disaster, he threw up his arms in resignation and prepared to die alongside him. But, ‘when the chips were down’, Thomas, with the other disciples, deserted Jesus.
No wonder Thomas agonized in the midst of contradictions. He suffered the violent loss of his closest friend who he believed he had abandoned. At the same time, that same friend appeared to have betrayed his trust by allowing himself to die when he had seemed ready to deliver Thomas’ world from its brutal oppression.
Thomas’ belief system was exposed to the rigours of tragic human experience. When told that God had raised up Jesus in glory, Thomas was in no mood to accept the very thing he most desired to hear. He not only needed to see Jesus for himself, he demanded an anatomical explanation: ‘Unless I place my finger in his side’. He took nothing for granted. He questioned everything and demanded concrete evidence.
If his search was personal, it was also communal. Thomas maintained communion with the community of faith, and they with him. His faith community provided him a place to safely air his doubts and give vent to his grief and anguish. It was among those people that Jesus came and allowed Thomas to explore his wounds.
Just what was it then that convinced Thomas? It was something that far too many Christians would rather avoid. In fact, I have had to correct many religious illustrations of the resurrected Jesus by taking a pen and drawing in his glorified wounds. It was the evidence of the wounds that convinced Thomas.
Perhaps you’ve heard the legend of Satan seeking to re-enter heaven’s gates. It is said that at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Satan triumphantly approached the gates of heaven, calling out, ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lifted up ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.’ The archangels and the whole company of heaven replied, ‘Who is the King of glory?’ to which Satan, in all his arrogance responded with outstretched arms, ‘I am!’ and he gave himself away, for in the bombastic stretching out of his arms, Satan revealed the palms of his hands, and there were no wounds.
If the resurrection is simply a statement of faith that an itinerant rabbi, Jesus of Galilee, is glorified and even identified with the fullness of God’s being – I may remain unconvinced. But, if I can see in his wounds the depth of divine love for my life and for yours, indeed for all creation – then I might be moved to believe.
It was the glorified yet crucified Jesus who stood among his disciples and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ And so it remains to this day. The most credible sign of the risen Christ is to be found where his Church is gathered and is prepared to identify with his wounded hands, his wounded feet, and his wounded heart. Such was the powerful statement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as he listened to and wept with his people when the South African Commission heard the sufferings of those who had been terrorized by the system of apartheid. The same is true in this country, as we acknowledge the harm inflicted upon our aboriginal brothers and sisters through the system of residential schools.
Sadaam Hussein’s Iraqi army brutally crushed an uprising of Kurds in the winter of 1991. Three million Kurds fled into the mountains of Northern Iraq and faced starvation and misery from exposure in the depths of winter. Their nightmare existence was broadcast around the world and people wondered how they might provide relief. It was a Monday morning when I phoned the local CBC radio station to offer the facilities of St. Michael & All Angels Church in London to drop off sleeping bags, blankets, boots and winter clothing.
By Tuesday evening we’d received so many donations, every pew throughout the nave and chancel was stacked as high as the top of the stain glass windows. It was a sight that moved people to tears. Apart from the centre and side aisles, nothing was visible except for the cross high above the altar. Strangers who had never seen the inside of the church stood and wept at what they were witnessing. I called up the radio to stop further donations. We faced not only with the problem of clearing the church for the next Sunday’s services but also the challenge of delivering the donations to be air dropped into northern Iraq. To cut a long story short, after many phone calls, I was able to locate a shipping container and had them shipped and air-dropped by the Red Crescent within weeks.
A good many people have difficulty comprehending our Christian theology that speaks of the divinity and humanity of Jesus. But they are intrigued by a faith that is prepared to embrace the most vulnerable on our doorstep. They can be stirred to ask the question, ‘What is it, or who is it, that motivates these people?” It is our vision of the glorified yet wounded Jesus, who continues to breath his life transforming Spirit upon us, his disciples.
When I was serving as rector at St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener, I would often catch a glimpse of that vision in St. John’s Kitchen. Several years ago, my grown daughter in Toronto fell victim to a meningitis epidemic. One day during that anxious time, I was engaged in conversation with the coordinator of the kitchen’s volunteers. When one of the kitchen’s regular patrons interrupted us, she was courteously asked to sit and wait until I was free to speak with her. I eventually approached the bag lady. She stood up and asked if she could give me a hug.
As I allowed her to embrace me, she kissed me on the cheek and, whispering in my ear, she enquired, “How’s your daughter? We’ve been praying for her every day.” “Much better,” I replied, “and thank you. We’ve been very scared, but she’s recovering.” For several weeks, I had been walking in a state of numbness but, in that instance, a patron of St. John’s Kitchen introduced me to the wounded yet glorified Christ. She conveyed to me his peace, and silently I prayed, “My Lord and my God!”
The gospels illustrate the ultimate ethical teaching of selfless compassion. The apostle Paul wrote, “We preach Christ crucified . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It is a crucified Christ who is raised. The Jesus of the gospels bears witness that the death of “self” leads to a more abundant life. It requires a readiness “to be born again”, “to receive new sight”, and to step out of a tomb and to be lifted up into a life of expanding possibilities.
I advocate a pilgrim Christianity that we ourselves consciously make and remake all the time. One that is more identified with normal life experiences. One that is less concerned with life after death and more concerned with affirming life. A Christianity prepared to say “amen” to one’s own life and where prayer is expressed in the delivery of compassionate attention with the other. A Christianity which both speaks and lives the resurrection and ascension as a “born again” experience; in which to revere Jesus and to call him “Lord and my God” is to identify with his death; to die with him to “self” and with him to rise again to an eternal, more abundant, selfless life.
The story of Thomas encourages our faith to flourish through scrutiny and exploration. It affirms our utter security in the author and finisher of our faith who allows us to live with paradox. Have you ever wonder what happened to Thomas? Tradition tells us he traveled further than all other apostles – that his community took the good news of Jesus to India. Such is the power of the crucified yet glorified Jesus – to whom we can exclaim, “My Lord, and my God!”
Carver 23.04.2017 The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo