APRIL 27, 2014
In the apostles Peter and Thomas, we see the miracle of Easter embodied in two very different people today: two different personality types; two distinct responses; two distinct spiritual paths.
Thomas, or Doubting Thomas, as he is sometimes known, has sometimes been seen as a kind of betrayer of Christ, in that he initially refused to believe, and obliged Jesus to prove himself. His skepticism has often been labeled as a fault, as opposed to the faith of disciples like Peter. But I want to suggest that Thomas, with all his doubts and questions, has an important place in the scheme of things.
The New Testament era is often assumed to have been a time of credulous naiveté – a time in which simple, uneducated people were willing to believe almost anything. Today’s Gospel suggests a somewhat different picture.John’s Gospel suggests a high level of complexity and sophistication, and Thomas’s doubtful reaction demonstrates that the early Christians were not swallowing any old story but in fact had strong elements of skepticism and resistance to mindless enthusiasm. And the fact that there wasn’t this slack-jawed credulity and over-readiness to accept anything, could be interpreted as a stronger witness in favour of the amazing things that the disciples were claiming they had witnessed and experienced.
Scholars have speculated on the many potential meanings implied in this particular Gospel. Given that the various Gospel writers included certain things and left other things out (see John 20: 30–31) as they told the story of Jesus, I think one of the reasons the Gospel of John includes this story of Thomas is to maintain a reminder going forward that not even the disciples believed 100% (at least, not in the beginning), and to reveal that the Church was aware of the complexities and questions. It also suggests the important place of the intellect in the scheme of things.
Today’s Gospel says clearly that doubt was there from the beginning, and implies that the early Church was aware that there would be questions about the Resurrection, about the true nature of Jesus, and about their authenticity as representatives of Christ. Thomas’s story indicates that the apostles themselves weren’t afraid to deal with the questions, whether they were obvious or awkward or whatever.
The Church is often portrayed as a place where no doubt is allowed, a place where you have to believe particular things or you’re not welcome. And sometimes that generalization or caricature is accurate, which is not a popular or wise approach in a culture so governed by logical, informed critical thinking. As some critic said, “Christians check their brains at the door of the church every Sunday, and most of them don’t even bother to pick them up on the way out.”
That’s a bit harsh, but the fact is, it is describing something real. Asking questions and speculating on spiritual matters are indeed treated as a threat in some faith communities. The ironic thing is that there is a lot of frustration among clergy and theologians that, in general, church members are not prepared or willing to engage the challenge of some of the deeper thinking and the theological and ethical challenges that have shaped Christianity in the modern era. And then they’re shocked by some development or change in practice. This is why we have Bible studies and book studies and courses like Education for Ministry. It’s also why we send people to seminary.
Learning and the search for knowledge and truth have always been a key dimension to Christianity. The apostle Thomas is perhaps the forerunner of one the great intellects of human history, Thomas Aquinas, and a role model for those with a more intellectual faith – those who encounter God through ideas, books, study, speculation and thought. Thomas reminds us that we are called to love God with our whole mind, and of the need for an informed faith.
The unfortunate rise of fundamentalism in the modern era has led many people to dismiss Christianity because they assume all Christians are anti-intellectual and automatically opposed to learning and to objective truth. The tragic split between Science and Religion and the resulting marginalization of religion and faith, is one of the major problems of the last century, and our society has been diminished as a result.
It’s OK to doubt! Many church people are agnostic (all of us are to some degree) and a few perhaps tend occasionally toward being atheistic. It’s OK to doubt – OK to question – OK to sit with things you’re not sure about until the answer becomes clearer. It’s OK to pass through dark and dry stages – it doesn’t mean we are bad people; it doesn’t mean we don’t love Jesus and want to serve God.
Typically it’s more of a problem when people will not question anything! Thomas apparently doubted quite persistently. Today’s Gospel reminds us that the Church was self-critical, and self-aware, from the beginning. In some faith communities, if a question is raised or a criticism is offered, it is met with violence of some sort. John saw to it, in his portrayal of Thomas, that questions would not be out of place in the Christian community. People like Thomas can prevent the Church from being rash and foolish and acting merely upon whim or impulse.
But the realms of subjective and objective are not so distinct as people in our time imagine (in fact, the concept of objectivity itself is something of a myth), and there is a fine line that we can cross where we no longer are open to anything that our direct senses can’t verify, and then aspects of life like loyalty and love and joy, and deeper insights into the meaning and purpose of life itself, cannot be fully integrated or comprehended because we can’t verify them and thus we don’t trust them enough to validate them by experience (or experimentation).
This is what Emily Dickinson was trying to convey in her poem:
I never saw a moor;
I never saw the sea,
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven.
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
“Do not doubt but believe” Jesus says to Thomas. Useful as our critical minds may be, ultimately we are not to allow doubt and skepticism to be our primary stance toward life. It doesn’t help to become one-dimensional in our approach, and people like Peter remind us of the importance of intuition and faith. At some point, in order to experience love, or inspiration, we have to adopt more of a faith stance.
As I said last week, theology is one of those disciplines in which you can have all the right arguments and come to all the right conclusions and still end up with the wrong answer, and in which it is possible to know a great deal about God without knowing God at all, simply because the nature of God is not subject to the limitations of our logic or even our minds.
Peter is portrayed as one who doesn’t need to understand the faith – he just lives it spontaneously and courageously. Peter is the kind of disciple who embraced a wholehearted and uncomplicated commitment to Christ. When we pray to God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts,” we might do well to think of Peter. Peter let his heart do the thinking for him.
Faith is not a mental pastime for St Peter; it is not something he merely reads about or thinks about — it is a lifestyle into which he throws himself with his whole being. But the downside of this approach is a faith that can be no more reflective and self-aware than a High School pep rally, and indeed there is a lot of religion out there that is right along those lines – faith groups in which you’re pressured into going along with the crowd, whether you think it’s appropriate or not, with no questions or hesitations allowed. I am sure we’ve all seen disturbing images of people being whipped into a frenzy by fanatic leaders spouting a lot of nonsense and making ridiculous claims, victimizing vulnerable and gullible people. Faith can easily disintegrate into a kind of crazy emotionalism or fanaticism, with people addicted to particular emotional responses and oblivious to some of the other elements of a mature faith.
Peter is someone guided by his intuition, making brilliant leaps forward based on insight, sixth sense, and discernment. He is the type who goes on impulse, jumping into the sea without thinking – simply because Jesus asked him to.
Thomas, on the other hand, is skeptical, reflective and analytical – reserving judgment, raising questions. Peter leaps into the lake without question, but you get the sense that if Jesus asked Thomas to jump into deep water, he’d say “Why?” or “Not bloody likely!”
In every age we idealize certain types and tend to dismiss others. Intellectuals are often dismissive of believers who let their emotions guide them; mystics are often dismissive of people who presume to act in the name of God without being deeply centered in a real experience of God. John Fisk, commenting on Corinne Ware’s book, Discover your Spiritual Type: A Guide to Individual and Congregational Growth (Alban Institute, 1995), describes four distinct ways of understanding and serving God. He says “the Head Path involves experiencing God through intellect, reason and beliefs. The Heart Path involves experiencing God through emotion, warmth and personal relationship. The Mystic Path involves experiencing God through awe, silence, beauty and mystery. And the Social Justice Path involves experiencing God through a passion for justice and mission to society.”
This is what is needed: a willingness to see the whole picture, and each spiritual type as part of the whole, not as something absolute or in isolation. Jesus urged those who would listen to him to love God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind and all their strength and to love neighbour as self. Right there, we see all four paths named.
Peter is very much a “heart” person while Thomas is obviously a “head” person. The readings today suggest there needs to be an integration which dismisses neither our minds nor our hearts, because both aspects are essential, so that we may love and serve and know God with integrity, and with depth, with our whole heart and our whole mind.
The fact is that we need all kinds of persons and approaches for the Church to flourish. If there is an atmosphere of mutual respect as well as reverence for God, then different styles of temperament and spiritual expression can be complementary rather than divisive.
As John Fisk says, “When God gives a gift it is not only for our benefit but for others also. The church will grow as we share our gifts and as we move towards wholeness in Christ” in the context of the Body of Christ, in which all gifts are welcome, including yours.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings for Easter II
Acts 2:14a, 22-32 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.
1 Peter 1:3-9 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith–being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.