Friday, April 6, 2018

Doubting Thomas -- Sunday, April 8

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.

The reading for the Sunday after Easter is always this passage from John, an account of two post-Resurrection appearances to the disciples, and especially the appearance to Thomas, who earns the name ”Doubting” with his response to his friends’ account of Jesus’s first appearance. I have had many people tell me this is one of their favorite stories in the Gospels: the skeptical Thomas resonates with anyone who has struggled with their faith. 

Doubt in the face of such an incredible story is not new: Thomas has been something of a patron saint for those who have throughout Christian history wrestled to understand how God could possibly have become human, die on a cross, and rise from the dead. But there is also no denying that Thomas’s demand for empirical evidence before he buys the story the disciples tell fits nicely into our modern era, with its emphasis on the scientific method as a source of knowledge.

In the past few months, as I work on my book about the Biblical narrative in modern American culture, I’ve read a bunch of books and watched more than a few movies featuring Biblical characters. In doing so, I have noticed that in many of the most recent re-tellings of Biblical stories, God is no longer an active character. For example, in the Genesis account of Noah and the Ark, God is the main character, talking openly about his frustration with how human beings have turned out, offering clear and detailed instructions to Noah about what he wants done, and then actively participating in the rescue of Noah’s family by personally closing the door of the ark.  Noah, by contrast, barely speaks in the Genesis story; we get little sense of his personality beyond the assurance that God finds him righteous. In the 2014 movie Noah, by contrast, God is distant at best and totally absent at worst.  He is vaguely referred to as “The Creator” and his only communications with Noah come in the form of cryptic visions and the appearance of a magical forest that grows up overnight after Noah plants a seed from Eden given to him by his grandfather.  It is Noah’s struggle to understand what he must do that drives the movie, and it is Noah’s lack of understanding of God’s will for him the provides the dramatic tension of the second half.

The frequent appearance of this “God-shaped hole,” as Prof. Thomas Shippey of St. Louis University calls the absence of a divine presence in the Harry Potter novels, is perhaps unsurprising in a culture that no longer views the world as a magical place. In a world where many mysteries of the past have been solved by scientific investigation — where we can see the microscopic organisms that cause sickness, storms can be predicted before they even form, and everything from the flight of wild geese to the path of comets can be mathematically described — it is harder to believe in a human-like God who walks with, talks with, and personally encourages a guy like Noah, or Abraham, or Moses.  Our own experiences of the divine are generally less direct and more open to interpretation.

Into this God-shaped hole steps Jesus. But with 2,000 years between us and the events of the Gospels, and a lack of outside witness or archeological evidence for the events described, we find ourselves in much the same position as Thomas. We are being told a far-fetched story that cannot possibly be true — and we are being assured that it is, in fact, true.

The story of Thomas may not entirely assuage our own doubts. But it does suggest that our skepticism is not a stumbling block for the Risen Christ.  Jesus comes to Thomas despite a locked door and a crowd of people, not to chastise him for lack of faith but to offer what he needs to believe. Thomas’s response — “My Lord and My God!” — is one of the most direct and positive affirmations of who Jesus is anywhere in scripture.

Where have your doubts been met with an experience that allowed you to find faith? What do you still struggle with? What signs have helped you come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God? What do you still need so that through believing you may have life in his name? 

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