Sunday, April 23, 2006
Wrestling With A Friend
On the night after the morning we call Easter, the disciples of Jesus were holed up in fear. Magdalene and her friends insisted he was still alive, but the disciples knew that was impossible. They had seen him arrested, and beaten. John had watched him die. Now, every footstep on the cobblestone they imagined to be the soldiers of the Sanhedrin, every knock at the door, clogged their hearts in their throats. Suddenly the room filled with a strange and sweet perfume, a faint odor of spring and earth freshly turned. And there he was, his eyes twinkling as they always had, his voice as clear as ever.
All right, come on, really. This is the twenty-first century. And we children of the Enlightenment know enough about the origins of the Gospels to doubt that very much in them actually happened that way the writers (and editors) present them. Don't we? Doubt, that is? John's Gospel, for example, was written nearly 70 years after whatever happened happened (or didn't). And "John" wasn't the Apostle John, no matter what you learned in Sunday School. In fact, like all the canonical Gospels, the author of John is anonymous.
He most likely wrote it as a rebuttal to the Gnostic gospels that were beginning to circulate around the chruch world. He also wrote it to correct what he considered "mistakes" in the most popular Gospels, the ones we know as "Matthew," "Mark," and "Luke." He changes a lot of things, right down to the day that Jesus died. John also seems to write a lot more that the other Gospels about Thomas the Twin. That could be because there was a scroll of Jesus' sayings making its way around Asia Minor that appeared to be associated with Thomas. And the Gnostic Christians really liked The Gospel of Thomas. So one of John's aims seems to be to show that while Thomas was not a Judas (of course, Judas isn't exactly a Judas in John, either, but that's another story...), he was not exactly that paragon of faith and devotion known as John.
According to John, the first time that Jesus appears to the eleven remaining disciples, Thomas was not among them. Perhaps he had given up. There was, after all, nothing left to the hopes that Jesus had raised among them. He could not be the Messiah, after all, since he was dead, and the Roman legions still patrolled the holy streets of Jerusalem.
Thomas was no casual follower of Jesus, just in it for the miracles. In chapter 11 John tells another resurrection story, the story of the raising of Lazarus. Mary and Martha had sent Jesus word that their brother was close to death. They lived in the small village of Bethany very close to Jerusalem. Jesus tells his disciples, "Let's go back to Judea."
"Teacher," the disciples answered, "just a few days ago the people there wanted to stone you and are you planning to go back?"
They thought he was crazy to even consider going back there. But then Thomas speaks out: "Let us go along with the Teacher, so that we may die with him!" He was willing to go with Jesus to Jerusalem knowing full well that it just might cost him his own life. Thomas rallied the wavering disciples here, convincing them to go with Jesus to Jerusalem.
Whatever else John may say about his Thomas, he was not a coward. Thomas is fiercely loyal to Jesus. Though he is absolutely certain that disaster awaited them, he's ready to go with Jesus.
On the night of his betrayal, Jesus told his disciples "You know the way to the place where I am going," he says. But Thomas, doubting a bit even then, says: "Lord, we don't know where you are going; so how can we know the way?" He doubted because he wanted to have faith, faith that Jesus really knew the way to God, faith that he wasn’t wasting his time. Then came the long, dark night and day of the crucifixion. Thomas’ doubt became despair and he withdrew from the other disciples.
So when they found him and told him, “We have seen the Lord!” he could only shake his head in doubt. “Look, guys, he’s dead. They nailed him to a tree and put him in the ground. It’s over, give it up.” He's like the guy who scrapes off his bumper sticker the day after his candidate loses the election.
But they insist that they have really seen Jesus, alive. “Tell you what,” he says, finally, “If I can touch the holes in his hands and his side, I’ll believe he’s alive. Short of that, I’ve got to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.” He settles into the gloom of grief.
We don’t know how they coaxed him into joining them a week later. Perhaps he was just lonely and wanted to share a meal with old friends, to be around somebody who understood his pain. They are in the same locked room, this time hoping that the same miracle will take place, and Thomas too, can share in it. And sure enough, the air begins to shimmer and the scent of something new fills their heads. Jesus stands in their midst. “Shalom,” he says to ten of them.
He looks at Thomas. “I hear that there's something you want to see.” Holding out his still scarred hands, he smiles.
Doubt is not the enemy of faith, it is an ally. If you’ve never had any doubts or questions about your faith, it's probably because you’ve never really seriously thought about it. If you wrestle with whether you can believe, take heart. You wrestle, not with an enemy, but a friend.
For us who have had no "upper room" experience, who cannot touch the scars, there is the Pentecostal experience. By this I don't mean just the events of the day of Pentecost, but the ongoing experience of Jesus as a living Presence in the Church. This experience is our awareness of ourselves as the embodiment of Jesus—the body of Christ. The image of the body of Christ serves as a iconic reminder that whatever the nature of the actual Easter event, Jesus is truly alive in and through a people who would spread his Gospel throughout the world. A people, who in the beginning, believed so much that Jesus had actually risen from the dead that "they were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."
You see, that's the message of Easter: there is a people, sustained by their belief in a God who is truly with and in humanity, that they honor the image of God in every other person. Jesus is alive in and that people and the tomb is empty. Alleluia!