Sunday, April 27, 2014

Alive Without a Doubt

All of us have done things of which we are less than proud. If we are lucky, we don't get tagged with a nickname that will follow us all of our life. "Doubting Thomas" has not been so fortunate. We don't know that he was called that in his lifetime but he is known by that name throughout the church. It's not fair.

We don't speak of "Doubting Peter", though he and the other disciples did not believe Mary Magdalene and the other women at first. We don't speak of "Doubting James", though he did not believe that his brother was the Messiah until the risen Jesus appeared to him. However, their conversion from doubt to faith is not depicted as dramatically as Thomas'.

To be fair, Thomas was not with the others the first time Jesus appeared to the remnants of the Twelve. Why not? Is there any clue as to why Thomas was not holed up with the other disciples after Jesus' execution?

The first time we hear Thomas speak up is when Jesus has announced he is going to return to Judea to raise Lazarus. The other disciples are concerned that this will put Jesus in danger of falling into the hands of the religious leaders. But Jesus seems determined to go. And in John 11:16 we read, “Then Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, 'Let us go too, that we may die with him.'”

That doesn't sound like someone who is quick to abandon faith in Christ but someone who is so devoted to him that he is willing to lose his life for him. That raises a question that we will look at in a minute.

The second time we hear from Thomas is at the Last Supper. Jesus has announced that he is going away and that the disciples will not be able to follow. In John 13:36 and following, Peter asks where he is going and Jesus says, “You are not able to follow me now where I am going, but you shall follow me afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I tell you: the rooster will not crow until you have denied me 3 times.” Jesus goes on to say that he will prepare a place for the disciples in his Father's house and then return to them so that they may be where he is. Jesus ends with, “And where I am going, you know the way.” Understandably, though, Thomas responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To which Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except by me.”

Notice 2 things. First, Peter asks basically the same question as Thomas: Where are you going? The disciples are not thinking about this metaphorically. They are thinking that Jesus, surrounded by enemies and anticipating a betrayal from within the Twelve, may be going somewhere to get out of harm's way. None of them think Jesus is talking about his death.

Secondly, notice that Thomas was the first to talk about dying with Jesus, back when they were going to Lazarus' grave. Here Peter says he will lay down his life for Jesus. And we all know how that turned out.

And now we might have enough to work out the answer to 2 questions which arise from what Thomas said and did. When it became clear that Jesus was going to the tomb of his friend despite the danger, Thomas said, “'Let us go too, that we may die with him.” Which raises the first question: why didn't Thomas die or do something risky when Jesus was arrested? Peter at least drew his sword and wounded a man. We don't hear anything about what Thomas did. He just ran away with all the others.

We know the grief and shame that Peter felt about denying Jesus. Wouldn't Thomas feel ashamed for running out on Christ? Maybe even more so than Peter. He was the first to offer to die for Jesus. And when the opportunity came, he not only didn't die, he didn't even fight. He ran. Which might answer the other question that arises. Why wasn't Thomas with the other disciples in the upstairs room?

We are told that the disciples were behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. As supporters of Jesus, they knew they were also at risk of being arrested and crucified. Jesus was executed officially for claiming to be the King of the Jews, which was treason against Caesar. His followers would certainly be seen as traitors to Rome. It's not a great leap of logic that the religious leaders might turn them over to Pilate for the same punishment. So their hiding makes sense.

Thomas' not hiding doesn't make sense logically. But it does make sense psychologically. Out in the open, he was a sitting duck for any Pharisee or scribe or priest who recognized him as part of Jesus' inner circle. And maybe that was what he wanted. He didn't defend Jesus when he had the chance. He didn't let himself be captured and executed along with his Lord. Maybe, consciously or unconsciously, Thomas was hoping to get recognized and arrested. Jesus was dead as far as he knew. This way Thomas could belatedly fulfill his words and die for Christ.

So it is in this state of mind that we find Thomas when the other disciples seek him out to tell him the great news: Jesus is alive! Why doesn't Thomas believe?

Would you? Let's say someone very important and close to you died. And a few days later some friends came and told you that they have seen that person walking around alive again. How would you react? You would think that they were crazy. Or that they were playing a very cruel trick on you. Your first thought would not be, “Oh, goody, he is no longer dead.” And if your friends persisted, saying, “No, really. He is alive again,” you'd probably say, “I'd have to see him for myself.” Thomas' reaction is in fact normal.

Thomas goes further, though. He says, “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.” Why is he being so graphic?

Thomas, like every person living under Roman occupation, knows what crucifixion is like. The Romans meant for people to see what happened to those who opposed them. To have a close friend killed like that was horrible. But along with Jesus, Thomas' hope for the kingdom of God died. Everything Jesus said, everything Thomas lived for during those 3 and half years of ministry, was for nothing. It was over. Gone. Thomas was in despair. And he is saying in the strongest way possible that he just can't trust someone like that again. Worse than being hopeless is being tempted by false hope. Thomas will not make that mistake again. The only thing that will convince him is actually touching the person he has lost and making absolutely sure it is not a trick or an imposter. Nothing else will do for someone as disappointed, dejected, and depressed as Thomas.

Which brings us to the events of today's gospel reading. Somehow the other disciples have persuaded Thomas to abandon his suicidal public mourning. They have gotten him to join them in the upper room. And suddenly Jesus is in their midst.

Imagine how this struck Thomas. He knew Jesus had died. He either saw him on the cross or was told about Christ's last hours by eyewitnesses. How else would he know about the wound in Jesus' side, something done by a soldier on the spur of the moment to confirm that he was already dead and didn't need his legs broken? The one thing Thomas didn't doubt was Jesus' death. Yet here he was, bigger than life. Now Thomas goes from doubting the resurrection to doubting everything he assumed he knew about reality.

Jesus addresses Thomas. He says, in effect, “Go ahead. Touch me. Touch my wounds. Leave your doubts behind and trust your senses.” But Thomas makes no move to do so. He can only stand and gape. Before this, he doubted that the man on the cross was alive again; now he is not even sure that Jesus can be called a mere man. Thomas saw Jesus raise the dead. But now Jesus himself has been raised from the dead. This is beyond what any prophet has ever done. Thomas is thinking that Jesus is way beyond a prophet. Jesus called himself the Son of God. If the son of a human is a human, then what is the Son of God? When he finds his voice, all Thomas can say is, “My Lord and my God!” 

Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” He is speaking about us. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh. Unlike the first generation of Christians, we don't even know someone who has seen him. It is easier for people today to doubt and many do.

A recent study has concluded that at least half of the decline in people being affiliated with a religion is due to 3 things: a drop in the number of people who have had no religious upbringing, the increase in the number of people with college-level education and the increase in the use of the internet. To take them in reverse order: the increase in the use of the internet is possibly keeping people from associating with a religion for at least 3 reasons. First, people are able to look up answers or discuss questions they might have asked their clergy about life, the universe and God. And it's even more convenient than going to the library and reading books about such things. Unfortunately, the answers you find on the internet never had to pass muster with an editor or be good enough to find a publisher. There is a lot of information out there that is badly researched or just plain made up. And if you don't like one answer there are literally dozens of answers out there you can browse until you find one that pleases you. People tend to chose answers they want to hear, regardless of whether they are true or not.

Secondly, the internet is a great distraction from the big questions about life. Have you ever searched for something on the internet and found yourself an hour later having read a whole bunch of interesting articles and watched a lot of videos instead of getting the answer you were looking for? In C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, the fictitious senior devil tells his nephew, a junior tempter, that they really don't want people to think clearly about whether stuff is true or false, right or wrong; they want to muddle human thinking and distract us if possible. The internet is designed to do just that. And because you read snippets from so many interesting points of view, it can lull you into thinking you know a lot more about certain issues and in greater depth than you really do.

Thirdly, the internet is just one of the many things in this 24/7 world that compete with worship. It used to be that there wasn't much to do on Sunday mornings than sleep in or go to church. There were only a handful of TV channels and they were running boring public service shows like Meet the Press. You couldn't go to the movies, at least not on Sunday morning. Today you can be entertained endlessly even on a Sunday morning. You may even have been up very late on the internet and find getting up for church on 4 or 5 hours sleep very difficult. Today we have so many options that have to do with pleasing ourselves, which most people find more attractive than pleasing God.

The rise in the number of college educated people cuts both ways. Oddly enough, college educated people are more likely to be religious than less educated people. But having a college education can also make you think you know it all. Having knowledge is not the same as having wisdom. It is not hard to find highly educated fools.

Some college professors certainly feel that religion is a dangerous relic of our savage past or that it is impossible to be both a person of faith and someone who understands science. Kids in college want to be thought of as smart and “up to date” in their thinking, especially in the eyes of popular professors. They uncritically adopt these attitudes, never wondering how so many great thinkers and scientists managed to be both ground-breaking thinkers and people of faith. Isaac Newton is considered one of the greatest of all scientists, if not the greatest scientist of all time. He also wrote voluminously about theology. Not even Richard Dawkins would dare say Newton was therefore not a good scientist. Yet a lot of people take away from college the idea that faith somehow destroys the ability to think critically and clearly.

Also college is a time when young people get away from their parents and their parents' rules and experiment with alcohol, drugs and sex. That makes it hard for them to pray to God or face people in church. They can either give up these new and popular pleasures or they can give up going to church. Guess which one they choose?

But the key thing that has caused a drop in religious membership has got to be the simultaneous drop in people being brought up in a religion. A lot of Baby Boomer and Millennial parents have said, “I want to give my children the chance to choose what they want to believe.” The problem is you have to offer them something to choose from. If you never take them to any religious gathering, much less a whole range of churches, synagogues, mosques and ashrams, how are they to know whether a faith has anything to offer them? It's like never voting nor encouraging your kids to get engaged on important issues but somehow expecting your children to be active citizens who will uphold our democratic process. Some kids will rebel against your apathy but most will merely imitate it. The same goes with religion. And if you are worried about them being damaged by religious extremism, don't take them to such churches! Take them to churches which emphasize God's wisdom and love for us and our duty to love one another and to fight injustice and to work for peace. Even so, when they grow up, they may choose another church. But at least they will realize that there is a spiritual dimension of life, essential moral values and someone greater than themselves.

Just because we haven't physically seen Jesus doesn't mean we cannot put our trust in him. People who never saw or met Plato or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln can nevertheless find themselves drawn to their words and their lives. How much more do people find God speaking to them through the words and life of Jesus! As it says in 1 John 4:12-13, “No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is completed in us. This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us: he has given us a share of his Spirit.” Just like the wind, we may not see the Holy Spirit but we can feel his effect on us. God's Spirit communicates his love and power to us. We feel his life taking root in us, growing in us, transforming us. And feeling Jesus' life active in us assures us of his reality more that touching his wounds ever could.

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