Thomas and Resurrection
April 19, 2009
(John 20, 19-31) .
I consider today’s Gospel reading to be very dangerous. It is dangerous, I think, because it tempts us to feel smug – and I think smugness is death to true religion. We sit here in church, and listen to the story of poor Thomas, struggling to believe the unbelievable: that someone who had been tortured and executed by the Romans ( and we don’t need Mel Gibson to tell us what that was like); someone who had been pronounced dead, and laid in the tomb for three days, could be alive again. How many of us would have believed such a tale? Would we not have demanded the proof of our own eyes and ears and touch before we accepted it? Then we hear of Jesus’ second appearance in the upper Room, of Thomas’ change of heart; and finally we get to the punch line, which inevitably leaves us with that dangerous feeling of smugness, self-satisfaction and superiority: “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have come to believe”.
We feel smug because Jesus is talking about us, isn’t he? We weren’t there in Jerusalem and Galilee in the forty days after the first Easter Sunday. We didn’t have the opportunity of seeing the Risen Lord appear in locked rooms, or of putting our fingers into the marks of the nails and the spear. Yet, the very fact that we are sitting here in church instead of cleaning the car, or playing golf or visiting the family, especially on Low Sunday, marks us out as ‘believers’. And from our Lord’s own lips, we have been labelled as ‘blessed’.
But is it true? We ‘have not seen’ in the physical sense; that bit is true. But do we really believe in resurrection?
Of course we do, you may answer.
We believe in the resurrection of Jesus – although we may have different ideas about what the disciples experienced in Jerusalem and Galilee in the weeks after Jesus was crucified. We may believe in a very physical resurrection body, such as John and Luke describe, one which could be touched, and which could eat fish. Or we may hold with Paul, that ‘flesh and blood cannot share in God’s kingdom’ and so believe that what the disciples saw was a more spiritual resurrection body.
And we may also maintain that we believe in our own resurrection after death – though again we may disagree about how physical or spiritual that resurrection may be. But neither of these beliefs need make any difference to the way we live our daily lives. The one is about accepting (or not accepting) the biblical evidence about what happened in the past. The other is speculating, or accepting the teaching of the Christian church about what might ( or might not) happen to us after physical death.
Neither of these beliefs challenges us to change our present way of life in the way that a belief in resurrection as a present reality would do. A belief in resurrection as a present reality would mean living our lives in the faith that, when we allow things to die – even things we love or value deeply – God will raise them up again to a new life, which is more wonderful, more fulfilling and more permanent than anything which went before. But most of us don’t live our lives that way.
Perhaps we don’t want to live as if we believed in resurrection because to reach resurrection, we first have to go through the experience of death – and most of us are very afraid of death.
We don’t live as if we believe in resurrection, because placing our faith in resurrection involves placing our faith in what is unknown – and most of us would rather have certainty – even a dead certainty!
You can see the lack of belief in resurrection by the way that societies and individuals cling to what is familiar, even if it no longer has life in it; in the way we tend to revere what is traditional, rather than welcome what is new; in the way that unions and professions cling to their restrictive practices; in the reluctance to change political and educational systems which no longer work; and in the way we all look back to a previous ‘golden age’ – no matter how old we are!
And the church is just as bad! For a body supposedly founded on the resurrection experience, we are remarkably bad at letting things die. On the contrary, the church is seen by most people ( insiders and outsiders alike) as an organisation for preserving the status quo rather than exploring the new. Christ said of his own body; “Destroy this temple and in three days I will build it up again”. But how many members of Christ’s present day body, the church, would allow the destruction of any part of it – it’s buildings, its worship, the way it expresses its beliefs, even its hymns – without a pretty good idea of what was going to be put in its place.
As we are reminded during Holy Week, belief in resurrection is not an easy option. Before he was raised up, Christ had to suffer the worst that human life had to offer: betrayal by a friend, desertion by his colleagues and family; arrest; a mockery of a trial, torture, humiliation and death. He was stripped of everything that gave his life meaning: his role as a teacher and healer, his identity as a free human being, his clothing, his dignity, even his awareness of the presence of God. Only through that utter dereliction was he able to come to resurrection.
Most of us ordinary humans would rather not face that experience. All our instincts incline us to do everything we can to preserve ourselves from that sort of hurt; and we protect our emotional stability, our social lives, our economic status, our cherished beliefs and our familiar environment – all the things that give us security – with the same tenacity. However, the Easter story tells us that if we cannot let go in faith and trust, as Jesus did, we cannot experience resurrection. If we cling on to those things, we leave no opening for God’s grace in Christ to work in us.
Many, perhaps most people, will at some time in their lives experience suffering, despair, loss of security, failure, bereavement. Some may appear to be destroyed, all will be marked indelibly with the scars of such experiences. Yet some come through such suffering to a deeper understanding of themselves, a deeper relationship with God, a more profound appreciation of reality. That is resurrection.
As Easter people, we are called to experience resurrection in all the dimensions of our lives. We are called to experience the resurrection of our physical bodies, not simply after death, but also in this life: to recognise in our physical bodies the vehicle by which God is revealed to us, and through which we can reveal God to others; a vehicle which may fail or grow weak sometimes, but which God is constantly renewing for his work, no matter how old or young we are!
We are called to experience resurrection in our minds – to let our old and familiar ways of thinking and feeling die, and to learn to use all the faculties that God has given us – both intellectual, and emotional – in the service of his Kingdom.
We are called to experience resurrection in our institutions, and especially in our religious institutions. This will certainly mean that we will have to allow some things to die – but in Christ we have God’s promise that something new and better will be raised up from that death.
We may experience resurrection and not recognise it, as Mary Magdalene did not recognise Jesus in the garden, and the disciples did not recognise him on the road to Emmaus. We may not at first believe it is possible, like Thomas. We may expect something spectacular, and so not recognise the resurrection experience when it comes. The Anglican monk, Harry Williams, said: “Resurrection occurs to us as we are, and its coming is generally quiet and unobtrusive, and we may hardly be aware of its creative power. It is only later that we realise that, in some way or other, we have been raised to newness of life, and so have heard the voice of the Eternal Word’.
Only when we have the courage to surrender our lives to God will we have that Easter experience, and know true resurrection. Then we will know from our own experience that what was destroyed has been overcome by the creative power of God; that what was hurt has been healed by God’s loving hand; that what was divided has been re-united in Christ; that death and suffering and evil can never have the last word.
Then, like Thomas, we will see the glory of the resurrection life, and say with him, “My Lord and my God”. This Eastertide, may the story of doubting Thomas challenge us to make the hope of resurrection the guiding principle of our lives, and so be raised with Christ to everlasting life.