Doubting Thomas?

April 7, 2013

Thomas. by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Thomas.
by Carl Heinrich Bloch

 

(John 20, 19-31. Easter 2, Yr C)

How do you feel about the apostle Thomas, whose story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John? Do you identify with him? Or do you condemn him, as the Christian Church has tended to do for most of its history, as ‘Doubting Thomas’?

Jesus gave some of his disciples additional names: Simon became Peter, the Rock, and James and John were called Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder; but we don’t usually remember the meaning of these nowadays. We don’t remember any other of the disciples by a name that commemorate one incident in their lives.   Simon Peter is not remembered as “the Denier” or James and John as “those who asked for the best positions”. The name of Judas has become a synonym for betrayal; but only slightly less reprehensible than being a ‘Judas’, it seems, is to be a “Doubting Thomas”.

The reading we had was one of the three ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to John. Each of the four gospels has a very different record of the ‘appearances’ of Jesus after his death and burial, and St Paul’s gives yet another account in his letters. This makes it clear that what we are dealing with here is not historical fact, but myth or parable – stories which are meant to convey meaning and truth. The truth of a parable does not depend on whether the story describes something that really happened. So we should leave aside the question of whether what John the Evangelist describes actually occurred. The question we need to ask  is “What is he trying to convey through this story?”

In John’s account, the first appearance is to Mary Magdalene, in the garden beside the tomb. She doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her name. She is forbidden to touch him because ‘he has not yet ascended to the Father’. For John, resurrection, ascension and coming in glory are not events separated in calendar time; they all happen on Easter Day.

So, the appearances in the locked room in Jerusalem are of the ascended and glorified Jesus, although a Jesus who still bears the visible scars of crucifixion. He shows the disciples the marks on his hands and side. John’s resurrection parable tells us very strongly that it is the crucified Jesus who is raised to glory and whose life and death are vindicated by God. Resurrection does not cancel out the crucifixion.

Then he commissions them to continue his mission, to go to teach the world as he taught the world. As he was the agent of the Father in his earthly ministry, the disciples, and those who will come to belief through their witness, become the agents of God in their turn, speaking the message of new birth, new life and hope by the Spirit to those who are broken and fearful, hiding behind locked doors in their particular world.

Having revealed his glorified self to them, and commissioned them to continue his ministry, Jesus then empowers them for the task, by breathing the Holy Spirit on them. Again, the sequence of events in John’s account is very different from the synoptic gospel accounts, where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes later. John’s resurrection narrative has many echoes of the second creation narrative in Genesis: new life begins in a garden; God breathes into human beings to give them life. In other places in the Old Testament, God gives life through breath or spirit, for instance in the valley of dry bones which represent Israel in Ezekiel.

Although John’s  Gospel speaks of several different ways of entering new life (through rebirth to Nicodemus in Chapter 3 and through living water, perhaps meaning baptism, at the Festival of Shelter) the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit is particularly significant. In his farewell discourses at the last supper, John’s Jesus says he will be away from the disciples and they will not see him for a little while. Then after a little while they will see him. He promises he will come again to them, and give them another advocate, to replace himself, who will lead them into all truth. The gift of the Spirit fulfils these promises.

It is only after the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins. John teaches that is only those who are united by the Spirit with the God of love revealed through Jesus who know the truth, and can judge what is sinful and what is not. It is only those who are at one with the God through the Spirit, as Jesus was, who have the authority to act in God’s name.

Sunday evening was one time when Christian communities in the Apostolic Age gathered to share worship and eat a fellowship meal together. So the messages in the two appearances, a week apart, are clearly directed to the communities for which John is writing.

The statement by Thomas that he will not believe until he has seen the marks of the nails and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’s side leads into the second appearance. ‘Believe’ is a very rich word in the gospels, and has quite a different meaning from the way it is usually used in religious circles today. As Marcus Borg points out it does not mean believing a whole lot of statements about God and Jesus, such as those contained in the creeds. It comes from the old English word ‘be love’ and is more about love, trust, faithfulness and commitment, than intellectual assent to a number of propositions. It is more about ‘believing in’ than ‘belief’.

Thomas is not prepared to make his commitment to the Risen Son at second hand. But note what he asks to see – the marks of the nails and the spear – the wounds. He is clear that ‘belief’ involves identifying with the crucified Lord in his suffering. He is not one of those disciples who wants the glory without the suffering. Easter without Good Friday.

Jesus grants Thomas his wish by appearing the next Sunday evening. John makes clear that the appearances in Jerusalem are not of a physical body – it can appear and disappear at will through solid walls. Although invited to touch, Thomas doesn’t need to. Once he has seen the wounds, he pronounces the standard Christian confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’.

Jesus’s response is usually translated as a question, and as accusatory. “Have you believed because you have seen?” But the Greek in which the gospel was written does not reverse word order in order to indicate a question, nor did it have punctuation marks. Just as Jesus’s response to Pilate’s question ‘Are you the King of the Jews” can be translated “I am” or “Am I?” so this can also be translated not as a question, but a statement. “You have believed because you saw me.  Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” This combination of statements gives equal affirmation to those who believe because they have visions in which they see, hear or touch Christ, as Paul says he did; and those who believe because of the witness of others, as most of us will have done. The first witnesses have no privileged place over those who follow.

Thomas, likes the other disciples, is now transformed: joyful where before he was fearful, and at peace, whereas before he was disturbed by the apparent failure of Jesus’s mission. The final sentences of our reading (which most scholars believe was the original end of John’s Gospel) explain that the account of the signs has been written to inspire belief and commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. It implies that John’s communities of Christians will be ‘people of the book’. They will no longer rely on visions, nor on the oral tradition, but on John’s account of the signs and his explanations of their meaning to know the truth.

Thomas, the account shows us, was not a doubter. He knew what had happened to Jesus on the cross and that he was dead. He didn’t want a happy ending, but evidence that God had approved and glorified Jesus for the path of service and suffering he had followed. Once he was assured of that, he was a faithful disciple, passing on through word and his own example that the way to be at one with God was through the path of service to others, and non-violent resistance to the forces of domination and oppression.

John’s account of the resurrection challenges us in turn, people who have come to faith through the witness of those who wrote the gospel accounts and the other books of the New Testament, to have faith in that same path. It tells us that the opposite to faith, which is belief as commitment, is not doubt, but fear, cynicism and despair. It tells us we are called to be communities of hope, committed to Jesus and the way of life he taught. We are called to bring that hope to places and people where it is absent – even to those who don’t share our particular way of commitment to God. We are called to move out of our comfort zones, out of the familiar and the safe, to follow our Lord and God into the new life he promises, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter and Advocate.

May we hear and respond to this message of the Resurrection, as Thomas did.

Amen

Advertisements

The Resurrection

March 31, 2013

 IMG_0739

Easter  2013

Acts 10, 34-43; 1 Cor. 15, 19-26; Luke 24, 1-12.1

Some years ago, on Good Friday, The Times reported on a survey by The Spectator  in which the diocesan bishops of the Church of England were asked the question: ‘Do you believe in the physical resurrection of Christ?’ Rather to the surprise of the author, two thirds of them answered ‘yes’. However, about a quarter of the bishops declined to answer ( sensible men! ) and a further three bishops gave what were called ‘more subtle answers’. Nevertheless, this survey prompted the Times’  journalist to draw the conclusion that ‘At least three quarters of the Church of England’s bishops still proclaim a belief in the literal truth of the story of Easter and the physical resurrection of Jesus as described in the Bible.’

However, when you read what the bishops are said to have replied, things are not so clear. The Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones said: “I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus for both historical and theological reasons. The fact that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at one time shows that it was not a subjective but an objective experience”.

A spokesman for the Archbishop of York said: “The Archbishop believes that the physical body of our Lord was raised from the dead on the first Easter morning and that it assumed a spiritual form which continued to sustain the Apostles and the early Church until the Ascension”.

A spokesman for the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Jesus Christ is risen. That is a fact’.

The Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich said: “It’s immaterial whether Christ was resurrected in body or spirit” and the Bishop of Bristol said: “I stand by the tradition of the church and St. Paul in particular, that we celebrate at Easter the rising of a spiritual body”.

The article did not record what other comments these bishops and others may have made. However, it recorded the results of another survey, of the general public by another journal, which showed that one third of 1000 people questioned believes in the biblical version of the resurrection, and half believed there was another explanation. I was not one of the 1000, but if I had been, I would have been a rather uncooperative respondent. Before answering I would have asked ‘Which of the biblical accounts of the resurrection do you mean?’ and ‘What exactly do you mean by resurrection?’

The problem is that we communicate our beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus in words; but words are very inadequate and often misleading things to describe the transcendent reality that is the Easter experience. Whenever you put an experience into words, you are already beginning to interpret it. Moreover, you have to interpret it according to words which reflect your thought forms and already existing beliefs, and those of the culture from which you come.

The biblical accounts of the first Easter began with the experiences of 1st century Jews whose world view was very different from that with which we operate. When these experiences were written down, they were written in Greek, within a Hellenistic Jewish culture. The Bible as we know it was then translated into Latin, and finally into English at different periods of English history.  Each of these translation processes would inevitably have slightly affected the way the experience was expressed and understood, simply because there is very rarely an exact one for one correspondence between the words of different languages.

Let me just give you one example of how it affects our understanding of the Easter story. The Greek noun  ‘resurrection’ amastasir appears hardly at all in the New Testament, When what happened to Jesus is described, verbs are used, and mostly verbs in the passive. That is, the New Testament does not talk about Jesus’s  ‘resurrection’ or even ‘rising’ from the dead, but  about Jesus ‘being raised’ by God from death to heaven. But when we proclaim our faith, we never say ‘Jesus was raised’, always ‘Christ is risen’. Interpretation and translation have altered our understanding.

What is more, there are a number of accounts of the raising of Jesus, and appearing to people, and these have a number of differences, more than would be expected if these were just different witnesses to the same event.

The earliest account, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, speaks of Jesus dying, being buried, and being raised on the third day according to the scriptures. He then appears to Cephas (Simon Peter), to the twelve (note 12 – not 11- even though Judas was supposed to be dead by now!) then to 500 people at once, then to James, then to all the apostles (who are they?) and lastly to Paul himself. There are several things to note about this account. Paul does not mention the women, the tomb, or any demonstration of a physical body, and he gives his own appearance of the risen Lord (at least a year or more after the crucifixion) exactly the same status as the earlier appearances to the first followers and family of Jesus. What is more, in the same epistle he argues that the body which is raised is a spiritual body, not a physical one, since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’.

The Gospel of Mark records that Mary Magdalene and two other named women go to the tomb in Jerusalem in order to anoint the body and are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, he has been raised and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. No appearances are described. Matthew has Mary Magdalene and another Mary going to the tomb (no Salome) to be told by an angel that Jesus has been raised and to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. They then meet Jesus, worship him and the message is repeated. The eleven disciples go to Galilee and Jesus comes to them on a mountain and commissions them to  go and baptize in his name.

Luke, as we heard, has an unspecified number of women going to the tomb, to be told by two angels that Jesus has been raised. They are reminded of Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection, and go back to tell the disciples. Mary Magdalene and some others are now named. They tell the disciples, who don’t believe them. Peter goes to see the tomb, and sees the grave clothes lying but no body.  The first appearance of Jesus is to Cleopas (a hitherto unknown disciple) and his companion on the way to Emmaus. It comes in the context of the exposition of Scripture and the breaking of bread. Jesus then appears to the disciples and others in Jerusalem and tells them to touch him and see he has flesh and bones, and he then eats a piece of cooked fish. He then tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (no trip to Galilee!) and then takes them to Bethany, from where he is carried up to heaven. This ascension story is repeated in the beginning of Acts, except there it is on Mt. Olivet near Jerusalem, and happens after 40 days. The coming of the Spirit happens several days later, on the feast of Pentecost.

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She is not going to anoint the body, since Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea have already done that before the burial. She calls Peter and the Beloved Disciple who run to the tomb. Peter enters the tomb and sees the grave clothes, as does the Beloved Disciple, who believes (in what is not specified). There are no angels.  It is specifically said that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise up. (John unusually uses the active verb ).

Jesus then appears to Mary, and tells her he is ascending to God (not that he has risen!) That evening, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem through a locked door, and shows them his feet and side. He then breathes on them and gives the Holy Spirit (no separate Pentecost gift). He appears again a week later the same way, through locked doors, and convinces Thomas to believe. The final chapter of John (which many scholars believe to be a later addition) records an appearance of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee to Simon, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two other disciples. This involves a fishing trip similar to one described before the calling of the disciples in Luke’s gospel. The disciples do not at first recognise Jesus. They share a meal of fish and bread. This is described as the third appearance, but seems very like a first encounter with the risen Lord. Peter is then forgiven for his denial, and commissioned to lead the church and the manner of his death is predicted.

So, when people say they ‘believe in the physical resurrection of Christ as described in the Bible’  which of these accounts are they referring to? Quite apart from the discrepancies in the appearances, there are inconsistencies in the descriptions of the burial and the tomb that make it inconceivable to me that what is being described is an objective historical occurrence.

I believe, as do  many Christian theologians whose judgement I trust, that these Scriptures are attempting to communicate,  in symbol and myth, reworking the religious traditions of Judaism in the form known as midrash, the experience of the first disciples of Jesus, men and women, that we know as ‘the resurrection’. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe these accounts as ‘parable’, and point out that the truth of a parable does not depend on it having a basis in fact or history. What matters about a parable is its meaning.

This experience was real. We know that by its effects: by the change in the people who were the first members of the Christian Church from frightened men and women who ran home and hid, to those who were prepared to face persecution and death for their faith in Jesus as their Lord; by the change in them from orthodox Jews who held that the ‘Lord our God is one’ to followers of a new ‘Way’ who preached that Jesus of Nazareth had been taken up into God; by the change in them from those who shunned contact with non-Jews to those who preached the Jewish Messiah to all the known world; from those who saw death on a cross as a sign of separation from God, to those who saw it as the gateway to eternal life in God’s presence.

So the proper question to ask of the Easter narratives in the Bible is not ‘Did it really happen?’ expecting answers in terms of things that could be photographed and  videoed if they happened now. Rather the question we need to ask of the Scriptures is: What did the experience mean to those first disciples, especially Mary Magdalene Peter, and Paul, that led to the dramatic change in them?   This is a question that goes beyond the arguments about what literally happened into the realm of the eternal and the transcendent – the world of the Spirit.

Crossan and Borg suggest several things that the Easter stories tell us. The first is that Jesus is not to be found among the dead, but among the living. He is to be experienced through the Holy Spirit and in people living out his teaching in every age. The second is that, in raising Jesus to Heaven, God expresses his approval of Jesus and his way of life. He vindicates him against the power systems of the Roman Empire that killed him, and all such power systems, and those who collude with them. The resurrection asserts that these systems will not ultimately triumph over God’s Kingdom. Third, the Easter stories tell us that Jesus is Lord and Son of God, not the Roman Emperor. We follow his way, not the way of power and violence, when we live in God’s Kingdom; and that way will bring us life that is eternal.

If I am asked: Do you believe in the Resurrection?, I would answer: Yes. I believe that Jesus was raised after his death to glory with God. If I was asked if the disciples saw the risen Lord? I would again answer: Yes. I believe that at some time after the crucifixion (not necessarily on the third day, or after 3 days and nights, since that is ‘religious time’ ) the disciples saw Jesus in his exalted and glorified body, and that this was an experience shared by many people, some of whom are named in different parts in the New Testament and some of whom are anonymous. If I am asked if I believe that Jesus is alive? I would answer: Yes, in the same way that I believe all of us who have faith in his revelation of God are transformed, renewed and alive in a way physical death has no power to extinguish.

Christ has been raised. We may be raised with him. Alleluia!

IMG_0746

Majesty and Meekness.

November 25, 2012

 

( Daniel 7, 9-10 & 13-14; Revelation 1, 4b-8; John 18, 33-37)

Religious jokes usually circulate in a number of different versions. Here’s a version of one I’m particularly fond of.

There was once a tornado in the Southern United States so strong that it blew down an angel from Heaven. The folk who found the angel immediately began asking questions. “Tell me,” said one, ” You have seen God. What is he like?”  The angel looked at them and smiled. “SHE is BLACK”, it replied.

If you have read ‘The Shack’ by William Paul Young, you will find it partly reflects the thrust of that joke in its portrayal of God. ‘The Shack’ is a novel, but also a work of theology. It concerns a man called Mack, whose youngest daughter was abducted during a family holiday in the Oregon wilderness. She is never found, but there is evidence in the shack of the title, that she was murdered. Mack’s grief at this destroys his faith in God. Then, one day he slips on an icy driveway when he is going to collect the mail. When he opens the mailbox, there is only one item – a note from God (who the family call Papa) inviting him to go back to the shack. When he gets there, he encounters God the Trinity in the form of three people, and Papa (God the Father) is female and black!

I won’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it. But do read it, if you can; it’s one of those life-changing books, that everyone should know.

We are told in many places in the Scriptures, and in the tradition, that God is not a being like us. If you want to talk properly about God, you have to use abstract philosophical concepts, because the use of any human categories limits God in ways that are unacceptable.

But human beings are not very good at imagining things in the abstract, and are even worse at relating to abstract concepts, in the way our faith expects us to relate to God. So all of us fall back on creating pictures in our minds to help us to try to grasp  what God is like.

Genesis 1 tells us that human beings were created in the image of God. Human beings in turn tend to ‘create’ or imagine a God made in their image, a God who is like them or like some category of human being they know.

Today, the last Sunday before Advent, is known in some churches as ‘Christ the King’. The readings direct our thoughts to one human category through which we express what we think God is like, that of a human monarch.

Daniel imagines God holding court in a throne room of a monarch of one the the many empires that conquered the Hebrew kingdom, surrounded by thousands of servants, and acting as both judge and jury, dispensing justice. Before him comes ‘one like a son of man’ a human being who is given power and authority over a major part of the monarch’s dominions.

The book of Revelation also portrays God as an earthly monarch, holding court in great glory and sending out his commanders to fight and defeat his enemies. Jesus is God’s lieutenant, whose enemies shake in fear as he approaches in power through the clouds.

In the reading from John, we have a passage which talks about the monarchs of this world, but which contrasts those with the kingdoms of God and Jesus. When the community who composed the Gospel of John reflected on their experience of the life, death and teaching of Jesus, they realised that the picture of an all-conquering earthly ruler was not the right one to convey the reality of the Kingdom of God. So, when they imagined the confrontation between Pilate, who held earthly power, and Jesus, who embodied the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world”.

That’s not a thought that has had a great deal of influence on the Christian tradition. Most have continued to imagine God the Father, and Christ the Son like secular monarchs, and the coming of God’s Kingdom as an event that will violently destroy all human power systems, punish God’s enemies and install the faithful in positions of earthly power.

We tend to ignore the hints in the Scriptures that the reign of God is something quite different. Daniel says that God’s ruler will be one like ‘a son of man’, that is with the limitations of human beings, not overwhelming power.

Revelation says that Jesus Christ brought us into the Kingdom as priests (all of us, not just the ordained!) through his faithfulness, and through the shedding of his blood. Jesus in John rejects secular definitions of power and authority, and stands by Truth, even when it means his own death. Jesus came to show us  the truth about a different kind of God and a different way of being a monarch.

The way we think about God and Christ and the nature of their kingdom is not just theory. It affects the way we think it is right to act, in everything from the nature of our ministry, what sin is and how we escape its consequences, to the way we conduct our civic relationships and settle our differences.

Another book which I found life changing is one by the American theologian, Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”. It is all about how he moved from the image of God he was taught in his childhood, which became increasingly unsatisfactory as he grew up and studied, to a way of thinking about God and living with God that he never knew as a child, a way that was consistent with the Bible and the tradition, but which made sense to a 21st century mind.

The concept of God with which Borg (and perhaps many of us) grew up was of a supernatural being ‘out there’ far away, who created the world a long time ago. The best metaphors for this  being are King or Judge, or an authoritarian patriarchal father, totally different and separate from us, all knowing and all powerful. Sometimes, he (this being was always thought of as masculine) intervened in the world, in the sort of events described in the Bible. But essentially this God was not here, but somewhere else. If we were good enough, and believed strongly enough, and abased ourselves enough about the sins we committed, we might be allowed to be with this being after death.

Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘supernatural theism’ or ‘the monarchical model’. Because human beings need something concrete to speak to, when Borg worshipped or prayed, his picture of God was based on the Lutheran pastor who led the services in his church each Sunday – a big man, with grey hair and a black robe, who always shook his finger as he preached. So Borg saw God as the big eye-in-the-sky, always watching, always disapproving, always judging.

But as he grew older, studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, he came to a different understanding of God, panentheisim. This thinks of God as all around us, within us, but also more than everything. What is more, we are within God. God is constantly creating, constantly nurturing, constantly present in the world, but is infinitely more than the world. In this model, the best metaphors for God are Abba/Daddy, lover, mother, Wisdom, companion on the journey. Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘The Spirit model’. The concrete image which sums up this picture of  God for him is of his wife, a priest, bending down to give a small child who is kneeling at the altar rail the consecrated bread. He says: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.( p.71)

Borg emphasises that both the monarchical model of God and the Spirit model are true to the Bible and to the tradition, and have nurtured Christian belief and worship through the ages; but he argues that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view.

Throughout history, the male, distant, King and Judge model has been the dominant one, at times the only one that was allowed. This has had consequences for our church organisation, particularly the insistence that you had to be a human male in order to speak for and represent this ‘male’ God.

But the loving, nurturing, female model is there, in the Scriptures and the tradition too,  if you look for it. One of the names used for God in the Old Testament, El Shaddai,  can be translated as the all sufficient one, the providing one, God as a mother who feeds us from her own substance – an image taken up again in the 1st Epistle of Peter and the writings of Julian of Norwich.  In different places in the Bible God is spoken of as a mother bear, a mother eagle, a mother hen, and as a caring parent, leading her toddlers with reins to keep them safe.

When you come to think of Christ the King according to this model, you get a very different picture from the rather triumphalist image of the commander of armies of angels who will come in power to defeat and punish the wicked. You get a picture of a servant ruler, who sustains and nurtures and comforts her people, who works to repair relationships and reconcile the divided parts of her realm. You get the Scandinavian welfare monarchy rather than Henry V.

And if that’s the image you carry in your mind of our divine monarch, then you will have a very different picture of what living under God’s sovereign rule is all about. If Christ is our authority, then Christ’s agenda takes priority – striving for peace and justice for all, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, sacrificing your good for the good of others, even your enemies. If we are living in Christ’s Kingdom, it’s not about conquest or power, it’s not about saying one group of people are better or holier or better able to represent God than another;  it’s about sacrifice and service; it’s about rejecting systems  that oppress and reject people; it’s about a completely different reality that works within human secular systems to subvert them and transform them into systems of justice, peace and love.

What we celebrate as we think of Christ the King is the foolishness of God, who redeems through sacrifice and servanthood, who lifts our humanity to the divine, who leads us with infinite tenderness to fulness of life: the monarch whose majesty is shown through meekness.