Easter 2A, 2008
A Liturgy is also available
EASTER: AN OPEN-ENDED FUTURE, WITH BODIES ALL ALIVE!
"In dealing with people, Jesus did not condemn those who questioned or doubted.
While Jesus was harsh with scribes and Pharisees who claimed
to have all the answers in water-tight belief containers,
he was always ready to encourage the genuine doubter”
(Webb 1995: 15).
The story about Thomas is a very familiar story. Too familiar, perhaps.
And therein is one of its problems.
We hear it every year at this time,
the first Sunday after Easter, that is,
if ministers and preachers follow the set lectionary.
And because we tend to hear it every year
it is a difficult story to tell or preach on,
because everyone, preacher and listener,
reckons they know the ending,
so jump ahead to ‘their’ endings and miss the story itself.
So this year I have left it out of our gospel reading, and instead,
I now invite you all to tell the story as you remember it.
(General sharing/telling of the story)
Now there are a couple of strange things about this Thomas story, both remembererd and read.
Well, about the many interpretations of this story, that is.
Strange… that it is often titled ‘doubting’ Thomas, in a negative way,
yet I am told there is no such word as ‘doubt’ in the Greek!
Strange… as if asking questions is the same as raising a white flag of surrender,
and evidence of faithlessness!
It was the German/American theologian Paul Tillich who blew that latter criticism
right out of the water for many of us.
In his small, blue bound book, called Dynamics of Faith, Tillich claimed
authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation.
And that questions were not a sign of faithlessness,
but a willingness to take faith seriously.
And others have followed Tillich’s lead, such as Val Webb
in her excellent book of some years back: In Defence of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure.
And the progressive study resource called 'Living the Questions.
So perhaps you can sense some of the dilemma I feel I face each year
as this story comes around in the lectionary.
Yet this year I reckon I have heard some things in this story
I hadn’t really taken notice of in previous years.
So let me very briefly share a couple of these personal observations.
One of the things I reckon I heard anew was the storyteller we call John
sets his interpreted story within a particular community
which was experiencing debates on
How else can we hear that Thomas does not receive a blessing
as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement?
For me, that was an unexpected realisation.
Second, our storyteller John seems to be making it fairly clear that
the faith which marks a true disciple relies on the witness of others
rather than a personal experience of the Christ. (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)
That it is in the place where we can
practice conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)…
In a safe place such as this place, in the company of others,
that we can be shaped and reshaped by our questions and our search.
Greg Jenks from FaithFutures Foundation, puts it this way:
“Faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a personal miracle that removes all opportunity for doubt.” (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)
I reckon I had not heard that before in this story.
And the third thing I reckon I heard, although probably again this year,
is what some claim is the underlying theme
running throughout the whole of John’s collection of stories:
we experience the creative, transforming power of God
routinely, quietly moving through life, our life.
Often subtle. Unpredictable. Evasive.
“It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests
Bruce Epperly of Process & Faith, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.” (Epperly/P&F Web site, 2008)
I really do like those images.
During his 1990 Edward Cadbury Lecture given in the University of Birmingham, England,
Brazilian Rubem Alves told a story of a boy who found the body of a dead man
washed up on the edge of a seaside village.
There is only one thing to do with the dead: they must be buried.
In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial,
so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral.
As they did, the women began to talk and
ponder about the dead stranger.
He was tall... and would have had to duck his head to enter their houses.
His voice... was it like a whisper or like thunder.
His hands... they were big. Did they play with children
or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman's body.
The women laughed
"and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection:
a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead,
returning... their bodies alive again”. (Alves 1990: 23)
The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening,
became jealous of the drowned man
as they realised he had power which they did not have.
And they thought about the dreams they had never had...
Alves ends this part of the story by telling that they finally buried the dead man.
But the village was never the same again.
To know the reality of resurrection is to experience it.
Not is some doctrine which involves belief in a supposedly empty tomb.
Or an insistence on the literal historicity of the biblical stories.
We all experience it
“by simply being alive, and going through all the normal, routine transformations of human growth and love and death”. (Epperly, P&F Web site, 2008)
The good news of Easter, then, is not the so-called final scene
as it is in fairy tales that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after’.
Easter is the beginning of an open-ended future.
A moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return,
and our bodies - individually and as a church community - are alive again.
Alves, R. 1990. The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press.
Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to See God: Prayer and Practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press
Webb, V. 1995. In Defense of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St Louis. Chalice Press.