When I went through the ordination process, one of the first steps was to have several meetings of a discernment committee at my parish. My discernment committee at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond was filled with a wonderful variety of parishioners who asked me all sorts of good questions. Mary Horton, a fabulous woman who single handedly inspired me about the beauty of pointy toed shoes, asked me, “Do you believe in resurrection?” Now, I was thinking about human death, since my mother had just died, and I told them that I honestly did not know. There was a long, awkward pause, and all of a sudden I realized she meant JESUS’ resurrection. I quickly blurted out, “Yes! Yes! I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, I’m just not sure if the rest of us have the same kind of bodily resurrection!”
Phew. I might not be here today if I hadn’t interpreted that long pause correctly!
I wonder if Thomas was met with the same awkward silence when he just could not believe the other disciples had seen the risen Jesus.
You can just imagine Thomas coming back into the locked room, completely innocent of what had just happened. Maybe he went out to check on a family member, or to grab some lunch. Maybe he just needed a break from the doom and gloom and wanted some fresh air. Regardless of why he left, he was the only disciple not to see Jesus for himself. He came back to the room and everyone was babbling excitedly about seeing Jesus.
Of COURSE Thomas was incredulous. There are certain things you don’t expect in life-for, example, snipers shooting at cars right here in Greenwood. Thankfully the thing Thomas was not expecting was not bad news-he had already heard the bad news of Jesus’ death-but really, truly wonderful news.
Thomas was a skeptic. Thomas wanted more information. Thomas wanted to see for himself. He tells his friends that he wants to “see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side”. Thomas wants evidence and sensory proof that what the disciples saw was actually the resurrected Jesus. Thomas is not comfortable with the certainty that his friends are experiencing.
Thomas could be the patron saint of the Episcopal Church.
One of the reasons I joined the Episcopal Church is that it welcomes all of us Thomases and all the questions we have. I used to be part of a church community that would tilt its head and tell you, “We’re praying for you.” if you asked too many questions. Questions were a sign that your faith was wavering, in danger. To them, real faith looked like an iron clad suit-inflexible and dogmatic.
John Polkinghorne, the English priest and physicist reminds us that truth is not the same thing as certainty.
Many people confuse the two, but truth is a much broader idea than certainty.
When Thomas finally sees Jesus, Jesus invites Thomas to put his hands in Jesus’ side. After all his big talk, Thomas cannot bring himself to touch his Lord. Suddenly, Thomas no longer needs the certainty of concrete evidence. He has a personal encounter with a loving, resurrected Jesus and no longer needs proof of Jesus’ resurrection.
The truth of Jesus, and our relationship with Jesus is much more complicated, and much more beautiful than simple certainty.
If we become absolutely certain about who Jesus is and what God is like, then we close ourselves off to the power of the Holy Spirit to teach us something new.
Our minds are very small. Even here, in intellectual Charlottesville, our minds cannot begin to grasp the complexity of the living God. All of our rumination and theology is nothing more than an educated guess, really.
We like to be organized, so we come up with books and books of theology and all try to agree on exactly what the Bible means, but even the Bible is a complex and multi-layered text. The Bible is for exploration, not classification. The Bible is an adventure, not a set of rules.
Being too certain can lead to a limited experience of God. Being too certain can cut us off from people different from ourselves. Being too certain can lead to ugly talk, accusations, and even violence. Being too certain can even lead to personal collapse.
Once I got past the point of just giggling about the whole Elliot Spitzer debacle, I began to get really fascinated at what motivated him to act out the way he did. For that matter, what made Ted Haggard behave the way he did? Or any moral leader who has a moral meltdown? What men like these have in common is an intense and narrow perspective on the world to which they are professionally obligated to adhere. They built their reputation on moral certainty that left no room for them to explore their own deep thoughts and feelings in a safe and open manner. They ended up compartmentalizing themselves into irresolvable pieces and that loose construction eventually collapsed in spectacular and humiliating ways.
If Spitzer and Haggard had been in tune with the complicated truth of who they were and who God is, rather than being so certain of a set of mores for those under their care, they may have spared themselves the humiliation of sexual and financial indiscretions that later came to light.
Asking questions, even taboo questions, about ourselves and about God is one of the healthiest, most faithful acts we can do as Christians. Thomas teaches us that we are allowed to ask whether God is real, whether the resurrection is real, whether the virgin birth is real. We are allowed to doubt.
Faith would not be faith without doubt. Inherently, faith is about taking a risk, taking a chance. Over our life, our faith will ebb and flow. There will be Sundays where we can say the Nicene Creed with confidence and other Sundays where we might need to skip a part or just listen to our brothers and sisters recite it. In the Episcopal Church, unlike most churches, to join you do not need to sign a statement of belief. You do not have to sign off on specific theological points or agree to a proscribed set of ideas. In the Episcopal Church we believe faith is expressed by coming together and worshipping, by the act of loving God, rather than the act of believing facts about God.
We can no longer put our hands in Jesus’ wounds, but we can encounter him at the Eucharist. The physical contact and assurance Thomas, and we, long for can still be met as we kneel before him and accept his body and blood in the form of bread and wine. The intimacy that Thomas shared with Jesus, the gift of being in Jesus’ presence is still offered to us.
And when we come to share that intimacy in the Eucharist, we don’t need to have all our ducks in a row. We can come confused about God, confused about ourselves. We can come with robust faith or whimpering faith and Jesus will still meet us and open his arms to us.
Thanks be to God.