April 12, 2015 | John 20: 19-31 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
Earlier this week one of the volunteers from the Thrift Shop approached me about making a financial donation to the church. He wanted to say thank you for the dinner we hosted for Thrift Shop customers on Maundy Thursday. As he was getting out his wallet he happened to mention this was the first financial donation he had ever made to a church. So I asked him about that and we ended up talking for quite a while about this church and other churches and why it is he likes coming to this place even though he has never come here on a Sunday.
One of the things he said is that he likes me as a minister because I’m not a hypocrite. Clearly he has never witnessed the unchristian like manner in which I get my children to school on time in the morning.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone mention hypocrisy as a reason for disliking the church and it reminded me of what I consider to be one of the greatest misunderstandings about church. That is the misplaced perception that to be a Christian, to be a true believer, we must act on what we believe.
Now you might think that’s a strange thing for a minister to say: that we don’t have to act on what we believe in order to be a believer. And yet the bible is full of examples of believers who don’t act like they believe.
Take this morning’s scripture reading for example. As the story begins, it’s now the evening of the great discovery of the empty tomb. While Thomas is out of the house for some undisclosed reason, the rest of the disciples witness the presence of the Risen Christ. There they are cowered behind locked doors, fearing for their lives when suddenly Jesus appears before them, speaking words of peace, sharing with them his blessing. Later on Thomas returns to the house and hears the news, they have seen the Lord. Clearly they believe what they saw because they tell Thomas about it. But what they aren’t able to do is convince him of that truth. Maybe that’s because although they say they believe, they’re not acting like they do.
When the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples they were given a commission. He breathed the holy spirit into them and sent them as he had been sent. Why is it that just a short week later they were again inside the house behind closed doors? If they believed in the resurrected Christ, shouldn’t they have been outside the shut doors of the house doing what he had both asked and empowered them to do?
Is this not a good example of the fact that from the very beginning, followers of Jesus have not always acted on what they say they believed or even what in their hearts they know they believe?
Do you always act on what you say or think or even know you believe? I don’t. I may start the day with great resolve to do so, but usually by about noon I’ve fallen short of the mark at least a dozen times already.
In a strange way, there’s something about not acting on what we believe, that can push us deeper into our belief.
That’s probably why nothing annoys me more than people who think they have all the answers and then act as if they do.
One of the things I love about Thomas is that not only is he not satisfied with anyone else telling him what to believe, not only is he stubborn in his disbelief, the evidence he seeks to confirm his belief is substantial. Unlike Mary whose experience of the Risen Christ at the empty tomb we gathered around last Sunday, Thomas is not going to be satisfied with a Risen One that can be easily mistaken for a gardener or any other Joe Blow in the neighbourhood.
If he is going to believe in the Risen Christ it had better be the wounded Jesus, the one whose hands were nailed to a cross and whose side was pierced by a sword. Not only that, he wants to touch those wounds. He wants to make sure this risen Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer. He wants to make sure this is the same Jesus who got down on his hands and knees in the garden and cried out God my God why have you forsaken me. He wants to make sure this Jesus also knows what it is like to doubt, to doubt that God is present in the midst of his despair, to doubt that God can make all things well, to doubt that good will indeed prevail over evil.
Now that might sound like a rather blasphemous thing to suggest, that Jesus doubted God, but for Thomas it seems that if the Risen Jesus isn’t the same Jesus who experienced the kind of suffering and the kind of holy absence that produces doubt in a believers heart then for him to return from the dead is nothing more than a magic act. Like when a magician saws a woman in half and then suddenly she reappears on the stage completely in tact with not a single blood stain on her dress. We all know she didn’t actually get sawed in half, there was never any worry that the blade would actually touch her flesh, it was all just illusion. And although we may not know how he did it, we all know it was really just a trick.
By asking to see and touch the wounds in Jesus hands and side Thomas is saying he’s looking for more than a magic act, he is looking for what is real. He’s looking for a God who knows what it is like for humanity to suffer and to lose and to doubt.
One of the books I read on my sabbatical is titled the Divine Magician by Peter Rollins.* It’s a book that really challenges the notion of certainty in religious belief. Too often he says religious certainty has only served to suppress uncertainty. So when the church professes to have all the answers and declares that its members must believe in certain statements in order to be faithful followers what really gets created is a house of cards. If you push too hard on one belief or prove it to be false the whole stack of cards begins to fall. So in order to call yourself a Christian you are required to believe in certain doctrines without question. Because if you question things too much pretty soon there won’t be anything left in which to believe.
But what if being a Christian, asks Rollins, what if believing in the resurrection, isn’t about believing in a set of statements or believing in experiences the first disciples may or may not have had. What if being a Christian is letting go of what we believe so certainly, in order to open ourselves to being transformed by what we doubt, by that for which there is no ultimate proof.
Think about it for a minute. What is it that you doubt about when you lie awake at night? What is it about which you feel uncertain in your life?
Isn’t it true that it’s the uncertainties of our lives not the certain things that call forth in us the necessity to throw open our arms and cry out for what we need. Is it not the uncertain things that make us curious about what really is certain? Is it not the uncertain things that make us reach out to one another for strength and courage, for compassion and support, creating something that wasn’t there before? Is it not uncertainty that draw us together and forms us into the cross-shaped body that we call the church?
It’s in our weakness we are strong, in our doubt there is belief. So what if instead of reviling Thomas for his disbelief as many have done throughout the centuries, or expecting one another to always act on our beliefs to prove ourselves worthy of our Christian calling, we took a page from Thomas’ book and honoured our disbelief and inquired about our doubts.
In his book the Divine Magician Peter Rollins talks about that moment in a magic trick when the coin which the magician has made to disappear suddenly appears in a different location. Like the woman who was never sawed in half, everyone in the audience knows it can’t possibly be the same coin the magician swallowed or stuck behind someone’s ear. We know the original coin is up the magician’s sleeve or in his pocket or in some other way been made to disappear. It’s all part of the fun of make-believe.
But in the story of Jesus, when he is crucified and laid to rest, unlike Thomas and the disciples, we the audience are called to come to belief without seeing the Christ miraculously appear before us, without the make-believe as it were. Recall the last words the Risen Christ says to Thomas “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
So we look around and without a resurrected body who do we see in front of us? We see each other as the wounded Christ and know the presence of the sacred is to be found in one another.
Once when Peter Rollins was asked if he believed in the resurrection this is how he replied**:
“Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think… I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Every time I do not serve my neighbour, every time I walk away from the poor. I deny the resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm the resurrection when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, I affirm the resurrection when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, I affirm the resurrection, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed. I affirm the resurrection each and every time I look into your eyes and see the face of Christ.”
The truth about the church is that we are all a bunch of hypocrites you and me together. We don’t always act like we believe. We have doubts even when the evidence of our faith is all around us to be seen. It’s our disbelief that so often pushes us back into our belief and when that happens Christ is Risen again, Christ is Risen indeed.
*Peter Rollins: “The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith” Howard Books, 2015.
**taken from “Leap of Doubt” blog by Pastor Dawn
April 12, 2015
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church