Low Sunday 2020 Year A Easter II
In Roman Egypt travellers sailing down the Nile would invite the local priests on board:
“… to give lectures on the greatest geographical issue of ancient times: the source of the Nile. Did it flow into Africa from the River Oceanus that encircled the earth? Or did it burble directly from the ground? And how did it flood like clockwork every year, without any rains? … Itinerant ivory traders knew that the Nile’s tributaries were filled by springtime rains in the mountains to the South (in modern Uganda). But the reports of these rustics were dismissed out of hand by all respected ancient thinkers: Any idiot could see the sun’s heat actually increased the farther south one travelled, singing men’s skin to the colour of ash, so these verdant mountains could not exist.” Tony Perrottet in Route 66 A.D.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:25b
I have never had a problem with Thomas’ doubt. Actually, I know myself well enough to say that I too would have disbelieved my friends and thought them mad, telling me that Jesus was alive. I would really have wanted some proof before I would have said I believed he was not dead. Many of us are like this, I suspect. We like to be able to see things or experience them to believe them to be true or real. There are very few of us who would take the word of another in something as remarkable as the resurrection!
I feel a great empathy with Thomas and this Gospel passage is one that speaks deeply to me. In fact Thomas is one of my ‘saintly heroes’ and I have an ikon of him permanently on the mantel shelf in the drawing room. He gives me encouragement to go on even when I feel overwhelmed with questions and doubt about my faith and the institution of the church.
It does seem absurd that a man could be raised from the dead, especially after he has experienced such a horrendous death. Like Thomas I am someone who likes proof of such things but I don’t always accept what I see as proof either. When I was studying science at University I used to argue that there were no scientific facts per se but only observed phenomena, which may or may not be as we had interpreted them. I was always seeking a deeper answer and meaning and as a result somewhat sceptical of what I first saw or was told. I think now that I must have been a complete pain! But it does explain to me why I feel comfortable with a ‘grey’ faith and ‘grey’ theology.
What I mean by this is that, as I perceive it, there can never be any black and white answers to questions of our faith or to questions about God. How can we ever say that this is so or that is so? Take scripture: I have never been able to accept the idea that it has to be accepted literally because it was in some way ‘dictated by God’. I know that the Bible as we have it was put together by a committee or ecumenical council, when the assembled theologians voted on which books went in and which books were left out. This is not to say that the Bible is wrong but more to acknowledge that it contains within itself enough for our salvation. That it is not to be taken literally but interpreted through prayer and thoughtful study. For me the idea of adopting a literal understanding of scripture is to try and encompass God in a collection of human words. And, I don’t think that God can be encompassed and controlled in that way – for who is greater; the Creator or the creation?
Yes! I am a good liberal and I am not ashamed to be such either. In bits of the church today, you get the idea that there is only one way to believe in God and his works. I find those who believe they have the ultimate understanding of the mind of God scary because you have to be ‘perfect’ before God will love you and I have always believed that in his death Jesus proved that God loves each of us just the same. Jesus did not die for selected sinners but for all of us to prove the extent of God’s love for ALL of us.
Desmond Tutu reinforced this belief in an inspiring sermon he preached in 2004 at Candlemass:
“How incredibly, wonderful, it is that God says to you, to me: ‘There is nothing you can do to make me love you less. I take you, I take you very seriously, I take you – you- body and soul, you the visible and the invisible of you, I love you, I love you, I love you’.”
This is my hope that I am loved for me by God just as much as you are loved for you and my hope finds proof of this in Thomas’ scepticism.
Picture it: Jerusalem spring 33 A.D. -ish. A room in a locked house. A group of friends, except Thomas, the followers of a crucified preacher have gathered to mourn the loss of their leader. Then suddenly, he’s there among them! They must have been ‘gob-smacked’! How did he do that? Was it really him? Did he not really die? Wow! It is not surprising that Thomas couldn’t get his head around the idea that Jesus had returned to them from the dead.
Then the following week the disciples are gathered again and this time Thomas is with them and Jesus appears again and this time encourages Thomas to feel his wounds, to prove that he is not a fake. This for me is proof of love.
Jesus need not have returned and satisfied Thomas’ doubt but he did and he did so because he loved Thomas as much as the others and wanted him to know that he was alive, not dead.
It’s a bit like hearing that an old friend is in town and that some of your mates have seen him but you haven’t. You might be left feeling somewhat left out or snubbed – only to get a visit from your friend who says they wanted to spend time with you on your own because you are special to them. You’d probably feel very loved knowing how important you are to your friend.
This is what Jesus was doing. He was telling Thomas that he was important to him and that he understood why he could not believe what the others had told him. Couldn’t you hear yourself say:
“I don’t believe you. Come on that is too fanciful; you must have been hallucinating or drunk?”
For me it is Thomas’ very human reactions that encourage me to believe in the resurrected Jesus. I have never seen Jesus but yet I would want to say that I know him and am loved by him. I say this because of the ways in which I experience him in the love I receive from others. Jesus, I believe, is a loving presence in all of us – whether we acknowledge him or not – and the Gospel accounts of his life and ministry are there as examples of how we can lead a good life in the service of others. And in attempting to live this life we come to know Jesus better and feel bound to others who are trying to do the same.
Jesus led a life fuelled by love and that love can fuel the lives we live for it is that love that binds us together and it is that love that enables us to do the things we thought impossible – like touching Jesus’ wounds.
I will always be a sceptic but if Thomas is anything to go by, then I think I am in good company. So take heart all of you who doubt like Thomas, for doubt can lead you to truth. It may not be an easy path to follow but it will be a fascinating journey.
There is however one thing I am not a sceptic about and that is the source of the Nile in Uganda. I have actually put my finger in it!