Acts 5:27-32; Ps 150; Rev 1:4-8; JOHN 20: 19-31
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah! Amen.
Every year for this Sunday, I carefully reread today’s Gospel in Greek, to see why Thomas gets such a bad rap. It’s not there, nor do I ever see where he “doubts.” In Barbara Crafton’s short essay, called “Nailprints” in her blog “The Geranium Farm,” she begins, “We are so accustomed to comparing ourselves favorably with poor Thomas, whose famous doubt has come to be considered part of his name…,” I stopped reading that for a moment. I reread the Gospel, not because I consider myself better than Thomas, but rather that I am Thomas, or in the direct line of this one who was “just checking.”
We all know “curiosity killed the cat,” while “satisfaction brought it back.” Thomas is eyes, fingers, and audacity for each and all of us. We follow carefully his testing and we are assured, reassured that the nail holes were there, larger and crueler than life, that Jesus, himself, was there, was himself, and alert, attentive, and thoroughly alive.
This, year though I considered the accounts of Jesus’s life from another starting point. “And an angel of the Lord said to Mary, ‘Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you… And behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus...and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever…’ And Mary said to the angel, ‘How shall this be, since I have no husband?’ And the angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you… ‘ ‘How shall this be?’” Good question. The question was accepted though, and the answer given was in no way particularly helpful or clear, and yet both the question and the questioner were accepted and have stayed part of that narrative. We have not come from a tradition of “Doubting Mother, Doubting Mary”. Somehow an unknowable, impossible birth was less troubling than such a death. I’d guess too that there has always been a kind of low-grade disrespect for any woman’s answer about the way she got pregnant. It’s always second hand information, and it’s a reason Jewish lineage has always been determined only through the mother’s line. Until DNA testing, fatherhood was always hearsay information at best. The Church, however, has accepted both the Mystery of the Birth and the one questioner of that reality as being respectful, honest, and OK.
Not so with Thomas. Somehow his questions are neither considered OK, nor respectful. Again, referring to Crafton’s piece, “It seems that there are two parts to the resurrection: Jesus’s rising and our response. The resurrection, which we have always said was for our sake, seems also not to happen without our response, not to be an event in history so much as an event in relationship, a condition of our living with Christ. The resurrection is not so much a what as a how: here is how the dead is living, it says to us, here is how you experience him now.
“How did it happen? we ask, and we cannot answer. What happened? We want to know, and nobody can say. But How is it within me? And what can I be now, because of it? Those questions take me a little further. I can work with those questions. I can live with them, and they will come to live in me. They are questions about now and about the future, not about the past. We don’t seek the living among the dead.”
Crafton finishes, “And we all need to see some nailprints. Maybe not the ones we think we need to see, but something that will open a way for us into a future of belief that turns out not to be about evidence as it is about direction. Cues are what we need. And so we sharpen our eyes and look around, taking special care to expect the unexpected. And to assume nothing.”
What about considering whether a question, an investigation, an assessment, a checking out, a civil inquiry is acceptable, or why are some not. I have resisted these questions at home: Where are my sneakers? What’s the weather going to be? And What tie should I wear? though I sometimes consult on the final one to consider the occasion. Teachers reject, “Will this be on the test?” Fair enough. Ann Page quotes Gary Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury that “the impertinent question is the glory and engine of human inquiry.” He goes on to cite some people whose questions have changed human history, Copernicus, Darwin, Jefferson, Daniel Defoe, each in his field. Trudeau went on to say, “Whether revered or reviled in their lifetimes history’s movers framed their questions in ways that were entirely disrespectful of convention.” He concluded, “Civilization has always advanced in the shimmering wake of its discontents.”
If Thomas’s questions and testing research were considered in this category, he might well have gained more respect through time. (Interestingly, when in early mediaeval times Lady Godiva rode naked through her town to get her husband to relieve his unjust taxes levied on his tenants, one person looked on to verify that she’d done it, and as a voyeur, he was called a Peeping Tom, because Thomas was the derogatory name for someone who looked to find out the truth of a situation, although given his time, his name was probably Aelred.
Whether Thomas was a “discontent,” in Trudeau’s word, isn’t clear. He was careful. He’d been away from his community and he was deeply upset at Jesus’s death. He began to hear fantastic stories from people he’d found trustworthy, and then there was Jesus. He was afraid he was seeing things, but Jesus was his friend, and they both wanted to reestablish their closeness. Thomas asked and of course it seemed reasonable to Jesus to let the investigating go along.
Jesus ends the discussion asking, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Again this is often heard as a criticism of Thomas. Instead, Jesus is opening the way for distant followers, whether of distance or time, because he knew that not every group of people hearing about his teachings would have a ready witness like Thomas available to them. It only took one, one for all time.
That said, having appreciated Thomas’s research for us, we can proceed to Crafton’s question of “how do we experience Jesus? How is it within me? And what can I be now, because of it?”
As a community, we have always valued two quite different aspects of our life together. We care passionately about liturgy. We pay attention to what and how we celebrate the Eucharist. We hope each reader will read clearly and loud enough for the choir to hear, that every server will be on time, dressed neatly, know his/her choreography, and more, we care that the altar be dressed seasonally and with beauty and tidiness; we care about the feeling that we all share of, the Real Presence offered to each of us by our loving Creator. We share in the life Jesus lives in us, and we in him. We all know this and are conscious of it. We appreciate the corners of this space with its places of quiet and focus, to be available to G*d and G*d’s listening and hearing us.
The other side of what we treasure is our being energized to serve G*d both in worship, prayer, and church, but also in service to people. We are few enough in number that praying the Prayers of the People, warmly greeting everyone who comes, and coffee hour are nearly all we can do from and as this community. We can, though, remember our feeding programs, our clothes closet, our available pantry, our reaching out to people nearly two generations ago in Scollay Square, and more. If we consider and choose to augment St. Paul’s worship, we can also join in their vigorous program of outreach, which includes a large lunch ministry, a writers’ group and its publishing a newsletter, a small lending library, a meditation group, and more. We can reclaim, recommit to, and rejoin a community to re-involve and re-join ourselves in these works of mercy at St. Paul’s, renewing our own important value of service to others. When we worship, we renew our conversation with G*d and G*d’s care and love for those we can serve and help.
Thomas enables all that response from us when he demonstrated the futility of seeking Jesus among the dead. He was alive and still is—perhaps less visibly and availably than to Thomas—but alive. When we receive the Eucharistic bread and wine, once again Jesus has, in us, hands and feet, heart and mind, and will to serve others. Thomas is one of those who show us that we can do this. Imagine a church tradition like ours in which parishes take their name as Thomas, not to doubt, but to question, learn, and act both in the name of Jesus but also with his living, responding, and serving ministry. We celebrate Thomas’s “impertinent question,” indeed a “glory and engine of human inquiry” because Thomas showed us that G*d in Jesus triumphed over death. That we remember Thomas is remarkable; that we are in community with him and the risen Jesus is the eternal Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black C 2 Easter 7 April 2013 St. John’s Boston