Saturday, April 06, 2013

Sunday after Easter

Do you know anybody who is shut in?  Probably very many of us do, elderly relatives or neighbours, and sometimes even not-so-elderly people who are confined by illness – somebody estimated the other day that in as many as one in six Aussie households you might find somebody who is a victim of domestic abuse or bullying, locked in through fear.  We also get locked in – less literally – by our own inability to break out of habits or circumstances that limit us and deny dignity, or our inability to believe sufficiently in ourselves, or trust in others. 

The disciples, where we come in to our Gospel reading today on the evening of that first Easter Day, are locked in by fear, immobilized and in withdrawal mode.  Remember they have already heard the good news of the resurrection – firstly from Mary, who they didn't believe, then from Peter and the beloved disciple, who saw the empty tomb for themselves, and believed, and presumably ran back to confirm the women's story.  So why are they still in hiding?  Maybe because this is just too much to take in, even though it has been confirmed by several witnesses now – but maybe also because they have an awful feeling it just might be true.  Right now, Jesus is the very last person they want to see, wracked as they are by the recollection of their own moral cowardice and their own inability to keep watch and wait with Jesus through the long torment of Gethsemene and the trial and crucifixion.  Maybe they are afraid because they do believe, maybe they are immobilized for shame – we don't quite know.

Actually to get the full impact of this we need to go back to the morning of that first day, when Mary has her surprising conversation with the one she believes is the gardener.  Because there is significance in this setting – creation, as we read in the Book of Genesis, begins with a man and a woman in a garden at the dawn of the world; here, in this meeting of a man and a woman in another garden, creation is restored.  The Gospel writer is laying out for us what the resurrection of Jesus means - what has been accomplished in the resurrection is that the brokenness not only of individual men and women but of history and creation itself has been reversed.  Remember the story of Noah? In which God decides to throw the levers of creation in reverse, to wipe the slate clean and start again because everything had gone wrong and humanity just wasn't worth the effort? And at the and of it God, it seems, is appalled by God's own actions and promises never to do such a thing again – not because of the essential goodness of humanity – indeed at the end of that story God laments and acknowledges our irremediable violent streak – but because of God's own holiness.  And the resurrection accomplishes what the Flood could not – because in trying to swallow the holiness of God, death bites off more than it can chew.  The scene in the garden is nothing less than what Eden should have been like, and it is a template for a world modeled on the Edenic vision of Isaiah, with humanity and the natural creation living in harmony and shalom. 

This next act informs us how we get from here to there – in other words, how the shalom of creation restored is made possible through the resurrection.  Love, that in fact always has been stronger than cynicism or self-doubt, bursts through the doors of fear and shame.  Different as the resurrection body of Jesus undoubtedly is, what restores the shattered disciples is Jesus' humanity – his first word to them, 'shalom' – 'peace be with you' – is a word of forgiveness and restoration.  This is a word of reconciliation offered to men and women who can't look their risen Lord in the face – it makes a future possible where a moment ago none appeared to be.  It seems to me, for that very reason, that forgiveness is the human practice of the divine reality of resurrection.  There are going to need to be many more words spoken – there always are, when reconciliation is taken seriously, but in this scene it is Jesus' followers who we see being restored to life.

But – Thomas isn't with them.

Thomas gets a bad rap, in Christian folklore – Doubting Thomas, the hard-headed one who demands proof.  I don't think he deserves it, and I want to make two points.  Firstly, that Thomas models the openness and resilience of honest questioning and holy doubt.  Secondly, that he is what we need most – a model for men and women who, if they are going to come to faith at all, need to find the evidence of God's forgiveness and love in the world around us.

But for a start, Thomas isn't locked in the room with the rest of the disciples that first, unsettled and emotionally exhausting evening.  That tells us something.  He could have been anywhere or doing anything, of course, but of all the disciples Thomas is the most self-contained and the least damaged - and he is the only one who isn't shut in.

Easter, you see, isn't just one emotion and one experience – not just the joy and triumph because it also holds our fear and disbelief.  Not just the rejoicing of a community but the alienation of those whose private suffering can't be shared or explained away.  This is why Good Friday isn't absorbed and negated by Easter Day, or to put it another way, why the risen Christ is still broken, still bears the wounds of crucifixion.  Easter holds the irreconcilable extremes of human experience.

Unless we experience the risen Christ for ourselves and in a way that makes a difference in our lives – unless we are able, in some way, to touch the brokenness of the one who died and rose to new and transformed life – unless the story can break through the 2000 year old container of stained glass and incense and mythology, and lodge in the flesh and blood of our lived experience – then it remains just a story.  Unless the wild claim of resurrection can sink in deep enough so that we hear it at the level of our own contradictions and failures and broken dreams, and we get that it is actually personal – then so what?  Thomas is modeling for us the only way that resurrection faith can make a difference.

We do know some things about Thomas.  Earlier in John's gospel, Thomas is the only disciple with the courage to follow Jesus, no matter the cost.  Not Peter the Rock.  Not the Beloved disciple.  Not the Sons of Thunder.  Not Simon the Zealot.

When Jesus hears that his dear friend Lazarus has died, the other disciples try to talk him out of returning to Bethany to mourn. The last time they were there it was touch and go.  The opposition to Jesus' ministry is heating up, the reactions to his wholesale pronouncement of God's forgiveness and his indiscriminate healing and his willingness to hobnob with sinners are getting personal.  The disciples are afraid that returning to Bethany, even to mourn the dead, is asking for trouble.  But while the other disciples fuss and carry on about not going, Thomas alone stands in solidarity with Jesus.  'Let us go with him,' Thomas says, 'so that we may die with him.'  In all of the Gospels this, in fact, is the only moment when any of Jesus' disciples understand that he is going to his death.  By contrast, Peter, when Jesus talks of his impending death, rebukes him for being gloomy and negative.

What if Thomas's refusal to take the other disciples' word for the reality of the resurrection isn't the reaction of a skeptic or an unbeliever?  What if it is the reaction of one who understood the reality of Jesus' crucifixion and who believed Jesus when he said he would rise again – a lover who was prepared to die with his Lord and who understood that resurrection, above all, is personal and changes everything?  What if Thomas, of all of them, understands that resurrection requires us to wait, until the risen one appears to us personally?

But, what do you do when everyone around you claims to have witnessed it? When you find yourself alone with a head full of doubts and buzzing with questions in the middle of a roomful of uncritical believers?  It is a very modern dilemma.  When you want to belong, and you want to believe but you need more?  It's a question of integrity, but it's more than that.  For Thomas it is a question of relationship.  This is his Jesus they are talking about.  He needs Jesus to stand in front of him, to touch him and to speak to him, if he is to come to faith – and so, in our own way, do we.

It's not an easy position to be in.  In fact, it is downright uncomfortable, but Thomas shows us how.  The first thing is to be prepared to wait, not to be overwhelmed by uncertainty or swayed by the majority, but to wait until resurrection becomes real and personal.  This is the difference between resurrection faith and mass hysteria, after all.  Resurrection is real.  The Church is a community of faith, but it is also a community of men and women who each have unique histories and individual needs.  A Church that respects diversity and allows for honest differences of opinion and different stages of faith is a Church that is modeled on the way of St Thomas.

But the second thing Thomas models is this – that he doesn't wait alone.  The following week Thomas is still with his brothers and sisters.  The key to the faith of the Church, it seems to me, is relationship.  Ours is not just a diversity but a communion – as there is no such thing as a private Christianity, so there is no such thing as a Church where relationship does not transcend and hold together our individuality and differences.

A community of unlocked doors.