“Last summer at Harvard … .”
This was my sister’s refrain for at least a year. She’d gone to a summer program there during her high school career and afterward it was all she talked about. Or so it seemed to me, who’d not spent a summer – or even a day – at Harvard. Her refrain, intended or not, caused me to feel as if I had missed out on a transformative, pivotal experience. An experience that marked her somehow other and better. An experience that I would never share. There was a Harvard/no Harvard divide that could not be closed or crossed.
We have a lot of those, don’t we? We have educational, regional, racial, cultural, ability, age divides. We have endless categories, even within Christianity. A ride down a South Carolina rural highway informs me of the various brands of Baptists: freewill, independent, primitive, full Gospel. We may not know all of the differences, but I suspect the people in those pews do. And to be fair, the Baptists have no corner on the parsing-things-out market. We have ARP, Cumberland, Orthodox, PCA, ECO, USA among the split P’s, right? The main street of the little town where I grew up had a different mainline denomination on each block: Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist. (No Episcopalians now that I think about it. No Catholic church, either. If you wanted high church you’d have to head to the county seat about 30 miles away.)
Last summer at Harvard … . This week at the session meeting … . Every year at Montreat … . Some who hear these mantras nod and understand while others feel left out and perhaps less than. I can only imagine how it felt for Thomas that week in between Jesus’ resurrection appearances. “Yesterday when we were hiding in that room … Jesus appeared … showed us his hands and his side.” What a divide it must have created between those who’d experienced the risen Christ and those who had not. If we break it down between the immersed and the sprinkled, the ones with the gift of tongues and the ones without, high church and low church … imagine what a line there must have been between those who’d seen Jesus raised from the dead and those who’d only heard tell of it.
It must have been a long week for Thomas. “Last week when Jesus stood among us and we received the Holy Spirit … oh, right, you missed it.” I admire Thomas in this exchange because he names the exclusion and refuses to accept his outsider status. He won’t just go along to get along. He won’t accept the others’ word for it and in so doing gets the dubious title “Doubting Thomas.” In insisting on equal treatment, he becomes the personification of skepticism when perhaps he should be praised for tenacity, honesty, patience and faith.
What if we thought of Thomas in those terms? What if we imagined him to be the one in the group who asks the tough questions others think but don’t voice? What if we heard his statement as not one of doubt but one of expectation? What if we considered Thomas’ response a faithful one that took to heart Jesus’ promise, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” Maybe Thomas was counting on the truth of Jesus’ instruction, “I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”
Perhaps Thomas wasn’t so much defined by doubt as he was by hope. I’d like to think so. Thomas didn’t assume that Jesus’ appearance was one and done. Thomas didn’t write off the possibility that he might yet see his Lord even as the others had. Thomas wouldn’t accept the outsider status that might have been conferred on him by others or by himself even. “Doubting Thomas” may well have been the first fool for Christ in his hope and expectation that Jesus’ promises were actually to be trusted – personally and tangibly, not just corporately, historically or theoretically.
The divides we create, the lines we draw, the doors we lock, may not be impassible after all. The risen Christ and the power of the Spirit he confers aren’t as containable as we try and make them. How’s that for a radical second Sunday of Easter proclamation? We have cause to expect the Risen Christ to show up, answer our prayers, give us what we most need, bust through closed off places and pour out the Holy Spirit upon us – not just once and not just on some, but over and over again for all.
This morning on the radio I heard a woman living in the West Bank say, “There will never be peace.” She’d worked for it, sacrificed for it, and having seen violence and enmity increase rather than decrease, has come to the conclusion: “There will never be peace.” She needs to see evidence of it – touchable, visible evidence. In the absence of that tangible evidence she has concluded it is not possible. I confess that I am sometimes right there with her even though I have not suffered as she has. I have looked back at Sunday morning pastoral prayers from five, ten, fifteen years ago and been struck by their sameness. The same regions, the same issues, the same petitions. How long, O Lord? Will there never be peace?
But this year, in the midst of more terrorist attacks, more division, more fear, more doubt that peace and reconciliation are possible or even desirable, I am drawn to Thomas. I am drawn to Thomas for his honesty, his refusal to accept that he’s missed the risen Christ and should take others’ word for it that Jesus is alive, his stubborn statement that counts on the truth of God’s promises: “You will see me, I will hear you, I can and will bridge divides and break down barriers, peace, my peace, I will give to you, forgiveness is won and yours to share, don’t doubt, hope, not only hope, BELIEVE.”
We need more Thomases in the church and in the world. We need people who ask the questions everyone else is afraid to voice, “How can we know the way?” We need people to say what is on so many people’s minds, “Unless I see, I will not believe.” We need stubborn, foolish followers who count on the truth of Jesus’ promises, those embarrassingly faithful people who won’t go along to get along but who expect the risen Christ and the Spirit to show up and send them out.
This second Sunday of Easter, I hope Thomas shows up, asks some awkward questions, names the elephant in the room, refuses to take your word that Jesus is alive and on the loose and holds us all accountable to the expectation that Jesus’ promises are trustworthy and true for all of us.
- Consider all the ways we exclude others, even inadvertently. Make a list. How might some of these divides be bridged?
- The Acts text appointed for the second Sunday of Easter, as well as the verses from Revelation and the Gospel, deal in some way with authority. What is authoritative for us? Who is authoritative? Who, how and what are we to believe and know?
- Of all the things the risen Christ could have singled out when he gave the disciples the Holy Spirit, he mentions the power to forgive and retain sins. Why? What is so important about this that Jesus spells it out to his closest followers?
- Is it unfair for Thomas to be labeled “doubting” or not? Isn’t doubt a part of faith? How can doubting be a helpful and faithful stance? How do we honor doubts and questions in ourselves in in others?
- What is the significance of Jesus’ repetition of the phrase “Peace be with you”? How do we receive Christ’s peace even when circumstances are not peaceful or peace-filled?
- Do a Google image search of “Doubting Thomas.” How do those images depict this story from John? What resonates with you? How would you depict this scene?
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