Be Careful What You Wish For — Easter 2

15 04 2007

TEXT: John 20: 19-21

One of my best friends is an atheist. I certainly don’t hold that against him at all, because it takes a lot of faith, I think, to say there is no God. In fact, it is in some ways a breath of fresh air. We joke between ourselves that it takes an atheist to keep a religious person grounded. One of the many reasons he does not believe in God is because it has become apparent to him that religion in general is a man-made creation. I would be hard pressed to disagree with him. Regardless of your faith or tradition, we can honestly say that the ritual, the pomp and the fanfare is simply window dressing. They are ways we thought up to express our faith. However, the expressions of faith and the faith itself have to be grounded in something or in the case of Christianity, grounded in someone. Sometimes, when we look past all the window dressing and pay attention to the things that we profess and proclaim during a worship service, we might wonder, “Is this all for real? Am I really deluding myself in being here? What if all those who say that ‘Christianity is a hoax’ are right?” These are very valid questions, and these questions lead us to the place of the apostle, Thomas.

I’ve always thought that Thomas got a bum rap. We all have heard the phrase “doubting Thomas,” which has become synonymous with skepticism or even cynicism. The phrase “doubting Thomas” is taken from the post-resurrection passages in the Gospel of John (as in today’s reading) where he demands proof of the Resurrection before he will believe that Jesus has risen from the dead.

If we look through the earlier parts of the Gospel of John, we can piece together a few tidbits of information about our maligned disciple. Rather than saying he had little faith, I would say that he was the realist of the twelve. Thomas was ready to go into Judea with Jesus at Lazarus’ death, knowing that it might certainly mean death for him, his fellows and his Rabbi. Later, in what are called the Farewell Discourses just prior to Jesus’ death, we see that Thomas wants more than just words of assurance from his Master. So, we see that Thomas is a very complex character. We see that he is capable of faith (willing to risk death) but is also capable of great hesitation (wanting more than Jesus’ say-so). I would not be surprised if Thomas were a Gemini given his double-mindedness, as well as his surname “the Twin.”

We owe a great deal to Thomas. He’s the guy that wants proof. He’s the one who is not willing to take things at face value or on anyone’s say-so, even if it is a group of people he’s lived with for three years or from someone who is claiming to be the very Son of God. When Jesus first appeared to the disciples, Thomas was noticeably absent. So when his brothers (and probably sisters too, since there is no indication or number or gender in this band of disciples) say to him “We have seen the Lord!” what else can he say but, “now hold on a minute folks! You are going to tell me that our teacher, our Rabbi, who was executed in front of us and for all the world to see, is alive? I saw with my own very eyes the blood flowing from the thorns on his brow. I heard him cry in pain as the nails were driven into his hands and feet. I was there when they took him down and I saw them lay his body into the grave. And now you are trying to tell me that he’s alive and well? Surely it is a ghost you have seen or your imagination is causing hallucinations! I tell you, 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.

Now, after all of that, who can blame Thomas? Not only does he want real, solid proof of his friends’ claim, he wants to experience that claim in just as real of a way as they did. This is a very human response to his fellow disciples. In essence, he wants to give everyone a reality check. The intersection of doubt and faith are part and parcel of the Easter experience. We should be grateful for Thomas’ questions. Thomas stands for us here in the 21st century. He is being our voice because on some level he is demanding factual answers to the questions that come up every year around Easter such as “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” “Was the body stolen? Was it given to the dogs?” Wouldn’t it be nice to say to skeptics once and for all, “See? I’m not crazy after all.”

He is granted his reality check a week later when Jesus appears again, this time with Thomas present. He gets exactly what he wishes for: an invitation to touch the wounded hands and side. He does not get an encounter with a ghost, but he gets an encounter with the flesh and blood Jesus Christ, the risen Lord. When presented with the reality of a resurrected Jesus, he does not touch the marks made by gangrenous nails and spears, he only cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

This small scene with Thomas is quite powerful. Far from criticizing or belittling questions about our faith and the reality of Jesus, God invites our questions. “Let me show you,” he says. “Let me meet you.” We should not be afraid to question things which may seem impossible. At the same time, if we have the courage to ask the hard questions, we cannot be afraid of what the answers are. Sometimes the answers are not pleasant. Job virtually shook his fist at God for all the trouble that God allowed him to go through. If you were to read the book of Job, we could say that his only fault was having a bad attitude. Job demanded a reality check as well, and the answer he received from God was “Where were YOU when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who are YOU to question why I do the things that I do?” Job, too, wanted a reality check, but it wasn’t like anything he was expecting. He encountered God and his response to that encounter was “I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” In the end, we know that Jobs troubles end, and he is even more prosperous and blessed than he was in the beginning. But, he encountered God and was changed.

One big reason why I believe the Bible gives a true revelation of God is because it shows God working with God-fearing folk, warts and all. It shows us a very clear picture of who we are at our best and our worst. It shows ordinary people doing extraordinary things because God stepped into their lives and met them. It is not the story of how we can become like God, but how God comes to us and meets us in all of our afflictions, our sorrows and even our questions. Thomas doubted the Resurrection. Job confessed he had a bad attitude during his ordeal. Both say, “I challenged you and you answered me, and you proved me wrong.” Both of their lives were changed forever by an encounter with the living God, a God that continues to encounter his people every day and every moment. So when we question or doubt some things, we need to remember that’s perfectly fine. God would not be much of a deity if he couldn’t withstand some scrutiny. We cannot be afraid of the answers to the questions we might ask, for they quickly become invitations to an encounter with Christ, whether they are at an altar rail, a soup kitchen, the workplace, or a park bench. There is a maxim which says, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” If what you are wishing for is an encounter with God, that is all the more reason to be careful.

You won’t ever be the same again. Amen.

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4 responses

15 04 2007
Steve

You really shed a new light on Thomas. Your insights are brilliant and I am glad to read them….

Steve

15 04 2007
Reverend boy

Steve, you flatter me WAY too much. Thank you for the great compliment, and thanks for visiting my little corner of the ‘net.

All the best,

Reverend boy

16 04 2007
Pisco Sours

I used to be an apatheist and a biology major, and still am a skeptic and an empiricist in a lot of ways. When I was a nonbeliever, I would often jokingly say, “God, thank you for giving me the gift of unbelief.”

Turns out I was righter than I knew!

16 04 2007
Atheist

Since I’m mentioned in this post, I just had to add a comment. However, I will only comment on the first paragraph.

I am the aforementioned atheist friend (What? Did you think I was Thomas???). I can see the Reverend boy’s point about atheism requiring a lot of faith (that would be the theist’s view of it), but I don’t think that’s where my atheism comes from. The way I see it, I’m an atheist simply because I lack faith. I was never able to believe in a god, even as a child. The whole concept never made sense to me, and still doesn’t to this day. As a mathematician, I see omnipotence and omniscience as concepts that just open the doors to too many paradoxes. I never needed to believe an eternal being created the universe; it was simpler to believe the universe was eternal, in one form of another (although modern physics takes a different approach to that).

I do have respect for people of faith, at least those that don’t try to force their beliefs (or the so-called “morals” that stem from those beliefs) upon me. I cannot prove there is no god, and people of real faith (like the Reverend boy) do not try to prove there is. That’s what faith is all about. I see both sides as being on equal footing, and love a good theological discussion, even if it ends in an agreement to disagree.

As for my take on religion, that’s a bit of a darker story. I was born in the city where Jesus was crucified. I’ve seen up close how religion can be used to to perpetuate great evil. I’ve also seen the results of the unholy mix of religion and politics. This mix does nothing to further acceptance of religion – quite the opposite.

I’ve also studied the history of the monotheistic religions. It’s very obvious to me that they’re a man-made creation, carefully designed to control and manipulate people. Naturally, learning all that served to strengthen my unbelief.

With that said, I don’t see religion as being only evil. For some people, it affords a lot of comfort and helps them deal with major life issues. To others, like the Reverend boy, it creates a community. I happy for him that he found his place in the Episcopal church and hope that it remains an accepting home for him for many years to come.

Pee hee!

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