Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Faith of Thomas

Today's gospel is one of the great lessons of the season, and one of the great readings about faith. Now there are two messages about the faith in this story: one about its content, and another about our relationship to it. One, the more familiar, concerns Thomas's faith; but the other is about what he believes, and it is that which I will address first. The text says “Jesus came and stood among them,” and it is clear from this and other passages that John surely does not mean that the disciples had nothing more than a vision of the risen Jesus. Luke and John are both very clear on this point: in one story he breaks bread; in another he eats fish. And a week after he rises, he invites Thomas to touch Him. It is clear that the risen body is, in some respects, transformed: Jesus comes and goes at will, and though his wounds are retained, they do not seem to impede his new life. But there is also no question as to whether He is truly, physically resurrected. Jesus lives for real; his body was not left to rot on the cross or thrown aside, as one revisionist has suggested. Nor are the resurrection accounts to be taken as mythological tales, as others suggest: that error belongs to gnosticism, a later heresy which tried to remake the orthodox message in the image of pagan mysteries. The risen Jesus is a living body, not an insubstantial spirit or mere metaphysical principle.

And upon confronting this Jesus, Thomas then makes a striking confession, for it is he who first names Jesus as Lord and God. Jesus names himself the Son of Man, and is confessed as the Son of God by Peter; but it is Thomas who first addresses him as God, thus fulfilling the first verses of the John's Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.” Here we are at the core of the faith which we shall ourselves confess in a short while: Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, fully God and fully Man, born of Mary, put to death, and resurrected— not as a metaphor, but as a literal, living union of humanity and the divine. It is the promise of this new life which we are reborn into through baptism— not some vague promise that we will be remembered, or that we will live on in others, but that at the last day we will be brought, living, into that eternal kingdom of which Jesus Christ is ruler.

Which brings us to the more familiar second aspect of the story. Thomas, as we have heard, refused to believe the testimony of the others, and demanded hard, physical proof, even as modern man holds is right and proper. Jesus offered him the proof he required, but then Jesus was carried back into Heaven, so that we, who might want to touch His wounds and grasp His feet, must be satisfied with the small taste of the holy Body and sacred Blood which we receive from the altar. Some among us may be touched by the Spirit in other ways, and thus be confirmed in faith, but many are they whose grace is to come here, week in and week out, and hear the preaching, sing the hymns, repeat the prayers, and otherwise worship without tactile or mental confirmation of the reality of their savior. Indeed, spiritual manuals warn that God is wont to withhold the signs of His presence, thus testing us; for as Paul says, “faith is the evidence of things unseen.” So we pray, and it seems that we are not heard; we come to church for spiritual sustenance, and we leave seemingly unfilled.

By faith we know this to be the illusion of the world, for Christ is with us always, even to the end of days. But the voice of the world is strong, appealing to our feeling that we deserve to be humored in the tests we set before God: not that we consciously set out to test Him, but that we take a prayer and hold Him to it as it were a contract for service and not a cry for deliverance. Some look at the sorry state of the world and refuse to allow that God could let it continue. Some look at his wretched church and deny that he would ever commission so hapless and fallen an organization to represent Him in this world. If Jesus still walked among us, if each man and woman who cared to do so could see Him for themselves and touch His risen flesh for themselves, surely faith would come easily to all. Yet Jesus was taken again from us, with only the apostles left behind to testify to the reality of His reappearance among the living.

We are thus dependent upon the church to recall for us what the apostles heard and saw. Jesus relies upon the body of which he is the head and of which we are the hands and feet. And we know it to be His will that it be thus. It is our voices, our repetition of the sacred texts, which must relate the fact of the resurrected Lord to each new generation. Many such generations have passed since Thomas saw the wounds, and believed, and yet the church, as it was charged to do, continues to carry the message through the ages, not only through her teaching, but through the sacraments which she is ordained to deliver to her people.

Therefore we who believe must count ourselves blessed, who cannot see, and yet still have faith, even as Jesus said. For we are thus the sign of the everliving Christ, we Christians who have trusted in the Lord. In the midst of a selfish and cynical world, it is we who remember salvation, and we who minister it to those to come. It is a holy task, and it is our task. God could make Christians out of the stones in the ground, but he does not. God could dazzle the world with supernatural spectacle, but he does not (and indeed, the faithlessness of the Israelites in Sinai bears witness to how ephemeral the effect of such a demonstration might well be). Instead, the Father has put the future of the faith in our hands. Therefore we must consider that we also point to the faith as the apostles did, in words of course where we may, but also in our acts. We must live as though we believed, as though the commandments of the LORD apply to us. And we may then have courage to face the doubt of the world, and to repeat the faith that we learned of old from those who recount the testimony of those who saw and touched the flesh of the risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

1 comment:

Father Christopher said...

That'll preach. I like it.