Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church April 23, 2017
Texts: Psalm 28; John 20: 19-29
In the opening scene of Hamlet, two guards Bernardo and Francisco are at the castle wall and meet their friends Horatio and Marcellus there. They discuss this apparition, as they call it, who has nightly appeared, walking on the wall, when suddenly it appears again. “What art thou who has usups’t this time of night, together with that fair ad warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did sometimes march? By Heaven, I charge thee, speak!” But the silent ghost just walks away.
We know the story, of course, and the tragedy that will follow as young Hamlet the prince seeks to avenge his father’s murder. The time in which this old Scandinavian tale from the twelfth century was crafted into one of the greatest plays ever written believed in ghosts, apparitions, and visits from the dead unable to find peace. We in our twenty-first century world, although perhaps startled by what have seemed to be an unexplainable sense of something beyond ourselves, shrug these queasy feelings aside. We brush them off.
Not so in Shakespeare’s time nor in the first century when Jesus lived and died. Most cultures in the ancient world believed that death was final and only in the rarest of circumstance would one return from the dead, usually the result of improper burial or to right a wrong. The allusions to ghosts in the Gospels are few, primarily in reference to the story of Jesus coming to the fishing boat being tossed about in the storm. “But when they – meaning the disciples – saw him walking on the water, they thought it was a ghost and cried out.”
The post-Resurrection appearance stories of Jesus are different because it is clear that although Jesus passes through doors, as he does in today’s reading, or vanishes as in the Emmaus story, that Jesus as the risen Christ is no ghost. But Thomas doubts. I think he is one of my favorite disciples because he doubts. I’m not so sure how I would have reacted if I had been told, by first a group of grief-stricken women, whose testimony was not to be taken seriously, and then a group of disciples, shaken as well by the crucifixion of their leader, that he was not dead but alive in some way. Put yourself in his place.
In this morning’s reading from the Gospel, Thomas when confronted with the risen Christ, simply falls to his knees and cries out, “My Lord and my God.” And the response, written for a generation well removed from the events of the day, has Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” But what is the belief that Jesus refers to and what does it mean for our lives? It’s all easier said than done to make declarations of faith; it’s much more difficult to have what we call faith in the midst of despair, the kind of despair that comes from our everyday lives and experiences.
Although we may grow in faith by living faithfully and through our interactions, our lives in community, the existential struggle of coming to faith, of belief is one that each of us must struggle with individually. We human beings, no matter where we are or our origins, are all raised into some kind of assumptive world, a framework of understanding that governs our lives. The question for us becomes how we struggle with the boundaries of our assumptive world, whether it is one that defines us by our gender, our nationality, our sexual orientation, our race, our religion, or any of a whole host of categories that are used to define us. It is that struggle against the boundaries set by others that often becomes the furnace of doubt, as Dostoevsky so eloquently put it.
You see, John’s Gospel leaves out the crux of Thomas’ doubt: his despair at having lost a person who had brought meaning to his life. We know little of the disciples before their encounter with the radicalizing Jesus except that some were fishermen, one a tax collector, one a revolutionary. Who was Thomas? Other than his name, Didymus, Greek for “the twin,” Thomas doesn’t appear except as a name and two comments in John’s Gospel. The first occurs when it becomes that Jesus will die in Jerusalem and he is recorded as saying, “Let us go and die with him.” The second occurs during John’s version of the Last Supper when Thomas protests that the disciples have no idea where Jesus is actually going which leads into the three chapters of the monologue attributed to Jesus, John’s theological statement of Jesus’ relationship to God. Other than those three stories and traditional stories of Thomas’ travels afterwards, there is nothing recorded about him in the Gospels. We have, of course, what is called The Gospel of Thomas, a proto-Gnostic book written in the second or third century and The Acts of Thomas, from the third century as well.
What is it about this story that captures our imaginations? Some of it may arise from our own desire to know, not just have faith. What Thomas wanted was not faith but sure and certain knowledge. I can relate to that. What is faith? What does it mean to believe, especially in the midst of despair? What we forget in the Resurrection stories is that the disciples, those who had literally thrown their previous lives away and followed this itinerant, seemingly mad preacher, were now in deep, deep despair. In addition to being terrified for their own safety, of course, they were also caught up in the despair of losing someone they had come to love.
We see that mixture of fear and despair in refugees who flee terrible civil wars where the people they hold dear have been kidnapped, brutalized, and murdered. But we also see that mixture of fear and despair in the faces of people in a hospital room. This is different than the question of theodicy, or where is God in the midst of earthquake, terrorism, and barbarity. This is the question of looking at our own despair straight in the face and developing faith beyond the despair. How do we deal with despair -- despair at losing those whom we love the most, who are part of our very own fabric of being -- and emerge with faith? Faith is much more than just falling on our knees and crying out, “My Lord and my God.” Much more and far more complicated.
Although religions have attempted to address these critical existential questions with ritual and formulas of belief, in the end we must devise our own ways of facing our doubts and times of despair. There are no easy answers and words often are unable to act as a salve on the wounds of our despair. The love that other people show us during times of despair helps to bring us through the depths into a place where we can begin to tread water but we may still find it difficult to swim to shore.
Wounds run deep and the scars that cover them only serve to remind us of the hurt that caused them. We can heal even our deepest wounds, but there must be intentionality and commitment to heal them, to transform ourselves into new persons, and then to work together to transform our world by imagining it differently, dreaming it passionately, and willing it into creation. This is enormously difficult work, whether we are healing our personal wounds or the wounds of a community. But it is possible. Of course, healing wounds from battles that are over is much easier than working on wounds that are still being inflicted.
Entering into the wound is essential to healing it. The Thomas story is usually taken as a story of faith and doubt, but I’d like to suggest a different look at it. Thomas had to enter into the wounds that his Lord suffered in order to heal his own wound of loss and grief. Touching and entering into the wounds of others is part of what our faith teaches us to do.
When we recognize that our fundamental natures are also wounded, we are better able to enter into the wounds of another and to be the face of Christ to the other person. Healing leads to transformation, whether it is in ourselves or in a church, a nation, or the world. Very few of us can take on the world, but we can heal our wounds by being open to the wounds of others as Thomas had his healed through entering into the wounds of the risen Christ.
But healing takes intentionality and commitment, and often we lose heart, unable to continue with our struggle in healing and being with others who need our presence. We call on God as did the Psalmist to give us strength because the process of being open to the wounds of others can be draining, to be sure. How do we get past the constant pull we feel and become transformed so we can be an instrument of God’s transforming power? I wish I could offer an easy formula, but I can’t. It takes constant work--for as St. Francis said, work is a form of prayer, a way of recognizing that God works through us as we minister to others.
The question isn’t how do we find faith as if it’s some misplaced item. I think the question becomes how we experience faith developed in such a crucible recognizing all the time that faith and doubt are intertwined. The little things that people do for us in the midst of our despair helps to develop faith. We humans are such finite creatures, looking for the intangible in the tangible. We grasp onto what we can see, what we can touch and we develop our faith around the little things, the ordinary things of life.
The pain of despair may not end but the love of others can carry us through so we can begin to reconstruct our faith and to grow in it through that love. And it is when we become the wounded healers to others that we learn to truly experience God.
Let us pray: Holy Architect of our being, bestow on us the grace to help others through their despair as we have been helped, for it is in loving that we are loved, in giving that we receive, and in the ordinary that we experience the extraordinary. Amen.