What a strange name – Low Sunday? The origin of the name is shrouded in the mists of time. Yet, for me at least, it resonates with my mood. I took a couple of days out of the office this week. This was not really time-off, although no self-respecting priest in the Church of England is anywhere to be seen in Easter Week. However, the workaholism of American life, frowning on the need for time-off as a sign of personal weakness, exacts its toll. So I took two days out, which I hasten to add, were not exactly time off. I continued to work, but at least at a different pace thus providing me with some mental space for profound thoughts as I approach the task of preaching on Low Sunday.
In an email response to me this last week, Canon Dombek wished me a blessed 50 days of Easter. That’s nice, I thought to myself. I was about to move-on when the notion of celebrating the 50 days of Easter caught me like a catch in the back of the throat.
Whether we do much about it or not we mentally and emotionally resonate with the 40 days of Lent. But come Easter Day, the feeling is, thank goodness all that is now over for another year! Each year, I am pleased to note that a few more of our community take Lent and especially Holy Week to heart and discover the empowerment of a liturgical journey that orients us to the experience of Easter in new ways. You can’t parachute into Easter Day unless you have trodden the path of the Passion expressed through our community liturgy. Many of us have yet to grasp the essential point of being Episcopalian – which is to be a community of Christians to whom God primarily speaks through our celebration of the liturgy.
During this Easter Season, which runs until Pentecost Sunday, we will be hearing John’s Gospel proclaimed in the Sunday liturgy. I wonder what kind of conversation God will be seeking to have with us as we journey with John. As I have noted before the sermon is the community’s conversational response to God speaking through the lectionary. The preacher leads this conversational response by virtue of his or her Godly learning, as the Prayer Book of 1789 phrased it. In my case, this is supported by the fact that I am rarely thinking about anything other than our Trinity Community.
From time to time I need to stand back and take a breather in order to refocus upon what I am intuiting and sensing. Community is like a pond of water, fed by a strong underground spring. Turbulence gushes from the mouth of the spring rising to cause ripples and sometimes rather turbulent waves breaking the surface. As pastor and dean, my role is to gaze and reflect upon these ripples and waves. I am looking for the sense of where God is moving upon the face of our waters which are the reflection of our struggles to be faithful in our life as a community of Christ’s Body.
Conversing with the Text
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Temple authorities and their henchmen, Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you’.
It has been a long, bewildering, exhausting day. Amidst the devastation caused to the their hopes and dreams by the events of Good Friday, the disciples begin this day discovering the body of their slain teacher removed, by whom they do not know. Harrowed and blinkered by grief, they have forgotten what Jesus had spent three years trying to show them and so his death on the cross is a loss to them, the implications of which are literally mind splintering.
They do what human beings do in such circumstances – they lock themselves away. Secluded behind doors of wood and walls of plaster they seek that feeling of safety amidst a hostile world. Yet, the doors of wood and walls of plaster are emblematic of the impenetrable walls and doors within their minds. These, they have erected to shield themselves from their suffering. Profound suffering and loss is like a feared tsunami threatening to burst upon them and obliterate them in a torrent of fearful rage and grief.
I am perplexed by the way John depicts the first two of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances. Next week I will explore the wider meaning of the post resurrection experiences. The central theme for John seems to be the need to have faith. Faith is complicated by fear and doubt. Yet, while in my view fear is the more serious antithesis to faith, John emphasizes doubt.
I like this more contemporary version of the famous scene in John, published by Zondervan Press.
The epithet Doubting Thomas has become a name heaped on those who cannot rise to the demands of being true believers. In the story of Thomas, doubt is posed as the opposite of faith. This unfortunately has come to obscure for us the curious relationship of doubt to faith. The story about doubting Thomas completely distracts us from recognizing the corrosive relationship of fear to faith, which is so strongly portrayed between verse 19-23. Thus the majority of Christians in this country are taught from an early age that doubt is the enemy of faith. To be a true believing Christian is to banish doubt, while encapsulating our fear, locking it away behind blast proof doors deep in our minds. The denial and locking away of our fear so that we are no longer in touch with it is, for me, the principle explanation for the continued persecuting style of so much contemporary Christian rhetoric. A wonderful example is currently being played out before us as strident anti gay Christian voices now on the defensive, seamlessly move from victimizing others in the name of freedom of conscience, to seeing themselves as the victims of others who seek also to exercise freedom of conscience. However, John seems less interested in fear and more in doubt. He has his reasons, which I will explain later.
The popular attitude among many Christians concerning doubt evokes for me the conversation between Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter. Alice proudly tells the Mad Hatter that: Sometimes I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. The Hatter replies: That is an excellent practice.
Thomas, it seems would strongly disagree with both Alice and the Mad Hatter. He defiantly declares that unless he sees the proof he will not believe.
So John reports Jesus coming back the same time the following week seemingly to put Thomas right (note the cheers from the true believers in the background). Yet, despite what Jesus tells Thomas- do not doubt but believe and blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, the process in play here is one in which Thomas comes to faith because he has the courage to voice his doubt!
John has a purpose in focusing on doubt rather than fear. He reveals his purpose in the last verses of Chapter 20. He writes here that his recording of these events is but a snapshot of many events not recorded. He records these events so that successive generations may believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and so have the life that comes from faith. So his emphasis is on his Gospel as the living proof taken on faith for generations yet to come. He has a reason for the story about Thomas. It is to denigrate doubt as a desire for immediate here and now proof, in favour of received faith. Yet, to doubt is to be human. I think it is to misread John as a denial of this natural propensity for human beings to doubt what they are told. Paradoxically, Thomas comes to embody this human dilemma in a way that endears him to many.
The Anglican Tradition encourages us to give voice to doubt in matters of faith. It recognizes that deep human truth – to be human is to have doubt. For Anglicans doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, as we see with Thomas, doubting is very often the road to faith. No belief is possible unless we have arrived via the road of doubt. Therefore, Episcopalians understand doubt more as the process of doubting. To doubt is not to deny what is true, it is to go in search of what is true in order that you may find it. Doubting is a necessary process that enables us to finally accept truth. What upsets other Christians is that faith is not a packet to be lifted from the spiritual shelf. Coming to faith is a process. That process leads via the road of doubting. Coming to faith will take as long as it needs to take. What matters is not arriving at faith as if like a destination. What matters is being on the road that leads to faith. The seeds of faith are always sown in the rich soil of doubt.
For me, the only effective enemy of faith is fear. It is the disciples fear that has enclosed them not only behind locked doors made of wood and walls of plaster. Jesus moves through the locked doors and walls erected to protect them from being overwhelmed by their grief. He stands among them and says peace be with you. He then shows them his wounds. It’s interesting that Jesus’ post resurrection body still displays the marks of his suffering. Jesus is coming to as one wounded, yet not vanquished, by grief and death.
As we journey in intentional conversation with God through the 50 days of Easter, our first task is to become aware of those places deep within where we have locked away out fear. Fear, out of sight- out of mind, is a dangerous thing. While, walled away in unconsciousness fear continues to drive our actions. The message of the Resurrection is that through Jesus God promises us new life and new life casts our fear. Yet, in our new life we will still bare the scars of the wounds caused by our fear. Scarred and wounded we might remain, but we will be no longer afraid.
Jesus is saying to us Peace be with you! My peace I give you!