(Formatting left as is at author’s request.)
Grace, peace, and hope in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God wants to give us something, St. Augustine said, but he cannot because our hands are full. Now, at long last, they are empty; and grace, peace, and hope are what we are offered in the midst of this terrible pandemic. Hallelujah! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Happy Easter! And welcome.
Here we are on the Sunday after Easter for what we call ‘Low Sunday’ when church attendance is not only low but mostly nonexistent owing to the pandemic quarantine. But here we are, the Risen Lord and some of us but not all of us – online with you and following the advice of the Surgeon General. Over many weeks now, he has frequently said that we’re not go-ing to treat our way out of this problem and that all of us have to do our part to solve it by adop-ting mitigating measures that will prevent people from getting infected in the first place – so clean hands, social distancing, and self-isolation are essential to limiting infections and deaths. And that’s what we are doing.
If a little humor can help relieve the stress, let me tell you about my friend Fr. Carl Harris, who was the lowest assistant on the church staff and assigned to preach on Low Sundays: the Sunday after Easter Day, Christmas Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and the 4th of July. Do you remember the exercise we teach children when our fingers tucked inside our folded hands:
Here is the church and here is the steeple;
Open the doors and here are the people.
Carl’s friends put it this way – with the fingers outside their folded hands.
Here is the church and here is the steeple
Open the doors, Carl Harris is preaching!
Had I been asked to cite a maxim that would serve us well to get through a pandemic, I would have proposed noli timere – Latin for ‘be not afraid’. We face challenges but do not fear them, and I believe that noli timere, be not afraid, is the right maxim for Christians when faced with dangers and threatening assaults like this one. Our confidence is in God who has promised never to forsake us. In fact, that has been our inheritance at least since the 23rd Psalm. It’s on p. 212 in the BCP and you may want to read it as I say my favorite transliteration of it. “God, my shepherd, I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right directions. Even when the way goes through Death Valley I am not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life”.
Today’s gospel is traditional for Easter 1 and in it John wrestles with what had become a real problem in the post-apostolic church. How can one believe in the risen Lord without the benefit of a resurrection appearance? John tells us that the disciples were huddled in a locked room in the evening of the first Easter day when Jesus walked through the locked door and said to them, “Peace be to you”; and then added, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you”. And then he gave them their marching orders.
But one of the disciples was missing. Sometime later the disciples found Thomas and told him that they had seen the Lord. But Thomas was skeptical and said, ‘I need more proof than your say-so. 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 won’t believe it’. And that’s about the most we know about Thomas. He’s listed among the Twelve in Matthew, Mark and Luke – and he’s mentioned once in the Book of Acts – but the most we have about him comes from John’s gospel where he’s named five times.
So today is a good time to consider how a hermeneutics of suspicion from the 17th c. En-lightenment and Age of Reason has infected us – how Thomas’ doubt is well-known to us – and how much like Thomas we are. In my experience I have found him to be very well represented among us. Indeed, Thomas as doubter is something of a prototype for the presiding way that we ordinarily determine what is true and what is false. We call it scientific method and it’s actually a hermeneutics of suspicion. Consider that all of us learned early on that the preferred way to know the truth about anything is by observation, classification, replication, and generalization. Look at things – tabulate everything you can see – catalogue your observations, and then general-ize to a hypothesis that we call a “scientific law”. Induction, experimentation, and empirical study of data – these are the rudiments of Francis Bacon’s “scientific method”. And if I read today’s gospel aright, Thomas is a sympathetic character for us because, in order to believe, he insisted on exactly the same kind of physical evidence we do. He practiced the same method we do to ascertain truth and would have been a charter member of ‘Post-modern deconstructionism’ which is only the latest in a long line of hermeneutics of suspicion.
Remember that like the other gospels, by the time John wrote (80-100 AD) the eye-witnesses to Jesus’ death and his empty tomb had almost certainly died. So John wrote his gospel for people like us who believe even though we have never met an eyewitness – people who have heard stories by those who had known Jesus and believed them – that he had risen from the dead. So although doubt may be our constant companion, I want to discourage doubting and encourage us to live by faith and peace and grace and hope. But the part of his gospel appointed for today has also been an occasion for obscuring its deeper meaning in favor of expressing a kind of spiritual superiority. People who are among the most devout pillars of congregations will say “Can you credit that? Thomas actually doubted Jesus’ resurrection! He refused to accept eyewitness reports by other disciples that Jesus was risen from the dead! In fact, he refused to believe until he had seen the print of the nails, and placed his fingers in the mark of the nails, and placed his hand in Jesus’ side! What kind of disciple is that?!”
What today’s gospel shows is that the skepticism we regularly apply to inanimate objects, to things, also extends to human relationships. Media reinforce that notion day in and day out. The exposé of long time paedophilia by pastors within both catholic and protestant churches un-surprisingly makes parents fearful to entrust their children to clergy. Embarrassing airport secu-rity checks have become reminders that body cavity searches are the price of public security. And the misadventures of politicians at every level of government is legendary – from presidents to civic functionaries the ‘bottom line’ gets expressed in idioms like ‘don’t trust anybody – be suspicious of everybody’. So imagine Thomas trusting his friends when they say ‘he is alive, I’ve seen him’ – much as we do when a dentist says ‘this won’t hurt’, or a sales clerk says ‘you look fabulous in this suit’, or a parent says ‘this is going to hurt me lots more than it’s going to hurt you’. Most of us find it hard to believe, to have faith just because somebody says it’s so.
There are 2 fundamental ingredients in our understanding of belief and faith and they are trust and obedience. In no fewer than 78 verses in both the OT and the NT we are told that God is faithful and we that we can trust him without any reservation whatsoever. “I will never leave you or forsake you” is perhaps the most familiar phrase that tells us we can trust God – that we can depend on God – that he is trustworthy even when we don’t trust him. Husbands and wives learn that in the ups and downs of married life. Idiosyncracies that were once endearing get an-noying – habits that used to be admirable drive you up the wall. Over the years, experience con-firms that love is a volatile affection that changes over time and with circumstance – and we dis-cover that marriage is not sustained by love but by commitment. ‘I will love you until we are parted by death’ is not a statement about affection but a promise to stick together through thick and thin. Listen to Jesus’ post-resurrection saying to the disciples before they leave for Galilee: “go and teach new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you; and be sure of this, that I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Mt 28:20). He says nothing about how much he loves them – he simply tells them to keep his commandments and reminds them of his eternal commitment to them.
I was unable to preach a sermon for Lent 4-A because we rightly feared the risk of infec-tion via large gatherings. Today’s gospel is very similar to that one, which was John’s account of a man born blind who was healed by Jesus. In that story, the Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples main-tained that the man’s blindness was God’s punishment for either his parents’ or his own sin. But Jesus’ response was that they were wrong to blame either God or this man or his parents: “sin is not the cause of blindness and neither this man or his parents are to be blamed.” he said, “Instead of blaming, look for what God can do. This man was born blind so that the power of God might be demonstrated in him.” Then Jesus spit in the dust, made a paste with his own saliva, rubbed the paste on the man’s eyes, and told him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The Pharisees and the man’s parents didn’t believe Jesus, and so did not see. But the man did as Jesus told him; he washed and then he saw. He did not believe because he saw; he saw because he believed and that is the key phrase in that story.
In our story today, the same thing happens to Thomas. After his empirical confirmation of Jesus’s wounds, he hears Jesus speak to him and he believes. Thomas had never doubted that Jesus loved him – but even being able to look Jesus straight in the eye and touch his wounds did not produce faith in the risen Christ. Seeing and touching were no guarantee of believing; faith came only after hearing the Risen One speak to him. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”? Of course not, and neither was I. Commitment comes to us as it did to Thomas only after hearing the Word and trusting it. Centuries later, our urgent existential question is “when infection and death are all around us, how can we trust, how can we believe, how can we hope”.
St. Thomas answered this way:
“Taste and touch and seeing To discern thee fail;
Faith that comes through hearing Pierces through the veil.”
The fact is that all, or virtually all, that we claim to know and believe is what we have been told. And the Sundays after Easter invite us to listen for the Word of the Risen Lord because faith still comes through hearing the risen One speak to us through scripture and apostolic messengers. Hearing his Word, being formed and directed by it, and committing ourselves to it – in a word, having faith – we may have new life in his name. So in this post-Easter season, I bid you listen carefully for Jesus’ words about trust and obedience.
Many biblical stories are about how our ancestors confronted challenges similar to ours. The sum of their answers, I think, is simple and straightforward: we are a people whose faith is sometimes weak, but we believe in God and that he is trustworthy even when we don’t trust him. Or, as Ps. 23 puts it, “when our way goes through Death Valley we are not afraid when you walk at our side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes us feel secure”.
So listen for these words every day and witness to the power of Jesus’ Resurrection. The great temptation of secular modernity is to be suspicious – to doubt – to invent false narratives. But Jesus commands us, as he did Thomas the doubter, “do not be faithless, but believing” – and he assures us that those who have not seen or touched and yet believe are blessed. He is the light of the world who dispels the darkness. Although we may expect death, we can be surprised by life.
Paul may have put it best: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Those are words we can live by.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen in deed. Alleluia! And thanks be to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.