Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Second Sunday after Easter, Year B

Keeping the Faith

Readings: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

I have a print by Sa Boothroyd, a Canadian artist with a rather weird sense of humour. In the first cell is a picture of a cartoon like character named “Faith”. In the second is “a leap of Faith”. Faith is jumping over a huge bonfire. The Easter gospel left us with many faith questions, in fact, a huge leap of faith, the holy women fleeing from the tomb in fear and amazement. We find them one week later, behind locked doors, fear still reigning. And then Jesus is in the midst of them, bringing words of peace. But for Thomas, the one who is forever labelled the “doubter”, it is a huge leap of faith, a leap he cannot make simply on the words of the other disciples.

Scripture does not reveal many facts about the life of St. Thomas. But one of the facts seems almost trivial. That is the fact that Thomas was a twin. If the writer of the gospel went to the trouble of telling us that Thomas was a twin, there must have been some underlying reason.

Was it just out of interest’s sake? I would doubt that, although twins are interesting characters. There was a set of identical twins in my class during my first year of teaching grade seven. They were a real challenge. I never did learn to tell the twins apart. I was never quite sure when I called one of their names just who actually answered. And being Jane and Joan it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. They kept all of us guessing about what they would get into next. They always knew what the other was thinking. They were bright and fun. To have twins must be at the same time a double joy and a double challenge. But that still does not explain why it was important enough to the author of John to tell us that Thomas was a twin.

Could Thomas’s twin have been one of the disciples? We read about the sons of Zebedee, James and John; so it isn’t likely one of them. Could it have been Mary Magdalene, or perhaps even Judas? None of that begins to explain the real reason that the gospel writer made a point of telling us that Thomas was a twin. But there is a reason, a profound one, found as so often happens, by reading between the lines. Who is Thomas’s twin? The answer is evidently meant to be “us”! We are Thomas’s twin, for all of us, like Thomas, are a mixture of fear and doubt, pessimism and trust, belief and unbelief. And that’s a difficult place to be, because for every one of us, our human condition has such a desire for certainty.

We see it in our 21st Century way of approaching the sciences. At a time of recession the United States has budgeted almost nineteen billion dollars for space exploration. We strive to know about what is out there beyond us. Part of the thirst for knowledge is about tracking global warming and finding ways to deal with it. Much of it is about communication and technology. But there is still that desire to stay ahead of the rest of the world. Especially there is a need to know with a certainty, without any shadow of doubt, what we do not yet know. We want to know what is just beyond our reach.

When it comes to human relationships we are even more anxious to know with a sense of certainty. “If only I had the certainty of some sign,” we will hear people say. “A sign, that there is a God. I’m not sure there is. Not that I’m saying there isn’t. I just don’t know. I say I believe it, but wouldn’t it be nice to have an unmistakable sign that there is a God? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that it’s going to turn out alright in the end? With all of the difficulties that we go through in our lives, wouldn’t it be reassuring to know that it’s going to be alright? That the bad will be punished, that the good will be rewarded, that there’s something after this? That there is life after death!”

All of us would like some certainty. It would make it so much easier to look at the absurdities of life. We live in a world where children starve to death, where people die of AIDS, where people die every day because of war and violence and terrorism.

We would like to be certain as well about our personal lives. We all have relationships. And yet, how can we be certain that we are really loved? We want to know that our lives mean something. That we will leave some sort of legacy behind us. We want certainty about who we are and what we have accomplished. In that way we are twins of Thomas. That is what he wanted. He wanted a sign. He wanted to see for himself. He wanted to be certain. He wanted to see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands. He wanted to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side. Then he could be certain that there would be no more disappointments, no more false hopes.

Another thing that you might read between the lines about Thomas is that he was absent. When Jesus came into the Upper Room to the gathering of believers after the Resurrection, Thomas was not there with them. Whatever reason he may have had for not being there, he missed out on what the rest of the community shared. He missed seeing the risen Christ in their midst. He missed the words of peace. He missed the reassurance that the others received.

There are people who have the mistaken notion that they don’t need the community of faith, that they can make it on their own. The Church has no meaning in their lives. But that is a mistake. I remember reading the story of a wise old priest who was having such a conversation with a parishioner one winter day. The fire was going in the hearth. He reached down with a pair of tongs and removed a coal and left it sitting on the grate. It was not very long before the coal went out. We need the communion of others to keep our faith strong. Otherwise our faith simply grows cold.

Others think that once you become a Christian, once you accept faith, all the doubts simply disappear. They think that with faith all our rational faculties cease to be used. We simply accept the Church’s teaching and follow blindly.

But that will never be enough. Doubts will always arise. And when do doubts become most severe? Is it not when we face difficulties and hardships in our lives? “Why am I sick? Why did my child die? Why can’t I find a job? Why did my spouse walk out on me? Why is God letting this happen to me? After all, I am faithful. I believe. Why? Why? Why?”

And that is where the doubts flourish. They can overwhelm us. What use is faith if bad things still happen? Where are you God when I need you? We react as churlish little children. And in that kind of relationship, doubt can overwhelm us.

I continue to find Thomas’s story reassuring somehow. It says to me that it is reasonable to have doubts. It is understandable. It is human. There is not a husband and wife who have not at some time had doubts about their relationship. There are no two friends, no matter how committed to one another, who have not at some time in their relationship wondered whether it would last. And there is not a believer who has not experienced Christ as absent from their lives at some time or another.

Thomas challenges us to persevere when we have doubts. He stopped doubting. When he saw the risen Lord for himself, he cried out, “My Lord and my God!” Like Thomas, that must be on our lips. We must cry out, “My Lord and my God!” even when it comes out more as a question than a statement. We must persevere in our faith. We must witness to how God is working in our lives and in the lives of others. It will not be accomplished by a single act. It is by a progressively fuller commitment to Jesus Christ that it will come about, our commitment to being part of the body of Christ.

And so I leave you with the tantalizing question, “Who is Thomas’s twin? And there can be only one answer. I am Thomas’s twin. Lord, help my unbelief!

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The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

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