Brief Synopsis of the Readings: Near the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles we see a description of the earliest days of what we now call the Christian Community. All remained faithful and worked miracles: they lived together, sold all their possessions and shared what they had. Every day they all went to the Temple but also met in their homes for the breaking of the bread. “Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.” Our Gospel comes from John, and is read every year the Sunday after Easter. Shortly after his resurrection Jesus appeared to some of his disciples in a locked room. He breathed on them and told them that they had the power to forgive sins. One disciple, Thomas, was not present and was told of Jesus’ appearance. Thomas refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead unless he could see him and touch Jesus’ crucifixion wounds. Jesus then appeared to Thomas and invited him to place his hands in Jesus’ wounds. Thomas then proclaimed: “My Lord and my God.” Jesus then praised those who believed without seeing him.
Longtime readers recognize that I approach the 2nd Sunday of Easter with a certain amount of dread. Each year we read from different parts of the Acts of the Apostles, but every year we read the same Gospel: John 20:19-31. We even have a name for this event: doubting Thomas.
And every year preachers around the world will lazily create a false dichotomy: faith good, doubt bad. First we read from Acts that our earliest days were our best. Everyone came together, pooled their resources, and never disagreed. And then, in the Gospel, Thomas became the “apostle with the asterisk.” If only Thomas could have had the faith of those gathered in the first reading, all would be well.
Except, well, it’s more complex than that.
We know from our study of these documents that the Acts of the Apostles was written somewhere around 50 years after the Resurrection of Jesus and the Gospel of John was written probably 20 years after that. If we look only there we can claim that our earliest days as disciples were our best days and our history since then has done nothing more that wander away from our best days. We choose our next good days by going backward to reclaimed what we’ve lost.
This may surprise many, but our oldest books of the New Testament aren’t the Gospels, but Paul’s letters. Paul began his life as an observant Jew and became a Pharisee who persecuted the followers of Jesus. But he experienced a conversion on his way to Damascus. Later he founded the Christian community in Corinth several years before Acts was written, and in his First Letter to the Corinthians he reprimanded them on their celebration of the Eucharist: “First of all, I hear that when you gather for a meeting there are divisions among you, and I am inclined to believe it. There may even have to be factions among you for the tried and true to stand out clearly. When you assemble it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for everyone is in haste to eat his own supper. One person goes hungry while another gets drunk.” (1 Cor 11:19-21).
Understand, I’m not saying the events in our first reading didn’t happen, but I want us to move beyond seeing today as “faith good/doubt bad.” As a matter of fact I think doubt can be good, and even a necessary step in the development of our faith.
The 20th Century Christian writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) wrote this after the death of his wife:
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
Lewis didn’t doubt God’s existence, but instead God’s benevolence.
A faith that has never endured doubt or pain is a childish faith. It’s a faith that demands that we not ask or explore, question or doubt. It’s a faith that willfully ignores what is right in front of us. And God wants better than that for us.
People who find healing from addiction through a 12 Step program sometimes find themselves in a temporary state of euphoria, often called “pink cloud.” After years or decades of suffering the effects of addiction they now find themselves feeling better and surrounded by a new group of supportive friends. Those with long term sobriety will look on this experience with a well formed wisdom that says: “Enjoy this time but don’t try to make it permanent because it won’t work. Simply enjoy it for now.” Those gathered in our first reading probably experienced exactly this: after the horrors of knowing (if not watching) that Jesus died, they then learned that not only was Jesus alive, but was eternally alive, an alive that grants eternal life to all who follow.
We also need to recognize that nearly everyone in this group was martyred and that Christianity wouldn’t become a legal religion for another 200 years. They believed that Jesus’ return was imminent.
Two thousand years later we followers of Jesus have grappled with famine, floods, earthquakes and human caused suffering that has challenged and shaken the our faith. And we’ve done the hard work of finding a reformed faith in the midst of doubt.
We’ve acknowledged that the God we worship allowed the Holocaust and the pedophilia crisis to happen. As adults we continue to believe even when we weep over the suffering that we witness, we struggle to understand. This development allows us to reach out, to heal, and to find compassion for those who suffer. Our adult faith not only acknowledges that Easter doesn’t end suffering but allows us to develop a faith that not only recognizes Jesus’ resurrection but also empowers us to find the healing and empathy that will bring us to the community we admire in the Acts of the Apostles.
I think we can find that path through Thomas in the Gospel. Scripture doesn’t tell us about Thomas’ path after this reading but other documents and legends tell us that Thomas journeyed to India. Gnostic literature suggests that in his later life he influenced Buddhism but that’s grist for another day.
In reality we know very little about what happened to Thomas after the reading. I pray his encounter with Jesus allowed him to find both the reality of Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection and this allowed his discipleship to reach a level that we should all aspire to.