|Pen and Ink Reflections||
Adjectives can be misleading and sometimes destructive. The former US President Donald Trump knows this particularly well. He deliberately chooses adjectives for his opponents. So we have had ‘LIttle’ Marco Rubio, ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz, and, most notoriously, ‘Crooked’ Hillary Clinton. This both essentialises an alleged feature of a person whom Trump attacks and also contributes to a particular narrative about what matters. Trump leads in this. Yet he is not alone. Historically the Church has also done this, not least with our Gospel reading today. For if I asked most people for an adjective for Thomas, they would probably say ‘Doubting’. Indeed, throughout my life, I have generally heard today’s Gospel interpreted in only two ways. On the one hand, this story is told, typically by conservatives, as an encouragement to have true belief, and not to doubt. On the other hand, often somewhat defensively, liberals and progressives have spent much energy talking about the value of doubt. Now these approaches are really only two sides of the same, often quite distorting, coin. Instead, with recent voices from the margins, not least trauma-responsive theologians, how about we try viewing today’s Gospel text from a quite different standpoint? Instead of the framework of intellectual faith and doubt, let us take seriously the important bodily aspects of this story. Instead of obsessing about creedal truth, let us be attentive to wounds. Instead of focusing on the possibilities of the after life, we might reflect on what it means to live, together, after trauma. These, and very different aspects of Thomas, deliver us from unhealthy faith and offer pathways to healing for us all…
How do we want our stories to end? Whether it is our own story, or that of our community, our nation, our world, much is up to us. Now, we may not have much room for manoeuvre. All kinds of forces help shape our lives, internal and unconscious, as well as external and recognised. Yet we still have power to shape our stories, even if only by our attitudes, and by how we receive and respond to what happens to us. This truth is at the very heart of the Gospel and the power of love, forgiveness, and justice seeking. For, however you view the Resurrection stories, a common feature is their open, unfinished nature. The tomb is not sealed. The body is not there or is transformed. The end is a new beginning. So how do we want the story to continue?...
‘But he [Thomas] said to them, “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 will not believe.”’ (John 20.25b)
My father was a fine schoolmaster who came into his own when he performed as ‘Wizard Chiz’ at the annual school fete. Extraordinarily creative, he would demonstrate the miraculous realities of what we usually call ‘chemistry’. My father was also very knowledgeable about such things as the Periodic Table. Yet, it was sharing about chemistry’s wondrous mystery that really counted for him.
I recall this in reflecting on Thomas’ encounter with the resurrected Christ. For he approached Jesus like exploring science as mere practicality, consequently missing the mystery. Sadly, too many still approach God like this, seeking nailed-down ‘proofs’ that bolster misguided securities before we are willing to respond. This is the alarming commonality of both militant secularists and religious fundamentalists. Faith must indeed attend to reason, but its call is essentially an invitation to wonder and adventure.
As J.K Rowling suggested in the Harry Potter series, living into faith and love are like becoming a true wizard. In today’s Gospel, Thomas acted, as we often do, like a Muggle. However, as Indian Christians especially will remind us, there is much more to Thomas. As a remarkable faith adventurer, Thomas went on to grasp, and share with others, the Resurrection’s true reality, as the transforming mystery of unconquerable love.
We, too, may be inclined to dwell on repeated doubts or affirmations of unnecessary details. Yet God’s invitation is to live out the mystery. This is life’s true chemistry.
by Jo Inkpin, for Sunday 19 April 2020, 2nd Sunday after Easter
- also published in Anglican Focus here
If I were to ask 100 people to give me a nickname or adjective for the disciple Thomas, what do you think would be the most popular reply? I suspect it would be ‘Doubting’, don’t you? That is a shame. For there is much more to Thomas than an element of doubt. Ask any Indian Christian for example. They will tell you that Thomas was the great apostle of the ancient East, and that Indian Christianity traces its origins to him. In the very passage we have just read, we also heard Thomas confess Jesus Christ as ‘My Lord and My God’. What a powerful statement of faith! Historically many Christians have paid a great deal of attention to St Peter for saying something similar. Yet Thomas has been largely passed over. Makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean we don't go on talking about Betraying Peter do we? We might just as well do so. For Peter is manifestly more of a betrayer than Thomas is an iron-clad doubter. The fact is that Thomas is much much more than a doubter. You could even call him Affirming Thomas for that theological statement about Jesus as the Christ. However, I’d like to call Thomas something else altogether. Reflecting on today’s reading from John chapter 20, I’m inclined however to call him Bodily Thomas, or, maybe, as the Welsh might call him, Thomas the Body. For that name points us to some very important aspects of the Resurrection of Jesus…
When I was growing up, I was part of a church named after St Thomas, but we sadly rarely marked the apostle's saint's day. For the 21st December has often been the date for doing so in our Anglican calendar. Being so near to Christmas other things tend to overwhelm it. Admittedly, in the Easter season, we do tend to reflect upon the story of Thomas’ resurrection encounter. This is the Gospel reading in this morning’s pew sheet (John 20.24-29). It is a great story. Yet there is more to Thomas and his witness to God’s love than that and we can often miss that out. More recently indeed we therefore have the option of marking the feast of Thomas on this day, the 3rd of July, which is a great blessing. For it allows us to ponder Thomas, not only in relation to the resurrection, but also in relation to sharing God’s love with the wider world. So it is good also to reflect on the usual Gospel reading set for today (Luke 10.1-11). For Thomas is rightly revered today as a great missionary, not least across India, whose historic churches typically trace their origin to his sharing of the good news of God’s love and peace in the very early days after the resurrection. This is the mission of love and peace which Jesus entrusts to his followers: to Thomas and others down the centuries and to you and I in our own age…
"Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands…and put my hand in his side; I refuse to believe.” Thomas was after certainty wasn’t he?
Often we speak of ‘doubting’ Thomas. Yet the Thomas we encounter here is not so much doubting as demanding proof. There is an aggressiveness in his demand for sure proof that is disturbing, and is matched by the fervour of his response once proof is provided. ‘My Lord and my God’ he proclaims: the loftiest acclamation of Christ anywhere in the New Testament.
In terms of personality it would be more accurate to characterise Thomas as a fundamentalist than a doubter. For him things are very clear with no grey areas. Such clarity produces great zeal and a capacity for courageous and devoted service. It is also potentially very dangerous.
Today across our world we see an increase in fundamentalism. This is true alike of all the mainstream religions and also of liberal securalism. It is a human phenomenon of our times, arising at least in part in response to the uncertainties of the post modern era, with the rapid pace of change brought about by the technological revolution. Fearful of the attack on familiar elements of culture and the perceived rubbishing of important values many people are attracted by the simplicity and apparent clarity of a fundamentalist approach. We can recognise it in ourselves; and we can see it just as clearly in those who would outlaw all religion as having evil consequences as in those who see themselves engaged in ‘Holy War’...