Friday, April 20, 2007

Shalom, Doubter!

Shalom. St. John, telling the story of Easter night, says that this ancient greeting is the word Jesus spoke—perhaps in its Aramaic version—to his friends and partners in ministry, the disciples. This is how Jews have greeted one another since, well, forever, still do, and forever will. You might say that this word passing across his lips was both the sweetest word they could hear, and the most normalizing. Nothing he could say would have better announced his presence in the reality of that moment in their lives than this thoroughly ordinary greeting which was, I bet, exactly what they would have expected him to say on an occasion of reuniting at the table.

But this is far from a normal occasion. What would he say next, to speak to what he saw in their eyes and on their faces? Astonishment, fear, confusion: what would he say to what the disciples were showing in that moment? He said nothing more, right then. He showed them his hands and his side.

Let that tug at your heart. Picture Jesus of Nazareth, age five or six, having cut his hand on a blade in his father’s shop, running to Mary or Joseph, opening it to their sympathy and care, entrusting to them his wound as any child might, both to be treated and to be kissed. “See what happened to me!” the child says, without words, showing the wound that had come from life.

Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. It appears they were speechless until then. And is it reading too much into it to say that until they saw his wounds they did not see the Christ? Jesus was standing before them, but with his execution on Good Friday came also the death of their hope that he was the One sent by God to redeem Israel, to free the nation and cause the kingdom of God to come on earth as in heaven. His death would have been hard enough, but his public execution as a criminal was just impossible to take in. But now he claimed their hope again wordlessly, silently showing them his wounds to say more powerfully than words could, “This is how it happens.”

Redemption, the freeing of humanity, the new creation, the breaking-in of God’s rule of justice and peace—this is how it happens. By servant leadership that washes feet, touches lepers, feeds the hungry, heals the uninsured, reconciles bipolar humanity, seats children in places of honor, welcomes and includes all people and creatures in the shalom of God, speaks truth to political and religious power, bridges the troubling disparities in the human family, and is willingly open and vulnerable, prepared to pour itself out for the sake of the mission. This is how it happens.

With this Spirit, my Spirit, you will forgive; and only by this Spirit can you judge. Those are the only other words St. John records Jesus to have used in his intense preaching on Easter night. All else was conveyed by the wounds. But he verbalized the message, With this Spirit, my Spirit, you will forgive; and only by this Spirit can you judge.

Now, Thomas was not with them when Jesus came. Poor Thomas—he does get a dodgey reputation, doesn’t he, as we go on calling him Doubting Thomas. Martin Smith, in his rich little book A Season for the Spirit, urges patience, even respect, for our own doubting. God is not some elderly clergyman coming for tea, Smith says. We don’t have to arrange for our outspoken, skeptical teenager to be conveniently out of the house when God comes. In prayer, we’re in just the right place to have our true feelings and listen to the voices that put us to the test. Martin writes, “Faith urges us to give our doubts the chance to emerge into the open and give ourselves the chance to see how God meets and answers them.” We need to keep in practice, in touch with our doubts, he says, so we won’t be surprised and overwhelmed by them when we feel their full force, like at times of emergency, crisis, sickness and bereavement.

Hear a little more from Martin. “Sometimes in the climate of prayer we discover that certain doubts are like angels, agents of the Spirit of truth who is struggling to strip away from us superstitious and immature beliefs. ‘Doubting the divinity of Christ’ for a time may be the only way the Spirit of Christ can get us to start again from scratch and believe in his total humanity. The divine Christ of many people’s conventional faith is a fiction, a demigod, not the man who is the Word made flesh. Doubts about doctrines and moral rules may be the only way the Spirit of truth can get us to move from accepting Christianity at second hand, to appropriating it for ourselves in the light of our own experience and questions. The Spirit can work better with us even if our faith is stripped right down for a time, than if we are cocooned in a complacent religiosity which we are not prepared to have disturbed.”

Smith recognizes that doubt can be dangerous. Especially if what is found implausible is the very being of a loving God. We’d rather keep that doubt behind a stout and well-guarded door. But if we’re really paying attention to life, we may have to go there. Theology cannot avoid addressing questions posed by the Holocaust. Or by our having dropped the atomic bomb. Or by the AIDS pandemic. Or by genocide in Darfur. Or by the suicide of an effervescent, talented, beautiful young woman.

Martin says that even when doubt feels strong and dangerous, to give it room in our praying may lead us back to the foot of the Cross of Jesus, or to that upper room and the circle of men and women, disciples in anguish from Good Friday, who, face to face with the wounded one, find his wounds teaching them truth.

So let’s lighten up on Thomas. And pay attention to what the story says. The disciples are hunkered-in, there in the upper room, the doors of the house locked because of their fear. Thomas is not there. What does that say about Thomas? Where is he?

He could be hiding, all by himself. Or he could have returned to something familiar, his home or his people or his work. But wherever, and whatever, he was out in the world that the others found so frightening a realm.

It’s in keeping with John’s story to assume that Thomas was out there alone. The other disciples seem to have made up their minds to stay together, that there was somehow strength in numbers. About that, Thomas may have had mixed feelings.

The way John tells the story, there is something different about Thomas. The others are afraid. Thomas is angry. 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. I’m not saying that this is the only way to hear these words, but in them I hear anger. And, in the puzzle of dashed hopes and profound grief, anger fits.

Dashed hopes, by the way, that had to be broken up like a storm-tossed fishing boat on the rocks, splintered by life so that death, disassembling the parts, might leave empty and open the space the Spirit will fill. With this Spirit, my Spirit, you will forgive; and only by this Spirit can you judge.

By the terms of the story, Thomas isn’t there to receive this gift of the Spirit of Jesus. He may not have been afraid, like the others, but they, in their shaky and quaking little community, are a step ahead of him in receiving this commissioning that Jesus does through his risen presence. Without this commissioning, Thomas may remain in the grip of his anger, his heart locked just as tightly as the doors to that house.

He gets his chance by returning to the circle. Jesus is there, as he promises to be in all such circles, and he follows the same pattern: Shalom is passed to them in greeting, and, this time with words, Jesus invites Thomas to see his wounds and touch his injuries. Believe, Jesus invites. This is how it happens. Do this, and learn to touch with shalom your own wounds, and the wounds of your world.