Friday, April 4, 2008

Real Doubts

I worry that we Christians have so raised a wall between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the world, that we will hear this story of Thomas’s doubting as being about the kind of disconnect we mean when we say we doubt this or that church doctrine or phrase in the creed.

If that’s what we read into Thomas’s story, I suspect we miss what’s going on. There’s just not enough life or death in those intellectual conflicts we sometimes think of as doubt, to justify all the biology, all the embodying of woundedness and touching that we get in Thomas’s crisis.

What’s going on between Jesus and Thomas isn’t located in a church sanctuary. It’s in a rented room where, days ago, Jesus and his twelve friends kept Passover, the annual celebration of God’s freeing Hebrew slaves and making of them a nation.

This rented room is on a back street in a capital city, Jerusalem, teeming with world travelers who all have in common a love-hate relationship with the Roman Empire, brutal but efficient superpower, policeman of the known world. Of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims eager to hear news of the day, none belongs to an independent nation bravely fulfilling its founding purpose. They all come from countries reduced to vassal states dependent on Rome.

Outstanding at counter-terrorism, the Roman imperial army kept the boat of empire from getting rocked anywhere in its vast reach.

When Jesus says to Thomas, “Peace be with you,” he isn’t reading from page 360 of the Book of Common Prayer. This is not ceremonial peace, but actual peace. What Jesus has to give in his peace is the subversive power of a higher power.

How subversive? The first shall be last and the last first. That subversive. God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. That subversive. A patriarchal world watches women welcomed as disciples, called to be apostles. That subversive. Old pecking orders of power and influence no longer control the seating arrangement at the tables Jesus sets, where all are equal. That subversive. Tables of another sort he throws over: they’re being used to exchange street money for temple money to buy animals for sacrifice, and as if all that’s not bad enough they’re cluttering up the one part of the temple where foreigners were supposed to be welcome. That subversive. And in this very rented room, Jesus, their master, washes his disciples’ feet as if he were their hired hand. That subversive.

All four Gospels agree that his purpose is to inaugurate and fulfill a new kingdom. All four Gospels agree that the powers of this world, both church and state, find Jesus’s new kingdom subversive. And they were right: it is a new order in this world but not protected by the powers of this world.

The building of this reign of justice and peace is described by St. Peter in his letter today: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Language like that is too hazy to run a country by, or defend a homeland, or set national policy. It’s religious language, spiritual language, communication meant to inspire. But this living hope and imperishable inheritance is not only about spirituality. These first Christians would soon suffer persecution, imprisonment, torture, and barbarous execution—not because their new kingdom was spiritual and not of this world, but because it was so taking hold in this world that it rocked the boat of empire and set off the scanning devices of homeland security.

Now consider us. Our Christian hope appears to be locked up in the churches. Open and available Sundays, 8:00 a.m. to Noon.
In Tibet, Buddhist hope is spilling out of the monasteries and into the streets. The Dalai Lama is staking everything on keeping Tibeans committed to nonviolent confrontation.

In Zimbabwe, where national elections take place this weekend, Christian pastors have risked arrest and worse, leading nonviolent prophetic action consisting of marches and prayer meetings, to protest deterioriation of the country under 28 years of President Robert Mugabe.

But we believe in separation of church and state. This has become such a national creed that we of the once-established churches think the conservative evangelicals are un-American for trying to tear down that wall.

Perhaps we are less than Christian for wanting that wall. We like its protection from government interference with the church, but do we also like to be protected from any responsibility to bring the church and its Gospel out into the public square? Is the wall that separates church and state the same wall that segregates the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the world?

I think I know what you may be thinking. Religious extremism is enough of a plague on the earth to justify boundaries that safeguard civic life. I agree, of course.

But as we stay inside our churches, are we doubting that the peace of Christ is anything more than ceremony? Do these five years of virtual silence by the churches in a war spiraling into waste and chaos mean that we doubt there is any truer path than war?

Now, that’s doubt. That cuts right to the heart of Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace. That is doubt which he will rise to meet with wounded hands and side for us to re-examine, and consider what we are protecting and how we are willing to do it.

Doubting the power of love that empties itself for the salvation of the world, doubting the justice of protecting the vulnerable and holding responsible the privileged, doubting the wisdom of healing our molested mother earth and repairing our deterioriating human society… These are doubts full of life and death, doubts that justify all the biology, all the embodying of woundedness and touching that we get in Thomas’s story—and that show how his crisis is ours, and his Lord our Lord.

It’s part of our human condition to have doubts about what—and who—we believe. We can be grateful for every experience that helps us confirm or discover what we do believe, from a short series on the Apostles’ Creed that will start here on April 13, to that seemingly endless ordeal we go through to elect a president.

But let’s pay attention to our faith and our doubts where they are most needed to help end war, prevent genocide, protest discrimination, educate and inspire children, combat HIV/AIDS, feed the hungry, and build public and affordable housing.

Thomas tells our story. Enlightenment, wholeness, salvation will not come to us in isolation with our own thoughts, but in touching the wounds of Christ in the world, and in common cause—communion—with the apostles.