Blessed, to trust

Jesus’ words to Thomas are meant for us. Yes, they were first said to Thomas over two thousand years ago in the upper room in Jerusalem days after Jesus’ resurrection. Yes, they were intended to increase his faith in light of his doubting and fear. Yes, the early church and disciples heard these words for them, too.

When Thomas confesses his faith in the risen Lord, Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”[1]They are for us.

Let’s slow down and savour these words. Let’s look at three sections of this short sentence.

First, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

When do we not see? What are the times in life when God is unrecognizable?

In the face of great suffering or great love,

in the presence of death and dying,

and facing the difficult questions of living such as: Why do children suffer disease, poverty, persecution? Why do people who don’t deserve it, suffer? When the usual, easy answers don’t fit.

When we stand in the presence of a great mystery.

When everything points to everything except what is good.

When all words and ideologies fail.

Then, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

What are the qualities of these people who have ‘not seen’? These are people …

Who sometimes doubt.

Who are not certain.

Who don’t have all the facts.

Who can’t provide an easy explanation.

Who don’t have proof.

Who have done without.

Who have to trust someone else, and ask for help.

Who have to trust …

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Finally, what does it mean to believe? To believe and to trust, are very similar. The two words appear on the faith cube. You might wonder why the authors of this toy decided to keep the two words separate even though they might, to our minds, mean essentially the same thing.

IMG_6887

And yet, it is worthy to ponder the subtle distinction between the two. Martin Luther understood faith as meaning the addition of the two concepts: Belief + Trust, not as opposing realities but complementing in distinct ways.

Belief is a function mainly of the mind. When we discuss doctrines, creeds. When we debate interpretations of scriptures and statements of faith. To believe is to access the cognitive capacity of our brains. It is, in the lingo of psycho-babble, the left brain analytical side that relishes in rational thought. To believe, in short, is to think through it.

Trust, on the other hand (or, on the other side of the brain), is more intuitive. Trust does not require a full explanation. Trust does not need all the facts and arguments in favor or against. Trust is a function mainly of the heart. Trust lowers the center of intelligence down from the brain to the heart.

Trust is relational. Trust understands our need for the other, to be open to the other, to take risks for and with the other. Trust calls us out of ourselves, to get out of the isolation of all our mental activity – to reach out to the other.

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Jesus affirms for Thomas and the disciples that to follow in the Way of Christ, especially to generations and people like us thousands of years after the fact, that we need to trust others, and trust ourselves. To believe in Jesus, is to believe the witness of generations of Christians before us, to trust their witness, and to walk in the way precisely when easy explanations and scientific proof fall short.

We don’t ‘trust blindly’. That is often the criticism of trust, when it feels like we would be making an irrational decision not based in fact or evidence.

But we are trusting the most capable and the truest part of ourselves when we let go of our cognitive compulsions and let go into the love that sustains the heart.

The opposite of love is not hate. It is fear. “Perfect love casts out fear,” we read from the author of the second reading today[2]. We need to confess that it is fear that keeps us stuck in our heads, and keeps us stuck on the ground. Major decisions in our lives, decisions that changed the course of our lives, decisions that were important to us – were they born out of fear or love? Were they more a movement of the heart or head? Or some combination of both?

A music analogy …

I have been learning a new musical instrument these last couple of years. Classical guitar. Which is different, a little bit, from the acoustic guitar that you often see in churches today, and listen to in popular music.

In comparison, the classical guitar uses nylon strings, which tend to produce a softer, delicate, more harp-like sound. The fingerboard is wider on the classical guitar, and the body – the bell – of the instrument is smaller. When you hold the classical guitar, the curve of the body, which is more pronounced, sits on your left knee (if you are right-handed). And rather than strum chords, you pluck separate notes on the classical guitar. It’s a beautiful-sounding instrument.

But as with learning to play any instrument, and staying with it, there is a progression that needs to happen from the head to the heart. Listen to what Barry Green, renowned double bass player, writes about when teaching another musician how to play vibrato on their instrument. Vibrato is rolling your finger back and forth over your string when playing a note.

“On my Pacific tour,” he writes, “I coached Edith, a bass player from the New Zealand Symphony. She had tried to use her vibrato in a number of different places in a slow, expressive sonata by Vivaldi and couldn’t decide where it ‘worked’ best. None of her experiments quite had the right feel to them.

“I wanted Edith to discover the best places for vibrato by herself, so I asked her to play the piece without making any effort to put in a vibrato. I asked her to imagine that her fingers, not her brain, would tell her what to do, and suggested that she only use vibrato when her fingers ‘screamed at her’ to do so.  Since she would not have decided in advance which notes needed the vibrato, I was confident that her hands would be free to supply it unconsciously.

“Her performance improved immediately: Both her sound and her vibrato were smoother and richer.”[3]

Obviously to gain this level of playing, Edith had to practice and practice and practice. She had to become technically proficient in playing the bass. But to begin to enjoy playing and hearing the sounds you are creating on your instrument, to discover the resiliency of performing and the joy of making music, the usual questions provided by the mind must be eclipsed by the heart.

In other words, the mind will give instructions, constantly critique, and fan the flames of fear and self-consciousness – all of which undermine the making of a beautiful sound. We need the mind’s work, to an extent. But we also need to be able to let go of what the mental activity can get rather compulsive about. We need to grow up, as people of faith.

Albert Einstein, the most eminent scientist of the twentieth century, you would think would defend the prominence of the mind over the heart, the rational over the intuitive. So, this quote from him might surprise you; he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Take his phrase, ‘intuitive mind’ to mean the ‘intelligence of the heart’.

Intuition relies on the capacity of trusting: Trusting the love, this capacity and capability within you, trusting the other who is willing to help, assuming the good intentions of others rather than immediately judging them – these are the attributes of one who has maturing faith. Especially, faith in God.

“Blessed are they who have not seen, yet have come to believe.”

 

[1]John 20:29

[2]1 John 4:18

[3]Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The classical guide to reaching a new level of musical performance,” (New York: Doubleday & Company /Pan Books, 1986), p.113.

Buen Camino!

When in Sunday School decades ago we played the roles of well-known bible characters, I remember the only thing worse than being a “Judas” was to be a “doubting Thomas”.

We wanted to be Abraham, Moses, Kind David, Samson, Queen Esther, Rachel, Ruth, The Magi, Peter, Paul, John. We wanted to be Joseph or Mary, or even Jesus himself!

But Judas the Betrayer, or Thomas the Doubter? No. Indeed Thomas has been treated quite negatively in much of Christian preaching and teaching. He is often held up as a negative role model.

Let’s take a closer look at the text about Jesus’s resurrection appearance to his disciples (John 20: 19-31). Because there is no condemnation of Thomas. Recall the disciples are hiding behind locked doors in Jerusalem fearful of the authorities. Unless Jesus’ words to Thomas are inflected in an accusing way, they do not need to be read as a condemnation: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). They simply affirm that those who believe without first-hand experience of the risen Jesus are also blessed. (1)

But can we blame Thomas? Thomas only desires his own firsthand experience of the risen Jesus. He is unwilling to accept the secondhand testimony of others. And, his desire is granted: Jesus appears to him. Prayer answered!

I wonder if Thomas today doesn’t really represent so many of us who deeply yearn and seek for a first-hand experience of God, and are simply and naturally unsatisfied with hearing it ‘second-hand’. Hearing someone else’s first-hand experience of God is inspiring and instructional to be sure. We learn about someone else’s experience of God’s presence, healing, grace and wonder — whether that person is from the bible or our grandparents or the person sitting next to us in worship. But someone else’s experience of God can never be a substitute for our own.

What we may be looking for, is to be more like Thomas: Honest in our desire for a first-hand experience of the living God. Yearning to taste and feel more of the goodness of God in our own lives and in the world. Striving ourselves to make the world a better place for everyone. We may be unsatisfied with basing our commitment to a life of faith on someone else’s testimony. We may, like many people today, be seeking our own experience of God and suffer from what I would call the ‘second-hand syndrome’. Perhaps Thomas needs to be our role-model more than anyone else in the bible today!

Of course, the benefit of the Reformation was to teach us an important distinction in all our striving: Our motivation is important to be aware of, because if we strive to do good all in order to make ourselves right before God we will most certainly miss the mark. “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” we say in our Confession. God initiates the saving relationship. God moves; we only second the motion.

And yet, our striving, our trying, our good work as response to God can help create the space and the climate in which God’s grace is made clear to us, is given to us, and in which we are most ready, then, to receive God’s forgiveness, love and mercy. Being pro-active, doing things with one another in the church, yearning and striving for God — these are antidotes to the ‘second-hand syndrome’ and a prescription for a healthy life of faith.

Last week on the first Sunday of Easter, I emphasized the words from Matthew’s account of the Resurrection of Jesus outside the empty tomb that first morning. Jesus instructs the women: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:9-10).

When resurrection happens today, as it always has beginning with that first day, there is movement forward. Not backward. As I said last week, there is no turning back once resurrection happens. The disciples are not instructed to meet Jesus in the empty tomb where the miracle happened. No. The instruction is quite clear: Get moving! Get out of here! Go to Galilee. Go to where I wait for you. In other words, don’t stay where you are! Do something!

In 2017 the Lutheran Church worldwide celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We call it Reformation 500. ‘Five hundred’ is an important number in all the dialogue surrounding this momentous occasion. The national church has even set up the Reformation Challenges for the church across Canada to meet. And each of those goals are pegged at some variant of 500:

Five hundred refugee sponsorships (which already has been exceeded), five hundred scholarships for school children in the Holy Land, five hundred thousand trees planted in Canada, and five hundred thousand dollars raised for the Lutheran World Federation endowment. You can visit elcic.ca for the most recent update on where we are at in meeting all those goals. And please consider making a personal contribution towards any one of those worthwhile causes.

I’d like to up the ante. Let me call it the ‘Reformation 800 Challenge’. Eight hundred is the new Five hundred. Not only are we celebrating 500 years of Reformation this year; we turn to the future and pray not just for 500 more years but … 800. Why not?

Let that number, eight hundred, symbolize a confidence and hope-filled trust that God has more good than we can ever imagine in store for us in the church far into the future. And this is what I propose in this year’s Reformation 800 Challenge:

Next month, I begin walking the 800 kilometres from Irun, Spain to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The route I follow skirts the northern coast of Spain from East to West. This is my Reformation 800 Challenge.

I walk a pilgrimage route, one of the most ancient on the planet. This Camino (which means the “way”) has been an important spiritual discipline for almost a thousand years for millions of Christians.

A pilgrimage means that what happens on the outside of us in our physical reality mirrors the change and challenge that happens on the inside of us. In other words, outer and inner realities find some kind of resonance on a pilgrimage experience. It’s on a pilgrimage where many discover or re-discover their ‘walk’ with God in life, are renewed on their ‘path’ and/or are ‘re-directed’ to new ways of living.

I would like you to do this with me. Yes. I invite you to consider doing a Reformation 800 Challenge with me, in your own way, with your own resources and plan.

For example: In order to reach the goal of 800 kilometres in under two months I plan to walk at least 20 kilometres a day. So, while I’m gone would you consider a physical discipline whereby you, for 20 minutes a day, do something intentional for your own health and well-being: walking, cycling, lifting a small weight, stretching, doing yoga, etc.? It doesn’t have to be ‘extreme’; something simple even if you are confined to a chair or bed — for 20 minutes a day, do something that involves your body in ways you have not normally been accustomed. Be creative.

A piece of wisdom for pilgrims that has guided my preparation and planning is: Walk Your Way. Walk your own Camino. This is nobody else’s walk but yours. Do what you want and need to do, in your own way, according to your own pace.

You can interpret this challenge in many ways. For example, if you are very active and move about a lot in your daily life already, perhaps sitting still and quietly for twenty minutes a day in silent meditation and prayer is your way. Or, take twenty steps a day. Do twenty reps of a particular exercise or stretch. But whatever you do, the important thing is that you are challenged to attempt and remain faithful to a daily, body-involving discipline. Do it your own way.

Keep a journal or write your notes on a piece of paper that you stick to the fridge door. Write the date, and the accomplished task, so that over time, you can track your progress.

Your goal: 800 of something before the end of this year — whether eight hundred minutes, steps, kilometres. And here’s the good news. You already have a head start on me. I don’t begin until mid-May. You can start this afternoon, on your Reformation 800 Challenge! And, you have until the end of the year; I need to be finished my walk by early July.

After I return from my sabbatical, I would very much be interested in having a conversation with you about our experiences on our pilgrimage. They say that for pilgrims close to reaching their destination in Santiago, many confess that by the end it was no longer them walking the Camino, but the Camino was walking them. In other words, the experience of doing it created deeper trust in the way of God, of faith and peace within them. The physical reality converged with their inner life in positive ways.

As you contemplate what your discipline will be, as you think about what you will do, as you plan your own ‘pilgrimage’ — here are some questions for your own reflection and which can provide a basis for our own conversation when I return. Ask yourself:

In Preparation

What will you do to reach ‘800’ by the end of the year? In time? Kilometres? Steps? Reps? And how will you do it on a daily basis? (for example, 20 minutes/kms/reps/steps, etc. per day)

What are your intentions for this experience? What do you hope for by the end? The first recorded words of Jesus to his disciples in John’s Gospel are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). How do you know you will find it if you don’t know what you are looking for in the first place?

What do you think you will discover about yourself? Saint Augustine once said that knowing yourself is a stepping stone to knowing God.

How will you record your journey?

On the Journey

Where did God find you? What experiences along the way brought you close to God?

What was the best part of the experience so far? What has been the greatest challenge?

Who did you meet along the way? Or, describe your relationships with others during the experience.

What were you grateful for?

Nearing the end / Getting close to the goal

What does it mean ‘to arrive’?

How does it feel to be reaching a destination after great effort and clear motivation for the journey?

What sacrifices did you make in order to get this far on the journey?

How will you celebrate and honour the ending of the journey?

After the Journey

What was the most memorable part of the whole experience?

How did you deal with disappointments and/or failure during the journey?

How do you now view God?

How will you keep what you learned alive in your regular life now that the journey is over?

Has anything shifted within you as a result of the experience? If so, how would you describe this change within yourself?

How will you share your journey and what you have learned with the important people in your life?

As we soon begin our pilgrimages, may God bless us on the way. And to all we meet along the path, may we wish them, “Buen Camino!”
1 — Marcus Borg & John Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: Harper One, 2006), p.202-204.

Waiting, still

Waiting for a response is not easy. After texting someone I’m usually impatient to get a response from them. Anything. And when they don’t, my blood starts to boil!

This whole notion of texting etiquette is a new one, of course. Back in the days when you had to actually pick up a telephone — one usually attached by a cord to a wall — to reach someone, it was pretty normal to wait an hour or two, or even more, to get a call back. And heaven forbid, you should actually send a letter — through the mail! You could wait weeks, even months, to hear back.

So, why do certain people wait hours to text back? One expert says the answer is pretty obvious: The person at the other end isn’t interested in communicating with you. A slow, or ignored altogether, text response is at root an expression of social rejection, usually excused by the socially acceptable reason: people are too busy. (http://www.inquisitr.com/1412393/text-me-back/)

I’m confronted by the need to learn how to wait. When you don’t have control over the timing of another’s response, your waiting is about letting go and being ok in the present unknowing.

Waiting and not-knowing are valuable, and legitimate, characteristics of leading a faithful, Christian life. Which, at first, might sound counter-intuitive. Like: How can you have faith and also doubt?

Jesus validated Thomas’ doubting the resurrection (John 20:19-31). Jesus did not chastise Thomas for his need for evidence. In fact, he acknowledged Thomas’ demands by inviting him to touch the holes in his hands and side.

The curious thing is that the Scripture does not indicate Thomas actually touching the scars of Jesus’ wounds. He simply confesses his now belief: “My Lord and my God”. Thomas does not need to follow through on his condition for believing, which was putting his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side (v.25).

Jesus then underscores the point about having faith: Blessed are those who have not seen (i.e. have scientific proof) and yet have come to believe (v.29). Having faith is about not needing to have all the information, all the facts, all the evidence at one’s disposal. There’s a quality of faith that defies the rational, cognitive-centred, explanation-driven character of Christianity especially since the Reformation. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that faith is as the author of Hebrews puts it: “… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).

The quality of knowing (i.e.) faith that does not need to ‘know’ is reflected in a life of peace. Because as long as we feel we need to fix everything, as long as we believe we have to explain everything, as long as we feel we need have all the information before we can have faith — I am convinced we are not a people at peace with ourselves, with one another, with the world and even at peace with God. Peace is, as the Apostle Paul put it, that “which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

After Jesus was raised from the dead, you’d think he would want to shoot straight to heaven to be at the right side of his Father. Why would he even want to bother with humanity – this frail, broken, weak, sin-infested form he shared with us for thirty-three years? His temporary break from blissful eternity was hard enough. Why would he want to relate any more with human beings who, in their own delusion and compulsion, murdered him? Why would he want to re-connect with his ‘friends’ who betrayed, denied and deserted him in his hour of need? He is, after all, the divine Son of God whose rightful place should be at God’s right hand in heaven, no?

The disciples didn’t need to wait long for Jesus to return to them. You could say, he didn’t ignore or put off their message of fear, doubt, longing and sadness. He responded right away, even though he wasn’t in his usual ‘human’ form — after his resurrection he walked through locked doors, appeared and disappeared into thin air and the such. Re-connecting was more important, though. He wanted to re-assure them.

The book of Revelation reveals the expectations of the early church: That Jesus was coming back soon, and very soon. “Look! He is coming with the clouds! … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:7-8).

Indeed, the early Christians lived with the expectation of the immanent return of Jesus at his second coming. Of course, after two thousand years of waiting, Christians have learned how to live in anticipation when we don’t know exactly when that time is. We may still need to wait for a long time to come.

Nevertheless we have the promise of scripture that Jesus does care for us, and will not hesitate to come to us. So, perhaps God is trying to tell us something here. 

Perhaps the value of our faith is not just about when that time comes, down the road. Perhaps the value of our faith is not just about eternal life in the far-off distant future. 

Perhaps there is value in the waiting, itself. And when we get impatient or perplexed, perhaps there’s something we are not seeing in the here and now.

Perhaps Christ is coming back to us all the time, and we just don’t see it. In the sacrament, in the Body of Christ — the collective unity of the Church, in the relationships we share, in the ordinary events of our lives. What are the glimmers of grace, the rays of hope, the good that you see in others and in the world? Where is Christ present for you, in life, today?

I saw a framed quote on the living room wall of someone I was visiting this past week; and it said: Not every day is a good day, but every day has some good in it.

We are a waiting people, yes. But people who wait have a choice to make: we can either ignore, deny, get down on ourselves and the world; or, we can learn to appreciate, be thankful for, exercise gratitude — all those moments and experiences where, in truth, Jesus comes through the doors of our hearts locked in fear: And tells us, “Peace be with you.”

Hope in the scars

For people who are approaching retirement, or anyone else who benefits from higher interest rates, these last seven years or so has been brutal. Even in the slow recovery since 2008, the Governor of the Bank of Canada has maintained the prime lending rate at historically low levels. In a recent interview with a small business owner who has been trying to retire for several years now, cynicism was beginning to creep into his voice.

Because he told a CBC reporter that while for the last couple of years those in power have been hinting at interest rates going up, they have remained level — and could even still go down further. When asked if he believed the promise of an interest rate hike, which would better his investments for retirement, he said: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Indeed, we use this popular cliche often, especially about someone who does not have a good track record: A neighbour who constantly behaves in ways contrary to his stated good intentions — “I’ll believe it when I see it”; a teenage son or daughter who says they will complete their chores at home before going out — “I’ll believe it when I see it”; a politician who promises local infrastructure investment — “I’ll believe it when I see it”.

It seems apparent that cynicism fits like a comfortable old slipper or jacket. We go there naturally. Even though expressing it really doesn’t help the situation, and keeps us stuck in negativity and despair. Hope appears a distant relative when cynicism lives next door.

The cynic depends entirely on proof. If anyone or anything does not prove the point in question, I will not believe it to be so — especially if the proposition is positive.

So, I think we can very easily relate to the disciples of Jesus. Thomas the twin, the ‘doubting’ Thomas (John 20:19-31), is likely for us folk living in the first decades of the 21st century the most relatable character in the New Testament.

Perhaps we can relate to the men who came to the tomb after Mary’s announcement that the tomb was empty (John 20:1-18). It seems they didn’t hear the message of the angel that the risen Christ was to meet them in Galilee, and NOT at the tomb (Matthew 28:1-10). Maybe they didn’t listen because they were fixated on finding ‘proof’ of Mary’s claim: Her words “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

Of course, they were disappointed. The ones who come to the tomb for answers don’t see Jesus there; they don’t get any proof in the empty tomb. They just find more fuel for the flames of cynicism and despair.

It is into the darkness of this mood that Jesus appears to his disciples. And when Jesus comes to them, what he does first is show them his scars. Thomas doesn’t need need to believe in propositions of glory based on proof; he needs to hear Jesus say, “Touch my wounds — see here the evidence of the lowest point of my human life, the time in my life when I was defeated and overcome and when I had been beaten down and I was myself questioning, ‘why would God forsake me’.” (Rev. Pam Driesell, http://www.day1.org “Beyond Bunnies and Jelly Beans)

This is what his wounds point to — not his triumph but his tragedy, not his victory but a time when he was vilified, a time of pain and struggle.

And this perspective turns the tables on ‘proof’. Seeking proof in the religious life is a hand-tool of ‘religion’, not of faith in a God who decided to die on a cross in order to release God’s greatest power of love for all people.

Imagine for a moment how else this story could have gone. Jesus could have said, “Look, friends, it is I — completely healed. Nothing the Romans and religious leaders did to me has any lasting effect. I am perfect again.”

Instead, Jesus said, “Hey, I am scarred and wounded. But these wounds will not keep the power and life of God from flowing through me to you! And guess what! Just as God has sent me into the world, so I send you, not to cover up your scars, not to deny your wounds, but to show people that the same power that raised me from the dead is alive in you.”

Easter is not a promise that your retirement fund and your investments will be like “it used to be” in the ’80s and ’90s when 20% was expected. Easter is not a promise that the church will be like “it used to be” in the ’60s and ’70s when everyone went to church. Easter is not a promise that your family will be like “it used to be” when the children were young and the world was so sweet and innocent. Easter is not a promise that you will be cured from all your disease and that your pulse will continue beating on this earth forever.

Easter IS a promise that the power that gave you that pulse will never abandon you. Easter IS a promise that the power that raised Jesus from the dead can raise you from despair and cynicism. Easter IS a promise that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is still at work in the world doing a new thing in you, and in the church, and in the world. Easter IS the promise that nothing in your past, present or future has the ultimate power to define you.

Because you are defined by the light, the life and the love of God that flows through you and that flows through all creation, making all things new!

We don’t find Jesus in the ‘tomb’ of proof, because proof won’t satisfy our longing for life anyway. You don’t prove love, you embrace it. You don’t prove power, you experience it. You don’t prove life, you live it. You don’t prove new life, you receive it — and share it with the world.

The divinity of our risen Lord is linked, as it was during his life and ministry on earth, with his willingness to empty himself with his radical humility (Philippians 2:5-11), and with his ready willingness to identify with “the least of these” (Matt 25:40,45). When he reveals – not hides – his scars as the risen Lord, God continues to confound the wisdom of the world by the ‘foolishness’ of the Cross (1 Cor 1:25-28). To this day.

In her short story entitled, “Revelation”, Flannery O’Conner describes a vision of souls climbing upward into the starry field, and shouting “hallelujah!” Wonder turns to shock as she discovers that all the people she had considered inferior to herself — those wounded, scarred and beaten up by life — are leading the procession. And that reputable people like her are pulling up the rear.

Perhaps Thomas’ confession of tears is a coming-to-terms with that Christ-like identity and mission. Perhaps when Thomas finally believes and on his knees worships the risen Lord, he understands that he is now called by name to join the triumphant procession to honour the crucified and risen Christ. Thomas is, as we are all, invited to join Jesus on a heaven-bound journey that requires the humility to join the back of the line, to be vulnerable with our wounds, and to give up our conceited, self-centred, and cynical ways.

Let us pray: Life-giving God, may the power that raised Jesus from the dead fill us anew this Easter season, that we might boldly embody your love in all the world that you so love. Amen.

Doubting Thomas – reconciled

Douglas “Pete” Peterson was a US Air force pilot who during the Vietnam War flew hundreds of bombing missions over North Vietnam. Then in September 1966 his plane was hit by a missile and he had to eject, landing with broken bones in a Mango tree near a small village.

Knowing who this man was and where he came from, the angry villagers paraded him around town like a hunting trophy. Treating him like dirt, they dragged him down dusty roads and jeered and taunted him, eventually landing him in the Prisoner of War jail otherwise known to American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”. There he spent the next several years of his life until finally released in the mid-seventies.

Reflecting on his harrowing ordeal years later, Pete Peterson said that he had no intention of becoming a “career POW” and that God had not saved his life for him to be angry.

He was appointed by then President Clinton to be the first US ambassador to Vietnam since the war. It was awkward for both parties – first for the Vietnamese to receive a man who had killed many of their military and civilian population during those countless bombing raids.

On the other hand, for Peterson it was a challenge to be a diplomat working with the Vietnamese government who were ultimately responsible for the “lost” years of his life enduring torture and threat of death in the “Hanoi Hilton”.

A special moment came four months after he took up his post in May 1997. On the 10th of September – the same day he had been shot down 31 years earlier – Peterson revisited An Doai, the village where he had been taken prisoner.

He drank tea with Nguyen Viet Chop and Nguyen Danh Xinh – two of the men who had dragged him back to the village through the rice paddies. And he walked through the fields, holding hands with the grandson of one of his former captors, to the mango tree in which he had fallen 31 years earlier.

Peterson said that day: “I return here not to re-live what was probably the most unhappy day of my life, but to signify to the entire world that reconciliation is not only possible but absolutely the way to reach out.”

In his four years as Ambassador, Peterson became – in the words of one reporter – a “billboard for reconciliation”. Peterson himself confessed that working for the Vietnamese on behalf of the United States, he had to “check hate at the door”.

And what did reconciliation, love and grace accomplish?

He was instrumental in advocating for a helmet law for cyclists and moped riders in Vietnam. Also, a study he helped set up discovered that the leading cause of death among children in Vietnam was not disease, but accidental drowning.

It was calculated that in Vietnam every hour one toddler drowned. A large portion of Vietnam is covered in lakes and rivers and rice paddies. Also most people can’t swim – so parents don’t teach their children. The organization Peterson helped found lobbied policy makers so that today, the Vietnamese government has instituted swimming lessons in the schools with the hope that by 2020 every Vietnamese child leaving secondary school will be able to swim.

Today in the Gospel text we read the story about the “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-31). Often our first thoughts about this story center on the question of doubt in a life of faith; “Do not doubt but believe!” is the thematic call-sign for this annual Easter story.

The end of the story nevertheless implies a very important theme we may overlook. While we don’t know for certain, I believe it is fair to assume that Thomas is reconciled to his community of faith.

There’s a moving scene in the 2003 film, “The Gospel of John” (directed by Philip Saville), where Thomas returns to his community of faith in the upper room. He comes back a week later – how and why we really don’t know. Perhaps, after sensing the futility of remaining cut off from them, he was going to give his cohorts a second chance. Perhaps he “checked hatred at the door” and felt he had nothing to lose by showing up and seeing first hand if what they said was true: that Jesus was alive.

And when Jesus does appear and gives personal attention to Thomas, Thomas weeps. Watching this scene, you can feel the emotional release: all the pent up anger, fear and cynicism just surrendered in the wash of Jesus’ love and compassion for Thomas. “My Lord, and my God” Thomas is finally able to confess. His confession signals his reconciliation with Jesus and with his community of faith.

God is about reconciliation. God’s mission on earth is about reconciling those who have been divided. Paul calls it the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5). Where reconciliation happens – as it did for Thomas and Jesus in the Upper Room two thousand years ago; as it did for Pete Peterson and Nguyen Viet Chop in a Vietnamese rice field sixteen years ago – there God is.

So let us pray for, and work towards, reconciliation: Where there is division and hatred, may God’s grace and love and forgiveness heal, restore and reconcile. The Easter message is about second chances, new beginnings, new life, new opportunities, starting over. It was for Thomas and Jesus. It was for Pete Peterson and the Vietnamese.

May it be for us, as well.

You can read the entire, moving story of Pete Peterson in BBC News Magazine, 22 March 2013, “Pete Peterson: The exPOW teaching Vietnam how to swim” by William Kremer, BBC World Service

Who’s giving church a 2nd chance?

In the Gospel of John, especially in the latter chapters, we can see how clearly the point is made that it is the very work of God and the Holy Spirit – the Advocate – to engender love and trust in the community of faith. Jesus prays that his disciples might be one – united (John 17). The story of the “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-31) is placed in contrast to this general theme of the Spirit’s work to create trust, unity and love among believers.

When I read again the assigned Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter about the “Doubting Thomas”, I wonder: Why wasn’t Thomas with the group of disciples when Jesus first appeared to them? You would think he could find comfort and strength in numbers; you would think he could find needed support and solace from his group of co-religionists – so to speak – especially after the death and burial of Jesus, after their hopes were dashed, and they were afraid for their lives.

Why wasn’t Thomas with them? Did he finally just throw in the towel with disgust over something someone said to him? Was there a “personality conflict” brewing? Was he offended by what someone did? Was Thomas harboring resentment and bitterness over something that happened in the group? And was just looking for the first excuse to jump ship? Whatever the case may be, he had already removed himself from the community of faith before Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time.

Then, when his cohorts share the news of Jesus’ resurrection with him, Thomas rejects their witness. He doesn’t believe them. Thomas rebuffs the very friends with whom he had shared a couple of wonderful, wild, inspiring years with Jesus. Is this his way of getting back at them?

It is important to note here that Thomas not only expresses disbelief in the claim or proposed idea of Jesus’ resurrection; he also rejects his community’s witness to that claim. That is important to distinguish. We’re not just talking about doctrine per se here – you know, whether you believe the resurrection or not as Thomas did and did not. We are also and just as importantly talking about believing in the words and witness of those making that claim.

Unfortunately, by his rejection of the witness of his faith community, Thomas undermines the community Jesus prayed for and tries to build. But I don’t want to join the ranks of Christians over the centuries who have interpreted Thomas exclusively in a bad light.

Because he went back. And he was blown away to see Jesus again. What do you think Thomas learned from his encounter with the risen Christ? From that point on, did Thomas start trusting the words and witness of his friends? I hope so. I hope his encounter with Jesus changed him so that he could come to trust again.

Thomas gave his community of faith a second chance. Can we? Can we give one another a chance? Can we give the Church a chance? After all, that is what Easter is about: a new beginning, a fresh start, a new chance at life in the Body of Christ – the Church.

We can take a helpful cue from this story. Perhaps we need to carefully consider how Thomas can reflect current realities and challenges in the Church.

What do you think about the radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief projected against the Church today – admittedly some for very good reason. And yet, I wonder if such detraction is not a general sign of the times. Don’t we live in a distrusting, suspicious society, to begin with? Aren’t we told, even by our fathers and mothers growing up, “not to trust anyone” as if this is a value – a life-skill – for successful living? How grievous.

Perhaps we can think of individuals who project a radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief about the world, the church, the government. Perhaps we think of individuals who will not trust others in the church, the disparager, the cynic, the one who refuses to believe. Perhaps we can think of those who look for any excuse to leave the Church and point accusatory fingers at believers who are as sinful and in need of God’s grace as the next person. Perhaps we can think of those who react to the slightest offense. We are Thomas, to be sure, each and every one of us.

Can we learn to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another, and our witness to God’s work in our lives and the world?

I paid particular attention a few years’ back listening and watching Justin Trudeau give the eulogy at his father’s funeral service. His father, the former Prime Minister of Canada, was a controversial figure in Canadian political history who had many enemies. And Justin remembered an incident when he was a very young boy, when his father taught him a very valuable lesson in how to relate to those with whom you differ: He said:

“As on previous visits this particular occasion included a lunch at the parliamentary restaurant which always seemed to be terribly important and full of serious people that I didn’t recognize.

“But …. I recognized one whom I knew to be one of my father’s chief rivals.

“Thinking of pleasing my father, I told a joke about him — a generic, silly little grade school thing.

“My father looked at me sternly …and said: `Justin, Never attack the individual. We can be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence.’

“Saying that, he stood up and took me by the hand and brought me over to introduce me to this man. He was a nice man who was eating there with his daughter ….

“He spoke to me in a friendly manner for a bit and it was at that point that I understood that having opinions that are different from those of another does not preclude one being deserving of respect as an individual.”

I have considered these words in light of Jesus’ prayer that his disciples be one. To experience this unity, do we not, as I said, have to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another? Because we are part of the body of the living Lord. The presence of God’s Spirit in Christ lives in us. What would it be like in the Church if every time we met we would try to see Christ in each other’s faces and lives. What difference could that make?

You might notice that in most of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, he is revealed among believers gathered together – rarely alone. The revelation of the living God in Jesus Christ is received in the community of faith, not apart from it.

When Thomas gives his disciple friends another chance, when he finds it in his heart finally to re-enter the community, to begin relating again with them, to face the music, to engage the sometimes messy and challenging relational realities there, to deal with his disappointments and frustrations of the community, and to come out of his isolation, that is when the risen Jesus breaks into their midst and is revealed in all truth and love to the doubting Thomas. The invitation is always open for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation within the Body of Christ.

God will not stop breaking into our midst – amid our fears and doubts and conflicts. The living Lord Jesus will continue to surprise us by his presence among us. He will be revealed in all truth, grace and love, and bring us peace – this is the promise of the Gospel today.

I believe God must be so happy when members of Christ’s Church on earth are reconciled to one another after being divided and conflicted. I believe God, our heavenly parent, must rejoice when brothers and sisters in Christ work towards greater unity amongst themselves.

After all, we are the children of God. God loves us. And God, our heavenly Father, wants us to live in unity, mutual respect and harmony.