Reflection: Hold Fast April 8, 2018
I can imagine Mary, full of joy in her encounter with the risen Christ, facing down the doubts and scoffing of the other disciples to share her good news. I can imagine Peter and the other disciple – maybe John? – running to the tomb and just barely beginning to believe. I can imagine all of them together in a room, when Jesus appears and their doubts are finally laid to rest. And I can imagine poor Thomas – so devoted to Jesus, so devastated by his death – absolutely bewildered by what they claim to have experienced.
I can imagine them gathered around Thomas, all of them trying to speak at once, all of them so excited and scared and awe-struck that their words pile on top of words until Thomas covers his ears, shakes his head, and cries out, “Enough! Until I see him for myself, until I touch his poor wounded body” – and here his voice catches on a sob – “I will not believe”. I can see him huddled in a corner of the room, watching the others speak in hushed voices of their encounter, feeling so alone – wanting to believe but afraid to even dare to hope. And perhaps, then, one or another of the disciples went to sit beside him. Maybe they crouched down on the floor next to him, back against the wall, shoulder to shoulder, and gently spoke words of understanding and encouragement. Maybe one or another of them was the brother or sister to him Jesus would have them be. Maybe one of them spoke of their own betrayals and denials, their own doubts, their own fears, sympathizing with his wondering and questioning. And maybe – just maybe – one of them offered to support him and pray for him until he, too, encountered the living Christ, and his doubts were swept away.
I would like to think that’s what happened, until the day came that Thomas was able to see what he needed to see. After all, every one of them had had their doubts and wonderings about Jesus along the way. Every one of them probably ran up against ideas they couldn’t grasp, stories they couldn’t interpret, miracles they couldn’t accomplish though Jesus had commissioned and sent them. They certainly all – except Thomas! – seemed to want to avoid the probable outcome of Jesus’ teaching and actions. It was Thomas – no-one else! – who declared, “Then let us go and die with him!” Every one of them had lived with questions that Jesus called forth in them – questions for which they did not have an answer.
The Austrian Poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote:
… be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Resolve to be always beginning – to be a beginner! (-Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Letters on Love)
Every single one of those disciples was a beginner – a beginner in faith, a beginner in understanding, a beginner in living the life of a Jesus follower. I hope they would have sympathy for another beginner in the faith, Thomas the Twin – sadly named for all time it seems, Thomas the Doubter. But we could just as easily speak of Peter the Doubter, Mary the Doubter, Anthony the Doubter, John the Doubter, Heidi the Doubter.
Haven’t we all had to learn to live with questions for which we have no answers? Haven’t we all had to trust that what we have learned from others’ experience is true – until we have an experience of our own to solidify that trust? As inheritors of a faith tradition we are heirs to the experiences of the disciples, the early church, the monastics, the mystics, the bishops and evangelists, the priests and iconoclasts, the reformers and missionaries, whose experience has been shared with us and has shaped our understanding of the faith. We also have our own experiences that deepen our faith and help make it our own: our experiences of love and acceptance in Christian community, our experiences of God accompanying us even when others have turned away, our experiences of hope sustained or prayer answered, our experiences of visionary moments or startling insights, our experiences of being given enough light for the next few steps.
When we are short on our own experiences, then we rely even more heavily on the experiences of others. Some would say that’s a bad thing – that faith based on anything other than one’s own experience is false or naïve – the blind leading the blind. I’m not so sure. The experience of those we know and trust can give us faith that we, too, can experience the amazing presence of God in our lives. It gives us the patience to wait on God. I love that Thomas didn’t say – “I’m never going to believe this really happened!” He said, “Until I can actually touch his wounds, I won’t believe.” He needed something concrete, yes, to reinforce his belief, but the fact that he was still there, when Jesus came to the disciples once more, says he wanted to stick it out – that there was a part of him that wasn’t ready to give up on hope. I wonder if it wasn’t the encouragement of his fellow disciples that kept him there?
In her 2010 presidential address to the Catholic Biblical Association, Sandra Schneiders suggests that there is a translation error in John 20:23. The traditional reading is
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain [the sins] of any, they are retained.” Schneiders writes, “A more adequate reading would be the following: ‘Of whomever …you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever …you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast. (Sandra Schneiders, “The Lamb of God and Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011):27. Quoted in Workingpreacher.org) Jesus holds fast to Thomas, giving him what he needs to have faith. The disciples, and we as later disciples, are told to do the same.
Our faith can be a gift to others, when theirs is overwhelmed with questions and doubts. We can rely on others’ strength when we ourselves are deep into wondering and feel the sand beneath our feet shifting. The faith we have inherited or that has been gifted to us by parents or friends can give us just enough firm ground that we can ask and explore and wonder without getting stuck in quicksand. It also gives us a safety rope to hold onto if we’re really getting lost and need someone to pull us out!
I’ve been a questioner my whole life. Thomas could be my patron saint! The strong witness of my parents’ faith, the faith of spiritual writers I admire, the faith of those whose stories we hear in Scripture, the faith of those whom I’ve encountered in my readings of Church history and in my own ecumenical encounters gives me a really firm ground from which to keep asking my questions. All of those people are holding fast to me, as I follow my questions wherever they take me. And in turn I hold fast to others, when they are dealing with their own questions and wondering.
Some of you know that I’ve been doing readings on atheism for Lent this past season. It might seem like a strange form of devotional reading, but I believe it’s important to stretch ourselves to really face the questions raised by so many in our secular society and evaluate their merit. The difference between me and many of the writers whose work I read, comes down to an ability to live with mystery – or, as Rilke wrote – to live the questions. For me, grappling with the questions of existence leads me into mystery – an awareness that there is much more to this life than I can ever grasp with my intellect or completely understand, no matter how much science or philosophy I study, and no matter how long I’ve read and loved Scripture. It is in the mystery that I believe we begin to perceive the One we call God.
Thomas was blessed, because he had a concrete experience of an abiding mystery. I’m not sure seeing and touching Jesus really would answer all his questions; I imagine that it just produced a whole bunch more questions! But it was enough for him to declare “My Lord and my God!” – the only place in the Gospels where Jesus is specifically addressed as “God”. Perhaps what he is declaring is that when faced with the mysteriousness of life in all its wonder and even in all its pain, we find ourselves standing in the presence of God.
The paradox of Christian faith is that God is both deeply mysterious and yet known in the concrete physical historical presence of Jesus. The transcendent becomes immanent, the spiritual becomes embodied. John captures this in presenting Jesus as an embodied spiritual being, even after his resurrection. The Word has become flesh and dwells among the people, full of grace and truth. The Word is resurrected, given new life, and because it is what Thomas needs, the Word can be touched, can eat breakfast with his friends, can talk and teach and challenge and console them once more, until his time is done.
Thomas saw, and believed. Some of us, too, have seen Jesus alive and active in their lives, and believed. And some of us will continue to rely on the faith of our ancestors, our friends, our family, our community, to hold us fast, until such time as we, too, truly see. Jesus will keep showing up, holding together in his body the mysterious and the concrete, the divine and the human, showing us how to do the same. So all of us, together, keep asking the questions, and living the questions. Thank God for Thomas, and for all questioning, trusting, doubting, believing Christians. Amen.
Reflection: Hold Fast April 8, 2018