Monthly Archives: May 2011

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Returning the things of God to God

There is a constant struggle going on at the heart of the Church, and the heart of each Christian, to know how to respond to events in society and in our personal lives.  We consider and delve into ways of approaching current events.  We read the newspaper and ethical dilemmas present themselves, we drive to work and see people in need, we reflect upon the policies of our government–local, state and national–and we try to influence them the best we can to reflect the justice we believe our faith demands.

A friend may come to us with a problem, or we may find ourselves in a situation where we find it’s nearly impossible not only to do the right thing but to discern what it is.  We need overarching principles to guide our reflections and help us address complexity and confusion.

In considering the different ways Christians are called to exercise our faith in our personal lives and in our public/civic involvement, I’ve found a diagram to be particularly helpful.  You should know that I have a particular fondness for triangular diagrams.  There are two that I think simplify any discussion of theology or engagement with culture (i.e. missiology).  Theologically, I love this diagram of the Trinity.  The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, the spirit is neither etc… it says a lot in a concise form:

But the diagram I think is helpful in this situation is of more recent origin.  I found it in an article entitled “Preaching to Postmodern People.”  The diagram explains the way in this the Gospel interacts with the culture and with the Church, and their relationship to one another.

In the diagram, the Gospel is at the top corner of the triangle, and interacts with the culture through the “conversion encounter axis.”  This describes the way the gospel can come to challenge some of the fundamental assumptions of a society, and invite conversion (think Paul on the road to Damascus as an example).  This demonstrates that, in terms of the broader society, encountering the gospel is something that directly challenges the makeup of society–or at the very least its abuses.  On the other hand the Church encounters the Gospel along the “reciprocal relationship axis.”  That is, ideally, the church is already aware of the gospel–we should not be surprised by it–and acts out of relationship with and love of God.

One aspect of this is that it is not primarily the responsibility of the Church to convert the culture–the Holy Spirit through the encounter with the Gospel message does that–but the Church must be there to declare the message, and perhaps more importantly, to interpret the message for the culture when the culture experiences the Gospel critique out of context.

The final side of the triangle depicts the Church’s relationship to the culture.  This is called the “Missionary dialogue axis.”  In our lessons from John’s Gospel (John 14:15-21) and the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:22-31), I believe we see the latter two of these sides in action.

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Remembering Memorial Day

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.
– For Heroic Service, Page 839, BCP

Ladder of Divine Ascent

Random Tidbit: From “The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity”

In the desert tradition, vigilant attention to the body enjoyed an almost oppressive prominence.  Yet to describe ascetic thought as “dualistic” and as motivated by hatred of the body, is to miss its most novel and its most poignant aspect.  Seldom in ancient thought, had the body been seen as more deeply implicated in the transformation of the soul; and never was it made to bear so heavy a burden.  For the desert Fathers, the body was not an irrelevant part of the human person, that could, as it were, be “put in brackets.”  It could not enjoy the distant tolerance that Plotinus and many pagan sages were prepared to accord it, as a transient and accidental adjunct to the self.  It was, rather, grippingly present to the monk: he was to speak of it as “this body that God has afforded me, as a field to cultivate, where I might work and become rich.

 

Ladder of Divine Ascent
The Ladder of Divine Ascent

[...T]he cumulative experience of ascetic transformation quietly eroded so stark an image of the self.  Life in the desert revealed, if anything, the inextricable interdependence of body and soul.  When Dorotheos himself came to write as an old man he noted that in some mysterious way, it was possible to “humble” the body–by physical labor, fasting, and vigils–so that one could actually bring humility to the soul.  So intimate a connection of body and soul both puzzled and reassured him. 

[...]In the desert tradition, the body was allowed to become the discreet mentor of the proud soul.  No longer was the ascetic formed, as had been the case in pagan circles, by the unceasing vigilance of his mind alone.  The rhythms of the body and, with the body, his concrete social relations determined the life of the monk: his continued economic dependence on the settled world for food, the hard school of day-to-day collaboration with his fellow-ascetics in shared rhythms of labor, and mutual exhortation in the monasteries slowly changed his personality.  The material conditions of a monk’s life were held capable of altering the consciousness itself.  Of all the lessons of the desert to a late antique thinker, what was most “truly astonishing” was “that the immortal spirit can be purified and refined by clay.” (Brown, 235-237)

The Supper at Emmaus

The things that define us

What defines you?  Is it your job? Your family? A hobby?

Are you defined by your likes or dislikes?  By your accomplishments or failures?

What defines who you are?

For many in this room (or reading this), one answer that should come to mind relatively soon in this thought process is this: I am a Christian.  The fact that I have been saved by Jesus Christ defines me.

But this doesn’t simply mean that we are called by Jesus’ name and that is all.  It means that we live in a particular way, a way that reminds others what it means to be Christian, to follow Jesus.

This means that we fulfill the call to love one another:  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  But loving one another is often much easier in theory than in practice.  A preacher I once heard put it this way: I don’t love you because you’re lovable, I love you because Christ loves you; and how can I hate what God loves?

Most of us are less than lovable, especially when we’re at our worst.  And yet, we’re commanded to love one another–and ourselves–as Christ loves us.  Sacrificially.  Unflinchingly.  Without regard to what is deserved.

The love that we are called to extend toward one another is the same sort of love that God extends toward all of us, and it is a function of grace: one-way love without need or expectation of reciprocity (though it does inspire reciprocity).  That this love is a function of grace is clear in that it is undeserved and, without God’s help, we are unable to offer it to others.  God’s grace must be operative in us in order for us to become conduits for this love.

If Christians are a community defined by and reflecting God’s agape–over flowing, one way love–then we are also a community that must reinforce the recognition of our dependence upon God in the most basic ways.  Because of this human need, we can be thankful that Christ did not simply leave his fledgling community with a series of impossible commandments: he left his sacraments as a means of equipping the saints for their work.  That is to say, the sacraments are both signs and effectual means of God’s grace.

Specifically today, it is appropriate to reflect upon the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist as Episcopalians usually refer to it).  In our Gospel lesson (Luke 24:13-35), I would argue that we see Christ acting as the celebrant of the Eucharist, offering it to his disciples.  Just as he had done during the feeding of the five thousand, and later during the last supper, Christ takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it.  In each case the need of those receiving is met.  Through their reception of bread and wine, Cleopas and his companion have their eyes opened and they are able to see the truth and understand the teachings that Jesus opened to them on the road.

In these events we not only have the precursor to the Eucharist, but also the structure of Christian worship: study/reflection/teaching on the Holy Scripture, followed by the breaking of bread.

It may seem strange that God would choose something as common place as bread and wine–as common as a meal–to be the sign of his continued presence with his people.  And yet, that is precisely what he does.  God takes what is ordinary and makes it extraordinary, what is mortal and makes it divine, what is finite and makes it infinite.  Iin Christ, God takes ordinary humanity and makes it divine.  As Christ ascends to the right hand of the Father, humanity is taken into the very life of God, and that in turn, through Christ in us, the power of God is give to us so that we might live as Christ lives.

The Eucharist constitutes and forms the community and then gives the community the means to go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the spirit.  Like the disciples that Jesus encounters on the road to Emmaeus, Christ is revealed to us (again and again) in the breaking of the bread.

And being the community that is called together by the sharing of a meal, by the confessing and forgiving of our sin, we are called to go forth and spread the good news to others. In doing this, the Eucharist provides us with sacramental strength, but also an effective example that should be an encouragement to all of us: God is going to accomplish his purposes through us; no matter how ordinary we believe ourselves to be, God makes us extraordinary.

 

Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures by McKendree Robbins Long, c. 1959 (North Carolina Museum of Art)

Judgement Day

I believe it’s fair to say that our culture has an obsession with judgement and the end times. It’s an ironic obsession, given the way we often live our lives and structure our society. If we were really concerned about God’s wrath, one would think we’d take better care of one another.

The fact that we’re here today is testimony to a huge disappointment for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As many of you, I’m sure, have heard, a man who was already known for falsely identifying the date of an event known as the rapture of the church, predicted that it would occur on May 21, 2011 at 6 p.m. (there was evidently some confusion as to whether this was to occur separately in different time zones or not).

The idea of the rapture and its subsequent popularity has its origins in the work of folks like Irishman John Nelson Darby, a former Anglican priest and a leader of the Plymouth Brethren and William Miller (founder of the movement that would eventually become Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses), and their particular readings of biblical prophecy–particularly Daniel, I Thessalonians and Revelation. In recent memory, these ideas have been popularized through the Left Behind series of novels. The problem, of course, is that these are rather odd ways of reading scripture and are not at all literal readings faithful to the texts, especially in those forms that attempt to determine, by applying biblical prophecy to current events, the specific time or date of Jesus’ second coming.

It is important to note that, in questioning the degree to which such millenarian or dispensationalist eschatologies (beliefs about the last things) are faithful to scripture, we are not questioning the second coming of Christ–which is, sadly, how some would see it. The second coming (parousia), is a core Christian doctrine, and we profess it in our Eucharistic prayers (along with the resurrection), for example, when we say as a body “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” or “We proclaim his death, we remember his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”

The danger of beliefs such as the rapture, especially when they began as the apocalyptic beliefs of the oppressed, but are now the beliefs of people of significant power and means, is that they encourage sinful human beings to attempt to force God’s hand by becoming involved in world events in a particular way, or, alternatively, to abandon concern for the world because “it’s all going to burn anyway.” Neither response is appropriate for Christians.

But even more problematic, is that speculation about the time of Christ’s return–something the Lord himself forbade–also seems to encourage speculation about who, precisely, is in or out of the kingdom of God. Below is an example of the sort of thing these ideas can result in. It’s a painting by a preacher, McKendree Robbins Long of North Carolina. (Long’s grandson, incidentally, Ben Long is a well known fresco painter who has worked in many churches in the US and Europe). McKendree Long was a classically trained portrait painter who acted as an ambulance driver in the first world war. When he came home, he stopped painting for years as he ministered. When he took up painting again, he did so in a surrealistic style in a subject matter that is more reminiscent of folk art:

Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures by McKendree Robbins Long, c. 1959 (North Carolina Museum of Art)

While the work is striking and, in a way, I think we’d be poorer for it as a culture if it didn’t exist, it’s subject matter is problematic from a theological point of view. It’s a picture of the last judgement with people being thrown into the lake of fire. Of particular interest is that you can make out specific historical and philosophical figures in the painting. Some are not surprising, and we may even agree with Long’s placement of them; Hitler is there being squeezed and bitten by a boa constrictor or other snake. In the middle of the lava you see a bird attacking Joseph Stalin. But there are others there as well. Over to the right side it’s pretty easy to make out Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Einstein, not to mention a sizable number of women who seem to be dressed in a manner that, for Long, was probably provocative. At the top of the hill, talking to Dante Alighieri and looking on with evident satisfaction is Long himself, observing as divine punishment is meted out.

This painting is an example of someone taking upon themselves the authority of a judge. In fairness to long, it’s possible in the context that it’s less a theological than a social or political statement, but I would submit that it is a good illustration of a dangerous tendency. People are sinful and hurtful enough without ascribing to themselves the role of arbiter and judge of others’ eternal fate. And this is precisely what follows from attempts to predict when Jesus will return. It’s an exercise in hubris that leads to others. The person who attempts to calculate the time and date of Jesus’ return is claiming that they know more than Jesus himself. Once we believe we know more than Jesus, it’s not far to believing we know better than God. And we already know we have that sort of tendency toward judgmentalism (think Jonah and the people of Nineveh, among other numerous examples from within and outside of scripture). In other words, we often move the short distance from believing we know when Jesus is going to return and judge to believing we know how Christ will judge–that we know precisely who (and what sort of people) will be cast into fire.

In contrast to such temptations, which are often ultimately constructed upon our own inmost fears, scripture invites us to let go of our fears and follow God’s call in our lives. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus goes on to declare to the disciples, some of the most comforting words of scripture, but words that many of us have misunderstood:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

If you’re like me, then you’ve often heard these words in a particular way. Specifically, you may have heard them as words of hope, at a funeral for example, declaring that Jesus was going to a sort of geographic/spacial location to prepare a dwelling. This misunderstanding is not helped by the fact that the King James bible referred to “mansions.” Instead of a considering this promise in light of a physical dwelling (or even a localized spiritual approximation thereof) it should be thought more of in terms of relationship. In the Father’s household there are plenty of places for you. There is plenty of room for everyone in the family of God. So when Jesus says “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3), he’s speaking about his work on the cross–he goes to the cross and rises again to provide the means through which we may have relationship with the Father and through that relationship, be reconciled to one another.

This is why, when Thomas asks how they can know how to get to where Jesus is going, seeing as they don’t know where he’s going, Jesus refuses to get caught up in geographic thinking once again, and tells them “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Just as the idea of Jesus being the gate of the sheep was intended to demonstrate that the sheep must go through–that is, imitate–the shepherd in order to go anywhere, Jesus is telling his disciples to follow his manner of life, to adopt his care for others. In short, to continue his mission, because it’s only in fulfilling that mission out of gratitude to the grace and salvation we’re offered by Christ, that we can move closer to the Father and enjoy the sort of unity with God that is intended.

How does this effect the way we deal with our understandings of the last things? As Jesus said, the character of the Father is revealed in the Son. We know the character of God through the character of Christ, and therefore we can forgo the sort of fearfulness that dominates the apocalyptic thinking that many of our brothers and sisters embrace. This doesn’t mean that we assume ourselves worthy, it means that we’ve seen the grace of God. In contrast to the apocalyptic prophet that thrives on people’s fears of the unknown, we recognize that just as in Christ’s earthly ministry, God was keeping God’s promises to the people of Israel (as N.T. Wright has pointed out, Jesus is the new Temple, as things occur in the presence of Christ that had, up until that point only occurred in the Temple). God kept his promises then, and will keep the promises to come, when Christ returns. Of course there will be judgement, but for those who have their lives hidden with Christ in God, there is nothing to fear. Instead, we can rejoice in the knowledge that our God is merciful and full of grace.

So, rather than a bleak and judgmental image of the end that inspires fear, I would like to offer you another example, containing a different way of looking at this issue. The following is a selection from Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” O’Connor is probably one of the few authors I’m aware of who grasp the concept of grace so well. In this story the main character, Mrs. Turpin has a run in with a girl who’s name is, not by chance, Grace. During an altercation Grace tells Mrs. Turpin that she’s a warthog from hell. This insult sticks with her and in the climax of the story Mrs. Turpin has a confrontation with God in which she demands to know how she can be both a hog and herself at the same time. Eventually she looks up into the sky and sees a streak in the sky, and has a revelation (keep in mind the time in which O’Connor is writing please, no hate mail):

[Mrs. Turpin] raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and [her husband] Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. (Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation,” in The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 508.)

I love the last line: “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” This is the reality that Mrs. Turpin failed to grasp initially, but that, by the work of grace (one hopes) the truth has been revealed to her: all of us are ourselves and “hogs” too. We’re all saints and sinners. Simultaneously justified and yet sinful. Mrs Turpin trusted in her own righteousness, and is disabused of that conceit. She comes to see the broad and radical love of God for creation and all that is in it–especially, it seems, for those we would least expect. When we recognize this reality, we can give up attempting to find the date and time for the second coming, for the judgement, because we know that we are utterly helpless and unworthy before God. We depend upon grace, all the more so because every day is judgement day and we are always found wanting–none of our virtues can survive in the presence of God–only Grace can. And this is the message we’re called to proclaim and put on every billboard literal and figurative we can find: God loves you and sent Jesus so that you would be made aware of it, come to love God, and out of gratitude and amazement, love one another.

Jesus Christ: The Great Shepherd of the Sheep

The Gate and the Shepherd

Christ Church Gate, Canterbury Cathedral. Christ sits above the gate beckoning pilgrims.

Given the way they’re depicted in our culture, one could be forgiven for thinking that sheep aren’t all that bright.  I know several folks who, when wanting to emphasize the propensity people have to go with the flow and fall in line, uses the term “sheeple” to describe them.  The meaning is clear: these folks can’t think for themselves, they just follow the crowd.  During the Super Bowl, Hyundai put out an ad that was based on this idea, showing sheep driving several non-descript, boring cars, with the message flashing up “Maybe car companies keep making boring cars because people keep buying them.”

To be fair, this is some reason for this perception.  Several years ago there was a strange event in Turkey where several hundred sheep plunged off a cliff while the shepherds in charge of the flocks were having breakfast.  Evidently something spooked them and one or a handful started running and ran right over the edge of the cliff, with the others following suit.  The first to go over obviously died.  The ones that brought up the rear had their falls cushioned by their fluffy compatriots and many of them survived.  No one’s quite sure what inspired the hysteria, but it happened nonetheless.

I’ve also heard that a flock, once spooked, will sometimes run in a circle, coming back to the same area.  So there are are some reasons for this perception, as I said.  But is it really fair to say that sheep are stupid because of this behavior?  Because of what they do when they’re frightened and feel threatened?

Because of this negative perception of sheep, comparing people to sheep is necessarily seen as an insult.  Sheeple.  Thoughtless.  Spineless.  We even see this view abroad in the Church, as we hear clergy and church leaders talk about “sheep stealing,” as though lay people were incapable of making informed decisions, and are simply awaiting the latest snake-oil salesman.

If this is what we think of sheep: that they mindlessly follow and don’t think for themselves, then what are we to make of the numerous times that Jesus compares his followers–indeed, the whole people of Israel–to sheep?  Not only that, but Jesus is picking up on a whole history of identifying the people of God with sheep.  Was this intended as an insult?  Is God calling his people, sheeple?

I don’t think so.  And it’s not because God doesn’t call people names (cf. Ex. 32:9), and it’s not because sheep and humans share no negative characteristics (cf. Isaiah, “all we like sheep have gone astray.”  Sheep have a bad habit of wondering off, just like us–metaphorically).  In this case, it’s because Jesus refers to sheep positively.  There’s another side to the sheep metaphor.  Sure, sheep can get confused, but they’re actually pretty smart .  And they’re very loyal.  Recent studies have shown, for example, that sheep have fairly advanced problem solving capabilities, along the line of monkeys (read more).  Other studies suggest that they have the ability to recognize one another’s faces and that they can remember friends for years.  More relevant for our purposes, sheep can recognize the voice of their shepherd.  This final fact is something the shepherds have known for thousands of years as their flocks have mingled in pens at night for protection, only to be separated again in the morning by nothing less than the sound of their shepherd’s voice.

Jesus Christ: The Great Shepherd of the SheepIn John 10, Jesus states that he is both the gate through which people must go to gain access to the sheep, and through which the sheep move, and the Good Shepherd whom the sheep will follow.  The Good Shepherd is the one who lays his life down for the sheep.  The word that’s translated “good” in this phrase has more nuance than the word would indicate.  It means something more like “noble” and was also used in reference to soldiers who had given up their lives in defense of their cities, those who died virtuously and who were undefeated in death (The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version, p. 1899, New Testament).  Considered in this way, the title becomes a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, by which he leads his people through death and into life.

Thinking of Christ as the gate provides other challenges.  Some commentators mention a pastoral practice in the Near East in which a shepherd would lay across the opening of the sheep pen, thereby becoming “gate” as well as shepherd (“The Gospel of John,” Sacra Pagina v. 4, p. 309).  Regardless, the imagery of the gate is not so difficult to deal with upon reflection.  Through this language Jesus is laying claim to his special status as the promised shepherd of the sheep, sent from the Father to guide and protect his people.  Those who would lead the flock must always and can only enter (attain legitimate leadership) through the imitation of Christ, and through recognition of his divine authority, i.e. that he is Lord.  The second meaning of this terminology seems to be indicative of the role that imitation of Christ and following his ways will have in the life of the believer.  Christ is concerned for the protection of his people (of us) both within the sheepfold (defense from liars and thieves) and outside (wolves).  Our protection–or rather, our salvation–is in Christ.

From day to day the reality of this salvation is borne out in the distinction Jesus makes at the end of the Gospel selection for today (John 10:1-10), in which he says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Jesus calls us to abundant life.  Unlike those who attempt to influence others for their own gain, Christ commands our allegiance because he sacrificed everything for us, to reconcile us to God and one another.

So perhaps, in the end, we do resemble sheep in some of the negative ways, as well as the positive.  As human beings we easily become distracted from what we ought to do, or fixated on things that are harmful for us.  We may wonder off and find ourselves in danger, or try to escape a bad situation only to find ourselves circling back around to where it all began.  But when we follow Christ, when we listen for the voice of our Good Shepherd and hear him call us each by name, then we can recognize how apt a description it is, as we discover that our safety and our strength lies in supporting one another, and most importantly, listening to and following Jesus.

While we don’t often have a chance to say the Jubilate (Psalm 100) together, as it is often used as the invitatory psalm in Morning Prayer, I’d like to invite everyone to say (or read, in the case of the blog) the following canticle:

Jubilate Psalm 100

Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; *
serve the Lord with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.

Know this: The Lord himself is God; *
he himself has made us, and we are his;
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise; *
give thanks to him and call upon his Name.

For the Lord is good;
his mercy is everlasting; *
and his faithfulness endures from age to age. (BCP 1979)

Amen.

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Doubting Thomases

Surveying the current spiritual landscape of our culture, one could be forgiven for concluding that unbelief, or atheism, is the most important challenge of our time.  It is accepted by theists and atheists alike that one of the most important questions of life is whether or not one believes in God, and that the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, allied with wounded former believers, are mounting an outright assault on belief, and presenting Christianity in particular with a great challenge.

There is some irony in this, not least because atheism as such is not as simple to define as we might like.  It varies from culture to culture and particularly from religion to religion.  Something of this is captured in the old joke about the Irishman who, while filling out a government form, puts down “atheist” as his religious preference.  “yes, yes” the government official says, “but are you a protestant atheist or a catholic atheist?”  Context matters.  At significant points in history both Jews and Christians were accused of being atheists, since their beliefs denied significant portions of received religious wisdom.

The idea that the New Atheism is presenting any great challenge to belief, Christian or otherwise, is I think, simply another in a long line of trumped up conflicts encouraged by media and given thanks for by publishers who hope to market and sell the books of both theists and atheists involved in such public debate on the various imprints they’ve designed to target those niche demographics.  This is not to say that one shouldn’t take the questions raised seriously, but only that they should not be taken seriously as a threat to belief, for indeed, the challenge itself supposes the meaningfulness and possibility of belief.

Philosophers who have the most consistent claims against belief are those who argue, a la A.J. Ayer (and other Logical Positivists) that “God talk” is simply nonsensical.  Since claims to the existence or non-existence of God are impossible to falsify (or verify empirically), then they are meaningless.  Of course, Ayer would never write a book such as those written by the New Atheists because he would view the whole enterprise as a waste of time.  While the new atheists may appeal to science and various popular understandings of reason, many times their most moving arguments against belief are those that do not so much challenge the existence of God directly as they challenge the existence of a good God, and supposedly proving that no such good God could exist, force those thoughtful persons troubled by the cruelty of life into a sort of stated unbelief that has as its foundation rejection of belief in a specific picture of God.

In some ways then, stated unbelief is often a response to the struggle C.S. Lewis writes about in his book A Grief Observed:

“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God.  The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him.  The conclusion I dread is not, “so there’s no God after all,” but, “So this is what God’s really like.  Deceive yourself no longer” (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, cited in Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, p. 285)

Deceive yourself no longer.  No longer believe in a good God, for only a wicked deity would afflict his creation with such pain and evil.  This is the great challenge to faith.  Not disbelief, but believing something evil about God.  Atheism is not the biggest challenge to the Christian faith; false beliefs are.  This is why the commandment against idolatry is so central in scripture because the impulse to believe is strong.  Strong enough to leave us believing even horrible things.

The danger that one might come to believe evil things about God, especially in the face of human misery is why one of the authors beloved by Lewis, George MacDonald would write the following in his sermon on Job:

“To deny the existence of God may, paradoxical as the statement will at first seem to some, involve less unbelief than the smallest yielding to doubt of his goodness. I say yielding; for a man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood… Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed” (George MacDonald, Sermon on Job, Unspoken Sermons)

The point then, is that for some people, they remain closer to belief in God as revealed in Jesus Christ by choosing a form of unbelief rather than believing a God who is the author of evil.  As David Bently Hart puts it in his book The Doors of the Sea:

After all, at the heart of all such unbelief lies the undoubtedly authentic moral horror before the sheer extravagance of worldly misery, a kind of rage for justice, a refusal of easy comfort, and an unwillingness to be reconciled to evil that no one who believes this to be a fallen world should want to disparage.  For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture (Hart, p. 15).

Now we turn our attention to Thomas.  Doubting Thomas he’s remembered as today.  To be called a Doubting Thomas is to be challenged, even ridiculed for one’s doubt or reticence.  The thing is, the word that is translated doubt, might have an even dimmer cast to it if it were translated as many scholars believe it should be: unbelief.  Not “doubting Thomas” but “unbelieving Thomas.”

Of course, Thomas’s unbelief is no greater than that of the other disciples who, rather than credit the words of Mary upon her return from the tomb, were still holed up behind locked doors because of fear.  They too required an encounter with the living Christ to convince them of the truth of the resurrection.  Perhaps it would be better to speak of the disbelieving disciples and tardy Thomas.

But what Thomas does, which is different from the other disciples–partly from circumstance and partly from personality–is to demand evidence when he hears the other disciples echoing the words of Mary, “we have seen the Lord.”

Thomas demands evidence–not only to see, but to touch the risen Lord–because he too has experienced the horrors of the world.  All the disciples have.  Their teacher, their friend, their messiah, was taken from them by means of a brutal public execution shot through with horror and torture and surrounded by spectacle and blood sport.  Of course they were fearful.  Of course they doubted.  Of course they were living with the specter of unbelief.  But they encountered the risen Lord.  Jesus came to them at their moment of greatest weakness and gives them his peace.

The risen Christ comes into the room where the disciples are hiding out, and he offers them peace, sending them out into the world to spread the news of the Kingdom–as the Father sent me, so I send you, he tells them.  He breathes upon them (in what scholars sometimes refer to as the Johannine Pentecost) and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they might conquer their unbelief and accomplish the work they’ve been given.

But Thomas was not there, and when he hears he does not believe.  He demands proof.  The same proof Christ offers the other disciples and more: to actually touch Christ’s wounds.

It would be easy for some to criticize Thomas’s request, but it makes sense.  Thomas, the disciple who, when Jesus made the decision to return to Judea, “Let us also go so that we may die with him,” is struggling with the events he has been through; with the end that he believes his master to have met.  How could he not struggle with unbelief, having seen these things and desiring to reject any notion of evil in God.

Notice that Christ himself does not ridicule or reject Thomas’s demand for a sign.  Unlike those who demanded miracles and other signs before the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus hears Thomas’s request and responds by offering exactly the proof he asked for: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your fingers here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”

And Thomas, the doubter, the unbeliever, responds with the strongest testimony to Christ’s identity in the gospels: “My Lord and my God.”

We could all hope to do so well as to say of Christ, with Thomas, “My Lord, and my God.” Through his encounter with the living Christ, Thomas moves from unbelief to belief. And try as we might to oppose these to one another neatly, we can never escape the cry of the man in who implores Jesus “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Scripture understands that we are always moving between belief and doubt, belief and unbelief. But encountering Christ moves us ever more deeply into belief.

Just as all the disciples could rightly be called doubters or unbelievers, so too could all of us rightly be described in that way at various points of our lives.  But just as Christ heard the plea of Thomas, he hears ours today.  As long as we refuse to give up on God’s goodness and love, he will provide us grace to go the rest of the way.

“Peace be with you” Christ said to those doubters, those unbelievers all those centuries ago, and he says the same to us today.  “Peace be with you.”  In the midst of the trials and tribulations of life: peace be with you.  In the midst of challenges at home, at work, in our nation and the world: peace be with you.

In the midst of our darkest night, our deepest fears and our greatest doubt: peace be with you.

And because he has ascended to the father, and we await his coming again, Christ had left us with the sacrament of his body and blood.  We cannot, like Thomas, put our hands in his wounds, but we can receive his body and blood and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” as the Apostle Paul puts it.  And by proclaiming his death and resurrection, by receiving this sacrament and the grace that flows through it, we are empowered to be Christ’s body, to continue his work in the world, to truly be his people even in the midst of our personal struggles and doubts, because Christ is always with us in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit and in one another as the people of God.

“have you believed because you have seen me?”  Jesus asks Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We are all doubting Thomases.  But that’s OK, because Thomas was able to confess Christ as his Lord and his God.  By his grace, we can do the same.

[Extra: click below to hear/read the lyrics to a great song from Nickel Creek, entitled "Doubting Thomas," which I hear every time I preach on this passage.]

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