Well, Easter has come and gone, and still, the state of the world is both the same in terms of its uncertainty and unpleasantness - we're well into the new wave of COVID, schools are closed, and etc. And yet, once again, we have emerged out of Lent having been reminded that there is more to our existence than the realities of life on this side of death. This merits more than one Sunday’s worth of reflection and celebration, in spite of, or maybe especially in times such as these. Let us therefore take a full advantage of the 50-day long Easter season as our “next step”.
Even longer than Lent, the season of Eastertide has its own traditions associated with it, particularly as it comes to the lectionary reading choices designed to focus our attention on the spread of the gospel -- on the mission and the message of the early church. As such, there are no Old Testament readings (these are replaced by “Acts of the Apostles”), and the Epistle readings, too, are chosen from Peter and John, the founders of the church. Most notably, the gospel readings follow their own progression. The first half of the season is focused on Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: always at the grave on Easter day, then to Thomas on the first Sunday after Easter, then to the disciples on the second Sunday (either over breakfast on the lakeshore, or on the road to Emmaus). In the middle, we have the Good Shepherd Sunday, followed by three weeks devoted to what is called Jesus’ “farewell discourse”, which is fitting because 40 days after Easter we will celebrate Ascension, Jesus’ final departure. So, that’s the shape of Eastertide -- bridging the resurrection of Christ on Easter day, and the birth of the early church at Pentecost. It's a joyful season; and while we might find that its mood is at odds with the global context of the world today, we might find that its focus on eternal life, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the new creation, will hold an enhanced significance for us this year.
Today is the first Sunday after Easter, and so we read John’s account of Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with his disciple named Thomas. In some church traditions, this Sunday is thus called “the Assurance of Thomas”, which to me sounds so much better than “the doubting Thomas”. It shifts the emphasis on what Christ gave Thomas, rather than on where he was lacking (in which, in fact, he wasn’t any worse than the others). Thomas was not any less believing when it came to Jesus’ self-revelation: other disciples had the exact same opportunity and believed only after Jesus showed himself to them -- but, he missed that first opportunity. What he was reluctant to believe were the words of the disciples, not Jesus himself.
I love how all the disciples are portrayed in the gospels to be unique individuals. Peter, ever so impulsive, but a bit slow. John, a faster runner, but stopped at the entrance of the cave to look before venturing in. Peter dives right in everywhere he goes, even if he gets there a little later (nobody seems to hold that against him!). Thomas also had a couple of defining personality traits. First, Thomas was an intellectually honest man. He looked carefully into things, determined to inquire as to their deepest meaning. He refused to say he understood something when he did not. He refused to say he believed something he didn't. When he first spoke in John 14:5, there, Jesus had just explained that he was going to prepare a heavenly home for his followers – and Thomas reacted by saying, "Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go, but because he was, he was going to make sure he understood it well ahead of time. Second, Thomas was every bit as dedicated as the other disciples, perhaps more so; when he was about to accompany Jesus to Judea for the resurrection of Lazarus, he knew full well the danger of travelling there at that point in Jesus’ ministry, and he said he was willing to die with Jesus there (while the other disciples were holding Jesus back). Dedicated as they were, only John remained at the foot of the cross to comfort Mary, so they all had their times of doubt, confusion, and denial of Jesus.
And the third important trait of Thomas’ is that he was likely the type to grieve alone. Usually this is what’s held against him: why wasn’t he with the rest of the disciples? Well, he missed out on the first encounter with Jesus, just as John was reluctant to go into the grave, and Peter was slow to run. Once Jesus spoke to him, there was no need to touch any wounds to see if they were real – he acclaimed Jesus as God. Later, as tradition claims, in 52 AD he travelled outside the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel, as far as present-day India, where Christian communities still treasure their origins in his ministry. Remains of some of his buildings, influenced by Greek architecture, indicate that he was a great builder. He might have been martyred in 72. An extra-canonical tradition holds that, as a reversal of his story of missing out on Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance, he alone gets to witness the assumption of Mary’s body into heaven. What may we apply to our own spiritual lives from the story of Thomas?
First, we all bring to a belief in Christ our own personalities and styles of learning and faith development. Some of us are more optimistic, and others may easily despair - let us support each other. Some of us may be more introverted, and prefer to be left alone in our grief; hence, maybe, faring a bit better in today’s social isolation. Yet, others perceive the strongest sense of the risen Christ mainly when gathered together - let us then reach out to such of our acquaintances today, and reassure them that the presence of God is still among us.
Second, we have believed first, “without seeing”. Now, our faith enables us to see - to see more clearly the things that are truly important in our lives and in this world, and inside ourselves. Faith is the gaze of the heart at God. May this special time of increased reflection lead to a resetting of priorities, and a greater appreciation of our interdependence.
And third, doubt is an essential part of learning. My young children are all still learning the differences between lies and fairy-tale, allegory and history. Not every invisible reality is a fairy-tale, and not every “alternative fact” is a truth. It seems to me that as adults, we are all still learning about such things, too. But let’s just be sure that, rather than searching the sea of information that is filtered through the media, when we are sorting through our doubts, we rely on our inward gaze and on the testimony of the few trusted people who share our values and experiences, uphold us in our grief, and share our joys. Thanks be to God.