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"Starting with Resistance"


The value of doubt is that it can lead us toward a resilient faith that can sustain us in good times and bad. Doubting Thomas proved that by refusing to believe the seemingly outrageous story of the resurrection of Jesus unless he had proof. And Jesus was happy to show Thomas the truth, just as Jesus is happy to lead us to eternal truths.

            We Christians today universally consider Easter, which we celebrated last Sunday, a time of great joy. And, of course, it is.

            But as we pick up the story of the very first Easter in the gospel of John today, the shocking events of that morning some 2,000 years ago continue to cause trauma, disbelief and profound fear among the disciples of Jesus.

            And no wonder. They can’t seem to imagine what has happened for the simple reason that what happened was completely unimaginable. So let’s begin today by considering again what happened that morning. Listen to this remarkable description of that first Easter from Orthodox Christian scholar David Bentley Hart:

 

Christianity entered human history not as a new creed … or system of religious observances, but as apocalypse: the sudden unveiling of a mystery hidden in God before the foundation of the world in a historical event without any possible precedent or any conceivable sequel; an overturning of all the orders and hierarchies of the age ...; the overthrow of all the angelic and demonic powers and principalities by a slave legally crucified at the behest of all the religious and political authorities of his time, but raised up by God as the one sole Lord over all the cosmos ….1

            I didn’t find any brightly colored eggs or chocolate bunnies in that description. Did you? No, friends in Christ, what we’re dealing with here is a singularity, an event unlike any other. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter was and is the single most important event in the history of the creation, and we dare not trivialize it or ignore it. Rather, we should pay attention to the biblical accounts of what happened and how the followers of this “one sole Lord over all the cosmos” dealt with it in real time.

            Remember that earlier that day they had received the news of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene, who sometimes is called the first apostle, meaning the first one sent out to proclaim the good news. John doesn’t tell us exactly how the disciples responded at that moment, though other gospels suggest that they had trouble believing any of the women who came back from the empty tomb with the news.

            But John does tell us that the disciples gathered in fear and trembling that evening in a house, the doors of which were locked. If Jesus had overcome Pilate, the guards at his grave and death itself, do you think locked doors would have been a problem? Of course not.

            So, he just appears in their midst and says, “Peace be with you.” In saying that, he defines where he, the disciples and the entire world are, in the long run, headed. They’re moving toward what, in the first words Jesus spoke when he started his ministry, he called the “kingdom (or reign) of God,” sometimes called the kingdom of heaven.

            It’s what Jesus promised was dawning. It’s “at hand,” he announced (or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase of the gospel of Mark, “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here.”)2 But what we got instead of God’s immediate, fully formed, peaceable reign on Earth — at least so far — was and is the church. That may seem like a bit of a disappointment, especially to any of you who may have served on some church committee or other. But it’s not a final disappointment because the church is here to remind everyone that the reign of God, which brings peace to all, is coming one day in full flower.

            There’s a lot going on in the text we read today. Jesus slips in through locked doors. He breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. He deals with “Doubting” Thomas, though not on that first night. And John says that he had the time and space to write about only a few of the signs and wonders of Jesus, not the full story.

            Before we look again at Jesus’ promise of eternal bliss and peace, let’s consider briefly what the Doubting Thomas story tells us. It’s quite instructive. For instance, one lesson it teaches is that the opposite of faith is not doubt. No, the opposite of faith is false certitude. Thomas didn’t buy the resurrection story on the basis of false certitude. Rather, he said that unless he saw the nail marks and touched the wounds, he wouldn’t believe. He wanted proof to be sure the other disciples hadn’t lost their minds and made up a hopeful story.

            Does Jesus criticize Thomas for that, call him an unsaved unbeliever, a tool of Satan? No, Jesus does none of that. Nor does Jesus condemn us when we openly share our doubts as we search for a faith that can sustain us in good times and bad. After all, it’s in community that we lead each other through the valley of the shadow of doubt.3

            Rather, Jesus simply answers Thomas’ doubts directly: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Friends, Thomas is proof that doubt can be a path to faith.

            So, Thomas was resistant to the news of the resurrection. And that should surprise none of us, given that in some ways resistance is at the center of the whole story of both the creation as found in Genesis and the resurrection as described in the Gospels. Resistance? Yes, resistance.

            In her book, The Small Church Advantage, Teresa J. Stewart notes that “Genesis doesn’t begin with creation. It begins with resistance. Before shaping fins, feathers and folks, God first pushes back against the destructive watery chaos.”4 (Many translations of Genesis call that chaos a “formless void.” But an even better translation comes from Hebrew scholar and translator Robert Alter. He calls the chaos “welter and waste.”5 It’s Alter’s successful attempt to parallel the original rhythmic Hebrew wording, which is tohu wabohu.)

            Teresa Stewart adds that “the divine rescue plan continues with resistance. God chooses small groups, outsiders and underdogs to make a new way with unconventional tactics ... And then, of course, there’s Jesus. The Great Resistor: He pushes back against official power with a ministry beginning with Sabbath-healing, beggar-recognizing, leper-touching, temple-tossing, widow-noticing, meal-multiplying, security-subverting and child-welcoming ... Jesus, the Word of God, writes our salvation with resistance.”6

            Two important questions for us today are what we should doubt and what we should resist. The flip side of those questions is what we should hold to as reliable truth and what we should promote and work for.

            As usual, Jesus has the answers. We should both doubt and resist people in power when they use that power to crush others and benefit themselves. And we should love God, ourselves and others with a love that transforms us all. It’s really that simple and that complicated.

            Why is that complicated? Because sometimes we are the ones in power, using that power badly. And maybe more often we are simply among the beneficiaries of badly used power against others.

            As Matthew Desmond writes in his book Poverty, by America, many people benefit from the existence of poverty and thus are not motivated to alter the economic systems that produce it so regularly and reliably. “Poverty,” he writes, “persists because some wish and will it to.”7

            And as laudable as charity is, especially in emergencies, the persistent need for widespread charity is a sign that systems are broken. Ongoing, institutionalized charity exists because our economic, educational, justice and other systems are flawed. Either that or we may have to admit that such systems are working exactly as they were designed to work, creating poverty that crushes some but benefits others.

            So, we are called to resist systems that dehumanize others. And we must share with the world the beautiful vision of the coming reign of God. Christianity is a faith that persistently looks to a glorious future — in both this life and the next — even as it resists the forces working against that future and even as it seeks to demonstrate in the here and now what God’s kingdom will look like when it’s finally and fully here.

            The first Easter morning cracked open that future. Even Thomas eventually saw that and embraced it. In fact, the Thomistic tradition says that Thomas made it all the way to southern India to preach the gospel. He is regarded as the patron saint of India today, and the annual Feast of Saint Thomas on July 3 is celebrated as Indian Christians’ Day.

            After that first scary evening on that first Easter, the disciples of Jesus came to realize the astonishing reality that he had overcome death and that now death does not have the final say in any of our lives. So, some 2,000 years later we still joyfully celebrate that singular and liberating truth by proclaiming this: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief, by David Bentley Hart, 2022, Baker Academic; page 135.

The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, by Eugene H. Peterson, 2002, NavPress Publishing Group; page 1809.

The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith, by Bill Tammeus, 2016, Skylight Paths Publishing.

The Small Church Advantage: Seven Powerful Worship Practices that Work Best in Small Settings, by Teresa J. Stewart, 2023, Market Square Books; page 179.

The Hebrew Bible, Volume 1, by Robert Alter, 2019, W.W. Norton & Co.; page 11.

6 Op. Cit., Stewart. Pages 179, 180.

Poverty, by America, by Matthew Desmond, 2023, Crown Publishing,; page 40.


 

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