Posts Tagged ‘Thomas’

Living with the promise of the future not the guilt of the past

April 22, 2017

Easter 2 – 2017

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who sets us free from sin and death and who raises us to newness of life with and in and through Jesus Christ. Amen.

It should be obvious by now that I don’t believe that shame and guilt are characteristics of a Christian life. As I have repeated throughout Lent, I firmly believe that God loves us unconditionally and that in itself makes us people of worth.

Having said that let me be quite clear about two things. Firstly if we have wronged someone or done something that we should not have done, we must take responsibility for our actions and at that point feeling ashamed and/or guilty is absolutely justified (if not essential). Shame and guilt can become a problem if, having apologized to the offended person and to God we continue to feel bad about what we have done. A second proviso is this, if we have been treated in such a way that leads us to feel polluted, weak or shameful we must not add to those feelings a sense of guilt about not being able to shake such feelings. As we have belatedly learnt, victims of abuse may need more than a lifetime to overcome feelings of shame, despite the fact that they are not/were not at fault. To impose on such people an insistence not to feel guilty is to perpetuate the abuse.

In saying that shame and guilt are not characteristics of a Christian life I mean that we are not intended to carry around our wrongdoings or a sense of worthlessness, because God has already accepted and overlooked our faults. If we are weighed down by actions in our past we may not able to move forward and to get on with living the life that God intends for us.

Jesus’ resurrection assures us that we can leave the past behind and begin again. Knowing the power of the resurrection in our lives enables us to experience the life, joy and freedom that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes possible.

The message of the resurrection is twofold. Jesus’ resurrection opens for us the way to eternal life. What is more important in the present is that the resurrection of Jesus models for all believers the power of dying to our old life and rising to the possibility of a new beginning. As followers of the risen Christ we are encouraged to continually let go of the past – past behaviours, past sins, past sorrows – and to step into a new way of being, a new way of behaving, a new way of living.

If Jesus resurrection were not enough to convince us to leave the past behind and to move into the future, surely Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances confirm Jesus’ loving, forgiving nature and his willingness to overlook past mistakes and to look future possibilities. I don’t need to remind you that all the disciples failed Jesus and failed Jesus badly – betrayal, denial, abandonment. To make matters worse all, with the exception of Judas, had promised to remain true and even to die with Jesus. When it came to the point however, Peter who had assured Jesus that he would never deny him, did so three times. The disciples who had promised to remain even till death disappeared at the first sign of trouble. Jesus died alone, without the comfort of the twelve men who were closest to him.

Yet when Jesus appears to the disciples, he doesn’t mention their failures to support him nor does he express disappointment that they fled when the soldiers came and that even though they know he has been raised from the dead, they are still cowering in terror. Jesus does not hold the disciples to account, nor does he try to make them feel responsible. He does not reprimand them for failing to be true to their word. Jesus does not behave in a way that would cause them to squirm or speak to them in such a way as to humiliate or mortify them.

From Jesus’ point of view it is as though nothing untoward had ever happened, as if everything were as it was before his arrest. When Jesus appears to the disciples, his forgiveness and grace are expressed in four ways: he does not bring up the past; he offers the disciples peace; he commissions them to do his own work and he gives them the Holy Spirit! In other words, even though the disciples have demonstrated that they are completely and utterly untrustworthy, Jesus not only expresses his continued trust in them and in their abilities but he trust them and empowers them to continue the work that the Father sent him to do.In other words, Jesus makes this unlikely, unsuitable group of disciples his agents in the world because Jesus looks not to the past but to the future, Jesus sees not the disciples’ flaws but their potential.

As that old collect says: God who created us, knows of what it is we are made. God knows that we are weak and foolish and timid. God understands that we are likely to fail – not once, but over and over again and, not once, but over and over again God puts us back on our feet and allows us to start over.

This is what it is like with God. Once we have honestly faced up to what we have done, once we have admitted our fault to ourselves and to God, it is as if it never happened. We begin with a completely new slate, restored, whole and at peace with the world and with ourselves.

We owe it to God, we owe it to ourselves to try to accept the peace of the risen Christ and to aim to live each day with the promise of the future, not the guilt of the past.

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The body beautiful

April 2, 2016

Easter 2 – 2016

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who ‘did not despise the virgin’s womb’, but who in Jesus embraced human flesh – its mortality, fragility and all its messiness. Amen.

We only have to pick up a magazine to be reminded that in the Western world at least, we have a love/hate relationship with our bodies. We are constantly being bombarded with suggestions as to how we can make ourselves more beautiful though diet, exercise, make-up, hair cuts, fake tans, anti-aging creams or serums and styles of clothing[1]. We can “reshape” our bodies at gyms by focusing on our “trouble spots” or build our bodies so as to have firm pecs or a “six-pack”. Increasingly, we are being given the impression that some sort of major intervention is required if we are to be truly beautiful – Botox, dermal fillers, threading and even plastic surgery. Today it is possible to take bits from here and put them there, to make some parts thinner and others fuller, to extend or to shave our bones, to plump our lips, tighten our faces and to do so over and again as fashions change or as we change.[2]

A negative attitude to the body is often associated with Christianity. After all, isn’t it our bodily desires and needs that lead us to sin? Christianity has had an ambivalent attitude to the body for most of its existence. The ‘sins’ of gluttony, adultery are put down to bodily appetites (as if our minds were unable to exercise authority of our uncontrollable bodily urges). In this debate Romans 7 is often used to suggest that Paul struggled with physical desires,[3] as is the Pauline spirit/flesh divide. This view is a misrepresentation of the central tenet of the faith – that in Jesus God became human. The Christmas hymn puts this well, “God did not despise the virgin’s womb” but took on human flesh with all its limitations. If the creation story were not evidence enough, the incarnation puts the lie to any position that suggests that God has a negative view of the human body. If the divine can take on human flesh surely the human body is not simply impure, baseless and imperfect.

This view of the body suggests a negative view of the God who created the body and who declared it to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). If the human body was a suitable vessel for the divine to embrace it should be good enough for us.

The source of the body/soul divide (and with it what amounts to the abhorrence of our physical selves) can be traced back, not to the early Christian believers but to the Greek philosophers. It was the separation of the church from its Jewish roots and its movement into the Greek world that saw the Christian faith adopt the dualism between the soul (good) and the body (bad). Plato (429-347 BCE), to whom this view is attributed, taught that all things had a perfect form. The soul pre-existed the body and would outlast it and was always seeking to be free of the body (which Plato called ‘the tomb of the soul’). Such a negative view resulted in all kinds of attempts to subdue or to mortify the body including extreme forms of aestheticism such as castration.

It is no wonder that we have such mixed feelings about our physicality – the body is our enemy, trapping our soul and leading us into all kinds of temptation and sin. Perhaps for this reason we do not often think of Jesus’ physical body and why a great deal of Christian art depicts him as a kind of androgynous angelic figure.

A closer examination of the gospels and of John’s gospel in particular reveal a different picture. In the gospels Jesus is not an ethereal, spiritual presence, but a physical, bodily presence. Jesus’ body could be touched and caressed both before and after the resurrection. Caravaggio has painted a wonderful representation of Jesus’ appearing to Thomas. Thomas’s finger penetrates under Jesus’ skin to feel the hole left by the spear. This is just one representation of Jesus fully inhabiting the human body. If we pay attention to the gospel accounts, we will be surprised by the physicality of Jesus. We will notice too that he is not afraid/ashamed to touch and be touched. So far as the gospels portray Jesus, he is very comfortable in his own skin. He is not at all anxious to be free of his physical form[4].

The Jesus of John’s gospel is perhaps the most spiritual of the four portrayals: “In the beginning was the Word”, yet the Word has no problem becoming flesh and living among us. The Word doesn’t simply appear to take on the human form he becomes one of us. One of the reasons that the religious authorities won’t accept him is because they know where he comes from – he was physically born to flesh and blood parents.

What is more, it is clear that Jesus understands the needs of the body – he changes water into wine, he asks a woman for a drink. In John’s gospel, Jesus himself distributes the bread and fish to the crowds and in the discourse that follows he uses the imagery of eating and drinking his flesh and blood to illustrate the intimacy of the relationship that we can have with him. Other evidence of Jesus’ physicality in John can be found in the fact that he is able to be grasped (the crowds want to take him by force), he makes a whip, he mixes mud and saliva and places it on the eyes of the blind man and he places the bread into the hands of Judas. The human Jesus does not look on from afar, but truly engages with the physicality of the human body. He does not recoil from the stench of death when he calls Lazarus from the tomb, nor does he draw back when Mary stoops to caress his feet with expensive perfume. Jesus himself takes a towel and washes the feet of the disciples (an act only recorded in John).

Our bodies – awkward, ungainly, unique – are the way God made us[5]. If Jesus was not afraid to embrace the human form, perhaps it is time that we started to become more comfortable with our bodies, time that we learned to accept the irregularities that make us who we are, time that we rejoiced in the absolute marvel of the human machine – that despite the complexity that is required to drive it manages to allow most of us to live and breathe, to walk and run, to work and relax, to embrace and to be embraced. In the words of the musical “Hair”. “What a piece of work is man (sic)!” What an extraordinary, wonderful, beautiful, precious thing is the human body!

In Jesus the human and divine are united as one, should not that be the model for us?

[1] Of course, I’m not even starting to name all the beauty options that are out there!

[2] Bigger breasts that were a good idea in our twenties can be reduced when in our thirties we regret our decision. Faces can be sculpted and resculpted until the surgeon’s knife achieves the desired look.

[3] This is a topic I have dealt with in the past. The ‘I’ in Romans 7 is not Paul but Adam. We only have to read Philippians 3:3-6 to be convinced that Paul had no problem at all with the flesh.

[4] As the later (gnostic) Gospel of Judas would have us believe.

[5] The Psalmist reminds us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139).

Faith and doubt – two sides of one coin

April 26, 2014

Easter 2

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who, far from demanding blind faith, challenges us to think for ourselves. Amen.

I can clearly remember July 20, 1969 – the day Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon. The space landing was considered such a significant historical event that we were given a half day off school to go home and watch it on TV. As my family did not have a television, I went home with a friend and saw it as it happened. America really did manage to land someone on the moon. Amazingly, though the event was broadcast live and watched by people all over the world, there were still those who didn’t believe that it was real. At one extreme, the grandmother of one of my friends who steadfastly clung to her naive belief that the moon was made of green cheese and at the other end were those who held all kinds of conspiracy theories – including one that the whole thing was filmed somewhere in the Australian outback.

New discoveries or new ideas are not always readily accepted. Most of us take time to absorb new information or to adjust to new ideas. All of us, before we accept something new or different, have to make decisions about who and what we trust. Confronted by new information, we have to weigh up the evidence before us and come to our own conclusion before we change our mind-set. This is true not just for advances in science, but also for revisions in the way in which historical data is interpreted over time. So for example, one of the questions which requires a response at the moment is whether climate change is real or whether its proponents are hysterical nature lovers who want to impose their ideals (and their limitations) on us. Another challenge is to come to a conclusion about the way in which historians are revising the story of the Gallipoli landing. Could it really be true that the calamitous campaign was as much the responsibility of the Australians as it was of the British or are the historians just trying to create controversy and draw attention to themselves? Faced with new data, we also have to decide whether our failure to accept it is based on a rational examination of the new facts, or whether we are held back by sentiment, conservatism or a dislike of change.

This need to question, to test ideas, is no less true in regard to issues of faith. It is reasonably easy to demonstrate that Jesus was an historic person who lived and was crucified in the Palestine of the first century and it does not require a great intellectual leap to acknowledge that Jesus’ teaching contains wisdom and guidance for life that crosses the barrier between secular and divine.

The resurrection however is a different matter that creates a number of difficulties. There is no rational, reasonable explanation for the resurrection. There were no witnesses to the actual event and there are at least four differing accounts of the risen Christ – more if John 21 is considered original to the gospel. There are consistent elements – the women at the tomb and Jesus’ appearing in locked rooms – but they are reported slightly differently by each evangelist. Both John and Mark record a meeting with Mary Magdalene and Mark and Luke suggest that the risen Jesus met travelers on the road. Some stories are unique to the individual gospels. Jesus’ appearance to Thomas is recorded only in John and Luke alone suggests that the risen Jesus is able to eat. If we had only the original Markan gospel we would have only the account of the empty tomb and the fear of the disciples to convince us that Jesus had risen.

And yet we believe. We believe despite the lack of eyewitnesses; the apparent absurdity of the claims and the paucity of the evidence. We believe despite the centuries that separate us from the events themselves. Does that mean that we suspend our reason, that we allow ourselves to pretend that belief or faith requires that we do not need to question or to think, that we can just ignore the difficulties presented by a dead man returning to life?

I don’t think so. We don’t believe without a basis for our belief. Like Thomas we ask questions and we test what we believe and like Thomas, we believe because, we have had an experience of the risen Christ and because we know Jesus’ living presence in our lives.

Over the centuries, for a number of reasons, Thomas has had a lot bad press:.he questioned the experience of the other disciples, Jesus’ asked him to have faith and his lack of confidence in the other disciples led to the expression ‘doubting Thomas’. This has caused many to come to the conclusion that faith requires unquestioning belief in what others tell us. The reality is that for many, doubt and questioning are essential ingredients of faith. Jesus himself was not free from doubt – before he died he wondered if God could do things differently and on the cross he doubted that God was with him.

Doubt need not be an indication that faith is wavering. It can be a sign of faith that is growing into maturity. Questioning, searching often indicates a movement from a faith that is dependent on the word of others to a faith that is based on personal research and experience – a faith that is truly one’s own. Questioning is not only healthy, but as the example of Thomas indicates, it can lead to a deeper understanding – a richer experience than is possible if faith is based on second-hand knowledge or experience.

It is important to note that Jesus does not censure Thomas for his failure to accept the word of the other disciples, nor does he deny Thomas the opportunity to have the same experience that they had. Instead Jesus allows Thomas not only to see, but also to touch and feel – to discover conclusively for himself that what the others said was indeed true. The result is powerful. Thomas falls to his knees declaring: My Lord and my God.”

Thomas should be remembered, not for his lack of faith but for his recognition of Jesus – as Lord, but more importantly as God. In this Thomas is a ground-breaker, a leader – anything but a doubter or a failure.

We do not believe because someone else has told us to. We believe because like Thomas we know Jesus Christ as our Saviour, as our Lord and our God.

 

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


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