3rd April - Hugh perry
This is the time of the church year that we read from the book of Acts, which is Luke’s sequel to his Gospel and tells the story of the emerging Church. In chapter five we are told that more than ever believers were added to the Lord and the high priest and the Sadducees where filled with jealousy so they arrested the apostles and put them in prison. However during the night an angel let them out of prison and they went back to the temple the next morning and preached again so they arrested them again and brought them to the high priest.
Acts gives us one example of the way the Risen Christ was affecting the early Christian community. They where preaching in the temple, for which they got arrested and when they escaped they went straight back and where arrested again. They then spoke their mind to the high priest. Something had wound them up and they said it was the Risen Christ.
Luke’s account is different to John’s account of the locked room meeting because Luke has Jesus tell his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit. We remember that the Holy Spirit in Luke’s Acts narrative arrives at Pentecost in tongues of fire and they all go rushing out into the street speaking in different languages.
On Easter morning we looked at the meaning of the empty tomb from the perspective of Luke’s Gospel, today we look at events immediately after that moment from the perspective of John’s gospel.
Raymond Brown notes the arrival time of Jesus in the locked room as a connecting point between Luke and John. Both appearances happen late in the day. This, says Brown, shows the use of a common source that he sees as oral tradition. Fellow Catholic scholar Dominic Crossan says that the common source is Mark’s Gospel and the Q source which is common to Matthew and Luke. That is an alternative view rather than disagreement and is the way opinion builds among scholars. Between one and two hundred years ago people were still trying to make one ‘Jesus’ story by combining all the gospel accounts or to discard some gospel stories in order to get a consistent account. Where Brown and Crossan and a good deal of others do agree is that the different Gospels represent the work of different communities in the early Church.
These communities have oral accounts or lists of the sayings of Jesus. As time goes on they have early gospels, it certainly looks clear that Matthew and Luke communities had Mark’s Gospel. That material gave them some history but they also had some Christ experience of their own and that experience of the Risen Christ living in their midst and changing lives affected the way they put their gospel together.
Our Acts reading deals with the Apostles, energised and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel reading looks at events later on Easter day when the disciples are both despondent and fearful of being arrested as Jesus’ co-conspirators.
Our first reading gives us an insight into the early church and our gospel reading begins the journey from frightened disciples to empowered apostles.
With each gospel giving slightly different accounts the challenge as usual is not so much about filtering through the various accounts to try and guess what might ‘really’ have happened but to be challenged by each story and appreciated the individual gospel writers contribution. We must not just listen to ‘what the Spirit is saying to the church’ but what the Spirit is saying to each of us as individuals at this particular time.
The opportunities I had last week to meet with our neighbours and hear the comments about our nearly finished church complex told me that as a particular church we are indeed in a particular time in our history. Through the passages of scripture we read we need to hear what the Spirit is saying to St Albans Uniting.
In his second book Acts Luke tells us that the disciples received the Holy Spirit at the time of the festival of Pentecost. However today’s reading tells us that the Risen Christ breathed the Holy Spirit onto the disciples in a locked room. That and other differences in the gospel texts assure us that different Christians have different spiritual experiences of Christ.
Furthermore the inclusion of Thomas reassures us that doubt is an important reality of the Christian experience. Thomas’ final confession, ‘My Lord and my God,’ (John 20:28) reminds us that a faith commitment after working through doubt can indeed be a strong and lasting commitment. The Thomas tradition asserts he founded a church in India in 52 CE preceding the most common dating of John’s Gospel which is between 90-110 CE and certainly well ahead of the church establishing in Europe.
The date of 52 CE is held very strongly in the community descended from the first Thomas Christians although at present there is no scientific way to prove or disprove that tradition. However ever since the discovery of the monsoon winds by an Alexandrian ship-captain in 45 CE, the land and sea routes were open from the Mediterranean via the Persian Gulf to India. There was intense contact between these areas demonstrated by the Roman coins of the first century CE that are continually being unearthed in southern India.
One suggestion is that Thomas travelled there to preach to the Jews who had moved there. Whatever his initial motives the church that resulted became a self-governing Indian church that was later influenced by Syrian Christians. Furthermore it even rebelled against Roman Catholicism that was imposed under Portuguese Colonialism.
The lesson we need to take from that snippet of very early church history in conjunction with today’s gospel reading is that doubt must not be spurned. Doubt is part of the building a very firm faith that bears fruit. In John chapter fifteen the gospel writer has Jesus say ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.’ (John 15:5)
The history of the Thomas Church gives testimony to Thomas’ missionary fruitfulness and therefore to the strength of a faith that has worked through doubt.
When I was doing my ministry training I commented to one of my younger and theologically conservative fellow students that the more I learned the stronger my faith became. He gave me a strange look which prompted me to say ‘you don’t understand that do you?’ As expected he responded with a bewildered ‘no’. For many people their Christian Faith is something they are certain of. The Bible tells you all you need to know and doubt is considered a sign of disloyalty, even failure.
But if we are certain about everything then it would be called Christian Certainty rather than Christian Faith. Faith is what we have when we lack certainty and religious faith is a journey in which we explore our faith.
The apostles told Thomas of their experience of the Risen Christ but Thomas needed his own experience and that is exactly the position we are all in. We can read the Bible and study church history but it is our own unique spiritual encounters that strengthen our faith. Our faith also grows and strengthens through experiences of Christ working in our lives and the lives of others.
John describes Thomas standing in front of the Risen Christ and I imagine that, whatever the reality of that experience was for Thomas, most of us have not or will not have a similar experience. However history suggests that Thomas was driven to action by that experience. Furthermore as the people he encountered adopted the faith he preached I can imagine that his own faith was enhanced. Thomas would have been continually assured that Christ walked with him in the alien land of South India. Through Thomas’ transformation other lives were transformed and we can all experience that. Christ working in our lives, and though us in the lives of others, is an experience that chips away at our doubts as faith grows and re-expresses itself in the changing times we live.
No doubt mindful of the readings in this Easter season Bishop Spong recently expressed his own doubt on his Facebook page with his usual eloquence.
I call myself ‘a believer in exile.’ Both words are important. I am a believer. God is infinitely real to me even though I cannot define that reality. I am also in exile from the traditional understanding of my religious past. I will never abandon my Christian roots, but I do see Christianity as an evolving force and I want to be part of that evolution.
Thomas knelt before the Risen Christ and cried out ‘My Lord and my God,’(John 20:28) But that was only the beginning as he left Jerusalem and let the Monsoon winds take him through the Persian Gulf to India. His Lord and his God took him across land and sea to mix and mingle with very different people with very different world views. In that mission adventure his faith must have evolved and grown as his understanding drew in and became part of a very different culture. What began as a Jewish reform movement centred around Jesus became, through Thomas, a unique expression of Christianity that was strengthened by Syrian Orthodox Christianity two hundred odd years later. That branch of the church later resisted colonial pressures to absorb it into Catholicism under Portuguese colonialism. The decedents of that very early church even resisted absorption into Anglicanism under British Colonialism. What was begun by doubting Thomas was indeed Christianity as an evolving force A force of faith that began even before Christianity evolved through the Mediterranean, into Rome then on through Europe.
As Bishop Spong pledges his allegiance to an evolving Christianity he points that way for the church, and its people, to move into the future we are encouraged to express our doubts. To be evolving Christians we must allow those doubts to animate our conversations with each other and with our world. In those conversations we must bring together our interconnected world and the insights of our science with our reading of scripture and more than two thousand years of church history and tradition.
Locked in the past with those first apostles we join Thomas in saying ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’. (John 20:25)
Our world makes us exiles from the traditional understanding of our religious past but as we honestly work though our doubts and act in loyalty as Christ to others we will in some way find ourselves in the presence of the Risen Christ.
In Christ’s presence we too will feel the breath of the divine Spirit empowering us and sending us out.
With Thomas we will proclaim ‘My Lord and my God.’(John 20:28)