How will I respond to the challenges I face living in the betwixt-and-between world of faith to which God beckons us?
The Reverend Dr Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar
Sunday, 8th April 2018 at 11.15 AM
Richard Dawkins, a scientist and prominent critic of religion, claims that faith is ‘one of the world's great evils’: ‘Science’ he writes, ‘is based on verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else would Christians wax critical of doubting Thomas? The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps’, Dawkins proposes, ‘[Thomas] should be the patron saint of scientists.’
It is an interesting thought, but Dawkins’ mischievous sense of humour leads him to create the straw man of an argument for Dawkins misrepresents, or genuinely misunderstands, what the Thomas episode means in the context of John’s gospel. As the post resurrection stories gather momentum, we can detect a theme, that ‘seeing is believing’. What leads Thomas to be singled out is not that he was any different to the other disciples in seeing and then believing. What distinguishes Thomas is what he came to believe as a result of what he saw.
Let’s rewind the chapter, from which our gospel reading is taken. Having been told by Mary Magdalene about the possible ransacking of the tomb, Peter and an unnamed disciple (described, as elsewhere in John’s gospel, as the one whom Jesus loved) both hurry to the burial site. Peter is the first to enter and sees the linen wrappings and the head cloth but no body. When the other disciple steps into the tomb and encounters the same scene, his reaction is different and decisive: ‘he saw and believed’. That is, he was able to grasp the true significance of the empty tomb, perhaps instinctively interpreting what he saw on the basis of both Jewish scriptures and Jesus’ teaching. But the reaction of this unnamed disciple leads us to infer something more: that, at least initially, Peter was of the same mind as Mary Magdalene and that there had to be some natural explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body. Peter saw but did he believe?
Later, on encountering someone she supposes to be a gardener, Mary asks for help in locating the missing body. It is only on hearing the stranger utter her name that she is able to make sense of what she sees. ‘Rabbouni’ for it is Jesus. Afterwards, when she tells the other disciples what had happened to her, she says, ‘I have seen the Lord’ and we are left to presume that she now believes. In which case, what did Mary believe from that sighting.
Those encounters are a prelude to our gospel reading and what was probably the most significant and authoritative appearance of Jesus to his disciples. It took place that first Sunday evening. Jesus finds them cowering behind locked doors but with the reassurance of his peace, he commissions and empowers them with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Critically, Thomas is absent. Later, when he is told by his fellow disciples that they have seen the Lord, Thomas refuses to believe without incontrovertible and tangible evidence: ‘unless I see... I will not believe’. A week later, Jesus appears once again, inviting Thomas to see and to touch the wounds of his crucifixion, and then Jesus challenges him: ‘Do not doubt but believe’. Whether or not Thomas did touch those wounds we do not know. What is striking about this episode is Thomas’ confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God.’ It is this that marks Thomas out from the rest.
In John’s gospel, all the disciples had witnessed the raising of Lazarus so someone back from the dead was hardly a unique event. What distinguishes Thomas is his penetrating insight. He goes far beyond what the others had concluded in seeing the risen Jesus. They had rejoiced that first Sunday evening when they saw the Lord, their rabbi and their teacher, who, like Lazarus, had returned from the dead. However, it is Thomas who makes the profound leap of faith to reach that other shore of reality, recognising in Jesus, the divine God. Thomas’ earth-shattering acknowledgment, that Jesus is the divine God, makes nonsense of those who hear criticism in Jesus’ subsequent words to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’ John, the gospeller, is writing for the early Church and those Christians who had come to faith in the risen Christ despite the absence of incontrovertible and tangible evidence: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Blessed are you who have not seen and yet believe.
There remains, however, more that we might learn from these post-resurrection stories. Thomas was intent on reaching beyond what he saw, towards something un-graspable and as yet unknown. That leads me to recall an exhibition of paintings mounted here in Westminster Abbey some weeks ago. The artist was Joy Hillyer and she called the exhibition ‘liminal’. For those who might be unfamiliar with that word, liminal highlights the importance of transitional or in-between moments which, lying betwixt-and-between, are neither one thing nor the other.
What better way might we describe the experience of those post-resurrection disciples? It was only natural that Mary Magdalene might want to hug Jesus when she recognises her teacher, but Jesus tells her, ‘Do not hold on to me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ In the house where the disciples were gathered, the doors were locked but mysteriously Jesus appears and stands among them. In his risen body, Jesus is betwixt-and-between earth and heaven.
The post-resurrection stories are all about the betwixt-and-between: betwixt-and-between what to the disciples was familiar and what was as yet unknown; betwixt-and-between what had been and what was yet to be; betwixt-and-between the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of Christ; betwixt-and-between his crucifixion on earth and his ascension into heaven.
To be betwixt-and-between is a state in which there are no ready-made answers for nothing is certain. There are no road-maps and no rules. Questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I for?’ may disturb and disconcert, unnerve and unsettle but that is how it was for those disciples negotiating a new reality, a risk-taking reality: the reality of the risen Jesus, now somehow (God knows how!) both Lord and God. In a word, liminality captures a sense of dislocation: belonging yet not belonging or as Jesus put it when he spoke about his disciples, ‘They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world’.
As the baptised people of God, we are called to live lives that are betwixt-and-between not only betwixt-and-between the values of this world and those values which are hallmarks of God’s reign in our lives, but betwixt-and-between faith and doubt. It’s good to remind ourselves that while certainty often closes doors, doubt may deepen faith.
We are called to be a liminal people of God, prepared to live with the ambiguity, the dissonance and the conflict which faith so often entails. Such faith provides no opiate as it dialogues with doubt. In fact, it makes a ‘doubting Thomas’, even Richard Dawkins himself, a welcome companion along ‘The Way’.
The question which, this morning, remains for you and for me is this: how will I respond to the challenges I face living in the betwixt-and-between world of faith to which God beckons us?