Monday, 8 April 2013

The challenge of Thomas - John 20: 19-31

There are inherent dangers in knowing too much. Once upon a time on reading that gospel passage I would have just preached on it straight. But nowadays of course I know far more than I ever used to about Thomas and the tradition that used him as a kind of standard bearer, and I know that in part, John’s gospel was written to refute the ideas of the followers of Thomas.
I know that Thomas would never have said “My Lord and my God” to Jesus because that is exactly what he didn’t believe, and having those words put into his mouth was a kind of delicious revenge wrought upon him by John, presenting as he did the ideas of catholic orthodoxy.   I know John is more mystical and spiritual that the other gospels because he is playing on the same field as the followers of Thomas and trying to play them at their own game.
So what do you do when you know all those kinds of things? Carry on regardless spouting stuff you know can’t be true – but doing it anyway. Or do you man up and show a bit of integrity?
The church as a whole has become much more infantile over this last century. Parts of it have tried to ignore all the advances in scientific knowledge and understanding of the universe around us. All the massive advances in textual criticism, context and interpretation are routinely ignored. All the discoveries of other interpretations of Jesus by early Christians are also ignored.
We end up wearing blinkers and living and preaching in wilful ignorance of certain truths that have been known for a very long time. In short I think that many clergy are terrified of challenging certain things, terrified of upsetting long cherished beliefs, terrified that they’ll lose their jobs or be subjected to public ridicule like Bishop Jenkins was. There is a real existential dilemma here.
I have always been one for “keeping things real” as people much  younger  than me might say. So I can stand here and say that the gospel incident I just read never happened.  It is not history – it is theology and political polemic. Very clear and insightful theology – the point of which is to refute and undermine the followers of Thomas.
The two sides had very different things to say. The ideas that won the day and were rigourously enforced were a belief in a literal virgin birth and a literal bodily resurrection, that Jesus was God and worthy of worship, that authority was vested in a small male coterie and anyone outside the discipline of this hierarchy was not saved. The problem of the world was sin because we are utterly sinful beings and only belief in a “saviour” would redeem us.
The other side thought that belief in a literal virgin birth and bodily resurrection was ridiculous and called it “the faith of fools”. They saw Jesus as intrinsically no more or less God that you or I – except that he was more transparent to God’s Spirit than most of us – but that actually we all have the potential to be the same as Jesus. In fact, we could be his twin – which in Aramaic is Thomas. Thomas was a nickname that reflected his theological views. His actual real name was Judas – though as the Gnostic gospels are quick to note – “not Iscariot”. For the opponents of the catholics the main problem of the world was not sin as such but ignorance and Jesus brought enlightenment.  Authority and power was not vested in a small hierarchical male elite but was diffuse and rested an whoever manifested the fruits of the Spirit.
So you see knowing too much has its downside. How do you preach about the resurrection in these circumstances? I gave a strong hint in my Easter day sermon when I talked about the Spirit of God being alive and active and working though his children – the church.
You know my favourite gospel that related the truths of the resurrection? It is Mark’s gospel.
Why? Because he says absolutely nothing about it. There are no appearances in Mark. His gospel ends with the words “for they were afraid”. 
Mark says nothing but to me, in that space he says everything.
The embarrassed church fabricated an ending and attached it to Mark’s actual ending because they thought it was incomplete.
Yes , but it was incomplete, but is was incomplete for a reason. Because the next chapter of Mark’s gospel is not to be written in words on a page – the next chapter is written in the lives of his followers. His ending is deliberate.
You, we, are the next chapter of Mark’s gospel. We are the resurrection. What are we going to do with it – how are we going to live it? I know the responsibility is almost too much to bear and as Mark says....for they were afraid........ But we are writing it, so how the story develops  is up to us.


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