Tag Archives: Resurrection

Miscalled

Guercino - Doubting Thomas - WGA10951

Guercino – Doubting Thomas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His name is legendary, Doubting Thomas” – the name-tag we give him. Really, we are being cruel to Thomas. Thomas was a sceptic, but in many ways one of the most heroic of Jesus’ disciples. The first three gospels do not tell us anything about him. John, the writer of the fourth gospel, is different. The first time John introduces us to Thomas is on the occasion when news came to Jesus about the illness of his friend, Lazarus, at his home in Bethany. This was one of the places where pilgrims lodged on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover week. For Jesus to go to Bethany at that particular time was to court trouble. It was a hotbed of hostility to Jesus – he knew it; the disciples knew it. When Jesus told them Lazarus was dead and suggested they should call at the Bethany home en-route for the Holy City and Passover, the disciples were reluctant to let him do it.

From all accounts the disciples went so far as to say, “if he insists on such madness, he can count us out.” But not all of them, not Thomas! His was the voice that rose above the clamour of debate and criticism. “Let us go,” he pleaded, “that we might die with him.” Here is a cameo shot of the real Thomas – the Thomas whom Jesus chose to be a disciple. Thomas, along with his colleagues, may have seen nothing but death at the end of the road that led through Bethany, but Thomas, absolutely loyal, may have been the one who saved the situation that day, persuading his co-disciples not to leave Jesus in the lurch. Thomas has been called “the honest sceptic and the courageous pessimist.” That about sums him up. One thing is sure, it is a great comfort to find Thomas in the pages of the New Testament because there is a bit of Thomas in all of us. I do not understand those Christians who tell me: I” have never known a moment of doubt”. Take a look at Thomas – we may find the way to face our own doubts and pessimism.

Thomas doubted, but Thomas faced his doubts honestly, openly and bravely. In an Upper Room in the closing hours of his life, when he was trying to convince the disciples that the way of the Cross was inevitable, Jesus said, “You know where I am going and the way is known to you.” But it was a bit too much for Thomas. “Lord,” he exclaimed, “we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” You have got to take your hat off to Thomas. He could not live with an unasked question. He was not prepared to allow what he did not understand to pass without grappling with it and he refused to believe what he did not understand. We have got to admire his honesty. Transfer him to present times and we might find Thomas unable to sit in the pew and let the preacher get away with it! Follow in Thomas’ footsteps and note, from his example, that the way to deal with doubts is not to stifle them, but to bring them out into the open – to look at them as through a microscope with Jesus our mentor. “Thomas,” Jesus addressed him, “you may not understand, but you have me: I am the way, the truth, the life.” And there came a day when Thomas did understand. When Thomas was told that the Risen Christ had visited his friends he said “unless I see in the hands of Jesus the mark of the nails and can touch the wound on his side, I will never believe it”. Then Jesus came to Thomas as he had come to those who needed him most in those bewildering and exciting post-resurrection days. And Jesus did exactly as Thomas required. “Here I am,” Jesus said, “Do with me as you wish.” Thomas looked and realised there was no need for this kind of testing. In next to no time, his heart bursting with love and overflowing in devotion, the greatest confession of faith any man or woman can make was on his lips: “My Lord and my God.” (John 20: 20-29)

Who dares call this man “Doubting Thomas”?

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Coping with grief

“Mary stood crying outside the tomb.” The Gospel of John 20.11

Mary Magdalene by Bellini Image credit: Yorck Project

Mary Magdalene by Bellini
Image credit: Yorck Project

Many clergy will not forget the first funeral at which they officiated. I remember mine and how ill-equipped I was to deal with it. Granted I was young and my life story scarcely begun. A young woman was widowed in tragic circumstances. The death of her husband was tragic and unexpected and she was angry; angry at the injustice of it; angry with God. It grieved me to watch her hurting. At the time, I did not appreciate that God allows for our anger. I spent time talking to her, reasoning with her, assuring her of faith’s promise to us when we find ourselves trying to negotiate the journey through “the valley of the shadow”; trying to remember what I was taught in theological college about the pastoral care of my “flock” who were broken-hearted and sorely grieving – to no avail. On reflection she had ample cause to be angry with me.

“The patience of Job” is a saying in vogue more likely by the elderly than any others, many of whom would be surprised that Job is not always as patient as the saying makes him out to be. I hazard a guess; there might be surprise to be informed that the story of Job is to be found in the Old Testament. The story of a man’s desperate cry for relief; a man for whom life had ceased to have meaning. Stricken with physical and mental anguish he could find no reason for his fate. He wishes he were dead. Instead of giving birth to him, he wishes his mother had miscarried or that he had been still-born. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3: 11 -12) Job had friends who, hearing him curse the day he was born and the night of his conception, tried to help him – to comfort him. Job was asking: why is God doing this to me? The friends thought it would help best to explain why God was doing it. That was their mistake. It was also mine! Like Job, my friend was not ready for, or interested in, a theological rationalisation of her dilemma. In those early years of ministry I learned that, to share another’s grief, words are often futile and unnecessary. A quiet, caring presence can be more therapeutic, more of a blessing than a well-intentioned homily.

Among the close friends of Jesus there was more than one Mary. His mother was Mary AND there was the interesting and enigmatic character – Mary Magdalene (Mary Magdala). From a historical point of view the information about Mary Magdalene (as indeed for the other Marys too) is slender. Who was she? What was her background? How did she become the close, intimate friend of Jesus? What role did she have in the disciple group? Interesting questions and equally fascinating suggestions, some of which were listed in a report in the Methodist Recorder of a BBC television documentary focussing on the life of Mary and hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Questions were asked; answers sought. Was she a prostitute? Was she a wealthy widow of independent means? Did she have a mental illness? Did she wash Jesus’ feet with her tears? Which of the speculative answers circulating throughout the centuries are fact rather than fiction, if any? Truth is, we cannot be certain – Mary remains somewhat of a mystery! Once upon a time I was perfectly content to hold to the idea that she was both a one-time prostitute and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Today? I don’t know – it’s a topic about which I keep an open mind. Biblical scholars assure me of one thing about of which I can be certain: to Mary belongs the glory of being the first person to see the Risen Christ.

On the first Easter Morning, Mary goes to the garden and the tomb where Jesus was laid to pay her respects to her Master and Friend. She stands outside the tomb weeping. The tomb – empty! Jesus – absent! The scene preserved in the gospel portrays her as bewildered, distraught, broken-hearted, afraid. The full story of the Resurrection told by the Gospel writers indicates unmistakably how much, and how deeply, she would grieve for him. We are able also, reading between the lines and using our imagination, to monitor Mary coping with her grief. And some minor certainties emerge from Mary’s story. They can help us cope when it is our turn to grieve.

What are they? There is no shame in grief. Questions lead to answers. Doubt can pave the way to faith. Fear is not sin. Tears are allowed. And the major one? Mary Magdalene came to her disciple friends with her glorious news and testimony: “I have seen the Lord” she said. Mary was anxious to have a factual explanation of what happened to Jesus whom she mourned deeply. Mary stood weeping outside at the tomb – there stood with her One who conquered death and turns the night of mourning into the morning of gladness. The Risen, Living Lord, who doesn’t argue or even preach – who says, “PEACE BE WITH YOU.”

Welcome Eastertide

Judy Garland – remember her?  If you are a certain age, you will!  And – the song?  “Put on your Easter bonnet, with all the ribbons on it …. and join the Easter Parade.”   Easter is special in the song; the occasion for a grand parade.  Join the crowd, follow the band, dress up with your Easter Bonnet and all the ribbons on it.  But that was a film made in Hollywood!  When do you see women in hats with ribbons these days?  Or, for that matter, without ribbons?  At a wedding – maybe – but at Easter!  Well, hat or no hat, Easter is a happy festival occasion, a time for celebration in Church.  A time for ”euphonium, trombone and big bass drum”.  Although I didn’t always appreciate it when I was rudely aroused from my slumbers at 7 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning; woken by the Findochty Salvation Army band parading past my bedroom window, flag a-flying, big drum beating, heralding the event, proclaiming the good news,” Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia!”

The Way of the Cross at SunsetSource: Wikimedia Commons

The Way of the Cross at Sunset
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fred Pratt Green, the Methodist 20th Century hymn-writer gives his hymn, ‘This joyful Eastertide’  the refrain: Come, share our Easter joy, That death could not imprison,  Nor any power destroy, Our Lord who is arisen.’  But it wasn’t much like that at the dawn of the first Easter morning.  When news of the Resurrection broke, we can only imagine the anger and consternation it must have caused those who engineered the events of Good Friday. Even the close friends of Jesus were disturbed and perturbed by it.  Their response to the news that Christ was risen was slow, almost reluctant.  The women who visited the tomb were distressed, terrified, completely at a loss.  Mary was in tears.  There were many bizarre ways to explain the disappearance of a dead body – resurrection the least likely.  Thomas, the disciple, was not with his friends when the Risen Jesus was with them.  When given the news, it was all too fantastic for words – to be taken with a pinch of salt.  Later still, the Apostle Paul doing a stint of open-air preaching on Mars Hill in Athens must have been disappointed if he expected a rapturous reception.  The crowd listened respectfully at first – until he mentioned the resurrection, then a section of his hearers began to mock him.  Paul also found it difficult to convince the Church of the mystery and glory of the resurrection.  But, preach it he must; he is convinced that, “ If Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe.”  (strong stuff! 1 Corinthians, 15.14)

Good News BiblePaul, anxious to communicate and share the joy and assurance of Easter, acknowledging the need of some further explanation, writes in his correspondence with the church at Colossae – if you think of your baptism you will begin to understand the significance of resurrection and penetrate its mystery. ( Colossians 2.12; cf also Romans 6.4.)  In Paul’s day baptism would probably be mostly by total immersion in water The candidate would step into the water, probably a river and an Apostle (or some other) would plunge the convert completely under the water. In fact ‘to baptise’ is the translation of a Greek word meaning ‘to plunge.’  Paul’s linking of baptism with resurrection is simply that, apart from it being the rite of admission to the church, baptism was symbolically like dying and rising again. To be plunged under water was like being buried In the grave; when you rose out of the water – like rising from the grave.

What Paul is saying directs us to the very heart of the Easter message; when we are baptised we die with Christ and we are raised to new life with Him!  We are not meant to take it literally – we cannot go back in time or go through the awful pain and agony of crucifixion or put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ friends standing at the entrance to an empty tomb that first Easter morning. One more thing that ties the two together – baptism and resurrection:  in the first days of Christendom baptism was usually associated with a personal confession of faith.  Interesting as it may be to speculate, to debate, to posses a shelf full of theological tomes, the Easter message is to be believed rather than talked about.   Easter faith is not the preserve of one day in the year only, it is the faith in which Christians daily live. We are the Easter people.  Let us rejoice as Fred Pratt Green’s hymn  invites . . . . . . . . .  share our Easter joy!

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome Eastertide
Source: Wikimedia Commons