Here in the Canterbury pulpit in this beautiful, Anglican, Cathedral, I’m about to say something heretical: You see before you perhaps the one white man, the one English major, certainly the one Episcopalian, who does not love Downton Abbey. My wife Kathy loves Downton Abbey. My friends love Downton Abbey. My colleagues love Downton Abbey. I’ll bet even my dogs love Downton Abbey. To me, watching Downton Abbey is kind of like watching Knot’s Landing except that the cast is dressed in period clothes—well, different period clothes. And the plot turns are incredible. How can we believe that Matthew Crawley was really killed in that third-season-ending car crash? If he could get up out of that wheelchair in the second season, he certainly will be able to walk away from a head-on collision in the fourth. And to tell the truth, I don’t even like Maggie Smith’s scene-stealing zingers all that much.
I don’t like Downton Abbey even though people I love and respect tell me I ought to. When it comes to Downton Abbey, you might call me a doubting Thomas. And Thomas is on my mind because today, the Second Sunday of Easter, is the day we always read John’s Gospel account of Thomas, the apostle who refuses to believe until “I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.”
As one who has been going to church regularly for the past 40 plus years, I have never much liked the sermons I’ve heard on this day. There are two entirely contradictory and unsatisfactory Thomas sermons. I know this because, at various times over the years, I have delivered both.
The first Thomas sermon is the one that essentially beats him up for not having been there. He is the guy who missed the meeting and now wants you to give him a private executive summary of the key takeaways and deliverables. The argument goes: sorry, Thomas: you snooze, you lose. Thomas sermon one attacks him as someone whose refusal to believe seems stubbornly willful, especially since he’s the guy who wasn’t there. The call is to suck it up and deal with what the other apostles tell you. This sermon is favored among the people who call themselves traditionalists.
The second Thomas sermon does not attack Thomas at all. On the contrary, it exalts him as the patron saint of existential doubt. If the first sermon treats Thomas as an absentee loser, the second turns him into a philosophical hero who demands proof—kind of a first century Christopher Hitchens. He’s lauded as an empiricist before his time, an enlightened, humanistic guy who stands in for all those who cannot believe some of the harder things Christianity asks us to swallow: the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection itself. The call here is to admit that most of the stuff we’re asked to accept on faith goes against rationality, science, and modern best practices. This sermon is favored among the people who think of themselves as progressives.
My problem with both types of Thomas sermons is that they usually ask us to make a false choice. I don’t think it’s quite fair to castigate Thomas merely because he doesn’t trust the testimony of his friends. And, try as I might, I don’t admire him all that much for making such a big deal of it, either. So let me tell you what I do think of Thomas. This week, the New Yorker published an evocative memoir (called “The Return”) by the exiled Libyan novelist Hisham Matar. The writer and his family had been in exile since the 1970s when his father had become a leader of the resistance against Gaddafi’s government. In an interview on National Public Radio, Matar was asked why Libyan writers had been rounded up, tortured, executed, and disappeared by Gaddafi, here is what Hisham Matar said:
Dictatorship by its essence is interested in one narrative, [an] intolerant narrative, and writers are interested in a multiplicity of narratives and conflicting empathies and what it would be like to be the other, to imagine what the other is thinking and feeling. And that sort of completely unsettles the dictatorial project. [Hisham Matar, on Morning Edition, NPR 4/28/11]
A mature, open community can live with multiple narratives. This is true for nations and it is true for faiths. Notice that there are, in our Bible, four versions of the Jesus story—one each by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four versions differ greatly in the factual details they present of Jesus’ life and ministry. Over the centuries, some Christians have made a case for settling on one Gospel or making a harmony of them to smooth out the differences, but the church has consistently maintained a preference for keeping all four, despite the discrepancies. We feel we get a truer picture of Jesus by seeing him from four disparate viewpoints than by narrowing our vision down to one.
Seen in this light, Thomas’s Easter night recalcitrance ceases to look like either heroism or stubbornness. It seems to me that Thomas is arguing less for scientific rationalism or for orthodoxy and more for the simple freedom of his own mind. He is asked to believe something only on authority, because the majority tells him to. He refuses. And in refusing he makes a case for something else.
For me, what Thomas makes the case for is God’s invitation to trust our own experience of life and to ground our faith in it. The other ten apostles are asking him to believe what they do simply because they say so. In refusing to believe until he has a ground for his own faith, Thomas is telling us something radically new: he’s telling us that we people have, within ourselves, the grace, the discernment, the agency to reflect theologically on life and to tell our own truth about what God is doing. When Thomas announces that he will build his faith on what he himself knows, he is claiming his own authority, his own agency. Thomas refuses to be a mere consumer of religion. Thomas insists on being an agent, a partner, a voice in his own spiritual life.
Jesus’ resurrection is not a litmus test of faith. It is an invitation into mystery. In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ words to his companions are simple words: “Peace be with you.” “Receive the Holy Spirit.” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He offers them not only a fact but an adventure, the opportunity to go more deeply into mystery, openness, generosity, and hope. One of his companions, Thomas, was not there for the first appearance, but at the second he takes Jesus up on his offer and doing so transforms his life.
God did not raise Jesus so that some people who think one way about it could use their certainty to browbeat others who think about it differently. God raised Jesus so that you and I and God’s world could give ourselves over to a new way of being with each other in the world. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is not to memorize by rote every doctrinal point in the catechism. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is to claim your true identity, as Thomas did, as someone to whom Jesus offers a relationship and a journey.
If the world is big enough to accommodate those who both love and despise Downton Abbey, the church is big enough to hold both traditionalists and progressives, the believers and the doubters. In his new risen life with the Father and with his companions, Jesus calls us to join him in a new, abundant way of living that will transform both us and the world. Only dictatorships insist on a unified narrative. One of the great strengths of our comprehensive, Anglican way of being Christian lies in our openness to multiple points of view.
On this Second Sunday of Easter, Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends you. Learn not just to tolerate but to exult in the multiplicity of narratives that are working themselves out in the pews and in the world all around you. Don’t take any of this on even my say so. And don’t reject it because some blowhard skeptic tells you not to believe in the kind of vengeful God that I don’t believe in, either. Learn, know, and live it for yourself. The story you tell, the song you sing, should be your story and your song and not somebody else’s. Thomas knew that. He acted on his knowledge and became a witness to Jesus and his resurrection. You can know and do that, too. Amen.