Different kinds of faith


A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2010. The lectionary readings are Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29 , Revelation 1:4-8, and John 20:19-31.

One of the great joys of being at All Souls is that I get to see the garden almost every day of the week. I get to watch the changes as the seasons unfold.

Especially at this time of the year, some flowers seem to grow stronger and more vibrant. Some weaken and bend. Some become more fragrant and change in a really beautiful way. Some look tough, because they’re supported by others. Some look weak, but really they’re among the more resilient. Some die altogether, and they’re been removed. But others grow older and expand and become somehow much more mysteriously beautiful.

The flowers are a little bit like faith. Faith is not of one kind. Faith responds differently over time. The Gospels make that very clear, that there are different kinds of faith, different types of faith and different levels of faith.

We could pick up Saint Paul’s meditation on spiritual gifts when he says, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;” and we could add, “And there are varieties of faith, but the same God behind them.”

Some people’s faith depends upon signs. Others believe in Jesus without a sign. Some need miracles. Others don’t. Some have faith that is weak, some strong. Some have shallow faith, some have deep faith. These different kinds of faith can be seen especially when we look at the various reactions to the resurrection. On this second Sunday of Easter, as we continue to reflect on the resurrection and its meaning, we can learn something from the different ways those early disciples came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Mary Magdalene had faith that took her to the tomb and she saw the risen Lord through her tears.

The two disciples were walking to Emmaus. Their faith led them to extend hospitality to a stranger, and they saw the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.

Some of the disciples were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Their faith led them back to work, and they saw the risen Lord in the midst of their work, and when they reached land, he made them breakfast.

Later the disciples seemed to lose faith, and fear took over. They were in a room with locked doors, but even through their fear, the saw the risen Lord.

In the Reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear the fiery faith of Peter before the religious leaders of the day. His faith is so strong enough to break him out of prison and send him right back into the Temple to preach the news of Jesus resurrection.

In the Second reading, from Revelation, there’s the confident and clever faith of John the Divine, whose faith gave strength to the churches who were struggling, and whose faith still gives us hope in the one who is Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come.

And then there is Thomas.

Thomas was a twin. That’s what his name means really. Some have supposed that he may have been the twin brother of Matthew. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when they hear the news their friend Lazarus is dead, it’s Thomas who wants to go with Jesus. Sensing danger and not knowing what’s ahead, Thomas nonetheless has the faith to say, “Let us go with the Lord, so that we may die with him.”

When Jesus is giving his farewell discourse to the disciples, he talks about going down a road and to a place where the disciples will not be able to follow. But it is a place they know. Thomas speaks up and says, “But Lord we don’t know where you’re going.” But Jesus affirms that by knowing him, they know his destination since as Jesus says to them, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Thomas sometimes seems more theologically alert than the other disciples, asking the penetrating question, urging Jesus to explain himself. The early church understood Thomas as the author of another Gospel. There is a collection of sayings called the Acts of Thomas, and there is an apocalypse of Thomas. Tradition has it that Thomas sailed to India and spread the Gospel there. After a long life of preaching and working with the poor, he was martyred in India, but Thomas’s body was taken to Edessa, where his relics were an important source of inspiration to the Syrian Church in the 4th Century. A father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, Thomas continues to inspire.

It was not enough for Thomas to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. It was not enough for him to hear of it from the two who were on the road to Emmaus.

What appears to others like doubt, indecision, even a lack of faith—for Thomas, it was simply HIS faith. It was his way of faith. A way that was willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weight the evidence, and only then, move forward.

Jesus had already appeared to the other disciples. He had breathed on them the very Spirit of God and they were spirit-filled. The shared in the resurrection as it brought them new life and filled them with the very life of God, and began to move them out of the locked room into the world. But Thomas had not been with them. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so, on the eighth day—the day of new creation, the day beyond the seven days of creation, the day of new possibilities and unimagined miracles—Jesus appears again to the disciples.

Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus offers himself—the resurrected body that still bears the wounds, though they are transformed. The Gospel does not tell us whether Thomas actually touched the wounds. There is room for our imagination. In Rembrandt’s great painting of Thomas and Jesus, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Jesus stands showing the wound in his side. The disciples are amazed and look on with wonder, and Thomas stands back in surprise, in shock. It is Caravaggio’s painting that is much more explicit—darker, more intimate, more shocking really, because in it, Thomas actually places his finger in the wound. As in the Gospel of John itself, some believe without signs, some need signs.

St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those whose faith does not come easily, with those whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, maybe even a little cynicism.

Some may have faith like Mary Magdalene, or the two on the road to Emmaus, or the other disciples, but some may struggle. May we all know that there is a place for us in the garden, but especially may those who doubt, remember Thomas. Thomas eventually was brought into the presence of the Risen Christ who took his hand, brought it to his side, and said, “Look, believe and live.”

Christ is risen for the tearful. Christ is risen for the bold. Christ is risen for those who fear. He is risen for those who doubt. He is risen for us all. Alleluia.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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