People sometimes get frustrated with the Episcopal Church and the fact that our tradition offers a lot of room for interpretation. Especially confused (and sometimes angered) are those coming from other traditions, in which doctrines and beliefs are more clearly defined. I think of some of the standard questions such as:
Do Episcopalians believe in the Real Presence of the Jesus in the Sacrament of Holy Communion? Well–, many do, some don’t, and most probably don’t worry themselves too much about it.
At what age should children be baptized or begin receiving Communion? It varies.
How many Sacraments are there, anyway? Seven or just two? Well, as our Catechism (way in the back of the Book of Common Prayer) puts it, there are “Two great sacraments” (Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist) and there are other “sacramental rites” which include confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction. “Although they are means of grace, they are not necessary for all persons in the same way that Baptism and the Eucharist are” (p. 860).
I know this kind of language drives some people crazy. I also know that it makes our job a lot harder if we’re trying to explain our faith or our tradition. But I’m grateful for the breadth and generosity of our tradition. It means there’s room for me. There’s room for you. There’s room for just about everybody because God understands we come to faith differently. God made us that way.
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 notice where we are on the spectrum of faith and doubt, and we can be encouraged by the different ways the first followers of Jesus came to believe.
Think of those first witnesses and how they responded to Jesus:
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 talked to a stranger. Their faith led them to extend hospitality, and they saw the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.
Some of the other 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, as we hear in today’s Gospel, when some of the disciples seemed to lose faith, they hid out in a locked room and tried to sort things out. But even there—or perhaps especially there in the midst of their fear and worry—the Risen Lord appeared to them, too.
For Thomas the Apostle, it wasn’t enough to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. These stories all sounded like wishing thinking, or people letting their emotions and hopes get the best of them. Thomas needed more.
And while we tend to describe Thomas as having a lack of faith—for Thomas, this simply IS his way of faith. It is a way that takes nothing for granted. It’s a way that is willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weigh the evidence, and only then, move forward. In fact, it’s really Thomas’s DESIRE for faith that moves him forward.
Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus offers himself—the resurrected body still bearing the wounds. The story doesn’t tell us if Thomas actually touches the wounds. There is room for our imagination. Artists through the ages interpret this scene differently. Some show Thomas actually poking his finger in the side of Jesus. Others show a distance between Thomas and Jesus. But that distance is important to remember. It’s the same kind of distance as the one shown between God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It doesn’t represent separation. It represents movement toward the other.
What crosses the distance is desire, what bridges the gap, is God’s desire for us, and our desire for God.
Too often, I think we hide our desire—to desire shows vulnerability, need, and the admission that we’re not complete within ourselves. It’s easier for us (individuals and churches) to show a veneer—doctrines, rules, regulations, barriers, and hurdles. This is why so many people have made a distinction between what they perceive as “religion” (the rules and doctrines that confine and judge) as opposed to “spirituality” (an openness to creativity and curiosity about God.) At our best, the Episcopal way (especially) encourages both a religious practice and a spirituality that grows and changes over time.
Thomas Merton wrote a prayer that points to the space between us and God, the space in which we grow and move towards God. His prayer asks,
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Like with Mary Magdalene, like with Thomas, our desire is enough.
The Luke version of the Passion contains a scene that should always be at the heart of Christianity. One of the criminals who is being crucified with Jesus asks him from the cross, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus tells him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
It really is just that simple. Christ is risen for us all and reveals himself to all who look for him, who hope for him, who desire him.
Christ is risen for the tearful. Christ is risen for the bold. He is risen for the dishonest and lazy, the broken and beyond repair. Christ is risen for those who are afraid, and he is risen for those who doubt. The Lord is risen for us all. Alleluia.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.