Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s on the Second Sunday of Easter

Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

If there was one common consensus this past week
among those many preaching bloggers
who hold forth on the internet
something maybe not that obvious to the rest of us
it is that Thomas maybe be
one of the least understood of Jesus’ inner circle.

Or in the more direct language of one commentator
“he has gotten a bum rap.”

And it is this gospel passage,
these 12 verses from the 20th chapter of John
more than any other,
that are the source of this maligning.

Ironically, many of us unwittingly contributed
to this apostolic maligning
by perpetuating a title not found in the gospels.

We call him Thomas the doubter.
The gospel only calls him Thomas Didymus, Thomas the twin.

What I consider this apostolic misnomer
comes from a superficial reading of today’s gospel.
The abbreviated, albeit somewhat cheeky version
provided by an unnamed friend
goes like this:

After the Crucifixion
the apostles are locked away
in a back room at the local Hyatt express.

To their surprise
Jesus jimmies the lock on the door,
breaks through,
and does the “surprise, I’m back” routine.

Thomas was missing,
apparently out getting pizza
so missed the whole episode.

When he returns, Thomas mockingly does the
“sure … Jesus is back” routine.

To his surprise, however,
Jesus shows up again.
There follows the most famous
finger poking episode in history

after which Thomas does 180 degree turn,
cements his legacy as the apostles who says
Jesus really IS back.

Thomas then goes to India,
becomes a saint.
Nothing more to say
Through Christ our Lord.

This all too common caricature, however,
is not supported by the gospel evidence
because the texts do not give us an image
of Thomas the Doubter,
but Thomas the determined,
Thomas the hardnosed,
Thomas the unscamable.

Thus, earlier in John’s Gospel
when Jesus decides to go into dangerous Bethany
it is Thomas the brave who pipes up,
and insists the disciples go along
even if it means dying with Jesus.

When Jesus is giving his long mystical discourse later on in John
it is Thomas the irrepressible who honestly confesses that he does not know where Jesus is going
and does not know how to find the way
and is determined to get a straight answer out of Jesus.

And on that first Easter eve
when Peter the chicken-hearted & the rest of the apostles
are locked in the back room of the Hyatt,
apparently afraid of their own shadows …
why is Thomas not there?

Who knows, maybe he’s out scowling the streets
looking for Jesus
and figures while he’s out
he might as well pick up some groceries
for his cowering apostolic friends.

When he does come back from his long search
or the grocery store
and hears that the others have seen the Lord …
in his response is he being arrogant or just practical?
He’s seen enough snake oil salesmen and financial pitchmen.
He has no interest in being scammed.
So he basically asks,
to paraphrase a famous commercial: Where’s the beef?
Blessed are you Thomas the unscamable

And of course, when Jesus does appear
the risen one does not rebuke him,
but makes an amazing invitation
to touch the wounded body of Christ,
which provokes the most profound profession of faith
in the gospel of John,
and maybe in the whole of the New Testament:
“my lord and my God”

In this age of skepticism
when the charge of fake news
is flippantly bandied about
Thomas the unscamable raises one of the basic
and enduring question
in religion, in politics and in human relationships:
is he, is she really the one … or do we look for another?

This is a question raised about Jesus
since the time of his own birth
and it is not only a question
that we are already raising
about every potential presidential candidate
who pops up on the screen these days,

but one that haunts those of us who bear his name
as institutional religion is meticulously scrutinized
from inside and out
with believers and non-believers as well asking:
is this church the one?
Is this the real community of faith,
or do we look elsewhere?

The image we get in the 1st reading of Acts
of the idealized community of faith
was an earnest announcement
that tried to convey that Christians .. the followers of Jesus
were the real deal, 100% beef, no filler, they were the one.

But can we say the same thing about ourselves today?
That, of course, is one of the hidden danger of this Easter Gospel
which does not simply question whether
Jesus is to be believed,
but more pointedly asks
if those who bear his name today are to be believed.

I don’t have to remind you
that there is good empirical evidence
that people are fleeing institutional religion at an alarming rate.
Almost a decade ago, a survey by the Pew Forum for Religion
documented that more people have left Roman Catholicism
than any other church in the U.S.
Shockingly, in that report
1 in every 10 US adults was ex Roman Catholic,
more than population of Lutheran, Presbyterian & Episcopal churches combined.
The trend has not changed
The only reason we are still the largest Church in the US
is largely because of so called Hispanic immigrants
and evidence is that we are not doing a very good job
responding to their personal and religious deeds

Now I understand that religion is not simply about numbers
Pope Francis makes that clear
When he reframes “evangelization” in terms of witness
Of building bridges with believers and non-believers
Around issues of justice and human dignity
And calls even atheists in these ventures

“precious allies”

Evangelii Gaudium

But what renders our faith community
Not just a community to join
As so many did just a week ago here and around the world
But a faith community with which to collaborate
In protecting the rights and dignity of all of God’s children?

Maybe a different reading of today’s Gospel
and a reinterpretation of Thomas the doubter
turned Thomas the empathetic
might help.

Those who read the original Greek of the Gospels,
something I hardly can do,
suggest that Thomas’ absence
was not because he was out buying bagels
when Jesus showed up
but actually that he had abandoned
the apostolic circle.

Thus, the text does not so much say
“Thomas was not with them
right at the moment when Jesus first showed up,”

but rather, “Thomas no longer existed with them,”
“He no longer resided with them.”
Maybe he no longer counted himself as one of them.
Is it possible, that the apostolic community
was trying to convince Thomas,
maybe symbolic of others who had let
to return to the fold after the debacle of the crucifixion?
And the unscamable Thomas wants to know why.

What is it about this community
that reveals that they are authentically living Jesus’ spirit?
That “there’ the one”?
And might the answer to those questions have something to do
with that pivotal moment
when Thomas encounters the wounded body of Christ?

Does Thomas the risk taker
give us the ultimate litmus test
for discerning if this body of believers is the authentic one?
Was he asking, “beyond your hospitality and music,
your beautiful worship space, and wonderful decorations
are you willing to touch the wounded body of Christ?
Are we willing to accept the Holy Breath of empathy,
the Sacred Spirit of compassion,
in both a spirit of forgiveness and healing?”
The broken body of Christ is all too apparent today,
be that a festering wound
like the lingering abuse scandal
or the fresh trauma of a Sri Lankan massacre;
the abiding ache of post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech
post-Sandy Hooks, post-Stoneman Douglas grieving;
or the raw lament for Chicago’s most recent shooting victim;
or the victims in a San Diego synagogue.

On this feast of Thomas so called doubter,
transfigured as Thomas the empathetic,
Thomas the wound toucher,
Thomas the Spirit dweller,
we recommit to God’s mission in the crucified
to touch the broken body with reverence and love
As with the poet, we pray

These things did Thomas hold for real:
the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of blood and bone.

His brittle certainties denied
that one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe
and, in believing, still receive
the Christ who held His raw palms out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

This Christ who shows his wounds again
in distant land and new found friend,
whose broken body still appears
amid fresh hatred, greed and fear.

May we who dare to bear his name,
be willing now to do the same
that Thomas did … which must suffice
to touch the wounded side of Christ.

Hymn text by Thomas H. Troeger (1983).

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