Text: John 20:19-31 (Thomas doubts the resurrection)
What do we know, and how do we know it? These questions arise from today’s Gospel reading.
Mary Magdalene had come to know Jesus had been raised from the dead when he appeared to her outside an empty tomb on the first Easter morning. A handful of his other friends come to know he has been raised from the dead that same evening after Jesus suddenly appears to them in a locked room.
But Thomas isn’t with them, and he doesn’t believe what the others say. It is only when Jesus appears to Thomas in the same locked room a week later that he comes to believe in the resurrection.
John ends his gospel by saying that he has written it so that we might believe in resurrection not by seeing and touching as with Thomas, but on faith.
Many people think that faith is reserved for stories like Easter. But in fact, we hold nearly all beliefs on faith.
There are a few things of which we have direct knowledge such as the sensations in our bodies and the external evidence of our senses. We also have direct knowledge of family members and friends.
But except in areas where we are specialists, our knowledge of things outside of we can see and hear around us is based on faith. This knowledge is stored in textbooks and encyclopedias, shared in tools like maps and directories, and spread by news media and conversation.
I have never attended a meeting on the new Valley Line LRT, but I trust that it is being built down 66 Street because I have read about in the paper. I have never been to San Jose, but I trust that the Oilers won a hockey game there last night because I watched it on TV.
At a more abstract level, I trust historical facts like the age of the universe — 13.8 billion years — the name of the person who invaded England in 1066 — William the Conqueror — and the disability that afflicted the composer Beethoven — deafness — because they are public knowledge.
Knowledge is a river of words in which we graciously swim. It is the source of most of what we know, and we take most of it on faith.
This is not to say our faith is irrational. We trust the people close to us based on experience over time. We trust much of what is given to us by school, the media, and books because of the practical power it gives us.
Before the modern era, most social knowledge was disseminated by religion. For thousands of years, the world’s temples, churches, and mosques transmitted the wisdom of the ages.
Before 1600 or so, it was reasonable to accept on faith the teachings and traditions of one’s religious tradition. It was the only source people had.
But in the last few centuries, science has emerged as a leading source of knowledge. Scientists use objective methods shared by people of all backgrounds. Their observations, predictions, and discussions help them to take ordinary words and concepts and refine them into reliable theories.
After centuries of investigation, humanity now knows that the sun does not circle the earth. On faith, we accept the conclusion that the sun is a huge ball of hydrogen about 150 million kilometers from the earth and that the earth circles around it. We use the ancient words sun and earth given to us by our ancestors, but science has changed their meanings and our understandings of them.
In this scientific age, our faith in the reports of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospel of John might feel as shaky as our faith in ancient stories that the sun circles the earth.
Happily, we don’t have to accept John’s gospel account on faith to know the truth of death and resurrection. We too can have personal experience of it — although our personal experiences will be more like those of St. Paul than of Thomas.
According to biblical scholars, Paul wrote his letters before the four gospels were written. This might explain why Paul’s biblical letters say little about the life of Jesus. For instance, he never mentions Bethlehem, Nazareth, or Galilee. He never writes about any of the parables or teachings of Jesus.
The only detail about Jesus that Paul’s letters share with the four gospels is death and resurrection. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul writes “I have been crucified with Christ, and it’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20).
Here, Paul is referring not to the crucifixion on Good Friday but to his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus years later. While painful, Paul’s conversion has allowed him to rise above egotism and to enter a gracious space in touch with God’s Spirit of Love.
The accounts of Jesus’ death in the four gospels contradict each other. Nevertheless, they resonate with moments of disillusionment in our lives. In a similar way, the stories of resurrection in the four gospels contradict each other. Nevertheless, they resonate with the joy we experience when our ego dissolves and is replaced by a connection with God in Christ.
Like Thomas, we may not believe in resurrection until we experience it personally. But even though we don’t have a chance to see and touch the body of Jesus, we can still know the Risen Christ. The Risen Christ sometimes graciously appears when our egos dissolve. Sometimes, we also see Christ in the face of friends and neighbours with whom we struggle for justice and love.
Viewing crucifixion and resurrection in this way allows me to keep faith in today’s scientific knowledge while also remaining within the tradition of the church.
Today, scientists say they feel under threat. Yesterday, more than 500 Marches for Science were held around the world. They protested cuts to research, the denial of facts like climate change, and the rise of leaders who reject evidence-based policy. In a time with rising fear of social change, racist leaders are successfully undermining faith in science and in policies that focus on the needs of humanity.
Protests like those that happened yesterday expose agendas that don’t align with our sacred values. They increase our knowledge of what is possible. And even if they don’t achieve success, they help us express our love in joy.
Like Thomas, sometimes we are skeptical of things we hear. Unlike him, we don’t have a chance to confirm the various gospel accounts of resurrection. But like Paul, sometimes we experience painful moments of crucifixion followed by a joyous rebirth of love. These crucifixions and resurrections can create in us an unshakeable faith in God’s Love.
This Easter as we try to maintain our faith against those who spread irrational fear, I pray that we will meet the Risen Christ again in our hearts and in the struggle for love with justice.
May it be so. Amen.