Signs of Truth

March 30, 2008

A sermon preached at St. James Austin on the Second Sunday of Easter, 2008.

Lessons for 2nd Sunday in Easter 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be aligned with your love, oh God, our courage, our saving health, and our freedom.

You wouldn’t know it from reading most of the press reports, but the last General Convention of the Episcopal Church actually did talk about some things besides the Bishop of New Hampshire. They approved some changes to our liturgical calendar, and this past Monday we celebrated one of those: we honored the former Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. The Archbishop was gunned down by an assassin in his cathedral shortly after giving a sermon against the anti-humanitarian junta in El Salvador in 1980.

That regime ruled through all of the typical methods of domination—fear, intimidation, and dehumanization: stealing hope from any source it could imagine. Death squads of the government hired thugs to rape, torture, and kill any who opposed their system. The poorest—the peasants of El Salvador—were the most persecuted. By 1980, 3,000 people a month were being killed. Corpses were tossed in shallow graves, and in trash dumps.

But the junta could not imagine the kind of hope that Archbishop Romero brought to life. The Archbishop spoke loudly against the injustices, and worked for nonviolent resistance to the oppression. Shortly before his death, he said, “I do not believe in life without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador… if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty and a sign that hope will soon become a reality.” The Archbishop, of course, knew of a living hope that is imperishable.

Certainly the Archbishop’s personal belief and ability to deepen the belief of the El Salvadorians around him when they were being tested by fire was problematic for the junta. The Archbishop knew that God rejoices in all of us, that we all share in an inheritance that is more precious than gold. It is no surprise, then, that he began receiving death threats.

The day before he died, the Archbishop delivered these words in his final sermon, addressing the soldiers of the junta directly, “Brothers, you come from your own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God… No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

It is that sermon which threatened the junta enough to order the assassination. The Archbishop was killed the next day in his cathedral after delivering a funeral homily. Still standing in his vestments, while preparing to say the Eucharistic Prayer, he was gunned down by a high-precision rifle.

Yes, I realize it isn’t Good Friday, but the season of Easter, and this story sounds on the surface like a crucifixion story rather than a story of hope. But let’s go back to our text for a minute to see where we are. We are here, a week after the death and resurrection of Christ – who is our unfading and living hope, and we have Thomas, a week after the death of Christ working to deal with grief and loss. I imagine Thomas with the other disciples being understandably upset after the death of Jesus. I imagine maybe even more upset when all of his other friends came to him so soon after Jesus’ death – ranting and raving about seeing Jesus again, maybe just when Thomas was starting to let go and grieve.

Thomas gets a bum rap, I think in our culture—”Don’t be such a “Doubting Thomas!” we say if we mean that someone doesn’t trust without seeing it for themselves. I wonder, though, if we aren’t a little unfair to poor Thomas.

Let’s back up a little first, though. As we heard last week, Mary found Jesus at the tomb. Only in this gospel does Mary come upon Jesus alone, just the two of them. Jesus calls her by her name. He asks her not to hold on to him, but instead to go to her brothers and sisters; in so doing he reminds her that his earthly work is finished—her work now is with her family, not with him. This woman becomes the first apostle; the first to be sent.

Contrast that with Jesus’ interaction with Thomas. Thomas specifically asks to touch Jesus. Jesus responds compassionately to meet Thomas’ need and offers to let Thomas touch him. We do not know from the text whether Thomas takes him up on his offer or not, but we know his response, “My Lord and My God!”: Thomas is changed, his faith is deepened.

I have a few seminarian fun-facts for you at this point. First, the gospel of John is filled with signs. For this gospel writer, signs are intended to deepen the belief of those witnessing them (repeat): remember, say the wedding at Cana, where the first sign in John is performed? Here is John 2:11, the summation of that story: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” You can go read John and you’ll find more examples—but the theme of signs deepening belief is a theme in the whole book of John. Thomas is no different – Jesus performs a sign by offering himself; Thomas’ belief is deepened.

The second seminarian fun-fact is this: The word doubt is only used once in the passage, when Jesus says, “Do not doubt but believe.” The word that is translated doubt in our Bibles is the Greek word apistos. We translate the word pistos at the end of the same sentence as believe. “Pistos/Believe”, “apistos/???”: see the connection? Apistos is not doubt: that was a translator decision which is not accurate. We do not have a word for it. King James and a few other versions translate it as “faithless”, but I don’t think that gets it either. Maybe if we said “unbelief” that might be close. The Greek word for what we think of as “doubt” – to waver, or to be uncertain– is a completely different word, “distazo”. It is only used once in the whole New Testament. Of course doubt is part of our human faith—don’t get me wrong, it just doesn’t happen to be the word used here. This word, apistos, means something more like “unbelievable, incredible, miraculous.” It might even describe something for which we want to be true but dare not hope to believe for fear of disappointment. So “Doubting Thomas” does not really doubt at all, but Jesus says something more like, “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.” That says something very different.

We might be able to still use our word “doubt”, but to get what the author of John wanted we might need to frame it in the way we use doubt this way, “I very much want to get better, but I doubt I will;” or “I really want that new job which will change my life, but I doubt they will give it to me;” or “I really want that broken relationship to mend, but I just don’t see how it can”—or any time in our life when we say to ourselves, “things are just not going the right way and they just might be able to get better if only I could find a way out of this, but I just seem to be going in circles and can’t imagine that it will ever change.” It is sometimes difficult for us to fully make use of our imaginations to escape that kind of doubt, to eliminate the self-fulfilling prophecy that we can end up taking part in when we lose hope, when the vision, the dream fades, or slowly drifts away. The people of El Salvador wanted a way out of oppression, but they doubted it could end until Archbishop Romero came along. I think Thomas is stuck in a dark place too—he wants desperately for Jesus to be alive, but he cannot see a way for it to be possible without a human connection to Jesus—the same connection which allowed him to believe in Jesus as the Christ to begin with. Jesus is dead. How wonderful it would be for him to be alive! But he doubts if it can be true.

I almost used the story of Christopher Columbus for my illustration this morning instead of Archbishop Romero. Christopher Columbus had a vision, of course. Christopher Columbus invited others to come with him, to challenge the kind of doubt we usually think of when we think of “Doubting Thomas”, to experience something new, to touch a sense of adventure, of change that was perhaps lacking in the world around him. Imagine facing those around you who believed that the world was flat and inviting them to sail right off towards the ends of it, to see what might be beyond the line of the horizon, to place trust in the unseen.

Ultimately, though, I discarded that idea. The reality of that vision is a choice between something that ultimately turned out to be an empirical-based kind of doubt, not apistos. Because eventually, the truth of the new world became something that was permanent, that was touchable, that was earthly. What was for Christopher Columbus’ time a giant leap of understanding is, for us, a scientific given with no exercise in imagination.

The story of Thomas is not about the reality of the resurrection in those terms. It is not about that kind of doubt, it is not about the historicity of the resurrection, although that may be something we can use Thomas to discuss. It is about something far more important. No, Thomas is not looking for the scientific truth of modernity—he is looking for human connection, for human touch with his lost hope, with his lost teacher, with his lost truth! When it is offered he realizes that the everlasting, imperishable, unfading, Truth is before him in that room. His beloved friend and teacher lives! “My Lord and My God!”

Jesus understood Thomas’ grief, his unbelief at the news that he was alive, and offered himself fully to Thomas. Thomas, seeing not only the risen Christ but yet another offering of Jesus in his availability of touch, yet another sign, yet another witness to the power that is not of this world, saw the wounds that were the reminder of what this world—of what we– do to Truth. And it must have been overwhelming, because even in the full light of those wounds, here was God’s response! Here was God’s answer! We killed him but Jesus was back! Jesus is alive! Jesus was here, not only here, but continuing to make himself available to Thomas! “My Lord and My God!”

Isn’t that a wonderful thing! It doesn’t matter if he touched his wounds! It doesn’t matter if Thomas doubted, or if he was in unbelief. What mattered was that Jesus performed a sign for Thomas, and so revealed himself to Thomas in that moment that Thomas’ belief was strengthened, that Thomas got it, and that Jesus was able to say, “Do you get it now that you’ve seen me? Can you imagine, Thomas, how blessed and special those folks are going to be who are not able to be here to see me?” Those people who are not able to be there are you and me. Jesus is talking about you, and me. This sign is performed so that through the faith of Thomas—through the act of his deepened belief, we might come to believe even more. I can’t call him doubting Thomas for that.

And as we saw with Archbishop Romero, we know that that belief continues. We know that the signs of Christ have no boundary lines. The peasants of El Salvador, once living in unbelief, afraid for their lives, rose up because the Archbishop of San Salvador gave them a sign, they believed because of what they saw. Like Jesus to Mary, the Archbishop told the peasants their work was in the world. Like Jesus to Thomas, he gave them signs that gave them tremendous strength of belief. The junta knew in that final sermon that they would be ruined if their military started to do what the Archbishop proposed: what Thomas asked of Jesus. The Archbishop asked for the soldiers to reach out and touch the people, for humanity to touch humanity, for brother to touch brother, for sister to touch sister, knowing that in such a sign there can be no unbelief, there can be only belief; there can be only, “My Lord and My God!”

250,000 people came to the Archbishop’s funeral, the largest protest in El Salvador’s history. Those peasants did not need a guarantee that they would win in earthly terms but a sign of hope, a sign to affirm their humanity, a guide to bring them back to the path of life.

The Archbishop was able to craft a vision from imagination, from his own signs—he was able to believe in something that couldn’t yet be seen, so that he could then make that vision a reality that those around him could feel and touch. It was a vision crafted from the Gospel, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. has done in the United States and Gandhi in India. But you do not have to be a visionary to find those signs, to resurrect hope.

I suspect that the signs are more present than we might imagine. As we come to this table today to be fed, sister next to sister, brother next to brother; and then as we go forth into the world together, let us pray for our eyes to be opened and our hearts to be receptive to the signs prepared for us in the resurrected Christ of the rich and wonderful everlasting Truth that we may be equipped to walk the path of life.

Thanks be to God.

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