Unless I See . . .

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 19 April 2009

Today is Low Sunday - the second Sunday in the Easter season. It's also Thomas Sunday - the Thomas who is often called 'doubting' Thomas, but who, for the purposes of this sermon, I shall call 'mystical' Thomas.


As John's gospel records it, a week ago today - that is, that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appears to his friends who were huddled indoors, anxious that the religious leaders who had killed Jesus would also come for them. Jesus turns up in their midst, and proves his identity to them by showing them his wounds from the cross. Then he does something that I believe is key to what happens next for this small group of frightened and grieving disciples, and also key to us as his disciples now. He breathes on them, imparting his spirit to them.


This encounter was a moment of deep personal connection and transformation for the disciples. Twice Jesus says to them 'Peace be with you', which I think has two subtly different meanings. The first time he says it, is when he first appears. It's the first thing he says - a greeting - 'shalom', and I also think he is telling them not to be afraid of him, randomly appearing in their midst. It might be understood as: 'Abundant greetings, it's okay, I'm not a ghost.' The second time, it's like a benediction and a commission. 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' he says, and then he breathes on them saying 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'


This second 'Peace be with you' is, I think, saying 'do not be afraid of anything, I am with you more intimately than you can now understand, and I will always be with you. There is nothing in this life to fear, not even death. Moreover, this gift of my Spirit that I give you is a gift of total peace. You will have presence, authority, and unity with my Father and your Father, the creator of all. Now you can move into this world with a transforming, forgiving love.'


And poor old Thomas isn't there. The disciples say to him 'We have seen the Lord.' They're ecstatic, confident, reconnected with their beloved teacher. And Thomas, quite understandably, says 'well, I haven't. I haven't seen him, and unless I do see him, and see his wounds and see that it is really him, I can't step into this zone you're in.' It's not just that he doubts the other disciples...it's that without having received from Jesus the experience of his personal presence and the gift of Spirit that Jesus gave the others, he simply cannot be where they are. He can't conjure up their enthusiasm for himself. Far better to say it like it is, in the way Thomas does, than to manufacture a delight that he can't truly access for himself.


The beautiful thing about this story, is that Jesus has no intention of leaving Thomas in this position. The story continues. A week after this first appearance - (which is where we're up to today), the disciples are gathered again and this time Thomas is with them. Jesus appears again and without any preamble other than another 'shalom', he says straight to Thomas 'here I am, here are my hands, here is the wound in my side - touch me, verify it for yourself, it is really me.' And Thomas is able to say 'my Lord and my God!'

Jesus honours Thomas' honesty and his need to know it for himself, rather than via hearsay. He gives Thomas the gift of a first-hand, rather than a second-hand faith.


And then Jesus says these words: 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.' I think that this statement was included to encourage those early communities who followed in the way of Jesus after the resurrection appearances stopped.


So here's the crux. We live now in a time where we have to be those who 'have not seen', and yet believe. And yet, this story of Thomas tells us something very true and important about the nature of doubt and faith. Not only that doubt is fine and reasonable as a part of the journey of faith. But that what some, if not most of us, need, in order to truly follow Jesus, is direct personal experience of the risen Jesus.


And the reason I call Thomas 'mystical' Thomas, is that he is a forerunner of all those who say 'I need to see this for myself.' I need to touch Jesus. I need an encounter with the risen Lord. I need him to breathe his spirit into me. And those who have followed most intensely in his footsteps are those that the church has called saints or mystics. People whose spiritual quest is to meet Jesus face to face.


I strongly identify with Thomas. In my early years as a Christian convert I was often paralysed by doubt. I knew that I wanted to participate in this Christian scene, but everything within me was structured not to believe in God the way other people seemed to be able to do. I desperately sought for reasons to believe - proofs, evidence, knock-down arguments that would help me to trust in the Bible, and in the things that the people in my church were saying, despite the fact that so often the logic was poor, or that the people trying to help me were often anti-intellectual and kept asking me to bypass my brain and 'just have faith.'

What I really wanted, below the level of answers, was a visceral kind of emotional certainty, an experience of God that would blast away the doubts. But despite all prayer for various charismatic gifts and baptisms of the Spirit etc, I remained, despite my strong desire, unmoved, and therefore at a deep level, unconvinced. So whenever I got a case of the blahs, or was confronted by a particular stupidity in a Christian speaker or group, I was catapulted out of faith into the desert of total unbelief. It was all rubbish, and what kind of a brainwashed idiot was I to be partaking in it?


Over the years, I have lived my way into Christianity in such a way that I no longer have quite those paralysing moments. I still don't have any visceral emotional certainty. But through experience and practice, by staying with the rhythm of the faith, through thoughtful engagement with a range of theologies, friendship with trustworthy Christians, and through worship that connects with the whole of my life, I have come to choose and keep choosing the Christian path. I am inspired by Christ and the broad story of the Bible, and by the light that I see in the best expressions of Christianity through time.


But it's not enough. Not yet. I can live with it, and I can even identify within it a call to minister in the church. I'm no longer looking for certainty, or proof. I can live with a level of doubt, and quite a lot of not knowing, and not understanding. But I am still Thomas. Not doubting Thomas, not any more. But mystical Thomas. Part of me continues to say 'Unless I see'...not that 'I won't believe' - but that my belief will not be completely transforming in the way that I think faith and discipleship needs ultimately to be.


We are in a crucial time for the future of the Christian church in the West. While our culture is strongly spiritual, there are ever increasing numbers of people who have never been in a Christian church, have had nothing at all to do with Christianity and range from either completely indifferent to outright hostile. Our culture is secular, and the attempts that the church and theologians have made over the years to address that have often made the church secular as well - we deal in therapy to make people feel better and attract them to the church, and promote theologies that undermine the reality of God.


Karl Rahner, a theologian writing in the 20th Century, said something very interesting and possibly quite true about this state of affairs. Because faith is no longer supported and protected by the society at large, he says that "The devout Christian of the future will either be a 'mystic', one who has 'experienced' something, or he [she] will cease to be anything at all."

To be a Christian in our times, is to be a Thomas - let me see Christ for myself. And let him breathe his Spirit into me and speak Peace to me.


As members of the Christian church, we are a minority voice and a minority presence in our environment. If we have anything to show and be that offers wholeness and hope to the culture around us, it needs to be something grounded in genuine intimacy with the mystery of God and the loving spirit of Christ. Anything less than this will not connect with anyone else's spiritual quest, and it will ring hollow. A watertight theology and slick presentation of the gospel will not communicate, nor will actions of activism or compassion that are not sourced in a direct experience of the love of God. And if we are to be changed at the level of depth that will make us credible agents of change in the world around us, we will need more than commitment to a set of ideals and a community of friends to sustain us. We will need to be in communion with Christ and each other at a deep and mystical level, that then issues out into actions of care and responsibility.


This makes sense to me not only sociologically but also theologically. What does it mean that Christ is risen? Well, it means many things. But surely one of the things it means is that Christ is able to be present to us now - that it is possible to meet with and receive from Christ, to encounter him through the companion Spirit that he breathed into his disciples in that room where he first appeared.


So, what does it take to be a mystic in our time, to 'experience' something?


Firstly, I think we need to allow for God's mystery and never fall into the trap of mechanistic thinking - I do x activity and God will respond with x spiritual experience.

Also, I don't think that experience of God necessarily involves anything dramatic or supernatural - although it might. I don't think it needs to come by way of any specific gifts such as speaking in tongues, or visions of Jesus, or by way of intense emotions or physical manifestations - although all these may be the way Christ will meet us.


I think that God is gracious to encounter us in ways that fit our personality and the specific shape of our particular spiritual quest and journey, and our cultural context. And, God is already nearer to us than we can possibly imagine, at the depths of our inner being.



I suspect that mostly, the mysticism that we need is a strengthening of our hearts - our inner vision, our deep centre, the place within us where God dwells, and where we intersect with God and encounter God and commune with God. We need to learn to quieten the clamour of our distractions and busy thoughts, and to pay attention to the still small voice within. We need not only to talk about Jesus, but to practice the presence of Jesus - a presence that is always there, but that we are more or less attuned to as we go through our daily lives. It's not a question of Jesus coming and going in startling ways. The Spirit is always with us, not reliant on our feelings or our circumstances. But our feelings and our circumstances can distract us from discerning that deep indwelling. For me, centering prayer is the practice that I'm attempting, feebly, to develop in order to create this open, receptive space.


When we learn, through discipline and practice, to connect with God in the depths of ourselves, then we also learn to recognise Jesus outside of ourselves - in the people and the events and the ordinariness of life. And it is this recognition that will be our guide as to how we are uniquely called to serve our world, and what actions God is calling us to. When we can see Jesus with the eyes of our hearts, within ourselves, and within the world with all its struggles, we will know how to be as persons, how to be as a community, and how to live truly Christian lives in the midst of the turmoil.


This is the journey I am attempting to walk. With Thomas, I am saying 'Unless I see Jesus, I will not really be a Christian.' I am not asking for visions or ecstatic experiences. I am asking God to help me to remove from my path those obstacles that block my spiritual vision, and to give me a spacious heart to receive the inner knowing and inner presence that is Christ in me, and me in Christ. Because without that, even though I might continue on in all the forms of the Christian religion, in my spirit, I will cease to be anything at all.