Text: John 20:19-31
There is a dominant narrative when it comes to the declining membership of the church: our society is increasingly secular and young people are no longer interested in organized religions. I remember a heavy silence in the Canadian church history classroom at Vancouver School of Theology when the professor asked for any insight as to how the church should respond to secularism in Canada. I could feel a sense of lamentation in the room. One Presbyterian student expressed her concern, about how the public school policy reflected secularism by banning religious activities such as saying the Lord’s Prayer or singing Christmas carols.
Ever since I started working in the united church almost 13 years ago, I have seen different reactions to the post-Christendom era. They are very similar to the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I can only imagine the heartbreaking situation. Losing a beloved place of worship indeed feels like losing a loved one. I don’t deny the changing religious demographic or the foreseeable outcome. One third of Canada’s churches and other places of worship could vanish from the landscape, according to one estimate by a national heritage group. That is, losing 9000 churches across Canada in the next decade. However, I doubt the dominant narrative. I don’t think it tells the whole truth.
I have also seen glimpses of a thriving and vibrant church when the church, not as an institution but as a gathered group of people, want to live out their faith. I believe that the world hungers, more than ever before, for the best expressions of the church – the outpouring love and compassion that can dissolve all the existing human boundaries.
What has become clear through many mistakes and sins the church has made throughout its history is that nothing can stand in the way of the transforming power of the Spirit. Everything else is secondary – our dogma, credo, policy, our way of doing the church – except the love of God. That’s what Paul meant in the love chapter; love never ends but everything else will come to an end. So, opportunities are everywhere and endless when the church knows how to become a vessel of the unconditional love. Thomas in today’s story shows us how.
Thomas, more known as the doubting one, is actually a seeker. What he asks for is no more than what the other disciples have already experienced. Prior to today’s passage, there is Mary’s announcement, “I have seen the Lord.” But they did not believe Mary. So, the doors of the house where the disciples have met are locked out of fear. We can say that they can only come to believe through their own firsthand experiences. In fact, none of the disciples comes to believe just by hearing. Unlike the other disciples who play a somewhat passive role in encountering the risen Christ, Thomas initiates his encounter by sharing his yearning. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Nowhere else in the Bible can I find more honest, clearer, and more audacious desire to experience God.
Every once in a while, people, who didn’t grow up in the church, or who stopped going to church for a long time, do come and visit us. They are diverse in terms of their backgrounds – the cultural or religious upbringing, language, race, gender. What they have in common is their yearning to experience God. They are looking for authentic Christian experiences. In the email exchange with a woman from another country, she plainly said to me, “I want to know your God.” The question got me thinking and digging into the God I really believed in. Not all of them chose to stay but none of them left without teaching me something; we are all spiritual beings; everyone is doing spiritual work whether they realize it or not, or whether the spiritual work has an ecclesiastical or religious label on it or not.
I have heard the same yearning within the church. None of us can have faith just by hearing what others have experienced. You must cherish what you’ve experienced firsthand. I remember how my son, Peace, voluntarily washed my feet in the most solemn manner I’ve ever seen. It was during a Maundy Thursday service where people were invited to participate in different prayer stations including the foot washing station. Getting his feet washed by somebody was not enough for the seven year old boy. He wanted to experience washing other’s feet, being involved with his body, mind and heart. So the person who was serving at the station called me to sit on the chair so I could receive what Peace had to offer.
Thomas represents those of us, within the church or outside, who are still seeking meaning through authentic experiences, despite questions, doubt, unbelief, confusion or uncertainty. The good news is that the resurrected Christ comes and visits Thomas where he is, granting what he’s asking for. “My Lord and my God!” is the answer. The resurrection has now become the experience of Thomas.
Like Thomas, we can experience the resurrection where we are even in the midst of our doubt, sorrow or struggle. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” The risen Christ invites us to a tangible kind of religion, a religion that makes touching human pain and suffering the way into compassion and understanding – being changed by experiencing someone else’s pain and suffering. Like Thomas, we can have the first-hand experience – how someone could be wounded and also resurrected at the same time. Yes, we are indeed wounded and resurrected at the same time. Yes, we can live as the wounded and resurrected body of Christ in the world.