Faith & Tradition (Psalm 19; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31)
The Church through the ages has devised several names for this Sunday. Mostly in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is called Thomas Sunday. From this tradition, the Western Church adopted reading the story about Thomas and Jesus from John 20 as the yearly Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter. In the Eastern Church Thomas is not known for his doubting, but for his confession of faith that comes near the end of the story (“My Lord and My God.”) Thomas is also honoured by a tradition that names him as the missionary that took the Gospel to India by the middle of the 1st century.
The Gospel Lesson is really two stories tied together with a transition statement that one week elapsed between the two along with Thomas’ desire to see Jesus for himself. John’s Gospel was written between 60 and 70 years after the Resurrection to a congregation a long way away from where Jesus lived and died. The overwhelming majority of that congregation would have come to faith in Christ long after he was on earth. They never saw him and probably didn’t even know anyone who had. Most of the apostles were dead, which was, you might say, an occupational hazard in those days.
As John reflected on the significance of Jesus for this late first century community of faith, he saw no need to divide events up as neatly as Matthew, Mark and the two-volume work Luke-Acts did, and as has become traditional for us. The way he told the story, Jesus said to Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter, “I am ascending to my Father…” (20:18). It was later on that same day that Jesus came to the terrified disciples here in our story and showed them the wounds that were bold testimonies to the reality of his crucifixion, which, however “resurrected” he was, he still bore. Then he breathed on them and said: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit.” What other gospels compartmentalize into the resurrection, ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, John tells as if it all happened on Easter Day.
Now, as I said earlier, none of John’s congregation were there to witness any of this, so we can, perhaps, understand one reason why he told the story this way. Christians who never saw Jesus in the flesh experience him, not as those first disciples did, but as the risen, ascended Lord who sends the Spirit. John designed this story of the disciples, filled with fear, behind locked doors, to evoke a powerful experience of the risen, ascended Christ in believers in his own late first century community, and Christian communities have continued to read John’s Gospel that way for nearly two millennia.
Now, the way John remembered it, one disciple, Thomas by name, was missing at that encounter with Jesus. And, so, he added a story of how Thomas got up to speed a week later. Most times, when we think about this story, we have been taught to think about Thomas’ demand for seeing before coming to faith in the risen Jesus. We usually call him doubting Thomas. I, rather, think that Thomas was one who refused to substitute the word of others, even of his dear colleagues, for direct experience of the risen Christ. He got it, and uttered one of the earliest Christian confessions: “My Lord and my God” (verse 28). Today, instead of any of that, I want to emphasize Jesus’ response to Thomas’ confession. He said, “Have you come to faith because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to faith.”
The statement of Jesus is a beatitude, which is a saying that begins with the word “Blessed” (Latin, beatus). They are found in the Old Testament, such as in Psalm 1. The beatitudes we know best are those in Matthew 5 that begin “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Here, much later, as John remembers, Jesus pronounced a beatitude on generations to come. In this word of blessedness, he included every successive generation, including ours, who would not see Jesus physically.
Although no Christian since the very first ones have ever seen the physical Jesus the way the eyewitnesses to his life did, the church has gone on, and goes on yet. The church goes on because God has not abandoned us. God has given those of us who have not seen Jesus in the flesh many witnesses, many gifts, to bring us to faith and nurture growth in our faith. I have said before that the Christian word for this witness is tradition, and none of us who live today (in fact no one beyond the first Christian generation) can do without it. We sometimes bad-mouth tradition, as if it’s over against experience, but that is a flawed view, as I hope we’ll see. The word “tradition” occurs in the New Testament as Christian teaching in Paul’s letters of 1 Corinthians and 2 Thessalonians. It, literally, means “that which is handed down or passed on.” It really means everything we know and treasure about our faith and consider worthy of transmission to others.
Our Old Testament Lesson from Psalm 19 talks about such tradition in two ways. In the first six verses it talks about the tradition we “read” as we look at the heavens – the creation of God. The point of these words is that the created order gives praise to God, just by being what it is. By its beauty, its symmetry, in its intricate interconnectedness, it is a “book” in which we may read of the glory and majesty of its Creator. The words it speaks are silent, and so they are ambiguous and we may but we are not forced to see God reflected in the world. I have had many colleagues in the sciences who affirm the beauty and intricacies of the world but claim no faith in God.
So the 19th Psalm also speaks of what it calls Torah (instruction) that revives us, decrees that make the simple wise, precepts that bring joy to our hearts, commandments that enlighten us, and ordinances that correspond to reality. The psalmist is here speaking of God’s other book: the book of the scriptures.
The psalmist goes on to compare the scriptures with the finest gold and richest food. And yet, often, we neither see or hear God in the creation or the scriptures because we are not so attuned. So the last part of the Psalm says that God helps us to understand by warning us and supporting us on the road, as we understand that we do need divine help. With such help our words and or thoughts can be acceptable to God, like the effective sacrifice was in the old system of Israel.
Many Baptists, even if we grudgingly admit that tradition may be useful, start and stop our view of “tradition” with the Bible. Yet, in spite of the wonderful nature of the Old and New Testaments, we must broaden out our view in order to apprehend the tradition by which those of us who haven’t seen as the original disciples did may come to faith and continue to grow in it.
To begin, Christian tradition comes to us through the writings of women and men throughout history who have experienced God in their lives in remarkable ways. But beyond the works of these folks, we may even experience God indirectly in great literature (including drama) when the author is not intentionally speaking of God or the things of faith.
Christian tradition comes to us in the form of hymns, spiritual songs, and instrumental music through which we express our faith through the words of sensitive writers and composers of sacred song. Tradition also comes to us in the other great music of the world in a way analogous to the witness of the creation to its creator in the early part of Psalm 19.
Christian tradition comes to us in form of great works of art that depict moments in the life and teachings of Jesus, and in the Bible and our faith generally. But also, it comes to us as we are moved to an experience of transcendence by other great works of art that do not directly appeal to the Bible or religious themes. Christian tradition comes to us in our repeated times of worship, witnessing, and in sharing in such dramatic enactments as the Lord’s Supper together, or believer’s baptism. All of these things, and others, form a rich heritage of tradition which we may touch and in which we are enriched by God’s presence. All this rich tradition, however, is not just like a library that passively awaits investigation. The tradition operates within a context.
The tradition operates within the context, first, of the witness of God’s own Spirit confirming in our lives that all this is true and able to nurture us. We cannot do without Jesus’ breath upon us and the words, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you, receive Holy Spirit.” Without such powerful and active presence of God, and without involvement the in lives of others (in other words, in mission) we are like a sailboat bereft of wind. We don’t sail, we drift. The last stanza of Psalm 19 reminds us that without God’s help, neither the creation nor the scriptures can be seen or heard aright.
The heritage of tradition also operates within the heart of a living community of faith that forms a context of interpretation for the tradition. We are not left strictly on our own to find our way in matters of faith, for God also gives us one another. I think that one important facet of what we do here within our four walls is to witness to one another by our lives and our words about our tradition. We live out our love together with one another, so that our little ones and others who have not seen yet for themselves may come to faith and be strengthened in and by that love.
The single point I draw from our Epistle Lesson from 1 Peter 1 today is about this very point of enacted, enfleshed faith. This text speaks of the results of the resurrection as birth into a new and living hope. When people are born, of course, they are born into a family. According to 1 Peter 1:8 the community to which Peter was writing was also one that had never seen Jesus in the flesh, as we are. But we can love Jesus anyway, because we have seen Jesus alive in the flesh of others. Life for little ones starts by watching mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, and friends in Christ. And what applies to our kids, applies with changes in detail to each of us. One of the most important things we do for one another is to think about and interpret the tradition (including the Bible and all the rest of it) wisely and intelligently for one another, using all the resources we can. Here teaching and learning is so incredibly important and I wish more of us did it.
If we take it from John that Thomas represents all of us, when Thomas suggested that he wanted his own experience of the living Jesus, rather than depending on hearsay, then his request is also important for us. Thomas had asked to see Jesus and his wounds for himself. A week later, Jesus came to him, and he said, not only “take a look,” but “put your hand there.” “Touch my wounds.” Do you ever think of the risen Jesus, not as the wholly “resurrected one” that can walk through locked doors, but as the one who, though resurrected, still bears the wounds of Golgotha? Kind of wrecks the stereotype of the perfect Jesus doesn’t it? “Touch my wounds, he said.” Really?!
What could he have meant? Maybe this. That even living the resurrection life within a community of faith does not mean that we don’t bear wounds of fresh encounters and scars of old ones. Is Jesus inviting those of us who have not “seen, but yet have faith,” to experience him, through, among other things, “tradition” in the senses we’ve spoken of today? Further, although we can’t touch Jesus’ wounds physically, we can touch the wounds of those in our community and be touched by them, experiencing them, being a part of healing them, and they ours. Perhaps that, too, is a way that we, today, like Thomas, can live out his confession “My Lord and My God,” and grow in faith by touching others in the name of Jesus.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.