7 April 2013
Second Sunday of Easter
Easter 2C (RCL)
The Emperor Domitian came to the throne of Empire in the year 81. Suetonius records that he was the first emperor to demand being called dominus et deus, Lord and God. Translating that phrase into Greek yields ho kyrios kai ho theos, exactly the words on Thomas’ lips when he has touched the wounds of Christ. Thomas, at the end of John’s Gospel, recognizes Jesus as the true emperor.
The gnostics (if there were such – at least those of a docetic variety) claimed that Christ only appeared to suffer. This allowed the gnostics to claim that what happened in this weary world of woeful physicality did not matter (pun intended) to our true spiritual identity. Therefore, a gnostic could cross his or her fingers behind the back and offer incense to the emperor, and not see any conflict with Christianity. Paul struggled with gnostics, who wanted to leave this world of flesh and enter the world of spirit. Paul’s extended argument that there is indeed a resurrection of the body is an argument against gnostics, who wanted to leave the body.
As a consequence, gnostics could proclaim a triumphant Christianity which had already conquered this world of flesh, in which the wounds of the flesh had no reality. This allowed them to downplay the embodied nature of the eucharist (it became a spiritual exercise, rather than the body and blood of Christ). It also allowed them (as Pagels has argued) to have access to Jesus without the body of the Church, without the authority of the bishops.
American Protestantism often tends toward gnosticism. We devalue this created world as unimportant in the divine plan of salvation and seek escape to the spiritual realm. This allows us to misuse this creation in frightening ways. It also encourages us to devalue our bodies and their wounds. Often we come to church in our “Sunday best,” pretending nothing is wrong: never mind that some have been laid off, are in the midst of divorce, are dealing with aging parents, whatever — we hide these from one another.
Thomas, who was not present with the disciples on that first Easter, is often seen as the apostle of the gnostics (the Gospel of Thomas is considered to be a gnostic gospel). When he is told by the disciples that they have seen Jesus, he refuses to believe (doubt is a wrong translation), until he touches the wounds of Christ. Don’t show me a perfect Christ, don’t show me a church without its problems, he seems to say. Unless I touch the wounds, I refuse to believe.
In our circumstance, Thomas would say, don’t show me a bunch of people without their problems. Don’t show me your perfect “Sunday best.” Show me reality. Show me embodied faith. Show me a Jesus who is with the unemployed, the divorcing, the out of sorts. Our televangelist protestantism says that if we tithe, God will reward us. And if it doesn’t happen, our lack of faith is to blame. But tell that to the unemployed. Thomas refuses to believe in such a Christ. This is not doubt, but insistence on the truth.
When Jesus does appear, he invites Thomas to touch the wounds, now divinized. And Thomas declares dominus et deus! Words, addressed to Jesus rather than Domitian, that would certainly have gotten him killed for his faith. Once he has seen a Christ in this real flesh, he is willing to be part of that body, even at that risk. No crossing his fingers behind his back, claiming this flesh does not matter. Do not be untrusty, but trusty, Jesus encourages him. Again, no mention of doubt, but of trustiness, of dependability. We come closer to the divinity of Christ in our own woundedness, when those wounds have been transformed, than in any pretense of triumphalism.