Category: News

Keep up to date on our latest news.

The Scandal of God’s Grace

Posted by on Sunday, May 15th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/K5Wkx5yBozI
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, 15 May, 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

In 1985 there was a movie that swept the awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It won eight Oscars including best picture, best director, best actor and best writer. So, I am pretty sure that you have heard of this movie. And I wanted to remind you of it today because I think that it contains a perfect illustration of the scandal behind our reading this morning from the Book of Acts.

Beloved of God

In fact, the film zeroes in on the central dispute of our reading so perfectly that it is right there in the title. The movie was called, in case you haven’t guessed yet, Amadeus. Amadeus is a Latin word that means beloved of God. And the scandalous nature of the love of God is at the centre of the story. The titular character is, of course, none other than the great composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but the main character in the story is the Italian composer, Antonio Salieri. The plot centres around a kind of obsession.

Salieri is jealous of Mozart because of his musical genius. But it’s about more than jealousy. Salieri is angry at Mozart for being so talented, but he is actually even more angry at God. At one point he declares this, speaking directly to Jesus in the form of a crucifix on the wall: “From now on, we are enemies – you and I. Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you, I swear it. I will hinder (and remember that word, hinder) I will hinder and harm your creature as far as I am able. I will ruin your incarnation.”

Salieri’s Complaint

He recognizes, and I believe he recognizes correctly, that there is divine inspiration behind what Mozart is able to produce. It is a gift of God. But he is scandalized that God should give such a gift to a person like Mozart. He doesn’t work hard to produce it because he doesn’t need to. But, even worse, he does not live a virtuous life as Salieri defines virtue. He is licentious, vulgar and silly. Meanwhile, Salieri has worked and works so hard and lives a life of extreme piety and virtue, and yet the only music that he can produce reeks of mediocrity.

Salieri finds the very idea that God could give such good things to a person so unworthy so objectionable that it drives him to do awful things. It drives him to theft, corruption, attempted murder and ultimately to madness. Now, I think I ought to say in defense of Salieri that the film, though based on historical characters, is mostly fictional. The two composers seem to have actually had a pretty good relationship. But at the same time, there is something that is fundamentally true about the story of the film. There really is something very objectionable about the love of God and the gifts that it gives, something that we need to come to terms with.

Peter Visits the Wrong People

In our reading this morning, the Apostle Peter gets into a lot of trouble with the leaders of the church over this very issue. He has just come back from a visit to the home of a man named Cornelius where he ate and drank with the household, preached the gospel to them and shared with them the gift of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. When he returns, however, the people in the Church of Jerusalem are very upset with him. The thing that bothers them is not that he has been preaching the gospel or sharing the love of God or even the gift of the Spirit. This is exactly what the church has been doing ever since the beginning and Peter has done no differently.

No, the only thing that is wrong about what Peter has done is who he did it for. He did it for people who everyone in the Jerusalem church agrees are just the wrong kind of people. They eat the wrong kind of food. They don’t follow the right laws. They’re not even circumcised! They just don’t deserve hearing the good news and they certainly do not belong in the community of the church.

A Personal Question

And I know that we often think of this as a one-time, very special controversy in the life of the early church. It was this important question about whether Gentiles and people who did not follow the Jewish law could have a place in the church. But, as this particular story makes very clear, at the level where this actually touched and affected people’s lives, this was not a theological question. This was a very personal question. It was all about God’s love and grace being lavished on a group of people who simply did not deserve it because of who they were and how they lived their lives. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were upset with God for the very same reason that Salieri was upset concerning Mozart. God was just loving the wrong sort of people.

And, given that this is a controversy that arises again and again throughout the history of the church, I think it is worth taking a good look at how Simon Peter responds to the objections of the church in Jerusalem. He responds to them by telling the story. He tells the story that illustrates that God, despite their limited understanding of what God can do, has clearly decided to love these people anyways by giving to them one of God’s greatest gifts, the gift of the Spirit. And then he ends his story with a statement that I believe should be engraved upon the heart of every believer, should be posted as a sign upon every one of our churches. He says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Who is Peter?

Think of that. Here we have the man who is generally thought to be the first great leader of the church, the one that Jesus called The Rock and perhaps the man who knew Jesus best, and yet he is saying, “who am I to hinder God?” And, given the context, what he is especially saying is, “Who am I to hinder God giving God’s love, gifts or grace to anyone?” And yet I see all the time people who seem to believe that they are exactly the kind of people who can hinder God in that way. That’s why I think that we need to learn, with Peter, to ask ourselves that question: who am I to hinder?

How we Hinder

I do believe that that kind of hindering happens all the time in the church. You know, every time we look at somebody who comes into contact with the church and we decide that they don’t really belong and so don’t make them feel particularly welcome, we are hindering God doing God’s work in their life. If you decide that somebody isn’t dressed well enough and communicate that to them even in a subtle way, are you not hindering them from being recipients of the grace and gifts that God is giving through the church? And it’s the same if you decide that based on race, on class or wealth or age or orientation or gender identity or whatever other criterion you can come up with.

I’m not saying that we do it intentionally, because sometimes we’re often not aware of the subtle ways in which we make people feel like they do not belong. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not taking their ideas or opinions seriously. Sometimes it’s not even considering including them in our little circle of friends. But, make no mistake, we all do it sometimes. And we need to ask, who am I to hinder what God wants to do in their life through the church?

Other Ways of Excluding

But do not only think of this in terms of the kind of grace that usually comes to mind in the life of the church. This is something that we do in many other circumstances as well. How often do we write somebody off – do not consider them for a job, or we write off their thoughts and ideas or any potential contribution they could make – for reasons that simply do not matter? You just never know what God might have in mind to do for that person or through that person and yet because of some prejudgment on your part you can hinder that from happening.

Who Can be Saved?

This also applies to our talk and thought about salvation. Christians have a long history of having a very narrow understanding of who is worthy of being saved by God. We confess, of course, that salvation is by grace through faith, but we often have a very narrow understanding of what that faith has to look like.

In particular, we expect it to look like the faith that we have professed. So, if someone believes differently or puts more emphasis on how they live out their faith than on believing all the same things that we believe, we might easily come to the conclusion that they are not worthy of being saved. I don’t think we realize how, when we do that, what we are really doing is putting limits on the love of God. We are deciding that we are the ones who can hinder what God wants to do in people’s lives.

Who Does it Hurt?

When, in the movie at least, Salieri decides to hinder God’s decision to be gracious to someone that he did not think deserved it, he did not hurt God. The message of the movie, in the end, is that he really only hurt himself – ultimately driving himself to madness. And that is the true tragedy that comes when we seek to hinder the grace of God from being shown in somebody else’s life. We will not stop God from being gracious. Thank heavens that we do not have that power. We will only hurt ourselves. For know this above all, God loves those who love amadeus, who loves those who, however unworthy in our eyes, are beloved of God. And, what's more, I honestly believe that the more we embrace this truth, the more that we will understand for ourselves how truly beloved we are to God.

Continue reading »

Why pray?

Posted by on Sunday, May 8th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/dOVDb5-54Lk
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, 8 May 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

Our Bible story from the Book of Acts this morning is really a very uplifting story, isn’t it? We have this woman, Dorcas, and she is a simply wonderful woman. Everybody loves her. She makes all of her friends these beautiful clothes that they treasure. And yes, she gets sick and dies and that is so very sad. But then Simon Peter shows up, he prays and he raises her from the dead and basically everyone lives happily ever after. It is just so beautiful. It reminds us of the power of the resurrection of Jesus to renew our own lives and to give us the hope for a life beyond this one.

A Few Questions

So, it is absolutely a feel-good story. And yet, at the same time, it is also the kind of story that, when you look at it closely, is going to make you ask a few questions. We’ve talked about prayer, and it certainly makes you ask a few questions about prayer.

Questions like, what if Simon Peter hadn’t been in a nearby town so they could ask him to come and pray for her? Would God have just left her dead simply because there wasn’t a good enough prayer around? And what about all of the other really nice women who made beautiful clothes that didn’t have Peter to pray for them? Why wouldn’t God care enough to raise those women?

And then there is an even more delicate question about prayer in general. Why is it necessary? I mean, apparently God had already decided that he was going to raise Dorcas. The story ends by telling us, This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

Why Would Prayer Change Anything?

That seems to be the point of it. God wants the message to spread and raising somebody from the dead is definitely a public relations coup! So, if God had already decided to do it, why did he need Peter to ask? And if God didn’t want to do it, why should the almighty Creator of the universe be persuaded to change plans just because this one guy asked God to do it?

In short, the question is, why pray for these things? If God already knows what we want, then why do we need to ask? If God is really in charge, why should we think that God might change course on something just because we ask? These are all really good questions, and they deserve answers.

Transactional Prayer

The root problem, I think, is this. We just don’t understand prayer the way that God does. We tend to think of it, like we do most things, as a transaction. You go into the candy store, you slam down your toonie down on the counter and the cashier gives you a box of Reece’s Pieces®. That’s a transaction. And we think of prayer that way – we do an act of devotion for God, or we ask in just the right way in just the right words, and God gives us the thing that we want in return.

Based on a Certain View of God

The biggest problem with that way of thinking about prayer is the picture of God it is based on. It presumes that God is somewhere “out there,” and that prayer is the post office or the email server that we can use to contact God in that distant place. But here is the thing, God is not “out there.” God is certainly not just up there in the sky looking down. If God is truly God, then God is right here. God is right beside you, perhaps closer than anyone has ever been. Come to think of it, if God is God, then God must be in some sense already within you.

So, of course, when you think to pray and ask for something, God already knows that you need it. God is a part of that need. When you worry and pray for someone who is sick or in danger, God already feels your sorrow, anxiety and fear for that person. Prayer is not a transaction, it is participation. It is God participating in what you need or in what you are feeling. It is you participating with God in the ongoing work of creation.

A Master Dancer Seeking a Partner

On one level, yes, I would affirm that God does not need us to pray in order for God to do whatever needs to be done. But, on another level, I would say that God acting without us entering into that conversation of prayer would be kind of like a master dancer who was able to do all of the steps absolutely perfectly and flawlessly. But the problem with that is that the best Tango dancer in the world cannot dance the Tango without a partner.

God wants you to be that partner. It’s not because you have to say the right thing or do it in the right way. It’s not even because you know all of the steps of the dance. God wants a partner. God wants to give you the privilege of being part of the dance.

Or think of prayer as a song. When you pray, you get to put your concerns into words, however imperfectly, so that God can take up your melody and sing the perfect harmony. That’s what prayer is, not a transaction. It’s a dance, it’s a song, it is an exercise in making that eternal connection between the human and divine perceptible, even if only for a moment. So, yes, let us pray!

Continue reading »

Can People Really Change?

Posted by on Sunday, May 1st, 2022 in News

https://youtu.be/aKRRiDwTZRw
Watch Sermon video

Hespeler, May 1, 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

I would like to begin by saying that I am very much on Ananias’ side in our reading from the Book of Acts this morning. Ananias receives a vision in which Jesus himself appears to him with some very specific instructions: “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

It is a wonderful thing, of course, to be on the receiving end of such a vision, but Ananias hesitates. “But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’” And I just want to pause here and affirm just how very wise Ananias is to hesitate here.

Hesitation is Good

Ananias is completely right (and the Lord does not contradict him) that Saul has been an extremely violent, abusive and angry individual. His mistreatment of the followers of Christ has been so egregious that the reports of it have spread far and wide. He is feared in Damascus because of things he has done almost 300 kilometers away. The point that Ananias is making is that abusive and violent people don’t just change and I feel that I need to underline the simple fact that he has a point. At the very least, we need to be very skeptical when they profess that they have.  

A Common Pattern

For example, anyone who has ever experienced domestic abuse (or has counselled people who have) would definitely be with Ananias at this point. There is a familiar pattern that emerges in many cases of domestic abuse. The abuser (often but certainly not always a man) has a tendency when frustrated, thwarted, intoxicated or otherwise affected to lash out with verbal or physical violence. The victim may tolerate a certain level of this abuse – not because they should, of course, but because it is just human to want to maintain an important and meaningful relationship.

But the abuser will eventually go too far – will do something that scandalizes even themselves or that threatens to expose them for who they are because of the visible damage that they have done. At this point, the abuser will often have an intensely powerful experience of repentance. They will express intense sorrow and regret. They will, above all, loudly proclaim that they have changed, that they have learned their lesson and they will never behave so abominably again. At this point the victim may well forgive them because, as I say, people often feel that they have to maintain the relationship at all costs.

A Honeymoon and the Disappointment

What then follows is a period of time that might be called a honeymoon. Oh, the abuser becomes extremely respectful and caring towards the victim. It is the best of times. But here is the problem, when that is the pattern, the honeymoon never lasts. Sooner or later, something triggers the abuser and the whole cycle begins all over again.

So, if you have ever experienced abuse or you love someone who has, you can certainly be forgiven for being dubious when abusers proclaim that this time is different, that this time they have changed. In fact, by the time most victims finally get to the place where they choose to save themselves and the other people they love by escaping, they have been through that cycle so many times that it’s quite understandable that they then have a very hard time trusting anybody who says that change is even possible.

Also in Race and Group Relations

And I would also note that this is something that we see, not only in personal relationships, but in relationships between groups. How many times have we seen incidents of racial violence against minority groups where the majority were so appalled that they made these incredible promises that everything was going to change, and how many times have those promises been broken?

This is something that seems particularly poignant in Canada in the wake of finding so many secret burial sites at residential schools. Do you remember the promises that were made in the wake of that scandal? Do you remember the pledges that have been made about nation-to-nation relations, on ratifying the terms of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of getting potable water in Indigenous communities? How many times have we said that this time it is going to be different? Every time we do that then don’t really follow through, it just becomes harder for anyone to believe it.

And Yet Change is Possible

So, yes, Ananias raises a very important issue in the midst of his vision of the Lord Jesus. But, as much as I appreciate him raising it, I do not want to fall into complete cynicism. Yes, people who have been abused or endangered by others are understandably reluctant to believe that people can really change. And yet, it is important to say that it is not impossible. People do change.

Saul, who came to be known as the Apostle Paul, certainly did change. He changed radically. And if we are not going to give up belief in humanity altogether, we need to believe that he is not the only one in the history of the world to do so. So how do we know when change is really possible? And how can we tell when an abusive person is just starting the old cycle of abuse all over again? Maybe that is the question that Ananias is really asking.

A Focus on Intense Experience

When people try to convince us that they have really changed, what do they tell us? They usually try to persuade us by speaking about the intensity of their regret or sorrow. They talk about how deeply it affected them when they realized what they had done was wrong. Can’t you just see an abusive domestic partner beating their breast and proclaiming their depth of feelings? Or remember how deeply we all felt our regret about the discovered residential school remains? Why we flew our flags at half mast for months so badly did we feel it!

But are such powerful experiences and expressions of deep emotion truly a sign that great change is coming? Well, certainly the experience that Saul had on the road to Damascus was powerful and emotional. It was powerful enough to knock Saul off of his horse, affecting enough to strike him blind. But there is a strange thing that I noticed.

How the Lord Convinces Ananias

When, in the midst of his vision, Ananias asks for something that will convince him that Saul could have changed, the Lord does not refer to any of that. The Lord does not say, “Don’t worry, Ananias, of course Saul has changed completely because I totally blew him away with my special effects budget.” Nor does he say, “You’ve got to understand that Saul feels really, really sorry for everything he did in the past.” Those are the kinds of things that serial abusers appeal to in order to prove they’ve changed and, as I said, it doesn’t actually inspire that confidence that we think it does.

So, what assurance does Ananias actually receive? “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’” So what is it that God thinks should convince Ananias that Saul really has changed? Not his powerful experience, not how sorry he feels, only one thing – the fact that God has given Saul a job to do.

A Sense of Purpose

You see, when God truly wants to bring about change in somebody’s life, that is how God works. What God does is offer people a sense of purpose; God gives them a job to do. This is very clearly signaled in the Book of Acts, particularly in this key story of Saul. Now, if you read very carefully the story of Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus that we read this morning, you do not actually get a strong sense that Jesus is giving him some task to do. The emphasis in the exchange between Jesus and Saul is only on the matter of Saul persecuting Jesus because of the ways in which he has been persecuting the church.

There is little more than a rather vague sense that there is a task being given when Jesus says to the blinded Saul lying on the ground, “But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Jesus instead tells Ananias what he wants Saul to do, that he has been specially chosen to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.

The Three Conversion Stories

The interesting thing is that this is something that becomes increasingly clear to Saul as he goes forward. The story of his experience on the road to Damascus is actually told three times in the Book of Acts. And each time, there are significant differences between the stories. Since the entire book was written by the same person, this cannot be something that just happened by accident. The author seems to be trying to reflect Saul’s (or as he eventually comes to call him Paul’s) growing understanding of what had happened to him. At first, yes, it might have all been about the powerful experience. But, by the third time Paul tells the story, he apparently remembers that Jesus said a little bit more than just, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

The third time the story is told, Paul recalls that Jesus went on to say, “But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

Saul’s Increasing Understanding of his Calling

Art depicting the conversion of Saul

This is told this way in order to indicate Paul’s growing understanding of what it was that truly changed his life. Yes, the light that he had seen had been so bright, I mean literally blindingly bright. Yes, the experience that he had had of the presence of the risen Jesus had been so very real and it had remained with him ever since. But, the more he thought about it over time, the more he realized that these were not the things that changed him. Maybe they had gotten his attention, but it was something else that had actually changed the course of his life. It was the simple fact that he realized that there was something he could do – something his Lord was calling him to do and that he alone could do – that drove the actual change of his life.

Understanding for People who have been Hurt

Can a person change? The answer to that question is yes. And yet, I completely understand those who have experienced abuse at the hands of others and how they can be skeptical when they hear claims that any abuser has changed. I would especially counsel anyone who has experienced abuse to be very cautious when their partner comes along claiming that they have changed because of some powerful experience, realization or feeling of sorrow.

You are not necessarily required to trust someone just because they say such things. Trust is a very difficult thing. It can take years to build up and then can be broken in just a moment. Once broken, the task of rebuilding it becomes even harder and will likely take longer.

How to pursue Genuine Change

And yet change is possible. If you are looking to bring about significant change in your life or in your relationship, I would suggest that you should look beyond powerful experiences or even powerful feelings of regret. Real change will come when you embrace a new sense of purpose in your life and when you come to understand how God is calling you to create new possibilities and new beginnings for the world.

When things have gone wrong in relationships, whether in personal relationships or in larger relationships like that between a nation like Canada and its indigenous peoples, it is far too easy for us to focus on what the other person needs to do, how they need to forgive or how they need to get over it and trust us again.

That is not where real change will be found. But when we can get past expressions of regret and sorrow and take on a single-minded purpose towards changing the situation for everyone, we will find that God is able to bring about change both in us and through us.

Continue reading »

A Tale of Two Churches

Posted by on Sunday, April 24th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/9syns2Nk9jo
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, 24 April 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31 (click to read)

This morning I would like to tell you about two gospels that we know were very popular and widely read in the early church. One of them you are very familiar with. It is a gospel attributed to someone who is only identified as the beloved disciple of Jesus, but tradition decided a long time ago that that disciple was named John. That does not necessarily mean that the book was literally written by that disciple, but it probably means that it was produced in a church that traced its stories and traditions about Jesus to a particular apostle, possibly John.

The Gospel of John, as it is known, is rather unique among the gospels in the Bible. Jesus is presented somewhat differently than in Matthew, Mark or Luke. He doesn’t tell parables, for example, but instead gives these long discourses in which he explains many things to his disciples. In particular, the Gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus came to present a number of signs – seven are highlighted – that would convince everyone that he was the Messiah.

A Missing Gospel Found

But there is another gospel that you are maybe less familiar with that was also very popular in the early church. This gospel doesn’t quite say who wrote it either, but it does say that the traditions in it also come from one of the disciples – specifically the one called Judas Thomas the Twin. And so, it is called the Gospel of Thomas.

We knew for centuries about this gospel. It is mentioned by a number of very early historical sources who even sometimes quote a few lines from it. But for hundreds of years, we could not read it. It did not make it into the New Testament. At some point it seems as if all of the copies of it were rounded up and destroyed. It was sad, but there was nothing that anyone could do about it.

The Gospel of Thomas, found at Nag Hammadi

That is until 1898 when a huge trove of papyrus fragments was found in an ancient garbage heap in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Three of those fragments contained text from the ancient Greek Gospel of Thomas. But we didn’t actually know what had been found until 1945 when an entire library of books was discovered at a place called Nag Hammadi in Egypt. One of those books was a translation into Coptic of the Gospel of Thomas. So, amazingly, we can now read this ancient lost gospel that was so well known and loved in the early church.

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is very different from any other Biblical gospel. It is more a collection of sayings than it is a narrative of Jesus’ life. It shows no particular interest in Jesus’ death or resurrection, but rather focuses on his teaching and especially on super secret teachings that it claims to have preserved. Let me read you a short passage to give you an idea of what it is like:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.”

Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous messenger.”

Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”

Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”

Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.”

And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him.

When Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?”

Thomas said to them, “If I tell you even one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me. Then fire will come forth from the rocks and devour you.”

Two Distinct Communities

There was probably an early Christian community for whom the Gospel of John was their most important document. It contained their best recollection of the person of Jesus and what he had done. These were traditions and teachings that they had carefully cultivated and passed on until it eventually got written down.

But there was also an early Christian community for whom the Gospel of Thomas was that kind of document. These communities seem to have been able to live alongside each other because the gospels they used seem to have been aware of each other. Sure, they didn’t agree about everything, but they respected and honoured the teaching and the portrayal of Jesus that each one had preserved. That does not mean, however, that there was not some rivalry between them.

Imagine it this way. There are two churches in a town. On this side of town, the Church of St. John and on the other the Church of St. Thomas. The churches get along fine with each other. They have a long-standing basketball rivalry between their men’s teams. They also often cooperate in doing good works for the people of the city because they both want to live as their master did. But they still cannot stop from noticing how differently they approach the Christian life.

A Celebration of the Resurrection

The people of the Church of St. John are gathered. They are celebrating the day that is, for them, the most important day of the year. They call it the Pascha; we would call it Easter of course. It is the annual celebration of the day when their Lord Jesus rose from the dead. People of the church have been anticipating this day for a long time. They have prepared themselves by fasting and praying. But now that the day has arrived, they gather with great rejoicing and the place where they meet is decorated with banners and flowers. They greet one another with the good news. “He is risen!” one calls out only to be answered with, “He is risen indeed!”

After a while, they settle down and join in a shared feast. Then they sit and listen while some of the elders share the stories of Jesus that have been handed down to them, traditions that they believe go back to the most beloved disciple of Jesus. One of the elders begins a favourite story.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

“On the day when our Lord rose from the dead, that very evening, the disciples were gathered even as we are gathered on this same day. They, like us, knew that they had many enemies in that city, and so the doors of the house were shut and locked. And yet, despite that, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

She pauses then and waits while the gathered church emulates the disciples with their own shouts of joy and sighs of contentment. But, even as she does so, she notices one young boy sitting nearby who seems a little bit troubled. And so, once everyone has settled down, she turns to him to ask what it is that he is concerned about.

What about the Other Church?

“Oh, nothing, I was just wondering,” he says. “As I came to our Pascha celebration today, I passed by the Church of St. Thomas on the other side of town. And I noticed that it wasn’t decorated for the festival, and they didn’t even seem to be gathering today. Why is it that they don’t celebrate the resurrection like we do? Do they not believe that Jesus rose from the dead?”

“Well,” the elder replies, “of course they believe in the resurrection. That is the basis of all our faith as followers of Christ. But they do think about these things differently from how we do.”

Johannine Traditions about Thomas

She pauses and thinks for a moment. She remembers that the stories of Jesus that have been passed down in her church say a few things about the disciple Thomas – things that she is convinced illustrate the character of the people in the church of St. Thomas. She knows that, when Jesus had first suggested that the group should go down to the Jerusalem near the end despite the clear danger to him, it had been Thomas who had said to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) And, indeed, the Thomasites have proven themselves to be extraordinarily brave in the way they live out their faith in the city.  The people in the Church of St. John cannot help but admire that.

They also tell the story of the time when Jesus said to the disciples, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” And Thomas had had been the one who piped up immediately to say, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5) They know that that has always been something that obsesses the people of his church. They always want to be in the know about everything and nothing disturbs them more than the thought that there might be some secret piece of knowledge out there that they don’t have. Indeed, all the leaders of Thomas’ Church pride themselves on the secret knowledge that they have accumulated.

A Different Focus

The people of this church don’t see things that way. They think it is enough to be aware of all the things that Jesus did openly to show the whole world who he was. They celebrate how Jesus healed the blind man to show the whole world that he was the light of the world, how he gave the bread to the people because he was the bread of life.

The people of John’s Church have always known these things about the believers on the other side of town. They don’t pretend to understand them completely, but they still value them as sisters and brothers who share in a common cause. But this issue does trouble the elder somewhat. The belief that Jesus rose from the dead is so central to everything at the church of John that it is really hard to imagine anyone seeing it any other way. How can she explain how little attention the other church pays to that?

A New Tradition?

But at that point the elder remembers something – a tradition that must have been passed down or that may have come to her in a dream one day. She immediately picks up the story. “On the day when our Lord was raised from the dead and when he first appeared to all of the disciples, there was one who was not present. Thomas was not there.”

This declaration certainly causes a stir among the people of the congregation. How could one of the twelve not have been present, especially on that day of all days? Even on this day, this anniversary so many years later, there is not one of them who could imagine being anywhere else than with their fellow believers.

That Thomas should not have been there seems to imply that he put little importance on the truth that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And yet, as they think about it, it does seem to make sense. Did not those who revered the Gospel of Thomas betray much the same attitude. Is that not why they have not bothered to even meet on this day?

Thomas is Convinced

But the elder has not finished her story. She goes on to relate Thomas’ foolishness – how he refused to believe even when the others had shared with him their experience of the resurrected Christ. 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,” he had said, “I will not believe.” It was his way of saying that whether or not Jesus had risen from the dead didn’t matter to him. Instead, he only sought after the secret knowledge that Jesus could offer him.

“But even Thomas learned better in the end,” she concludes. “For Jesus did return the next week, and when Thomas was confronted with the reality that the risen Christ stood in front of him, all of his secret knowledge was not enough to prevent him from falling upon his knees and crying out, “My Lord and my God,” as he realized that he stood before the risen one.”

Many Different Understandings

We are often given the impression upon reading the New Testament that early Christianity was unanimous in it’s understanding of who Jesus was and what his resurrection had accomplished. This was simply not the case. We have uncovered a great deal of evidence that there was a great diversity of belief among early Christians. Many early Christians did put a great deal of emphasis upon the resurrection. But there seems to have been others, like the communities that greatly valued the Gospel of Thomas, who were less interested in the resurrection and much more interested in amassing special secret knowledge.

It is kind of interesting to wonder how the differences between these churches and the discussions that took place amongst them may have influenced the ways that people remembered the stories of Jesus and how they eventually came to write them down.

John’s Criticism of Thomas

I’ve often thought that poor Thomas got a bit of a bad rap in Christian tradition. The only thing that people know about him, apparently, is that he doubted the resurrection. But I suspect that that story has less to do with anything that the historical Thomas did than it has to do with the attitude held towards those who revered the Gospel of Thomas by the people who revered the Gospel of John.

Yes, they probably were puzzled and maybe even disturbed by the failure of the Thomasites to understand the importance of the resurrection as they did. But really, in the history of the church, such differences in emphasis are hardly unique. Presbyterians and Baptists, Roman Catholics and Anglicans, Lutherans and Pentecostals, we are all in our different churches because we have different perspectives on various aspects of the Christian faith and we have clashed over these things both in the past and in the present.

But I would like us to know one thing. The people who preserved the Gospel of John did struggle, I think it is plain, with the people in that other church and how they approached the Christian life. But, even as they criticized Thomas and those whom Thomas represents in the gospel, as doubters who did not bother to be around on the day of resurrection, they still knew that they had a shared mission and that they had one Lord. They understood that Thomas did fall to his knees before his risen Lord just as they did, that he did cry out, “My lord and my God,” together with them. And that was enough.

I hope that that is something that we can keep in mind as we do our best to live out our Christian faith alongside other believers who have different priorities and understandings but still have the same risen Lord.

Continue reading »