Sunday, 11 April 2010
2nd Sunday of Easter, Shaftesbury
We recall today a person and an event so significant that the name and phrase still lives on even in our post-Christian society: a "doubting Thomas".
Thomas is often criticised as a sceptic, one who refuses to believe. But I suspect myself that he actually more of a cynic –a cynic being someone who has come to believe more in evil and suffering than in good and God.
Suffering and the experience of evil is something that can make us doubt the existence of goodness, and this is cynicism. So that when the cynic hears others talk of goodness, he points to evil and suffering. And I think this is what we see in Thomas: it’s not just that he doubts like a skeptic, but that he positively believes in the negative. What does he refer to when they refer to the resurrection? He speaks of the wounds that killed our Lord, he speaks of the experience of suffering, of disaster, of what has gone wrong.
The Thomas who we heard doubting was not always so cynical. Earlier in the gospel, when Jesus set out for Jerusalem where He faced certain death, Thomas bravely said to the other apostles, "let us also go, that we may die with him"(Jn 11:16).
But by the start of today's gospel passage, this brave disciple had changed dramatically, he had become cynical, and refused to believe. What had happened in between? The Cross. The experience of the suffering of the Cross had shattered his faith. And suffering can destroy our faith too.
Even though suffering is a time when we need our faith the most, to remind us that we are united to our loving Lord on the Cross, of the happiness that awaits us in heaven, of the fact that we have a loving Father who watches over us, even if we cannot see exactly how. Just when we need our faith the most, pain can lead us to doubt these basic truths.
How does our Lord respond to a cynic's doubts?
In response to Thomas's doubts, our Lord showed him His wounds, and He publicly displays them to us too, to show that He has triumphed over them. The same Jesus who hung before us on the Cross, also appeared to show that He had faced and overcome suffering. Thus Jesus says, "In the world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world"(Jn 16:33).
This is what enables us to have faith even though we live in a world where there is suffering. We know that our God has suffered with us, and for us, and even more, that He has triumphed over it, and promises us a share in His victory, if we but put our faith and trust in Him. That's why St. John says, "this is the victory over the world: our faith"(1 Jn 5:4).
Scripture also reminds us that suffering can TEST our faith (1 Pet 1:3-9), and that it not only tests it, it purifies it. Suffering can lead us to re-examine where we actually put our trust, is it in ourselves and our human strengths, or is it in God alone? Thomas's faith crumbled under the weight of suffering: like the other disciples, his faith had been weak.
But the sight of the risen Lord rebuilt his faith, and it can rebuild and strengthen our faith too. Because even though the experience of suffering is great, the triumphant resurrection of our Lord squarely faces that suffering, and still promises us hope in something even greater.
Every religion, or philosophy must try to deal with the problem of suffering, but none can do so as well as Christianity. The cross and suffering are unique to our faith alone. In the creed we say, "We believe" that Christ suffered, was crucified and died. We do not say that we believe we live in a perfect world with no pain. But greater still is our statement of faith in the resurrection and Christ's triumph over death and suffering.
When our faith is tested by suffering, as it easily can be, when we feel like giving in to cynicism, we would do well to recall the sight of our Lord showing his triumphant wounds, a display that gives faith in him credibility even in a world of tribulation.