Thursday, December 21, 2017

St. Thomas, Doubt, and the Foundations of Faith

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:10-14, NRSV)

Today is the annual Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, a figure emphasized in the Gospel according to St. John. His role there is a mix of eagerness and doubt…a very good picture of the believer at a beginning stage of faith, and a hopeful guide as we learn the full meaning of that sometimes confusing word: “Believer.”

When we think about the Apostles we often focus mostly on their later, mature stage of belief. The reading from Revelation quoted above is used for the Eves of Feasts of the Apostles in the Daily Office and presents a picture of the Holy City of God’s presence in a perfected state, resting firmly and securely on the glorious twelve-course foundation of the Apostles—an image of stability and completion.

Yet the Apostles all came from the ordinary mix of human life, each with his own shortcomings and limitations, gifts and skills. Each of them had to make a journey, as we all must, from our beginnings in faith to maturity and beyond.

It is enormously significant that the image of the Holy City resting upon the foundation of the Apostles in Revelation 21 comes at the book’s conclusion, not its beginning. This vision is of a wholeness achieved through a journey and through trial. Being a believer is not a static thing; it is an ongoing interaction, an encounter in which we are transformed. Being a “believer” is, to a great extent, a verbal reality rather than simply a noun.

St. Thomas is recalled on two specific occasions in the Liturgical Year: on his feast day just prior to Christmas and on the Sunday after Easter Day. We encounter this particular Apostle in conjunction with two of the most important Holy Days in the Calendar. In a sense, we are being shown that doubt and struggle must be encountered even in relationship to our most cherished beliefs: Incarnation and Resurrection.

What makes St. Thomas particularly significant to many modern people is that, for all of his impetuosity and expressed doubt in the Gospel account, he goes on to be a person of abiding and rewarded faith: abiding in the Church’s telling of many stories about his later travels—even, by tradition, to India—and rewarded in his being numbered and celebrated at every step as among the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb. He is the sign that even our doubts, when offered to God and worked with creatively, may become the pathway to a deeper and more transformative faith.

The lesson from the Old Testament at Morning Prayer for St. Thomas’ Day comes from the Book of Job, near its conclusion, when God has spoken to Job from the whirlwind. Job has remained faithful through his many trials and through the ruthless interrogation by his so-called friends (this is often the story of faith: those purporting to be our friends can easily become something quite different in our trials). He has refused to curse God, but he has also built an elaborate case of his own innocence and self-justification. The effect is, in part, to put God on trial for the wrongs of this world.

All of this changes after Job’s encounter with God in the whirlwind. In the face of the complete otherness of God, Job utters the famous words:

I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:1-6, KJV)

By a persevering faithfulness to the journey, Job has his transformative encounter. He is made into a different person through humility: first by recognizing his prior faith was more in himself than in God (the “hearing of the ear” rather than the “seeing of the eye”), and then by repentance (the “dust and ashes” part), yielding a new level of openness leading to deeper trust. Job’s humility at the end of the book takes his much-vaunted holiness at the start of the story to an entirely greater level of perfection. This is a vision of what being a believer requires.

The characteristics of Job and St. Thomas—perseverance, faithfulness, humility, openness—are the foundations of their ascent in faith and belief. These are the qualities of any real “believer,” rather than arrogance or mastery. Indeed, those who have substituted arrogant certainty and mastery for the true marks of discipleship often develop a distorted, stunted kind of faith requiring very hard work to undo and refashion into the living faith our God desires. It can be overcome, but such a faith adds to the journey’s challenges.

Perseverance, faithfulness, humility, and openness are, at heart, marked by Love as both motivation and goal, and it is this gift of love which is really at issue. Our being a believer is really, in large measure, about being able to receive and offer love from and to God and our neighbor. Such love is what keeps us “in the game,” so to speak, willing to go further and deeper in our pilgrimage of faith and transformation.

The Feast of St. Thomas stands as a vital reminder that the Faith we hold is a lively, growing thing. It is marked by failures along the way, missteps and stumbles, all of them offered with humility to God, so that we might arrive at a mature faith: a faith no longer plagued by doubts but marked by love, openness, and honest encounter with God. That faith is, I believe, what the language found in Revelation seeks to describe: a lasting and beautiful foundation of love offered in trust through which God’s presence is perceived and known.

Coming to this kind of faith means taking the journey of a lifetime. St. Thomas beckons us to join him on that journey so we might share with him the joy and fulfillment of God’s eternal presence in the Holy City of which we are all being transformed into “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5) even now, there to reside in ever-deeper knowledge and love, forever.

Collect for the Feast of St. Thomas, Apostle:

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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