The Presence of the Crucified 2001 | John 20:26-31
About five hundred years before Jesus gave his own sermons, the Buddha was preaching in India. After one of his sermons, a man approached him and asked, "Why should I believe you? The Brahmins have history and tradition and the scriptures to support their arguments, yet you come here out of the blue and say something completely different. Why should I believe you?"
The Buddha was quick with his response: you shouldn't. No one should take anything on blind faith. If it appeals to you, try putting my teaching into practice. If it works, stay with it. If it doesn't work, leave it behind. But never take my word--or any other teacher's--word for it."
The man was astonished. We don't know whether he put the Buddha's methods to the test or not, but he was amazed to hear a spiritual teacher say such a thing. For the Buddha was truly advocating a radical departure from the norm. In Indian society, the Brahmins had the last word when it came to spiritual matters. They were the authorities, and since they were at the top of the caste system, you didn't dare contradict them.
But the Buddha advocated a major departure from this. Instead of encouraging his followers to follow an external authority, the Buddha insisted on an internal authority. Every person has the right to decide for him or herself which spiritual path is right for them. Only you can say what works for you, never mind what the "authorities" say.
But relocating our authority, from an external source to an internal one is not so easy for some of us. We have been very well trained not to trust ourselves in spiritual matters. We have been conditioned to hand our power over to the alleged "authorities", whether that is an author, a preacher, the Bible itself or the Pope.
I think societies have always run this way, but every now and then you get a misfit, one individual who says, "Yeah? Says who?" and demands proof before handing over their spiritual life to some stranger in a funny dress (like....mine!).
The apostle Thomas in our Gospel reading today is just such a misfit. Jesus had appeared to the other disciples when Thomas was elsewhere, and when they told him they had seen Jesus, he gives them the typical spiritual misfit response "Says who? 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, I will not believe you."
Later, Thomas is with them when Jesus appears to them again. "Don't be afraid," he tells them, even though he just walked straight through the wall like a ghost. "Yeah, right!" Thomas is probably thinking. Jesus apparently had overheard Thomas' protests of incredulity, because he tells him directly, "Thomas, put your finger here, and see my hands. Put your hand in my side." Thomas does, and Jesus is not like any ghost he had ever heard of--he could actually feel his body. Thomas drops to his knees and cries, "My Lord and my God!" He is converted, but not because anyone else said so; he had to try it himself.
This experience has given Thomas a bad name, as the one disciple who did not have faith, but I think this is a bum rap. Actually, Thomas has a great deal of spiritual integrity, which will follow him the rest of his life, and will evidence itself to an amazing degree in his own teachings.
What do we know about Thomas? The answer to this question will probably surprise you.
His full name is Judas Didymus Thomas, and according to both Christian tradition and scripture, he was Jesus' own flesh-and-blood brother. He wrote the New Testament epistle of Jude, and many other books are attributed to him, the most important of which is the newly-discovered Gospel of Thomas. In that book we learn that not only is Thomas Jesus' brother, but he is Jesus' TWIN brother. This gospel has no virgin birth story, and in fact, none of the communities begun by members of Jesus' own family give any credence to that mythology. The fact that Thomas is frequently referred to as "the twin", even in the New Testament, probably means that Jesus is the older of the two, even if only by a couple of minutes.
The community that formed around Thomas was a Jewish-Christian community. They did not follow Paul, and would have considered Paul's teachings to be heretical. Like most Jewish-Christians, Thomas Christians saw Jesus as a great teacher, one who had special insight into the spiritual world, but would have considered the idea that Jesus was God blasphemy. The words put into Thomas' mouth when he sees Jesus after the resurrection, "My Lord and my God" were put there by John's community, not by his own.
In Thomas' own Gospel not only is there no virgin birth, but there is also no mention of the crucifixion or the resurrection. What is the reason for these strange omissions? Quite frankly, because Jewish-Christians did not see them as very important. For them, Jesus' death did not accomplish anything salvific: it was just the inevitable fate of anyone who bucked the system. And his resurrection might have been God's stamp of approval on Jesus, his vindication so to speak, but miraculous though it may be, it does not save us.
So what, exactly, DOES save us? According to Thomas, humans are blind to the most obvious spiritual reality that there is: that all things are one. According to Thomas, there is only one thing in the universe, God. We suffer and think we die simply because we are unable to grasp the truth: we are all part of God, and since God never dies, how can we? We suffer because we do not understand our own unlimited power, we are cruel to each other because we are blind to the fact that when we do evil we are doing it not to those beneath us, or to strangers, but to God himself.
In Thomas' Gospel, Jesus says, "The Kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, but people do not see it." This is the great tragedy of the human condition: we are blind to our own divinity. The way of salvation, the way that Thomas says Jesus actually taught, was to become like Jesus, to become Jesus' "twin" just as Thomas was. And what does it mean to be "like Jesus" or Jesus' "twin"? It meant that just as Jesus had broken down the walls of illusion and beheld the truth of the unity of all things, so might we.
You might be thinking, "Gosh, this sounds an awful lot like Buddhism," and you are right. The message of the Buddha and of Thomas' Jesus are nearly identical. We know that there were Buddhist missionaries in Palestine when Jesus was alive, so he may very well have had contact with them. I think this is even likely. Then there are those who say Jesus actually traveled to India as a young man. I think this is very unlikely, but fun to think about. Probably the truth is much more organic. Jesus and Buddha had nearly identical ecstatic experiences of unity with the divine and with the whole of the created order, and that this unitive consciousness changed them both forever. Furthermore, it impelled them both to go forth and teach others the truth that they had divined.
I don't think it likely, therefore, that Jesus learned from the Buddha, but very likely indeed that both Jesus and the Buddha sat at the feet of the same teacher: the great Mystery-at-home-in-the-world.
It is no surprise, therefore, that when the apostles were sent hither and yon to preach the gospel, it was Thomas who was sent to India. After all, his understanding of Jesus' salvation was nearly identical to how Hindus and Buddhists view enlightenment. No other teacher could have spoken the Indian's religious language as well as he; no other teacher could have had so great an impact. And impact India he did: the Mar Thoma Catholic church was planted by Thomas, and has survived down to this very day.
Unfortunately not much is known about the early period of this church, since in the twelfth century the Portuguese made the first attempts to colonize India, and coerced the Mar Thoma church into compliance with Roman Catholic belief and practice, which had previously been completely alien to them. All of their ancient prayer books, sacramentaries, and theological writings were burned by the Portuguese, and today we are left with precious little evidence regarding the origins, theologies, and liturgies of the Mar Thoma Christians; a great loss not only for Christianity, but for historians of religion in general.
The Mar Thoma Christians still proudly proclaim Thomas as their founder, even though their distinctive theology has been denied them.
Now all of this has scary implications for us as Christians. It raises questions like, "Who do we trust, Thomas or Paul?" "Does this mean we can't take the Bible at face value?" "How do we know who to listen to?" These are all very important questions, of course. They are precisely the questions a woman named Sally asked me earlier this week. She had gotten my email address from the web somewhere, and asked if she could phone me and discuss these issues.
We had a very fruitful conversation, but at one point, she burst out with great frustration, "But I want to know what's right! I want to know what the truth is."
In retrospect, I may have been a little hard on her, but I told her, "Tough. You don't get to know the truth," I said. "There is only Mystery. The spiritual journey of our time is to live in relationship to that Mystery. But you don't get to know the truth. Now, of course, you can always give up and accept somebody else's truth as your own--but if you do that you are worshipping an idol. The true God is Mystery, and if that's too hard for you, you can always break down and worship an image of God that somebody else has fashioned. But please be clear that if you do that, you exchange the true God for idolatry. I certainly won't hold it against you--the spiritual path is tough. But remember, it is the health of your soul that is at stake."
It was not an easy truth for Sally to hear. I myself was shaking when I told her this. Yet it was the right thing to say. Anytime we hand over our spiritual authority to someone else, we lose a part of our soul. "Don't believe me," says the Buddha. "Try out my method first. If it works, use it. If it doesn't, discard it. But don't take my word for it." In this parish, we don't ask you to buy a single word of what is said from this pulpit. All I can do is describe the Mystery as I have experienced it, and invite you into your own relationship with Mystery. But we are all going to perceive the Mystery differently. We are all going to have different ideas of who God is, and what the spiritual life is about. This is as it should be. Don't take my word for it. Don't take Richard's word for it. Don't take the Bible's word for it, and don't take the liturgy's word for it. Test everything, doubt everything, think for yourself about everything.
I believe Thomas would agree with this method. After all, he is the one who said "I have to see the nails, I have to touch the wound in his side," he said. "I'm certainly not going to take your word for it." Nor should you.
Let us pray...
Holy Mystery, you move through our lives unseen, and yet there is no part of them that is untouched by you. It is your body in which the universe rests, it is your belly that cradles the earth. You are the master of all time and space, you give us eyes to see, and brains to think with, and wills that we may choose. Help us to guard our spiritual virginity, not to hand ourselves over to "the authorities" just because we think we ought to, but to taste and see for ourselves that the Lord is good. Open our eyes to the reality of you-in-all, help us to find our own ways to behold you, and at last bring us into absolute communion with you, whether in this life or the next. Amen.