Becoming Disciples: Ask the Questions
We’ve just celebrated Easter, the highest and most holy day of the Christian year.
Perhaps, just like in you and me, last week brought out the very best and the very worst in the first disciples of Jesus. Around the table that Passover dinner, you remember, The Last Supper, was Peter—the disciple whom Jesus renamed “the rock” for his future as a leader of the church…but the one who had also denied Jesus publicly over and over again just one day after that dinner.
There sat James and John, those two brothers who were undoubtedly very special to Jesus, who argued over who got to sit next to him, in fact, but who couldn’t even stay awake for a few hours to comfort Jesus in theGardenofGethsemane.
And there was Judas, of course, who managed all the finances of the disciples so well for so long, but who betrayed Jesus with a kiss—turned him in because he could see the political tide turning and he didn’t want to be on the side of the losing team.
And there were all of the rest of the disciples, every single one of them, who had given up everything to follow but who, without exception, had abandoned Jesus in his deepest hour of need, couldn’t seem to summon the courage to face what Jesus was facing, preferred instead to keep their eyes down and their mouths shut and to hope that they eventually got out of this mess alive.
You remember all their stories, all the various ways in which they each grasped for faith with courage and conviction…and all the various ways in which they let their friend Jesus down.
Who do you most identify with? Where would you have been around that table, in that band of disciples? Seems like we’d all be there somewhere, because as they began their quest to become disciples in the wake of the resurrection, here we are right behind them, struggling to keep up.
Yes, last week was Easter, the highest and most holy day of the church year. So, in the light of everything that happened after that dinner they shared, what does that make today?
You guessed it.
Today is often called “low Sunday”—because this is the day when we start all over again, when we struggle and strain and hope with every ounce of intention and faith, that we might be able to embrace the living Christ in such a way that our lives would begin to be transformed…that we could finally, hopefully, and against most evidence and all odds…become disciples.
So it seems fitting that today we join the first disciples in what must have been a dread-filled, depressing gathering. John tells us it’s a week after the women had first run, breathless, into their meeting room and blurted out the astounding news that the tomb was empty, and that they had actually run into Jesus himself on the road toGalilee. They saw him in person, and he was alive, just as he had promised them!
Yes, it had been a whole week, and as each day progressed and they heard more and more news about the upheaval inJerusalem, the fears and guilt and doubt of the disciples began to take on lives of their own.
The women said they’d seen Jesus, but who could believe a woman? In Jewish law of the time, a woman could not even testify in court…her testimony was irrelevant just because she was a woman.
Instead of hope and possibility, joy and relief, that room surely was filled with sadness and doubt, pain, regret, fear and shame. And there’s no question that the in-fighting had begun: some wanted to believe the women; some didn’t. Some were criticizing Peter for losing his temper and attacking a soldier when Jesus was arrested; Peter was tossing back accusations about lack of courage. James and John were trying to assert the leadership roles they’d held before; no one would listen to them once they heard about how they’d fallen asleep inGethsemane. Arguments surely flew around the room as people speculated on the whereabouts of their missing members…where was Judas (that traitor!)? Where was Thomas—had he gone to rat them out, too? How were their families? How much longer could they stay in hiding? What was going to happen to them now?
No wonder they call this low Sunday, because here we find those first disciples confronting the lowest, most painful realities of our human inability to be faithful: to God, to each other, to our highest ideals and hopes.
But then, in a strange event that would come to be more and more familiar as the impending days unfolded, Jesus miraculously—somehow, through a locked door—appeared in the middle of the chaos that was their locked room, and spoke a word…of peace.
We don’t really know the full story of what they did, how much time he was there, what happened when he left, but we do know that everybody there got their questions answered: they finally believed the women’s crazy story of the week before, and though they still didn’t know what the future would hold for them, at least they’d seen Jesus. Alive.
Later in today’s story, about a week, the text says, in walks Thomas. Who knows where he’d been—maybe he’d snuck out to take care of his family, to scout the political situation inJerusalem, to get supplies. Whatever the reason, Thomas hadn’t been there when Jesus appeared the last time; he was still in the mindset they’d been in before Jesus appeared—wondering if the women had lost their minds and trying his very best to quell feelings of terror and confusion. And when he heard the report of the disciples—that Jesus had walked through a locked door and visited with them, that he was alive, Thomas responds the same way any of us would respond—admit it—he thinks that perhaps the crazy women have somehow brainwashed the other disciples, that they had been locked away too long, that someone had opened the bar a little too early, or maybe that their desperation had gotten the best of them.
Let’s remember, though, that Thomas is only reacting to the latest news the same way all of the disciples reacted to the original reports of the women. It was a reaction not unlike, one commentator observes, a cancer patient receiving news that suddenly there has been a fail-proof cure discovered and all would be well—you know, a healthy and normal degree of skepticism.
But you know what happens next. Jesus appears again, through a locked door; the whole experience of the other disciples is replicated, just for Thomas. Jesus seems to understand Thomas’ need to see and touch, to really experience for himself the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, so Jesus obliges him…lets him touch his wounds…holds a conversation just like all the other conversations he and Thomas surely had on the hills of Galilee in the years before. Thomas believes then—he’d gotten just what he needed—and he utters a beautiful and powerful affirmation of faith: “My Lord and my God!” Jesus had returned to him—as Lord, a word acknowledging Jesus’ leadership—but even more, as God, which seemed to say that Thomas was on board again, that the pain and fear and doubt of the terrible past weeks had now grown into conviction, a conviction that would lead Thomas and all of them to become the disciples Jesus asked them to be.
And that’s the story.
It’s really a redemptive story, because the truth of the matter is that deep and abiding faith is often born out of terror and fear and doubt.
What has happened in the 2000 or so years since that encounter with the risen Christ in the room where they hid in fear, however, is that Thomas has gotten a bad, bad reputation. He didn’t do anything the other disciples didn’t do. He didn’t do anything WE wouldn’t do. He didn’t do anything unexpected at all! What he did was ask the questions that were nagging at his head and his heart, he doubted and asked and gathered together the reassurance of God’s presence and power that he needed to move forward with faith and courage.
And, do you know, that’s what he and the rest of the disciples eventually did? For their struggling, stumbling, fear and doubt-filled starts, they went on to become disciples in the truest sense of the word. According to church tradition the disciple Thomas did become a rather successful Christian apostle after Jesus was raised from the dead. Along with the groups of believers he planted, Thomas also wrote his memoirs, called The Gospel According to Thomas and a few others. According to church tradition, Thomas died a martyr’s death, loyal until the very end. All of that, from the most famous doubter of all time!
In my eternal quest to be the best pastor I can be, I did all of you the favor of doing some spiritual research this past week inSedona,Arizona.
Don’t worry, you can thank me later.
As you probably know, Sedona is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth, with breath-taking red rock canyons decorating the bright blue sky in every direction you turn. In addition to being beautiful, Sedona is well known as a spiritualMecca, which to some people means that there is a concentration of spiritual energy in that place, and to other people means there are a bunch of strange people who live there.
Given my own interest in faith and spirituality, I decided that I could not let my first visit to Sedona pass without some kind of spiritual encounter. As you might imagine, this was hard and very different for me, but I pressed on. I decided I would have a Reiki Energy Realignment session (my mother will die when she hears this) out in the rocks of the canyon.
Don’t I seem more realigned to you?
Anyway, the session began with a guided meditation, which is something I often lead and seemed rather familiar to me. After stifling giggles at admonitions to “become one with the butterflies” I heard the leader tell us to let go of fear.
Let go of anger.
Also a good idea.
Let go of control.
Let go of doubt.
Hang on. Fear, anger, control—I’m game to let them go. But I am not so sure about doubt, and I think I have Thomas to thank for that. Because Thomas was the one disciple singled out for asking the questions any one of us would ask, he gives us the freedom to voice our own questions and doubts.
And we have to doubt and question, because there’s nothing logical or socially acceptable about following Jesus. There wasn’t for the first disciples, who were eventually going to give up their lives because they followed Jesus. And there isn’t for us, who are asked to love our enemies, care for the poor, construct our lives to reflect values of peace and justice and mercy and kindness. It doesn’t make sense, and if we don’t have doubts and questions about following in the way of Jesus, then perhaps we are following someone else. In other words, you’d better be asking the questions. I had better be asking the questions. If we don’t ask the questions, how will we ever become disciples who would dare to even consider giving up everything to follow?
The answer to that question is: we won’t.
As you know, the event we like to call the Last Supper has gotten a lot of attention from artists. Leonardo da Vinci is the most famous, of course, but countless artists have chosen to paint what they imagined as The Last Supper. It is, after all, the most famous dinner party ever. Among those who chose this as their focus, the tradition became popular…to add as a last touch, the face of the artist himself…on the body of the disciple Thomas.
Why? You ask.
You know why, as do I.
Believing is as much about doubting, about asking the questions, as it is about anything else. We may not want to be like Thomas, but we all, indisputably, are. So isn’t it wonderful to embrace the questions we all have to ask, to know that faith is born out of doubt and dis-ease?
So…where would you be, around that table? Would you even be there at all? Would you even consider taking on the challenge of becoming a disciple?
If you would, start here: ask the questions. Air your doubts. Shout your queries to the sky. The one you follow is not afraid of your wondering.
Want to become a disciple? Ask the questions.