11th APR 2021
Anglican Episcopal Church
“My Lord and my God.”
Theologians have been called God’s professors. I am not sure theologians themselves and their fellow academics would entirely agree with that appellation, much less God, but it is nevertheless, I think, an apt one in many respects. Professional theologians after all spend their careers, for the most part, in university and seminary life, making sense of our faith; studying its origins in Scripture and history; expanding upon its meaning with the insights of philosophy and science; and helping to apply their findings in the lives of Christian communities, such as ours, around the world.
I remember with fondness the brilliant professors who inspired me in seminary and university decades ago. Yet, I had to stop and think a couple weeks ago during one of our Menza Lenten discussion sessions when I heard, in a video-tape presentation, Anglican Bishop --and renowned theologian -- NT Tom Wright assert that every Christian is called to be a theologian. Not just those scholars like himself with numerous academic honours to their credit and a dozen initials after their names; but everyone. You and me included, apparently. Bishop Tom’s point was, as I reflect upon it, that we are all challenged to reflect upon our heritage of faith; to make Scripture and tradition our own; and to mould our faith to the circumstances of our own lives.
And, while we might not think of it as such, that enterprise in itself is theology in its purest and most natural form. I think Bishop Tom’s namesake, the Apostle Thomas, who features prominently in our account this morning from the Gospel of John, would probably agree. For, he unabashedly -- if a bit rashly -- raises questions of faith and belief, seeking answers to the seemingly incomprehensible, as most of us at some level do still to this day. Thomas was no dummy, after all. He knew, as well as we know, that dead people stay dead; and that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.
It is just this which Thomas seeks. While the other disciples seem paralyzed from apprehension and perhaps an element of terror, Thomas at least speaks up. He expresses what must have been on the minds of the other disciples as well; or would have been if they had stopped to think. When told of the appearance of our Lord, Thomas does not take anyone’s word for it. He demands evidence. Nail marks and visible wounds upon our Lord’s crucified body, in other words. And, this is of course just what he gets And from our Lord himself.
And, matters then fall instantly into place. Thomas, we might rightly say, becomes in his moment of recognition the first person to really get the meaning of the Gospel in all its fullness -- the first to see the ramifications of the Lord’s appearances after the Resurrection among the disciples and to himself. He becomes the first theologian, in other words. The first to examine the evidence and come to faith. Thomas’ initial doubt, if we are to give him the benefit of the doubt, is not so much the opposite of faith as it is its prerequisite.
“My Lord and my God,” exclaims Thomas in what is perhaps the shortest and best theological lecture or treatise every articulated. Even today if we are not at some level at least as astonished by news of the Resurrection as was Thomas, perhaps we like the disciples themselves do not yet understand its full meaning. Perhaps we need to become, as Bishop Tom suggests, better theologians. Perhaps we need to get back to basics.
Thomas’ simple yet powerful declaration, “My Lord and my God,” becomes in a sense the Church’s first Creed. In these few words, Thomas makes the Resurrection his own Good News; his own Gospel narrative; one shared with his fellow disciples; and one shared with generations of Christian believers, including ourselves. And, while we in Western Christianity often refer to him as the Doubting Thomas, considering his bluster and demand for confirmation of his fellow disciples’ words; the Orthodox Churches of the East tend rather to call him Thomas the Believer, emphasizing his great and profound act or proclamation of faith. In a sense, Thomas was both Doubter and Believer. As is in some sense most every thinking Christian. As is, I suspect, each of us.
As many of you will know, Prince Philip who passed away this past Friday was born nearly a century ago on the Island of Corfu and was baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith at a young age, only later being officially received into the Church of England after his marriage to Queen, then Princess, Elizabeth. At one point much later in life, reflecting upon his own background and faith journey, Philip is said to have commented that, “Whilst I became an Anglican, I remained Orthodox,” perhaps as good an expression as any of someone making belief in all its variety nevertheless his own expression of lived faith.
And, Archbishop Justin has said that, having preached from time to time before the Royal Family, he could also always expect questions and comments about his words from Prince Philip after the service. Perhaps Philip, among his many other attributes and accomplishments highlighted in these past days, was a practical theologian after the school of Bishop Tom. After the example of the Apostle Thomas. A Christian not afraid to ask questions.
Theologians marked this past week another passing, that of one of their own, Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng, a Swiss-German scholar and professor in the field known as ecclesiology, that is, the theological study of the nature of the Church. Küng became famous over the decades for his penchant for asking questions and for his often open rows with the hierarchy of his Church -- including his former academic colleague Pope Benedict -- expressing his own doubts, for instance, about the nature of the papacy. Yet throughout his long and distinguished academic career Küng remained firm in his faith in Christ. Scripture, he noted, “becomes God's Word for anyone who submits trustfully and in faith to its testimony.”
He could have been speaking of the Apostle Thomas. He could have been speaking of us. While the Apostle Thomas needed to see, needed evidence, to overcome his unbelief; we are offered faith precisely in order to see and understand. “Blessed are those who have not seen,” says our Lord to Thomas, “and yet have come to believe." Blessed in other words are those who trust not just the words of others but the Word of God. And, our Lord of course did not mean to put an end to questions of faith. But our questions, like those of Hans Küng, Bishop Tom, and their fellow theologians in academia, now flow from our shared faith.
It has been said that faith sometimes hinges more on asking the right questions than in seeking rote, or correct, answers to empty questions of no consequence. That is no doubt so. We will after all seek in vain for the nail wounds of Christ’s body crucified long ago. But as Hans Küng reminded the Church throughout his long career, the Church itself is now Christ’s body. The nail marks and wounds are still there for all to see; visible in those suffering grief at the loss of a loved one; in those dwelling on the streets of our cities; in the sick and dying; and in those neglected by society.
The challenge for us, as everyday practical theologians, is not all that different from the challenge faced by the Apostle Thomas. To seek out the wounded yet resurrected body of our Lord where we find it today; to seek the mark of the nails in the lives of the poor and the suffering; and to serve and minister to those in need. It is only then that we too can proclaim in genuine faith with the Apostle Thomas, “My Lord and My God.”
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs