I am sharing these thoughts with my brother and sister clergy out there in Cyberspace. We have completed the liturgies of Holy Week and some of us have numbed brains after all of this. Hopefully, you are finding some recharge time this week. I have been pondering the Gospel for this next Sunday, one that Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans will share again: “Doubting Thomas.” I appreciate the genius that is behind the creation of the Lectionary, in that we follow the exuberant, joyful exaltation of Easter Alleluia with a big step back into skepticism and doubt.
You and I have been tutored by Enlightenment fueled skepticism and mistrust of mystical experience (even in seminary). I read in the Church Times that a recent poll revealed that one-third of Church of England Anglicans do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. I suspect a higher percentage of C of E clergy share that doubt. Episcopal clergy in the USA have attended workshops and read the books by Marcus Borg, Bishop Spong, and the Jesus Project (whom my friend and professor Walter Bruggemann described as “second-rate Bible scholars”). These critical voices of the resurrection have challenged us to enter a deeper process of personal reflection on our belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Many of us, including myself, have preached Easter sermons describing the Easter event metaphorically and symbolically, while our parishioners hunger to hear the eyewitness testimonies. They know when we are tap dancing around the Easter proclamation, “Christ is Risen.”
I suppose that every year, as I engage this gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter, I will be wrestling again with my faith in the resurrection. The important issue here, for us clergy, is do we see Jesus, as Borg concludes, as an inspired shaman or something else? For forty-five years, I have taught world religions at a local college, as well as being a full-time parish priest. Every semester I encounter that Enlightenment inspired skepticism toward revelation and mystical experience among my students. My subversive mission has been to break down that resistance and open them up to the treasures of the world’s spiritualities and help them explore the deepest longings of their heart, which I believe to be a personal connection to the sacred Presence, however they may meet that.
In the ebb and flow between skepticism and faith, I found hope in these two experiences:
First, in a year-long encounter with the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, I had to contemplate a different Bible passage every day, going through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; meeting once a week with a spiritual director to reflect on what was happening between me and God. I confess that through most of that year, the critical, skeptical mind pushed back hard on Sister Jeanne Fallon, CSJ. There was a lot of anxiety and anger in me those days, as our disabled son Erik had been in and out of hospital with near-death health crises. Toward the end of that year, when I had to contemplate the resurrection narratives in the gospel, Sister Jeanne advised me to ask the Lord to open my heart to know the resurrection of Jesus. I do look back at that time as foundational, as I entered that upper room with Thomas in my imagination, approached Jesus and could say, “My Lord and my God.”
Second, I step into my father’s room at the board and care facility near our home in Laguna Niguel, California. Dad is unconscious, his breath rapid and shallow. After a few minutes, breath is less frequent. I anoint his body with Holy Oil and pray the Litany for the Dying with his nurse. Sobs well up in me as I struggle to say the words:
“Almighty God, look on this your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort him with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The breathing stops. Silence. I sit beside his bed, caressing his forehead. I do not understand this: after only a few minutes, how Dad’s body can turn refrigerator-cold while the room is warm? There is radiance and peace in his face. If I am not a priest of the Resurrection, what am I doing here anointing and praying? If I do not believe that in death “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens,” what would be the worth of my faithless prayers?
If I am unable to step away from the pull of those deconstructing, demythologizing voices hammering on the husk of my soul, and be priest seeking Jesus, and step forward myself, like Thomas, and embrace the body of Jesus, and exclaim, “My Lord and my God,” then I believe I should step away from the priesthood and return to the college classroom and my other vocation as philosophy professor.
Preaching on this Sunday’s gospel about Thomas’ encounter with the risen Jesus is an evangelical moment for us as clergy to take our own faith- filled steps forward and embrace the physical reality of the risen Lord.