Liberating Thomas: Sermon by Val Webb

///Liberating Thomas: Sermon by Val Webb

Preached on 12 April 2015 as part of the Val Webb tour

Sermon texts: Acts 4: 32 – 35. John 20: 19 – 31. Ps 133. 1 John 1: 1-22

Thank you for inviting me to Sheffield. I am looking forward to spending this evening with you on the topic of my latest book “Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology: finding your own voice”. Many people feel they must accept all they are taught without question, but there has never been only one truth, despite what people claim. Theological ideas have waxed and waned, taking conflicting turns with new leaders, worldviews and politics. Tonight I will look at some of these changing ideas to encourage you to do your own theology and find a faith that fits, not someone else’s. So much for the sales pitch. On to today’s readings.

When I preach, I look forward to checking the lectionary readings to see what I can make of them. It’s like a lucky dip at the fair. What an absolute gift, then, for someone who wrote a book on doubt, to find for today the story of Thomas wanting to see the nail-holes before he believed! In all other disciplines, doubt is the catalyst that leads to new answers, but in religion, we have discouraged or even condemned those who doubt. I have always felt sorry for Thomas. Next to Judas, he drew the worst press for asking to see the evidence. Peter denied and deserted Jesus and became head of the church. Thomas, on the other hand, acted with integrity and earned a negative label – doubting Thomas.

There is actually more going on in this story than meets the eye. Firstly, it is only in John’s gospel, the one written furtherest from Jesus’ death. If it had been a familiar story, it would have been in the other gospels. The story is also strategically positioned. After Thomas finally says “I believe”, Jesus commends his belief but says “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe”. This statement leads straight into what scholars think was originally the end of the gospel – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”. The message? Just as Thomas finally believed in Jesus, so should you.

While Thomas hardly gets a mention in the other gospels, there are a number of Thomas stories only in John’s Gospel. Thomas insists the disciples go with Jesus into hostile Judea when Lazarus dies; (John 11: 16) and Jesus is glad Lazarus is already dead when they arrive so the disciples will believe when he is resuscitated. Later, the chief priests discuss killing Lazarus because people were believing in Jesus. When Jesus says he is going away and Thomas asks where, Jesus’ response is again about believing in Jesus – “I am the way, the truth and the life; noneof you comes to God except through me” (14:6). Why all these Thomas stories only in John linked with believing in Jesus?

In 1945, the Gospel of Thomas was discovered in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in a collection of leather-bound books in the Coptic language. They were buried in a sealed jar and probably belonged to the nearby Pachomian monastery and buried in the fourth century when Bishop Athanasius condemned so-called heretical writings. This gospel is a collection of sayings of Jesus. We don’t know who wrote this gospel, but its attachment to Thomas suggests it came from a community that emerged from Thomas’ teachings. When Jesus asks in this gospel, “Who do people say I am?” Peter, Matthew and Thomas reply. Thomas says, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying who you are”.

[i] Jesus then reveals special teachings to Thomas which Thomas later tells the disciples, “If I tell you even one of the things which [Jesus] told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me, and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up”. [ii]

Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels, an expert on this gospel, believes that John’s Gospel was written about the same time, in opposition to the Gospel of Thomas. Both have similarities not in other gospels. For example, they both talk of the divine light coming into the world but, in John’s gospel, this is only in Jesus – “I am the light of the world … whosoever does not come to me walks in darkness”. In the gospel of Thomas, this divine light is in allhumanity, only to be discovered – “within a person of light there is light”. (Pagels 68) In John’s Gospel, salvation is through believing in Jesus and having life in Jesus’ name, while the Gospel of Thomas emphasizes, not so much believing in Jesus, but knowing God through our divine light within – what Jesus recognized in himself.

In John’s gospel, we are warned of the consequences of not believing in Jesus (3: 18). After the famous lines “For God so loved the world”, we hear, “Those who … do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God”. As Elaine Pagels points out, John’s Gospel is good for recruitingbelief in Jesus and unifying the church around this believing in Jesus, rather than each person’s search within themselves in Thomas. So, when John’s Gospel tells various stories about Thomas and says that he finallybelieves in Jesus, this would not be lost on those following Thomas’ teachings.

Thomas’ influence apparently spread. He is said to have evangelized the Parthians and founded Thomas Christians in India. The negativity that later developed, despite Thomas’ missionary activities, may well have been to silence Thomas’ influence and discredit his teachings once one orthodox belief was proclaimed. Rather than reading this story as a positive example of someone coming to belief, this story thus became a warning to thedoubter. A later legend reinforces this. Thomas did not believe Mary was bodily assumed into heaven so she dropped her girdle on him on the way up and his eyes were opened.

The problem here is one that has plagued the church down the centuries – different beliefs and theologies. The Gospel of Thomas and similar writings claiming the Spirit speaking within was the model for Paul’s churches, where honour was given to prophecy, but what happens down the line when you have different claims from the same Spirit? How do you differentiate between God’s Word and human words? By the end of the second century, Bishop Ireneaus was struggling with different groups declaring secret teachings and new revelations and then separating off into smaller groups. Today’s reading from Acts described an idyllic community of believers “of one heart and soul”, but in Irenaeus’ day, Christians were being burned alive, thrown to wild beasts and tortured for their faith. Small Christian communities around the Mediterranean often lived in hiding and isolation around their bishop. Irenaeus wanted to foster unity amongst these communities to support and strengthen them, but communities splitting into smaller and smaller groups simply devalued what they had in common.

Irenaeus therefore declared what he saw as the correct “tradition” from the apostles and chose the four gospels as authoritative, denouncing the many others circulating. He also elevated John’s gospel above the others at a time when many of his colleagues were suspicious of John’s Gospel because many of their opponents were using it. Irenaeus then wrote 5 volumes refuting what he called “falsely so-called knowledge” – the gospels beyond the four.

In the fourth century, Irenaeus’ theology built around John’s Gospel became the orthodox tradition when Emperor Constantine made Christianity a tolerated religion. Other teachings and gospels were declared heresy and heretics were liable for punishment, which is why the Gospel of Thomas and other writings were buried. We are not talking here of a few heretics – some estimate that almost half of the Christians at the time followed the so-called heretical teachings and debates between different positions raged long after Constantine. Elaine Pagels says:

Those who later enshrined the Gospel of John within the New Testament and denounced Thomas’ gospel as heresy decisively shaped – and inevitably limited – what would become       Western Christianity”. [iii]

This is why the discovery of these lost texts in the twentieth century was revolutionary – the first time scholars could read and judge these condemned writings themselves, rather than only read the critiques of them from their opponents.

This long deviation into Thomas shows the theological diversity in the early centuries and how some ideas prevailed and some were silenced. This has continued down the centuries as my new book Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology shows. Different theological ideas and doctrines have been claimed around various scripture verses and, as some have shown, you can argue anything by highlighting some verses and ignoring others. This critique is not to discredit the Bible but to take it seriously. Few have read the Bible through and fewer know how its contents have varied through time, yet we make amazing claims for this book. With any other book of such magnitude, we would ask searching questions about authors, origins and editing, but this has been discouraged with the Bible. In fact, the greater the authority claimed for it, the less interest there seems to be in its origins — it is simply a magical item to believe by faith.

One of the greatest needs in churches today is to talk seriously together about how we read the Bible and to consider how our doctrines were shaped by political, cultural and social ideas as well as religious. Community-splitting debates about the ordination of gay-lesbian people and same-sex marriage are not so much about the people involved, but what the Bible says, or does not say, about homosexuality and marriage. Political debates about abortion and a woman’s right to choose are not so much about the foetus or mother, but about what the Bible does, or does not say, about when life begins. The debate about teaching intelligent design along with evolution in schools is not so much about science or education, but about what the Bible does or does not say about creation.

When the church is confronted today with “hard” social and moral questions, letters to the editor cry “Go back to the Bible,” quoting odd texts from here and there as if this book, enmeshed in ancient cosmology and law, is unquestionably applicable for every aspect of Twenty-first century life. Yet these same folk are selective with the texts they quote. Jesus healing blindness with dirt and saliva is rarely advocated today and not many people sell everything to be a disciple, yet the words from 1 Timothy — “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man,” (1 Tim 2:12) are still used to deny women’s ordination in some denominations and forbid women from teaching boys beyond the age of fourteen – this happens, for example, in the Sydney Anglican diocese in Australia. On what, or whose authority are some verses disposable, yet others eternally binding; and who stands to benefit from such a reading?

I agree — we do need to go back to the Bible. There we find, along with noble thoughts and actions, divinely sanctioned violence. While Sodom and Gomorrah is usually quoted against homosexuality, the righteous Lot, to protect his male guests from gang rape, offered his virgin daughters to the mob instead. Are these the Biblical “family values” we should follow? In fact, which Biblical family should we imitate – Abraham having a child with his wife’s maid; Jacob buying two wives through hard labour; or Paul, who didn’t advocate marriage for himself and only grudgingly for others? We are actually hard put to find a family like the “Biblical family” promoted today. This may seem a harsh analysis of our blind acceptance and reading of the Bible, but we need to be challenged over the inconsistent way we behave. We can take the Bible as a guide for faith and life, but we should not ignore or explain away awkward bits; and we must confrontoutdated laws from vastly different cultures when they are used against people today.

The challenges from this reading today are threefold:

Firstly, we must free Thomas from his syndrome of doubting Thomas and with it, dismantle doubt as a negative in Christianity. Thomas’ request would be praised in our scientific world today, not condemned as doubt. We must also see doubt for what it is, the discrepancy that challenges us when what we are taught does not line up with our reason or experience. Doubt is the grain of sand that irritates the oyster long enough to produce a beautiful pearl.

Secondly, we need to realize that, just as the Bible is a collection of stories of how human beings experienced the Divine in their time and context, we have to interpret it for our time and place, using our knowledge and experience. Doctrines produced from the Bible are always humanly created explanations by fallible minds based on the knowledge, philosophy and context of their day and, as such, are open to question in each generation. Just as Irenaeus sought a unifying theology in a time of persecution, we have to theologize for ourcircumstances.

Thirdly, the Spirit did not cease work on the last page of the Bible and is not confined to medieval monasteries or even today’s theological halls. While the Bible as containing the story of Jesus holds a central place for Christians, to claim it is the only or final story negates the biblical promise that the Spirit continues to work, bringing more light and truth to each generation so we too can write our stories of divine encounters.

Let us go from here, not blinded by ancient rules, cultural phobias or ‘correct’ orthodoxy, but continuing to write the acts of the apostles amid the pressing concerns of today’s high-tech world. The Bible and early church deliberations are a guide, not an eternal archetype into which all contemporary experience must fit. When today’s questions demand different answers, it is not rebellion or heresy, but our encounter with the Spirit that inspired our ancestors and leads us into more truth for our day. Amen


[i]Gospel of Thomas 13: 119

[ii]Gospel of Thomas 50: 123

[iii] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, 29

— Dr Val webb


By | 2017-01-25T14:22:59+00:00 July 30th, 2015|Resources, Sermons|0 Comments

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