Two of our children bear Thomas in their name. Their grandfather was called Thomas. Thomas is highlighted in our Gospel today. What was he doing on this first day of the week when the other disciples were locked in in fear of the people’s anger? Did he not share the anxiety of the other disciples? Did he have more confidence?
Kate Huey, in the linked article, quotes Michael Williams’s comment about Thomas which contrasts with how Thomas is so often portrayed. He writes: “the only one amonmg the disciples who was not do filled with fear that he was unwilling to leave the disciples’ hiding place.” (see this Sunday’s gospel) Kate quotes Gail O’Day’s observation that “one week after the disciples have been visited by the risen jesus and received Jesuis’ peace and the Holy Spirit, they have once again locked themselves away behind closed doors.” Even after seeing the risen Jesus they still don’t live as an Easter people.
So was Thomas the one didn’t want to be locked away? Was he the one who wasn’t frightened? Was he the free spirit? Have we lost the truth by caricaturing him falsely as “the doubter”? And if he is the odd one out of the twelve? What does he have to say about the rest of them, and the rest of us who are similarly inclined to lock ourselves away (metaphorically) because we fear the people. What was Thomas doing?
Jan Richardson in the Painted Prayerbook has a different take on the locked room – the “secret room” as she calls this painting, and she suggests that every pilgrim needs a secret room.
She quotes Phil Cousineau’s The Art of Pilgrimage who writes this:
“Everywhere you go, there is a secret room. To discover it, you must knock on walls, as the detective does in mystery houses, and listen for the echo that protends the secret passage. You must pull books off shelves to see if the library shelf swings open to reveal the hidden room. I’ll say it again, everywhere has a secret room. You must find your own, in a small chapel, a tiny cafe, a quiet park, the home of a new firend, the pew wehere the light strikes the rose window just so. As a pilgrim you must find it or you will never understand the hidden reasons why you really left home.”
Here is sanctuary and indicates the need we all have for “retreat” for all the times when we have a choice of fight or flight and when fighting seems so hopeless. And does Jesus condemn us for locking oursleves away and trying to save our own skin? It appears not. Because to those first Christians locked in fear Jesus came with nothing other than peace. There were no recriminations for them running away or for their betrayal of his trust. All he does when he gets through their defences – past the locked doors is to “offer them greeting and gift” (Kate Huey) – “Peace be with you”.
In the news last week was a man who has fathered a child aged 75 and a woman who has given birth – aged 70 (that’s the Mum, not Benjamin Button). Her name is Raji Deva Lohan – and it’s her first child!But that’s nothing compared to the story from Genesis 17 in our worship this week. Abram was 99. His wife Sarai was regarded (and ?despised) as barren, and they suddenly expect their first child. Not just one – but millions of them! It changes their whole life and identity. Abram becomes Abraham (meaning father of many nations) and Sarai becomes Sarah (meaning “princess” – better than being despised any day!) Together they become known as the father and mother of nations which include Jews, Christians and Muslims (see, we really are brothers and sisters).
Kate Huey’s posts are always worth a read. This week she puts together the opinion of experts who reckon that the Abraham and Sarah stories were written at the time of the Exile in the 6th century BC – when the deported Jews sat down “by the rivers of Babylon and wept when they remembered Zion”. They were so desparate they couldn’t even bring themselves to sing the songs of their homeland. They were powerless. This powerlessness is the backdrop to the Genesis story in which the reader is asked to look back and is given a future tense for their lives – hope and direction.
Reading betwen the lines – OK they were all powerless. So was Abram and Sarai. Try as they might they couldn’t have a baby. Yet at 99 – why 99? – presumably to emphasise just how old and knackered they were – they get their baby/babies. Trust God to do the business – and that gave them their future (and us ours).
Kate Huey refers to the name of God in the story – El-Shaddai. Usually translated as “God Almighty” – in other words “all-conquering” there is an alternative which is God of the mountains – and yet again (according to Valerie Bridgeman Davis) “God of many breasts”. Now even if that is not a correct translation it really is worth playing around with because it contrasts the fertility and generosity of God with the barrenness and powerlessness of human nature for Abram, Sarai, the exiled and all those who can’t feel “at home” in their world.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text, “The Late Bloomer,” makes Abraham and Sarah feel like people we know, who find it hard to believe in the promise or the future. “To live by it, day after day, to see it in the night sky and hear it in your name and see it again in your lover’s eyes. It is a hard thing, to believe in a promise with no power to make it come true. Everything is in the future tense. And yet. What better way to live than in the grip of a promise, and a divine one at that?”
Barbara Brown Taylor reflects that living in the meantime calls us “to live reverently, deliberately, and fully awake: that is what it means to live in the promise, where the wait itself is as rich as its end. All it takes are some regular reminders, because as long as the promise is renewed, the promise is alive, as vivid as a rainbow, as real as the million stars overhead” (“The Late Bloomer,”in Gospel Medicine).