True Faith: Ducklings into Swans

Acts 2:14. 22-32
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,  “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Holy One always before me, for God is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;  therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.  Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that God would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Saviour. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Saviour.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 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 Child of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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Will you pray with me? We come before you, Holy Friend, with the greetings of the risen Christ ringing in our ears! You have done great things for us, though we barely understand them. You have done great things for us, though we sparely share their riches. You have done great things for us, though we rarely live in their full glory. Today in this ongoing Easter season, may the Spirit of Christ surprise us again with all his deathless truth and grace, and raise us up from the mediocre worship  into which we sometimes slide. In his name we pray. Amen!

When I was young, one of my favourite fairy tales was “The Ugly Duckling.” Written by Hans Christian Anderson (a bisexual man, by the way), the story tells of a young bird hatched into a nest of ducks. Because he does not resemble the others, he is harassed and teased. He sees wild swans flying high in the sky and admires their freedom and beauty, but knows he cannot join them. Forced out of his first home, he wanders from place to place, living with wild geese for a while, and with a farmer over the winter. In the spring he goes down to the pond for the first time, and in the water he sees a lovely white bird—himself—and realizes he is a swan. When the swans return, they take him as one of their own, and he is able to fly away with them, at home and himself for the first time.

It’s a wonderful story on many levels—there’s a subtext of being misunderstood, of not belonging where we are, that is common to us all as we grow up and find our place in the world. There’s a strong current of the LGBT person, too, not at home until they find others like themselves, and can know themselves as part of a caring, supportive group.

The theme I want to look at, though, is that of recognizing ourselves, of growing into truth and faith, living through the doubt until we see ourselves as we really are.

This is Thomas’ position. He missed the “big reveal” of Jesus’ first appearance to the other disciples on the afternoon of that first Easter Sunday—and he insists on proof. But let’s not be too hard on him—it is often said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but apathy. Thomas wants to believe—he followed Jesus through many difficult times, and is still part of the disciples. He just wants to be sure.

Maybe Thomas has a hard time trusting—maybe he has that familiar-to-many-of-us concern of abandonment. He wants to believe Jesus has risen, but he doesn’t want to be made a fool of, either. Maybe he has had his hopes and faith dashed too many times before this. For whatever reason, Thomas cannot, dares not, trust that what the others—John, Peter, James—tell him is really true. He cannot accept it as simply true, and so he makes extreme statements about what he needs to do in order to believe. And when Jesus calls his bluff, Thomas falls on his knees and believes. He cannot resist the truth—and he comes to know himself.

It’s a gradual process, like the duckling-into-swan. It doesn’t happen overnight—remember, it was a week later before Jesus appeared again. Thomas had seven days to think and remember and pray and listen to what the others were telling him.

True faith—whether it’s faith in ourselves or in something else—doesn’t come easily. It is a product of wrestling with what we know and don’t know, what we wish we didn’t know and what we long to know. It is precisely because it comes from this struggle that faith and apathy are opposites, not faith and doubt. Those who doubt want to believe—otherwise they simply would disbelieve, and be done with the matter. So they move from doubt to faith as a result of their struggle.

Sometimes there’s fallout, some other damage done on the way to that faith, though. In the case of the writer of the gospel of John, that damage was a legacy of anti-Semitism, of a bias that fosters a negative attitude to Jewish people and Judaism.

You see, at the time when this gospel was composed and recorded, the early Christians—who mostly began their lives as Jewish people—were in the process of leaving the synagogues. This was partly because their faith was leading them a different way, one in which they knew Jesus was the Messiah, and partly because they were seen as heretical by the Jewish authorities and were gradually being made to feel unwelcome in the synagogues. So they had to come to terms with this separation—which meant not only leaving their place of worship, but their extended families, their communities. How do humans often deal with forced separation? We get angry, we demonize the ones we are separating from—or at least we want to see them as completely wrong or foolish or unseeing or not understanding.

We do this when we end relationships—the ex-partner’s faults become magnified, and their good traits shrink to the vanishing point. All we want to remember is how selfish they were, or how they didn’t understand our needs, or were not willing to commit to the relationship. We do when we leave a job sometimes—the company was too demanding, or demeaning; or our boss stole our ideas. Many of us did this when we were adolescents and were in the necessary process of separating from our parents—our parents suddenly didn’t understand us, were out of touch, didn’t really care about us. Maybe we fantasized that they weren’t our “real” parents—that our genuine parents would swoop down out of the blue and take us off to live our “real” lives as princesses or in the circus or as superheroes—and adopted children have these fantasies, too, by the way; this fantasy of being foisted onto other people to raise, whether by accident or design—like the ugly duckling, forced to live as a duck when he was really a swan.

So John and the Christians of his time had to struggle with separating from Judaism—and so they demonized the Jewish people as a whole—even though they knew that what they were saying was not literally true, and was an exaggeration. It was part of the separation process. Unfortunately, after a few generations went by, the awareness of the context of those early Christians was lost, and Christians took the gospels literally in every detail, and Jewish people became seen as devilish, wilfully evil, and just plain wrong.

We have to recognise this and see the truth through modern eyes. Remember that Jesus was Jewish—God chose to be born into a Jewish family, into the Jewish faith. Jesus was an observant Jew of Palestine. We cannot allow the biases of the past to affect our understanding of eternal spiritual truth.

That was part of the struggle of faith of the early Christians.  Thomas had to overcome his fear of trusting that Christ was risen in order to be the apostle he was meant to be—the apostle who, tradition says, travelled to India to spread the gospel there, whose spiritual descendents are the Mar Thoma Christians of today’s India. The early Christians of John’s community, however, were not able to make that leap—they were not able to accept that the Jewish faith that nurtured Christ could, in another way, continue to nurture them. Instead, they turned away in recrimination, declaring like a teenager, “I hate you!” Most teenagers eventually come to terms with their parents—not all, of course—but most come to some kind of accommodation and acceptance. The early Christians, sadly, could not do that—and their poisonous legacy is the centuries of oppression, bigotry, and slaughter of Jewish peoples.

It’s appropriate to remember this today; it’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day to remember all those slain in the Nazi concentration camps. They were killed in the millions because they were Jewish, or Polish, or Catholic clergy, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or lesbians, or gay men, or developmentally challenged, or twins, or physically challenged, or political dissidents.

This is the fruit of unquestioned faith, of faith that has not struggled to be born and sustained, a faith without insight into its own faults and weaknesses and thin spots. A faith that doesn’t know its own weaknesses will be convinced it doesn’t have any—and will act as if it is responsible to no-one. Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “God said, I believe it, that settles it?” That takes a lot for granted, doesn’t it? For instance, that humans know exactly what God says, and what God means by it, and what humans are supposed to do with it. But an unquestioned faith, a faith that has not wrestled with the deeper meanings, is a faith that is afraid to look at these things—afraid, perhaps, that it will be toppled by a single word or action that casts any doubt. A muscle grows stronger through use—so does faith, through the struggle and doubt and wrestling.

It is through that work of faith, that struggle and doubt, that need to know for ourselves, not what another person has told us, that we come to know who we really are and what we believe. It is through the wrestling with difficult times—being thrown out of a nest we didn’t really belong in, sometimes even alienation and harassment, that we come to the knowledge of who we are, and to a stronger faith.

We may be ducklings today, placed in the wrong nest; we may be Thomas on that first Easter Sunday, doubting what we want to believe. But, praise God, through work and doubt and struggle, we will come to be swans, we will fall to our knees like Thomas, and cry out, “My Lord and my God!” and our faith will be strong. In the name of the one redeeming God, amen.

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