Although it’s now over 5 years old, I’m posting this sermon – my very first – for a couple of reasons. The immediate reason is so I can share some of the ideas in it with a friend in an online conversation we’re having. I had thought I would just link to it on the website of Northside Presbyterian Church, where I preached it, but it seems they have taken down most of the sermon archive, at least anything older than a year. Which leads to my second, perhaps vain, reason: I had expected it would always be there for people to read, or to find in search engines. Since it’s not, I suppose I’ll have to take care of my own immortality.
As is usually the case for junior assistant amateur preachers, I had my first preaching opportunity the Sunday after Easter (it was April 15, 2007), when most church pastors take some down time after the extended build-up through Lent and Holy Week to Good Friday and Easter. The standard Bible passage (“lectionary reading” in churchspeak) for that Sunday is the story of “Doubting” Thomas, the Disciple who insisted on seeing and touching the risen Jesus before he would believe that Jesus really had returned from the dead. (If you want to read it, it’s John 20:19-29.)
While I was somewhat contrarian in this sermon, I didn’t say anything particularly profound about Thomas and his doubt. But I still think the mytho-historical part – which starts about one-third of the way down – is, if not profound, at least thought-provoking.
Without further ado, here ’tis.
The Maturing of Truth
Poor Thomas! To be called Doubting Thomas down through the ages – when the last of his words reported by John are, “My Lord and my God!” What a heartfelt affirmation of belief! Y’know, the other disciples weren’t necessarily any more willing to take the Resurrection on faith. Our gospel reading today tells us, Jesus appeared out of nowhere in a closed room, greeted them, showed them His hands and His side… “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Having seen all that, they believed – they knew – that their understanding of what is True – their understanding of what is capital-T True – had just undergone a radical change.
Thomas wasn’t there at the time. Maybe he was still lost in grief. I mean, he was arguably the most devoted disciple. In the Lazarus story, in the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus said, “Let’s go back to Judea. Lazarus is dead. Let’s go to him.” Most of the disciples said, “What!? Just recently they tried to stone you there! And you want to go back? Master, are you nuts!?” Or words to that effect. At that time, it was Thomas who said, “Let us go with him. And let us die with him.”
So, this loyal follower, Thomas: his teacher and friend has just been arrested, tortured, killed, and buried. We don’t know for sure where Thomas was that first Easter evening. But it seems pretty reasonable to think that he was grieving.
Then his friends come and tell him Jesus isn’t dead. It probably seems like a heartless joke: “No, really, we saw him.” Thomas says, “Fine. When I also see him, I will also believe it.” And sure enough, when he has the same experience as the other disciples, in the same place a week later, he does believe.
Now, if I were Chuck*, I would probably tie this into a book that he recommended to me – and some of you have read too – Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. It’s based on some major 20th-century archaeological finds, and it tells us that there was quite a dispute between John – the writer of the fourth Gospel – and Thomas, who is portrayed there in a less than flattering light. I’m not saying John’s report isn’t the gospel truth. It’s just… well, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of the relationship between the author and the subject when you read something. But – I’m not Chuck, so this sermon isn’t about Elaine Pagels or The Secret Gospel of Thomas.
No. The point I want to make is that Truth – capital-T Truth – evolves, or matures. … That’s not exactly it, of course. I think… without getting too deep into Plato, I think I can say that most of us agree that it’s in the nature of Truth that it doesn’t change. It’s our understanding of Truth that evolves and … matures. And I don’t mean that just for each individual. For humanity as a whole, the understanding of Truth matures and develops … though not every individual person experiences the exact same development at the exact same time.
Now, I want to set John’s gospel aside for a moment, and kind of tell our story in a more abstracted form. Leaving personalities out of it, the essence of the story of the divine and humanity goes like this. The title of the story is:
The Death of the Deity
The Deity – the Divine One – is seized, humbled, humiliated even – is taken by death – and descends into the underworld (hell, Hades, Sheol, whatever) – the land of the dead. The Divine One?? Dead?? How can this be? What will happen to us now?? Darkness covers the land. Time seems to stand still, as three times, the earth goes around. Nothing changes, nothing grows or develops. But then, just when it seems all is truly lost – a miracle! God returns from the dead! New life for the world! Rejoicing fills the air!
Now, let’s fill in the details of the story. The fertility goddess Inanna is the Queen of Heaven and Earth… Oh, did I mention that this story takes place in ancient Sumer, about 5000 years ago? At least, the oldest known written form of the story – cuneiform on clay tablets – dates back that far. The story is probably much older. OK. The fertility goddess Inanna is the Queen of Heaven and Earth, but not of the Underworld. The Queen of the Underworld, the realm of the dead, is Ereshkigal, Inanna’s sister, and Inanna decides to go visit her. The guardians at the 7 gates of the Underworld, acting on Queen Ereshkigal’s orders, make Inanna strip as she descends – one garment or piece of jewelry at each gate – because anyone, even the Queen of Heaven and Earth, must be naked, humbled, even crouched down to be admitted to Queen Ereshkigal’s presence. And then, as soon as the two meet? Ereshkigal kills Inanna, kills her with one look from her eyes of death; then hangs her body on a nail, where it proceeds to decay. Inanna is truly dead. In her absence – in the absence of the fertility goddess – the earth is barren. Nothing grows. As Queen, Inanna has sort of an executive assistant goddess, Ninshubur. When Inanna has been in the Underworld for three days, Ninshubur, fearing the worst, organizes a rescue mission. Keeping this long story short, suffice it to say that Inanna’s rotting corpse is recovered, she is restored to wholeness and life, and returns to her realm of Heaven and Earth, more powerful than ever. And, the Earth’s fertility is restored. New life for the world.
Or, how about the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, which dates back 3000 years or more, putting it between Inanna and Thomas. (Yes, I haven’t forgotten Thomas.) Demeter is the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Persephone, also a goddess – a young-woman goddess - is Demeter’s daughter. Sweet, innocent, virginal Persephone is out picking flowers with her friends. She gets just a little ways away from them, and BOOM! Hades, the god-king of the Underworld swoops in, his golden chariot drawn by black horses, and he snatches Persephone. Her screams are in vain as the earth opens up before them, and the chariot disappears into the Underworld, the land of the dead. Now – Hades is in love with Persephone, and he shows it in those peculiar ways that some men still show their love. He kidnaps her, rapes her, and marries her; he makes her his queen, and his prisoner. Meanwhile, Demeter, being a good Mom, wanders around for days, frantically trying to find her daughter. When she finally finds out what happened, she demands that Zeus order Persephone’s release. Zeus demurs. Demeter – goddess of fertility – withdraws her favor from the land, and the world becomes barren. After three years, Zeus relents. The best deal he can make with Hades, though, is that Persephone may only be with her mother for 9 months of each year. The other three months she must spend in the Underworld, as Hades’ Queen. During those three months, Demeter, grieving, brings cold and barrenness to the land again. When Persephone is restored to her mother each spring, Demeter makes the earth fertile once again. New life for the world.
Before I tell you what my point is, let me tell you what my point is not. I am not saying that the story of Jesus of Nazareth is just another Death of the Deity story. I don’t see it as derivative. And I certainly don’t hold with that cynical school of thought that trivializes Christianity by saying that Christianity expropriated the pagan stories and rituals as a way of getting the simple folk to go along.
What I am saying is that our understanding of Truth develops and matures, just as each of us individually, and all of us as humanity, develop and mature. It’s like kids. My younger daughter, Emily, is 7 years old. She’s inquisitive and bright and all, but her ability to comprehend capital-T Truth is of course more limited than her 25-year-old sister’s. And Christine, at 25, though she has a much more mature understanding of Truth, it’s still more limited than, say, that of my Mom’s daughter.
So with humanity as a whole. The Sumerian understanding of the relationship between God and humanity 50 centuries ago seems primitive, child-like, to us today. Greece 30 centuries ago may have had a more developed understanding of that relationship, but from here, we can see that it, too, is not fully mature. It’s not that they or the Sumerians had it wrong – or should I say, it’s not that we had it wrong 3000 or 5000 years ago. It’s the same God, the one and only God, revealing the same Truth to us. It’s we who have changed – we’ve matured into a species who can understand that one Truth in more sophisticated, more subtle, more complex ways.
You can see this progression, this maturing, in today’s scripture readings, too. Writing in the centuries before Jesus’ birth, today’s Psalmist’s understanding of God, and God’s relationship with him, and with his life and death, is more sophisticated than what we find in the Sumerian and Greek myths. It’s also a much more literal – less mature – understanding of these relationships than the disciples had post-Easter. The exact origins of Psalm 118 are not known for sure, but apparently, the Psalmist has just emerged victorious from a military battle that had looked hopeless. That – rather than the disciples’ or our understanding of Christ’s resurrection – surviving that battle is what he’s talking about when he says, “I shall not die, but I shall live…. The Lord…has not given me over to death.” He’s telling us his understanding at that time of Truth, as God has showed it to him.
Now, I told you I’d get back to Thomas. The Doubting Thomas story is a snapshot of a moment in time – that week between when most of the disciples grew into their new belief, their new understanding of Truth, and when Thomas did. John may have had his reasons to portray Thomas’ slightly slower development as a character flaw. But the Lord didn’t put Thomas down for it – the Lord knew that Thomas’ faith just wasn’t mature enough yet to believe without seeing, and so, He gave Thomas the visible signs that Thomas needed. And, yes, He also gently admonished him to try to continue growing – maturing – in his faith, in his understanding of Truth.
And in Revelation, John of Patmos, within the limits of his own first-century understanding of Truth, John is trying to convey, trying to describe something that even we, in the oh-so-mature 21st century, can only comprehend the dim outline of. It’s like saying, “There’s no easy way to explain this. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
The obvious lesson for a bunch of liberals to try to draw from this is that we are more mature than those other folks, who just haven’t caught up yet in their personal growth. But that attitude is itself immature, like the kindergartner who calls the toddler a crybaby. If we want to follow Christ – and I do – “Follow me” was both the first and the last thing he said to his disciples according to John – if we want to follow Christ, we are called to follow his example in the Thomas story – reach out to people where they are; lovingly show them – in their terms, not ours – show them our understanding of Truth; and so help humanity to keep growing in faith. Amen.
*Chuck Booker-Hirsch was the pastor of Northside, the preacher for whom I was substituting.