Sunday, April 3, 2016
Second Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
“Believing: That We May Have Life”
Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in what was then known as Transylvania. During World War II he and his parents and three sisters were deported to the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister died there. His two older sisters survived.
Wiesel and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died just before the camp was liberated in 1945. Wiesel was 16 years old.
It would not be until 1960 that he would write about his experience at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in the book - Night. Wiesel absorbed the horror and trauma of genocide as a teenager. Some might take offense that Wiesel chose to write about the “death of God.” But given what he had seen in the camps, we would be hard-pressed to fault Wiesel for his loss of faith.
As he grew into adulthood, Wiesel became increasingly concerned about Jews and others who suffered persecution and death because of their race, religion and national origin. He would go on to write over 50 other books. He received numerous awards for his writing and in 1986 he received the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Over time Wiesel came to terms with the trauma of what he had seen and experienced in the extermination camps. In the preface to his novel, The Gates of the Forest, Wiesel writes “When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism,s aw that the Jewish people was threatened by tragedy he would go to particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.
Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished.
Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. ‘I do not know how to light the fire,’ he pleaded with God, ‘and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and that must be sufficient.’ Once again, the miracle was accomplished.
When it was the turn of Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God, ‘I am unable to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story. That must be enough.’” (The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel, 1966)
And it was. It was sufficient.
Our reading from The Gospel of According to John is about another story and about what is sufficient. At first the disciple who gathered behind locked doors were unconvinced about the stories of the resurrection of Jesus that Mary, Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna and the other women shared with them.
Joseph of Arimathea must have taken Jesus’ body to another tomb. Or someone must have come and stolen Jesus’ body. Or Jesus did not die but was resuscitated and he simply disappeared and lived the rest of his life in obscurity.
It was only after Jesus appears in their midst that they recognized that he was alive. He said to them, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. (John 20:19-20)
But Thomas was not in the room when Jesus appears to them. The disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” (John 20:25).
It is not difficult for us to imagine Thomas’ consternation. No doubt, he was overwhelmed with grief. Thomas makes a statement that probably annoyed and perhaps even angered the disciples.
“Look,” he tells 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.” (John 20:25) Some may have been tempted to chastise Thomas for his lack of faith.
Yes, there was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem but Thomas had seen it all. There was also Judas’ betrayal, the trial, the pain and suffering of the crucifixion and Jesus’ death. For Thomas the extermination of Jesus was final. There was nothing left.
Yet, whatever doubts Thomas may have had about the resurrection, he was willing to express his doubts to the other disciples without giving up his faith. Though at first he does not share their experience of the risen Christ, he nevertheless remains with them.
When Jesus finally appears to him, he is invited by Jesus to touch the holes in his hands and the wound in his side. Some have said that when Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” it was said as a rebuke for his unbelief. (John 20:29)
That seems evident when Jesus adds, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29). But I would cut Thomas a lot of slack.
How self-righteous of us to think that Thomas’ doubt is a sign of a lack of faith? Why would he not be skeptical of the stories told by the disciples and by the women?
Like Wiesel, Thomas saw everything around him unravel. Everything came to an end when Jesus died.
Wiesel said of his account of the extermination camps, “In Night, I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end – man (sic), history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet” he writes, “we begin again ... ” (Sanford V. Sternlicht, Student Companion to Elie Wiesel, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, page 29)
The Easter resurrection is about beginning again. Thomas, like the others, became a witness of the risen Christ. Garrison Keillor, an American author, humorist and storyteller is also the host of the weekly radio broadcast A Prairie Home Companion. The show airs each week on National Public Radio.
Keillor said, “Easter is that time of year when Christians ask themselves two questions. Do I really believe all this stuff? And if so, why do I live this way?” (Christian Century, March 16, 2016, page 23)
In the aftermath of the resurrection, Thomas asked himself that question. His response to Jesus is an affirmation of his faith when he says, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
According to the tradition of the early church, Thomas went far beyond the Roman Empire, preaching the good news as far as southwest India. He lived his life as an evangelist and became known as the builder of many, many churches. Today, in the state of Kerala along the Malabar Coast a large number of believers call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas.”
What are we to make of the story of Thomas? Our reading from The Gospel According to John concludes with the following words: “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 (we) may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing (we) may have life in his name.”
We were not in the room behind locked doors the day Jesus appeared to them. But we know the story. We were not there when he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spiri.t” (John 20: 22) But we know the story. We were not there to see the mark of the nails in his hands or put our fingers in the mark of the nails and our hands in his side. But we know the story.
All we can do is tell the story. That must be enough - and it is.