April 23, 2017: The courage to witness (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
The year is 2025. Despite the fact that the majority of Americans do not believe in climate change, several areas of the country have become uninhabitable due to toxic environmental factors, and fertility rates have plummeted to a startling low. Advances in technology have resulted in all financial transactions becoming virtual. Several years ago, the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government were gunned down, reportedly by Muslim extremists. Martial law was declared and the constitution was suspended. Political power was seized by a coalition of men who espoused an extreme fundamentalist Christian perspective that resulted in all non-Christians being given the choice of converting or leaving the country. Women were removed from the workforce, their financial accounts shut off, and their access to reading materials eliminated. New social norms were mandated: men had jobs; “legitimate” wives, (those who had been married only once within the state church), cared for the homes of the men; women of color were designated as household servants; older women, men of color, and those considered “heretical” were shipped to “the colonies” to perform manual labor, often consisting of toxic clean-up. Those who would not convert or accede to the new social order were killed. All marriages not blessed by the state religion were declared invalid and children from these marriages were “redistributed” among more worthy couples. Women of childbearing age who had shown the ability to bear children were given the choice of going to the colonies or becoming “handmaids” to powerful men. These new policies, according to the leadership, were appropriated from an impeccable source of goodness and right – the Bible.
Now, consider what your place might be in this new society. For many of us, by virtue of our age, race, culture, and/or gender, we would be mandated to a certain path, without choices; but for others of us there might be options -for Christians with different beliefs, there would be a choice – to comply or dissent – to choose life or death.
This is the scenario advanced by Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one of several dystopian books that have recently made a comeback on best seller lists. Atwood’s book is powerful and frightening for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because it demonstrates the way in which the words of our scriptures can be shaped to justify and legitimize all sorts of evil. And, although it might seem counterintuitive to connect a pessimistic futuristic story to the post-Easter joy we are experiencing, I think it raises some particularly relevant questions for us, like what it means to be a member of “the Jesus Movement” in a certain time and place.
It was certainly the question for Jesus’s disciples following his death. In a short time they had gone from members of a growing cult to being the defeated followers of a disgraced religious blasphemer and state-condemned criminal. They weren’t even sure whether he had been resurrected. They were certainly not out dancing in the streets, singing loud Hosannas, and shouting, “He is risen.” Instead, they were doing what many of us would do if we were terrified and grief-stricken: they were huddling together for solace and security, hiding among friends who felt the same way they did – people who understood them and made them feel safe. They, like so many of us, were in Christian community seeking comfort. They were probably not thinking about evangelism.
It’s not something Episcopalians like to think about either. In the time and place where I learned to be a Christian, it was considered rude to talk about religion and downright déclassé to proselytize. And when you were asked about, it was considered preferable to promote your faith through elegant argument and intellectual rigor rather than personal witness. Being “pushy” about your religious beliefs was a good way to lose your social status. Of course, for the disciples, it meant they might actually lose their lives, so they understandably wanted to be ready before going public with it. They wanted to be sure. So, who could blame Thomas for asking for a little proof? The author of the Gospel of John, that’s who.
The story of “Doubting Thomas” is found only in the Gospel of John, which is primarily focused on Jesus’s divinity. For the author of the Gospel of John, believing that Jesus is both God and Savior is the only path to salvation so Thomas, and by extension, all Christians, must experience Jesus as divine in order to be saved. But other early apostles had different ideas about the meaning of Jesus’s reappearance to the disciples, and one of those was the author of the Gospel of Thomas. According to scholar Elaine Pagels, that gospel, which didn’t make it into the New Testament, taught “that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone. Thomas’s gospel encourages the hearer to seek to know God through one’s own divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God.” In other words, the two gospel writers believed in the same God and the same savior, but they disagreed about how to find him. By portraying Thomas as unbelieving, John’s author managed to convey that his view of salvation is the correct one, undermining both Thomas’ character and his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. So John’s became one of four gospels in the formal Christian canon, and the Gospel of Thomas was lost for 1500 years.
For many of us, who believe that faith is a personal choice, the doctrinal wrangling of ancient theologians may seem unimportant, but I think it’s actually critically significant. First of all, it teaches us that Christianity has always been political. It also tells us that from the beginning there have been efforts to promote the idea that there is only one way to follow Jesus – and if you don’t take that path, you are not faithful. And it shows us what happens when we fail to speak out about our own understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Things get lost. Scripture is misunderstood. Evil is done in the name of God.
That’s why being a member of the Jesus Movement is not a “personal” decision; it is a social, political, life-changing and life-threatening choice. You need to believe deeply and irrevocably, to understand what you believe, to be willing to witness to what you believe – and potentially to die for what you believe – otherwise false prophets will rise – and the Jesus movement will die.
It is the last and greatest mandate that Jesus, both human and divine, gave to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He charged his disciples to let go of their fears, to receive the strength and courage of the Holy Spirit and to become his representatives in the world – to be transformed from disciples to apostles – and evangelists.
We are asked to make the same choice. Like the community of John, like Thomas – like David and Peter – we are asked to witness to what we have seen, what we have felt – what we know. To tell our stories – to share the vastness and variety of God’s mercy and the fullness of joy found in God’s presence. That is what it means to be a member of the Jesus Movement in this time and this place. It is the opportunity to share our Easter rejoicing, to love those who have not yet seen our Savior and to attest to his wonders, that through us they might also come to believe and through believing have life in his name. AMEN.
Elaine Pagels, (2004), Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, [New York: Random House].