Acts 4, 32-35; 1 John 5, 1-6; John 20, 19-31.
We live in an age and culture that, where belief is concerned, carries multiple contradictions. A few weeks ago, the faith and church attendance survey report published last January gave a snapshot of the situation of belief in our country. It is very difficult to reconcile how we normally see and judge the reality of our society according to what the report claims, namely, that 95 per cent of those interviewed say they believe in God and that 92 per cent claim to be Catholics. We can so easily be induced to say and claim something that hardly reflects who we really are.
In his book The Meaning of Belief, Tim Crane, committed atheist, a refers to a story of a man stopped by a guard at a roadblock during the sectarian conflicts in Northern Ireland. Asked what was his religion, the man replied “Atheist”, to which the guard reacted: “Protestant or Catholic atheist?” For Crane, the guard’s question suggests how at times, actual belief in God may be irrelevant. What matters in such circumstances is what group you belong to.
In today’s gospel account, it is very easy to criticise Thomas for his reluctance to believe what the other disciples claimed to have seen and experienced. But against all odds, Thomas was really being honest with himself, and honesty is very important when we talk about what we believe in. For honesty’s sake, he refused to simply comply to what the others were claiming. He could have very easily joined the club. He did not.
That should set some standards for all of us who claim to be believers. The claim to believe can be very easy, even comforting at times. But faith is not a culture you belong to; it is not the religion one is born in that makes one a believer. The true measure of belief is somewhere else.
The scene of Thomas touching the wounds of Jesus is very often the context we need to return to. In our worldly and daily experience it is not the risen Jesus that we encounter but rather it is his wounds in an ailing humanity that we continuously touch and feel. It is this crude reality that provokes us in the same manner Thomas felt provoked by the claims of his colleagues.
This experience of Thomas and the other disciples points to something that is basic to belief: beyond our belonging or affiliations, there is always the personal encounter that opens our eyes to a different but meaningful presence of the transcendent in life. Unless that happens, religion for us remains the usual blend of cosmology and morality – simply acknowledging that God the creator exists, and the observance of the rules that govern our behaviour. I am not saying this is not important. But there is the need, beyond all this, to be touched in the very depth of our existence. It is this that changes the perspective with which we live and that makes belief not only sensible but therapeutic.
Today’s reading from Acts makes it clear that, as believers in the resurrection, we are not simply messengers of this piece of news. The resurrection, rather than a message, is the innovation, the experience of a radically new way of living. It was the new community of Christians and their transparency that made the resurrection carnally visible. The truth of the resurrection is not a doctrine to be preached but it is praxis. We almost have a reversal of what the gospel usually starts with: it is the case of flesh that becomes word, rather than the word becoming flesh.
The book of Acts speaks of Jesus’ risen body, which was the Church. It says “no one claimed for his own use anything that he had” and “none of their members was even in want”. Can we recognise ourselves in that snapshot, when today the same Eucharist is shared both by those who are extremely well-to-do as well as by the homeless as if this poses no problem at all?
As long as preaching Jesus’ victory over death and crying for justice remain two completely separate things, all we do in the name of religion becomes a parody of belief. Belief in the resurrection practically translates as a new network of relations. The truth or falsehood of the gospel is not to be ascertained through arguments or theological disquisition. It is proven true or false in what transpires from the way those who claim to be believers live and impact on society.
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