Easter tidings of “Doubting Thomas’ and ‘Believin’ Stephen’
It is hard to talk about the resurrection of Jesus Christ without shame. The story is, at best, a strange story, and it has been used unabashedly to dominate non-Christians for centuries.
But, before I go on, please note that this essay is not technically tardy. For Christians, Eastertide begins on Easter Sunday and lasts 50 days. Taylor Mills, the pastor at Trinity United Methodist, has told the congregation twice recently that Eastertide is 10 days longer than Lent. If I knew that fact before this Easter, I had forgotten it. There is a historical explanation for the particular length of Lent and Eastertide, but I am going to make up a reason to fit my argument. Some Christians find Easter even less believable than Lent. It takes us 10 extra days past Lent to practice actual joy in Eastertide.
A preacher I knew many moons ago at Yale gave a sermon contrasting responses to Easter by imagining two early followers of Jesus: Doubting Thomas and his twin, “Believin’” Stephen. Stephen didn’t need to see Jesus in the flesh, much less see Jesus’ wounds. Stephen went around winning people by proclaiming “Jesus is Lord!” Thomas needed to see Jesus in the flesh and to see the actual wounds of the cross on Jesus. Even non-Christians may have heard the term “Doubting Thomas,” because his story of skepticism hits a nerve. Thomas suspected that the words he was hearing about the resurrection of Jesus were the collectively delusional wishes of Jesus’ disciples. Or, maybe Thomas thought the disciples had been bought off by the authorities to postpone a revolution. In saying they’d seen Jesus alive, maybe they were placating the decadently evil Roman Empire. Or, maybe the resurrection story of Jesus Christ was wishful thinking and political spin, the worst of both worlds (pious and political).
The passage in the Gospel of John, a passage that has come now to be popularly known as the story of “Doubting Thomas,” is the Gospel reading that every United Methodist minister is supposed to read each Sunday after Easter, year after year. If a United Methodist preacher preaches about the resurrection on the second Sunday of Eastertide, she can’t easily avoid the question posed by “Doubting Thomas.” Is the resurrection story truth, or delusion, or spin, or some convoluted combination of all three?
The contrast in the sermon on “Believin’” Stephen and Doubting Thomas depends on a difference between a false joy of denial and a joy that endures right in the turmoil of reality. Thomas may have insisted on seeing the wounds of the cross on the body of Jesus Christ because he could not believe in a Lord and Savior that did not bear the signs of the cross. As Gillian Welch sings in “By the Mark,” these signs are how “the King of Heaven can be told from the prince of fools.” This way of reading the story has implications for real, live churches, in that churches are to be the “body of Christ” in the world. If a congregation professes a faith that bears no marks of the evil around us and between us, then that congregation is an imposter. The gift is to receive faith right alongside the bloody truth.
There is a form of Christian joy open to derision right now. These churches fall under the descriptive term “Prosperity Gospel.” My colleague, Kate Bowler, has written a fabulous book on this movement, and Barbara Ehrenreich helpfully locates the trend more broadly in “Bright-Sided.” But I am concerned with another tendency in American Christianity, a heresy that I will call the “Austerity Gospel.” In this form of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the way to winning God’s approval is to accept your own suffering as part of winning. If the “Prosperity Gospel” of Easy Easter and “Believin” Stephen is about praying yourself to a big winning lottery ticket, then the Austerity Gospel is about making yourself as insignificant as possible, and as guilty as possible, in order to win favor from God.
In this false mode of faith, I hope to find some success or mere safety within the brutality of the world by rendering myself abject and compliant. The key terms in churches that are part of the Gospel of Austerity are obedience, the word “just” (as in, I “just” can’t begin to deserve anything) and Lordship. I don’t think the Gospel of Austerity is the true alternative to Easy Easter. The resurrected body of Jesus bears the wounds of evil in the world, and yet is tenaciously tilted toward true joy. Jesus is not a body made of titanium. It is a body that still bears the wounds, and yet still dances toward heaven.
Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.