|"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas," Carravagio|
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. John 20:29
I know that some of you are musicians or artists. You play an instrument, draw calligraphy, paint, dance. How many of you believed you could play a Bach concerto the first time you touched a piano key? How many of you believed you could dance the role of the black swan after your first ballet class?
No one becomes an accomplished artist overnight. You come to believe you can do these things. It requires a lot of practice and commitment. Now, you just do them. But the music or the brush stroke or the body movement begins as something separate from us, unfamiliar, maybe almost impossible to grasp. Slowly, over time, you come to entrust yourselves to the creative process, to give yourselves over to it.
You begin by practicing the art, until eventually the art expresses itself through you. You become united with the creative process. You no longer are separate, an outside observer looking in. You have come to believe that you are an artist.
Now, we can easily recognize this same process at work in many dimensions of life: from golf to medicine, from tennis to writing. We always begin at the beginning: doubtful of our ability, unsure of our commitment, wondering what difference it will make in our life. Some of us know, however, from our own experience the difference between playing golf and being a golfer or playing the piano and being a pianist. And when we are really cookin’, we know the difference between being a dancer and being the dance.
When we give ourselves to something or someone with our whole heart, and commit to practice those things that bring us closer to realizing our union with that thing or person, it changes us. We take on a new identity and see ourselves, and the world, differently.
Whatever the art or craft may be, if we really want to be transformed by our engagement with it, we need three things: a teacher, a discipline of practice, and a community that supports us in that discipline. The Suzuki Music Program that meets here at St. James is a good example.
Ed Wilcox is a master teacher of the Suzuki method; he is a well-formed disciple of the Japanese violinist, Shin’ichi Suzuki, who founded the Suzuki school. Ed is, if you will, filled with the spirit of Suzuki. The students follow a strict regimen of practicing the violin on their own, attending classes with Ed, and performing in concerts with others. In addition, Ed has worked to create a community of families who support one another so that their children can move from playing the violin to being violinists in the way of Suzuki.
The same is true of religion. If we wish to be spiritually transformed, to come to believe that we are united with Christ, we need a teacher, a discipline of practice, and a community that supports us in that practice. We see all three elements at work in the story of Thomas that we heard today. Thomas shows us the process of coming to believe.
For Christians it is Jesus, of course, who is the founder, the teacher whose spirit fills all the other teachers of the way of Jesus. Jesus is our Shin’ichi Suzuki, if you will. But notice what the risen Jesus does in his encounter with his disciples. He breathes his spirit on them and sends them to carry out his work in the world. He provides us with the teachers that we need to follow his way.
I don’t know why it is that we are more than willing to accept that we need someone to teach us math, or ballet, or how to hit a baseball, but we think we can figure things out for ourselves when it comes to religion. We need a teacher. We need the examples of people who are filled with the spirit of Jesus, who have practiced his way with discipline and commitment. They show us the way, until we can walk the path ourselves.
Thomas quickly grasps this. Some have thought him bad for insisting on experiencing the risen Jesus for himself, but it seems to me that he understood something important: no one can practice our religion for us. Their teaching and example point us in the right direction, but we have to walk the path ourselves. We have to observe those practices that support our own encounter with the living Christ, our union with Christ.
Your spouse can’t do your worshipping, your meditating, and your volunteer work for you. Your children can’t study the Scriptures, work for justice, or practice forgiveness for you. We have to do the hard work of preparing ourselves to seek and service Christ in our neighbor; to become Christ for our neighbor. Just as no one can do our suffering for us, no one can experience our salvation for us.
But notice that Jesus appears to Thomas when he is in the company of others. This is true of almost all of the stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples – he usually appears to them when two or three or more are gathered together. So while we have to walk the path ourselves, we do not have to do it alone.
In fact, we cannot. We need the prayers, the generosity, and support of others along the way; sometimes they push or pull us along, sometimes they carry us, sometimes they simply walk beside us. Without them, our courage and our dedication would flag. Without them, would Thomas have come to believe?
Recently, Mary Balmana was sharing with a small group of us about how people respond when a loved one dies in Filipino culture. For the first forty days after someone dies – equivalent to the forty days that the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples before his ascension – the family and friends engage in a practice of prayerful attention, waiting for the spirit of the deceased to appear to them. Often, the appearance happens at night, perhaps in a dream. At the end of the forty days, the family and friends gather for a feast and joyfully share their experiences of the resurrection life of the deceased.
It seems to me that this is always the work of the church. We gather together to support one another in the practice of prayerful attention to the ways that Jesus, our beloved brother and teacher, continues to appear in our midst. Following his way is difficult. It is not free from suffering. It requires a lot of hard work. But the joy of the new life that opens up for us when we follow his way – a life of peace, of compassion, of forgiveness, of service – transcends even death.
Religion is hard work. Whoever said it would be easy? It requires a teacher, a dedicated practice, and a whole community of support. But like Thomas, if we are willing to follow the path, we too, will move from doubt to trust; from self-preoccupation to service to others; from isolation to community. We, too, will be changed. Eventually, we will not just be playing church.
We will become Christ.