There are certain things that, if you learn them early in life, they seem to leave an indelible mark. Those who grew up in the Depression for instance, like my grandmother, who despite forty or fifty years of plenty, has never been quite able to root out the, um, thriftiness, shall we say, when it comes to issues of money. I would certainly never say, “penny pinching” or “cheap” within a mile of my grandmother, but those words have occasionally crossed my mind.
In the same way, in my youth, I was exposed to a product, a yeast product, and have never been able to quite get away from it, and yet I understand that some people find the idea of it noxious, its scent horrible, its taste excruciating, the sight of it something to avoid. I am speaking here of Marmite, that most famous of British exports, short of the Beetles, the British Empire and Anglicanism. Now the cynic might say that the only reason that I like Marmite is because the yeast in it comes from a certain famous brewer in Burton-on-Trent, who brews one of my favorite beers. Those who are not of the elect, who fail to appreciate Marmite appropriately, can certainly say some very cruel things. I met a gentleman in England once, who was from the American South, who described Marmite as “toxic waste in a bottle.” But those of the Marmite persuasion understand the panacea that it is: powerful flavor for the mouth, health for mind and body, strength for arm and a sign of identification with that most significant and sublime of cultures: England. Unfortunately, not everyone is as advanced as I am: Those who love Marmite swear by it, those who do not, swear at it. There is no middle ground, no via media when it comes to Marmite.
There are, of course, lots of things in our lives which are as polarized as love or hatred of Marmite. In American culture today, this polarization runs most clearly as the demarcation between two very voluble extremes. One can only be pro-choice or pro-life; one can be either pro- or anti-gay marriage. One is either pro-drilling or pro-planet.
The way that one recognizes these extremes as issues in the culture wars is by a certain logical inconsistency. To be on the political right in America is to be pro-life as long as one is talking about the unborn, pro-death penalty when it comes to criminals, and agnostic when it comes to the deaths caused by ecological destruction, or poverty except in as much as either interferes with our economy or our American way of life.
And the left doesn't fare significantly better. To be on the left side of the political spectrum in America is to protect free speech (as long as I agree with it), to react against and stereotype those who feel strong emotions about flag and country, or simply fail to live on the coasts, and to scream about the destruction of the planet without worrying about the destruction of lives and livelihood that can result from the closure of coal mines and power plants, tobacco farms, and automotive plants.
And surely no one believes that the Church is in a much better state. Indeed, in the way that the church so often operates, we have simply baptized the wide-ranging debates and rhetoric of our cultures and transformed them into the political and ecclesiastical debates of our day. Which is not to say that the debates of our day are not significant and important, but that in the rhetoric which is flung to and fro between Fort Worth and New York, or the United States and Uganda, there is a great deal which is not actually about human sexuality or the role of women, which is instead about power, and culture, and a difference in linguistic and philosophical frameworks which we cannot truly ever escape. One either, in other words, loves Marmite or hates it.
But after all, you are not simply here to hear me share of my wisdom on the cultural or ecclesiastical debates of the day. You are here to hear me talk about the Gospel, and I started with Marmite, and with things that we have learned and the debates in our church because there seems to me to be an analogy here. I think of this polarization when I think about Thomas. The standard simplistic modern gloss on the passage is to think of it in terms of our own modern alienation from faith and myth, to think of Thomas as the post-Enlightenment skeptic, who is looking for tangible, scientific evidence of the resurrection, before he will make an intellectual assent to Jesus' being raised from the dead. But that is simply a projection of our own modern schizophrenia: of the false dichotomy that we tend to draw between science and faith, and of the modern understanding of belief as an intellectual process that one needs to flog oneself into.
The reality of the passage is more complicated, of course. The way we know that the passage is more complicated is that Thomas has already seen signs and wonders. He's not just your average skeptic, because he says “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.” He has lived with and followed Jesus for a couple of years now. He's seen healings and signs and wonders. He may have had a draught or two of miraculous wine. He's not suddenly developed a scientific conscience. Oh no, something else is playing out in this story about Thomas and the Twelve and I have a sense that it is about defensiveness and about feeling hurt. In fact, I have a sense about Thomas generally: that he's sensitive, that when he goes for something, it is 110%, that he makes decisions like falling down a well, and that he gave his heart and soul to something, namely Jesus the Messiah, and he's been pretty bruised by the recent unpleasantness.
Even when his friends and companions in the roller-coaster ride that has been the past week in Jerusalem are telling him that they've seen the risen Jesus, Thomas isn't budging. Oh, he may hide behind the veil of skepticism, that’s the easy way, isn’t it? Who has ever heard of a dead person returning to life? But in reality I’m guessing that Thomas is simply hurt.
The importance of the Gospel this morning is not whether we resonate with Thomas and his defensiveness, or his espoused skepticism, or whether we resonate with the other apostles, but whether we recognize the graciousness of Jesus, to Thomas, to the apostles, to all of us wherever we fall in the polarizations of our lives. Because Jesus comes to the other apostles wherever they are, and he comes to Thomas under the terms that Thomas sets and he comes to all of us, whatever terms we may set for him.
The importance of the passage is not that Thomas should flog himself into belief, or feel guilty for his guardedness, nor that we should feel guilt in moments of doubt, but that Jesus still comes to Thomas and to us. Thomas doesn’t need to have it right, he doesn’t need to prepare himself to receive Jesus – because Jesus is already there, standing before him, showing his wounds.
It is a very human heresy that says we need to be in the right place to receive God's grace. There is no right place, there is no place at all, other than the one that we all find ourselves in: entrenched, guarded like Thomas, hackles up, and God comes to us on our own terms, and bids us see his own woundedness, and yet believe.
Which brings me back to Marmite and the culture wars and everything in our lives that is loved and hated.
Jesus comes to all of us, regardless of where we are. Jesus comes to us, whether we are convinced of the prophetic nature of the election of a certain suffragon in Los Angeles or not; whether we are certain liberal or curmudgeonly conservative, whether we are a garrulous curate or the entrenched bête noire of said curate. Whether we are any of the various ways that we are polarized in life, Jesus comes to all of us and bids us not to doubt but believe.
Believe that God comes even to the liberals and the conservatives; believe that God will bring about his purposes in the messy machinations of the frail Church, believe even that our guarded and defended entrenchments are not the final reality and truth.
Jesus comes to us wherever we are and asks us to believe that those who love Marmite and those who hate it will sit down together, one day, at the Supper of the Lamb. To believe that the judgment of God is not cruel and only for those whom we deem meet for it, but kind and universal, and that in that judgment we will come to be open to judgment and because we are open to God's gentle judgment, we are open also to his grace. For we are none of us, arrived, none of us home, none of us certain. We are all entrenched like Thomas or fled like the other apostles and still Christ comes into our lives, and shows us his very really wounds, and asks us to believe that in his resurrected glory, he is able to bring about unforeseen redemption in our individual lives, in the life of our culture, and in the life of our Church.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
11 April 2010
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia