God's Open House

Sunday, April 8, 2018

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I don’t want to knock Thomas. I really don’t. Honestly, I think Thomas has been treated pretty unfairly by history. Nobody ever talks about what happened to Thomas after the events recorded in the Bible. For example:

According to a tradition in the Syriac and Indian churches in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Thomas became a missionary to India, where he converted kings and princes and founded several churches. But do we call him Thomas the Missionary? No.

According to the apocryphal Acts of Thomas written sometime in the 3rd century, Thomas once agreed to build a palace for a king, and instead of doing so, he took the money and gave it all to the poor and indigent. When the king found out, Thomas explained what Christians believe about storing treasure in heaven and said that he had built him a palace in heaven. But do we call him Thomas, friend to the poor, heavenly carpenter? No. [1]

The legend says he converted all castes of people in India to Christianity without regard to their status, but do we call him Thomas the egalitarian? No.

And he was martyred in India for his work as a missionary, but do we call him Thomas the Martyr? No.

What do we call him? We call him Doubting Thomas. And so, in spite of a lifetime of devotion, Thomas is primarily remembered for this one particular moment, his weakest moment. And I think that’s a little bit unfair. Surely none of us want to be remembered for our weakest moment. But Thomas is remembered for this weak moment because it is a weak moment that so many of us share. Thomas isn’t remembered as Doubting Thomas because he was so spectacularly bad. He’s remembered that way because he is so spectacularly us! Doubt is one of the primary ways that we react to the Gospel, because it both promises and asks for more than we think possible.

And that is what I think is the hard part for Thomas. I don’t think Thomas was demanding proof because he was a natural born cynic, or had a scientist’s devotion to the truth. I think Thomas doubted because he was afraid of what it would mean if the other disciples were telling the truth. To believe, to really believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead you have to pick up your cross and follow him.  Thomas doubted because believing in the resurrection of Jesus would change his life in scary ways.

I’m not against doubt. Demanding proof is a great thing. All of our scientific achievements in the last 200 years (and maybe longer) are dependent on demanding evidence for our understanding of the world, doing experiments to prove that our understanding is correct, and reevaluating when we are unable to prove something. And our legal system that provides the rule of law, functions as well as it does (though it sometimes does not function well), because we demand proof beyond a shadow of a doubt. Doubt should be a part of our lives, and it should be a part of our faith too. Paul Tillich (great theologian of the 20th century) wrote that doubt is an essential part of faith. Indeed, in my own life, I came to faith by recognizing and wrestling with my own doubt. If you can imagine how relieved I was to read those words, to learn that doubt did not mean disbelief or sinfulness, but was part of in relationship with God. And is that not what God calls us to do, be in relationship with our Lord and with each other? So I love doubt. It pulls me in to search, to wrestle, to struggle for what I believe, so that when I do believe, I know that it did not come easily.

I don’t think Thomas is in trouble for demanding proof. In fact, the letter of First John tells us, ““Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God”[2] The problem is that Thomas set an unreasonable burden of proof so that he wouldn’t have to do anything about it. Thomas was using doubt as a smokescreen to justify inaction.

Remember that Thomas had already witnessed a resurrection. He had been there with the disciples when Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb. And Thomas had a number of eyewitness accounts that corroborated what his friends were saying. According to John, on Easter morning, Mary, Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” all saw the empty tomb. Mary, who lingered, saw Jesus and spoke with him. That same evening, Jesus appeared to all of the disciples together, spoke with them, and they received the Holy Spirit. So when Thomas returns from wherever he was, he has 11 eyewitness accounts from 11 of his closest friends testifying to the resurrection. Thomas knew resurrection was possible because he had seen Jesus do it for Lazarus, not to mention the other miracles he witnessed in Jesus’ company. From the standard of what Thomas as already seen, that Jesus had returned was not particularly farfetched, and he had a lot of witnesses in favor of it.

But doubt can be a way of hiding. When you doubt something, you give yourself permission not to act on it. Imagine if someone came to you and said about your friend, “I was with him the other day and he made a comment that made me feel deeply uncomfortable.” If you believe them, you have to change the way that you think and act around your friend, maybe even reevaluate your friendship. But if you doubt it, if you say, “That’s probably not what he really said,” or “I doubt he really meant it,” then you don’t have to change anything at all. Two movements that are profoundly shaping our nation’s landscape right now, the #MeToo movement, and the Movement for Black Lives have risen as challenges to our systemic patterns of doubt: our refusal to believe that sexual harassment and our justice system’s unfair treatment of race were as common as they have turned out to be. If we can no longer doubt that they are common, we are forced to put up or shut up. Either we take action to change them, or acknowledge that we think they are acceptable.

There are other things we can doubt too. We can doubt our ability to really make a difference. “I doubt anything will ever change” is an excuse to relieve ourselves of having to try to change things. “I doubt anything I do will make a difference,”

Doubt becomes a problem when it is an excuse for inaction. Only if we are confronted personally, affected ourselves or someone we love is affected, do we begin to care. Like a man who had no regard for women until he had daughters. If we say, “I will not believe it until I see if with my own eyes,” we will find that we hardly ever have to act, and even then, only in our own self-interest.

When Jesus first comes to the disciples, they have locked themselves up in a house in Jerusalem because they are afraid. Yet Thomas is not with them. He alone is out and about. You might think it is because unlike the disciples, he is not afraid. And perhaps it is so. But I think his response to what happened reveals a deeper fear, a deeper wound, than the fear of the other disciples.

When Thomas said that he would not believe until he saw for himself, he revealed his own wounds. Just as the disciples had locked their room in fear, so Thomas had locked up his heart in fear, fear that this terrifying challenge of Christian discipleship might take his life. And he set unreasonable conditions, to put his finger in his hand and his hand in his side, to avoid having to deal with the risk of his friends claim’s being true.

But the Jesus casts out all fear. The fear of the disciples of what someone else might do. And Thomas’s fear of what he might be asked to do. Jesus comes and passes through all those fears. Every roadblock that we put in front of him, every obstacle, every logistical challenge, he has the capacity to pass through. Jesus comes to Thomas. He lets his wounds be seen, and he sees Thomas’s wounds.

If there is anywhere I know that God is, it is this moment, when we see someone’s wounds, and when we let someone see ours. Because when Jesus took those wounds on the cross, he united his Godly self with our wounded humanity, so that we might see and be seen, not with our own eyes, but with God’s eyes. God chose to see, and to join in solidarity with all who suffer, all who hurt, all who lock themselves up in fear.

Blessed are those who do not need to stick their finger in someone’s wounds to know that they are hurting. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Blessed are those who take up their cross and follow him.


[1] Saint Laurent, Jeanne-Nicole Mellon. Missionary Stories and the Formation of Syriac Churches Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015. pp.18-19.

[2] 1 John 4:1