The story of “doubting Thomas” is read from the Gospel of John on the first Sunday after Easter. Thomas’s struggle with belief seems even more fitting in the 21st Century than it did in the 1st. (Preached on April 22, 2017)
We Are All Thomas Now
The Saints Peter, Paul, and Thomas walk into a bar. It is one of those nice hipster type bars in the afterlife where they serve only the good stuff. Various groups of the Apostles gather at watering holes like this one in order to reminisce, ponder their legacies, and contemplate their unending and overwhelmingly beatific futures.
Even though we don’t have evidence of what these three guys look like, there’s not one of us who wouldn’t know who was who. For example, the Apostle Paul, who is much, much quieter than you would think, is a small, raisin of a man, slightly humpbacked, with a bald head that is lumpy and scarred from all the beatings he took. His beard is dark and a little long. his calloused hands have fat knuckles because he always insisted upon doing manual labor to support himself. Peter gives him hard time for this. Every chance he gets he tells Paul that he didn’t have to work so hard because, as Paul himself said, he could have received money from his churches to support himself. Paul agrees but tells Peter that he wouldn’t understand which is meant as a gentle insult. Peter doesn’t get it.
Peter is bigger than Paul and he looks better fed. His hair and beard are curly and thick and almost blond. We don’t know why Peter is blondish but it seems to fit. He looks a little like an aged Beach Boy. He smiles a lot and he carries himself and the burdens of the afterlife very lightly. He is genuinely happy and enjoys talking about the old times. He even enjoys telling stories on himself. He’s clearly not embarrassed by the stories where he messes up, such as his walking on the water near death experience, and that one time that Jesus called him “Satan.” He gets a big kick out of that one. He tries to keep Paul grounded when Paul waxes too theological, using unnecessarily long words, and writing outlandishly long sentences. (See Ephesians 1) Peter pulls him back to earth and asks him to put his thought into short bursts and use acronyms: like J-O-Y. That would make a good 3 point sermon.
Paul did oblige Peter once by creating an acronym of the word J-U-S-T-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N, thus creating a 13 point sermon. Paul is ornery.
Then there is Thomas. You know how you do something once and nobody lets you forget it? That’s Thomas. Everyone in the afterlife, except the Lord himself, insists on remembering him as doubting Thomas. In the minds of his fellow disciples, he is the contrarian always arguing the opposite point of view. “Jesus is alive!” the disciples shout, “No he’s not” Thomas responds. Now, that happened 2000 years ago and Thomas really wishes the guys would just move on already. He wishes they would remember some of the good parts of his life.
I can imagine him saying, “Come on guys, I’m so much more than that. Yes, Jesus did invite me to touch his wounds so that I’d know that he was really alive. Yes, yes, yes. But, I saw the wounds, touched the wounds, and proclaimed, ‘My Lord and my God!!!”. He continues, “Jesus and me—we’re good!”
“You guys never give me credit for my post doubting life. I planted churches in Syria and all the way to India and those churches are still running today. Do you guys have groups of churches named after you? Mine are called the MarThoma churches.” Peter asks Thomas if has heard of Roman Catholicism. Paul has a devilish grin and keeps pushing him for no other reason than he likes to see Thomas get exasperated. Paul even mocks him for writing the Gospel of Thomas and thus being responsible for the horrible Dan Brown novels. Paul laughs, and that really gets Thomas’s goat because he did not write it. Nor would he have.
But, Thomas keeps defending himself and his post doubting life: “Not only did I go to Syria and all the way to the Indian subcontinent, but there is even that rumor that I went to Paraguay!” (Funny side note, there is a legend that he did, in fact, go to Paraguay. Jesuit missionaries in the 1600’s heard stories from locals about Pai’ Thome praying for them and carrying a wooden cross on his back.)
Thomas, a little sullen and arrogant, looks at Paul and Peter and asks if they have ever been to the Americas? “I didn’t think so.”
This little drama about Thomas is a little fantasy based upon some stereotypes of Peter and Paul. In my opinion, the stereotype of Thomas is unfair. We call him Thomas the doubter, maybe we should call him Thomas the believer in the unbelievable?
Thomas the Doubter?
I love Thomas, for a lot of reasons, but mainly because he is so much like us. His encounter with Jesus, in John 20, seems to fit our times more than his own. It is easier for me, and I suspect many of you too, to identify with Thomas’s incredulity and demand for proof than we do with Peter’s boldness and Paul’s drive. I more readily identify with Thomas, because, unlike in his day, belief in God is no longer the norm in our world but the exception.
In fact, I feel bad for Thomas because he seems to be set up in the Gospel of John, as the disciple that needs fixing. He is Eyore, the sullen one, with all the questions, who drags his feet before believing that Jesus had come back to life. But, let’s hear his story again.
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I contend that Thomas is the most sympathetic character in the New Testament. He is called “Doubting Thomas” because he didn’t buy the story that Jesus had come back to life. But, who would? We should ask ourselves if we would believe such a thing at first blush.
His slowness to believe in the resurrection makes him the most accessible of all the Apostles. In spite of his gaffs, we rarely feel as bold as Peter. Not many of us have the theological and entrepreneurial drive of the Apostle Paul. But who cannot identify, at least a little bit, with Thomas? Even for non-Christians, who could be more sympathetic than a born skeptic?
Thomas and the “secular age”
Born at the wrong time, Thomas belongs to us. He is more a man of the 21st century than the 1st. Thomas acts like a person born in a secular age. I borrow this phrase from the philosopher Charles Taylor. By “secular age”, Taylor means that we live in a time that is marked by “contested belief” where faith, of any kind, and especially Christian faith, is no longer afforded the benefit of the doubt. Meaning and significance can be accounted for without any reference to the divine or the transcendent. Broader culture and the world seem to function just fine without God at all. In the secular age, God, and all of the attendant miracles, beliefs, and acts of worship, are not outlawed but deemed irrelevant.
Oasis and Elevationists
In a secular age, religion is a lifestyle choice. Sadly, this is true even of Christianity. Here are two examples. One example hit the Wichita Eagle this week.
A new non-profit organization has recently started meeting on Sunday mornings in Wichita. It is called Oasis: A Community Beyond Belief. It is a “religious” gathering for atheists. It looks and feels a lot like church but with no reference to God, no prayer, and no sacred music. Oasis is a “church” for atheists. Most of its attendees grew up in church but have since left the traditional Christian faith. It will be interesting to see how they develop and how long they last.
Another example is a new church recently formed in Denver, CO. Attenders at this church call themselves “Elevationists”. Have you heard of Elevation Worship? This has nothing to do with that. The “Elevationists” are a part of the International Church of Cannabis. This group has purchased a 100 year old Lutheran Church building, painted the ceilings in psychedelic colors and patterns, and you guessed it, (or some of you did), their opening service was on 4/20.
These two examples support Taylor’s thesis that things have really changed and that Christian faith, which was so much the norm in North America for 300 years, is now just one among a plethora of options which include new religions like these just mentioned, or traditional religions like Hindu, Buddhism, Islam. It also means that no religion is now the American default.
For example, have you heard of parents who, with their children’s best interests in mind, seek to raise them without religion, in order that they will have the freedom to choose the faith that is best for them as if it were a college or a career or a spouse. Religion is a consumer good in this arrangement because it has no bearing on any ultimate issues in the child’s life. (Note, you never hear parents say, I’m just going to let my child choose which language they want to speak so they can find the one that is right for them. )
In addition to these, this secular age is marked by the following:
1) Faith is contested and no-faith/skepticism is the default;
2) Christianity is just one option in the Amazon store of lifestyle options;
3) The secular age is not so much hostile toward religion, as indifferent;
4) The world is disenchanted, scientism rules the day when it comes to explaining life; there are no mysteries, only things we don’t yet understand
Jamie Smith, who wrote a book summarizing Taylor’s views, writing them more clearly than Taylor himself, describes this day and age with the following words:
. . . even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now. – How Not to Be Secular, pg. 4
We Are All Thomas Now
Smith is right. The secular age is simply the world in which we live and our faith in Christ is just as important and powerful as ever. Some of us may be tempted to resist the secular age, deny that it is there, or argue against it. All of these things may have their place. But, we are in it, whether we want to be or not. We are in it, even if we live in the Bible belt (whatever and wherever that was). We are in it, and we must do like Thomas, who responded to his doubts about Jesus resurrection. (Thomas lived in his own personal secular age.)
In this age, doubt doesn’t have to be an enemy of our faith, but at its best, it can be a companion of Christian Faith. Frederick Buechner describes doubt as:
The ants in the pants of faith. The keep it awake and moving.
Thomas had ants in his pants. Why did he go back to the disciples? Did he have some kind of secret hope that was holding hands with his doubt? What was his response to his faith?Response is the critical word.
Jesus’ Wounds and Humanity’s Doubts
Upon hearing that Jesus is raised from the dead, Thomas makes an important claim. He will not believe in the resurrection until he sees it. He goes even further by saying he must touch the wounds of Jesus before he will believe. Jesus is ready to oblige him.
Perhaps we are witnessing an allegory. Jesus, presenting himself and his wounds to Thomas, is an invitation to enter into the realm of other peoples’ pain. Thomas responded to his doubt by placing his hand in the wounds of Jesus.
Perhaps we can respond to our own doubt, living as we are in a secular age, by placing our hands on the wounds of others. Living within earshot of their pain. Offering solidarity, comfort where we can, prayer, and, of course, our presence.
Revisiting the Bar
Secretly, Paul appreciates Thomas’s doubt. Paul had to get knocked off his donkey before he would believe in Jesus. Peter doubted God’s work so deeply that he publicly, and emphatically, rejected Jesus. The disciples scattered. Thomas did not shut off his brain, but, in the process proclaimed that Jesus was, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is credited in Scripture with making the first pronouncement of Jesus Christ as equal with God.
Thomas did not shut off his brain, but, in the process proclaimed that Jesus was, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is credited in Scripture with making the first pronouncement of Jesus Christ as equal with God.
In spite of his doubts, fears, and confusion Thomas returns. Out of love for his brothers and maybe a hope that what they think they saw in the risen Jesus is, in fact, what they really saw and he will see too.
So Peter and Paul, like big brothers, give Thomas a really hard time—always. But, they tease him because they love him and not so deep down, they admire the man who came back in spite of his unbelief.
Post-Script: Faith as feeling vs. Faith as allegiance
I have to come back to the question: Why did Thomas come back?
As we ask this question, ask yourself, why do you come back? Not just to church but to you the Christian faith at large? We are awash in religious options, even here in little old Wichita. The biggest religious option is to create your own. So why do you come back?
Christian faith is always more than what you think about God and it is always more than what you feel about God. Thomas’s faith was allegiance to God as he knew him in Jesus Christ. While it was hard for him to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, it was equally difficult for him to betray the allegiance he felt to Jesus.
Faith is not first what we believe, or what we feel but it is relational fidelity to the God of the universe.
We are all Thomas now, if we can live with that kind of commitment.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. – I Peter 1:3-9
Our Lord and our God, we pray that you will catch us by surprise in the same way you surprised Thomas, who was overwhelmed by the joy of your resurrection. May we be so surprised by joy, that our commitment to you is undeterred by our unanswered questions. Amen