The Redoubtable Thomas

Some of you may know that several years ago Mary Alice and I were given the opportunity to start a new church from scratch…probably the most difficult thing we’ve ever had to do in the Church, and one of the most rewarding. The Bishop gave over his prerogative of naming the new parish to me. I chose the name “St. Thomas,” the name that parish shares with this one. In a way, naming a church after him seemed the least I could do for Thomas.

After all, Thomas the disciple has every reason to feel upset at the way the church has remembered him. We really only hear about him from Holy Scriptures twice a year…once on his feast Day, December 21, when Christmas preparations take precedence over saintly remembrance, and then on the Sunday after Easter, better known because of greatly diminished attendance on this day as “Low Sunday.” On both of his days, we remember the same story, and on the basis of this one story he has always been known as “Doubting Thomas.” This is a bit of a problem, not only for Thomas, but also for us, because it makes it hard for us to hear anything else in the story. We know the story and think, “Oh yeah, the story of Doubting Thomas,” and that’s all we hear.

The fact is that Thomas is not shown to be any more of a doubter than most of the rest of the disciples, and the story is not primarily about doubt anyway, it is about the risen Christ and how he responds to our need for faith, which is why I chose him as the patron saint of the Church I started, and one of the reasons I am honored to be serving at another parish named for him.

Let’s look at Thomas first though, and see how his doubt compared to that of his fellow disciples. Thomas is absent when Jesus turns up and shows the other disciples his hands and his feet. Now his absence may even be to his credit, because John tells us that the reason the rest of them were there behind locked doors is because they were afraid to go out. So maybe Thomas’ absence already suggests that he was somewhat more courageous than the rest. Anyway, when Thomas comes back and they say they’ve seen Jesus, Thomas is incredulous. And why not? He’d seen Jesus dead. Very dead. Hung up to die and then stabbed with a spear just to make sure. Thomas is no fool. He knows death when he sees it. His friends might be somewhat gullible, but Thomas is not going to be conned. “I’ll need to see the nail marks and the hole where the spear went in before I’d be able to believe that story,” he says. And fair enough too.

After all, isn’t that exactly the same reaction that the rest of the twelve had had when the women reported their experience at the empty tomb? Luke tells us that when the women told the apostles that the angels had told them that Christ had risen, “the apostles thought that what the women said was nonsense, and they did not believe them.” Even if we stick just with John’s account, the disciples who are huddled fearfully behind closed doors have already heard from Mary Magdalene that she has met the risen Christ in the garden, but they’re not coming out of hiding yet.

But what happens next? Jesus disappears for a week, and when he next appears, where are they? Locked in the same room again! The community that received the Holy Spirit and was commissioned to take on the world is still locked in the same room. And they’ve only grown by one—Thomas has turned up! And what’s more, their experience of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit hasn’t even changed them enough to convince Thomas, so the mission of being witnesses to the world is looking to be in shaky hands.

If Jesus had simply been resuscitated, everyone would have been sure, one way or the other. But resurrection is totally different and completely unprecedented. Experiencing the risen Christ is quite unlike any other experience, and because there is nothing to compare it to and no category to put it in, it creates as many doubts as it dispels. The Christ appears and disappears. We catch sight of him, dancing on the edge of our awareness, and just as we think we’ve got him, he’s gone again, leaving us wondering whether we’re kidding ourselves. We sense him among us, breaking bread at the table, as the men on the road to Emmaus did, but the minute we try to step back and be objective about what we are experiencing, there is only bread again. We see him appear in the face of the stranger bearing a word from God, but the minute we try to confirm our hunch, there is only a stranger again and often one whom we find difficult to even like!

So to single Thomas out as the doubting one looks to be seriously unfair. He was one of the doubting eleven, no worse than the rest of them, and possibly a bit braver. Perhaps the real reason why he’s singled out is simply that he was the only one who hadn’t been there the first time Jesus visited, and so in his story we see the individual version of what all the others went through collectively. If we could hear the individual accounts of any of the other disciples, we’d probably get a somewhat similar story of the reality of the risen Christ breaking through fear and doubt and evoking joy and faith and then, in a moment, having all the old doubts return. It wasn’t so different for those first witnesses to the risen Christ, because whatever the nature of their experience that day, it wasn’t something that swept away all doubts and filled everyone with unshakable faith. And that’s kind of exciting because not only does a little community which is a mixture of worship and doubt sound a lot like us, but it is precisely that little community, with its mixture of faith and doubt, that Jesus regards as being worthy of being his representatives on earth and entrusting his mission to: “Go into all the world and be my witnesses.”

In a sense then, perhaps you could say that Thomas’ story is every disciple’s story, and that Thomas’ story is your story and my story. Now if that’s the case, what is the story telling us about this risen Christ who meets us each like he met Thomas?

Well perhaps the thing that will most immediately surprise those who are used to thinking of Thomas as “the doubter” and thinking of doubt as sin, is that Jesus does not reprimand him for his lack of faith. On the contrary, Jesus takes seriously what Thomas has said he needs to enable him to believe. Jesus offers him just what he needed. If we think more widely about it this should not be such a surprise. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews (4:15-16) tells us that Christ is not out of touch with the reality of what we experience. He’s been through weakness and testing just like us, so we can confidently walk right up to him and ask for what we need. Well that’s exactly what Thomas does. He says, “Unless I see this I can’t believe,” and Jesus, understanding where he was at says, “OK, look, here it is.”

Maybe Thomas should have been able to believe on the basis of what the other ten told him. Maybe the other ten should have been able to believe on the basis of what the women told them. They didn’t, and Thomas didn’t. But Jesus meets them where they are at, not where they perhaps should have been. This is not a story of judgment and reprimand, but of hope and promise. Jesus is far more interested in whether we trust him than why. And that’s why no two people’s stories of faith are quite the same. Not all of us saw blinding flashes of light on the road to Damascus like Paul. None of us touched the physical wounded hands of Jesus like Thomas. But for each of us, Christ reached out to us in whatever way we needed to be reached for us to believe and trust Christ.

And as John makes clear at the end of this reading, although none of us after the first generation of disciples can have the opportunity that Thomas had, there has been enough written down and passed on down to us by those who have gone before us in the faith to ensure that we can know what we need to know and hear what we need to hear for us to find our way of faith. “These things are written down,” says John, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

There are of course some people who play games with this. They’re always raising the bar, so that no matter how Christ reaches out to them, they are always demanding another sign, another miracle, another proof before they’ll believe. The truth is often that they’re unwilling to trust and follow Christ, no matter how convinced they might be, and so there’s always some further impossible proof that they claim to need before they could believe. But that wasn’t Thomas. His doubts and fears were real and when Christ broke through to him and dispelled the doubts and fears, he was more than ready and willing to fall to his knees and saying, “My Lord and my God!”

In the end, those who simply play games to avoid Christ are only conning themselves. But for us, we have responded to Christ with Thomas. What took us across the line from doubt to faith, from fear to trust, was something different for each of us. And what it was doesn’t really matter much now. Christ met us where we were and when we recognized him for who he was we fell to our knees and confessed him to be our Lord true God. We may not have done it suddenly and literally like Thomas. For some of us faith almost crept up on us and we don’t know when we crossed the line. But, either way, what we do know now is that our lives are lived in ongoing confession that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God forever.

Even though quite a few of us could name the time and place when we were converted, others of us can’t, and none of us found that everything about our life was utterly transformed on the spot. We look back on it now as a turning point rather than as the moment when we were miraculously changed into the perfect people we were supposed to be. It was the turning point, from which faith and hope and love began to take root and grow. Faith took root alongside our doubts, and gradually grew stronger. Hope took root alongside our despairs and gradually grew stronger. Courage took root alongside our fears and gradually grew stronger. Love took root alongside our apathies and gradually grew stronger. Like the first disciples, we may well have still been huddled behind the locked doors of our fear and doubt a week later. But within a few years those few had carried the news to the ends of the known earth, and we are not the same people we were either.

Conversion to a faith which conquers the powers of death and despair often, but not always, has a sudden and memorable beginning. But whether it does or not, it is always, always, an ongoing process. As we continue to seek the risen Christ — in prayer, and in hearing the word and sharing around the table, and in serving the broken and needy among whom he was and is so often found — our faith and confidence continues to be nourished by the earth-shattering and yet strange and indefinable encounters with this one who lives and yet who remains both ever-present and ever-elusive.

It seemed to me all those years ago that Thomas was indeed a good name for a church whose mission was to serve Christ in all things, because, as Thomas experienced, Jesus comes to us in our fears and responds to our doubts and touches us where we need to be touched so that we might have the faith and courage to take the next step. And just as happened for Thomas, the conversion of our lives leads us into the mission of transforming the world, for we too, with all the uncertainty and ambiguity of our experience of the risen Christ, are the ones to whom he gives his Holy Spirit and leads us into healing, reconciliation and mission. In short, Thomas was as ideal a patron saint as you could hope for, and as ideal a model for Christian practice as we will ever be able to find. And so we thank God for Thomas, and for his doubts, and for seeing through him how Christ can provide us with what we need as well to keep on believing, doubts or not!