Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”. But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
(John 20:24-29, NIV)
It’s the first Sunday after Easter, and we’re back in the company of an old friend, Thomas a man who we’re told was once known as ‘the twin’ but who came to take on a far more dubious nickname, becoming known to everybody as ‘the doubter’.
Yes, it’s Doubting Thomas Sunday, and I’m not sure if this Sunday has ever been officially designated that way but I think it should be, because every year at exactly this time of year we read together this exact same story about this very same man!
And I’m guessing that most of you feel just fine about that, as I suspect that almost all of you have a soft spot for Doubting Thomas, as the church throughout history has always loved Thomas, though I can tell you that as a preacher who has now been pounding the pulpit here for 21 years it is hard to keep coming up with fresh angles, year by year, on this same story about this same man!
For it doesn’t normally work this way!
If you know how our system of Bible readings here in the church works we use what is called a lectionary. A lectionary is a series of Bible readings that allocates different readings for the different weeks of the year in a three-year cycle.
The idea of the lectionary is that it pushes us through the whole Bible every three years, which for me is a great discipline as it stops me getting on my hobby-horse and preaching only on whatever is of interest to me at the moment.
Also, since most other churches in most parts of the world also use exactly the same lectionary, this system has the added benefit such that if you were to go to a different church next week in a different part of the world you would nonetheless likely still find yourself dealing with the same series of readings that we are dealing with this week!
So the lectionary provides continuity (in that so many churches around the world are using the same list of readings) but it also provides variety, as you don’t read the same piece of Scripture twice in any three-year period. And yet there are at least two exceptions to this latter rule that I know of. One is the 23rd Psalm (‘The Lord is my Shepherd’) which is read every single year, and the other is this passage in John 20 the story of Doubting Thomas, which we also read every single year!
Why do we read this same story, year by year, and when did we start doing it? Did St Jerome, who I believe put together the first lectionary, include the story of Doubting Thomas in his lectionary every single year?
I must confess that I couldn’t confirm the answer to that specific question in my research as I couldn’t actually locate a copy of the lectionary of St Jerome, but I’d be willing to wager that the answer is ‘yes’ that Christian people have always listened to this Easter story year by year because Christian people have always loved this story, and I’m guessing that this goes back to the very beginning. Indeed, my guess is that Thomas was probably one of the most sort-after guest preachers and speakers at the early Christian conferences held within his own lifetime.
Of course I don’t know for sure whether they really had an actual preaching circuit going in the first century but if they did I can just imagine that Thomas would have been booked out for years in advance, though I’m guessing too that those who booked him really only wanted to hear one specific story from him!
I can see the first pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem announcing, “brothers and sisters I’m very excited to introduce our guest preacher to you today the man affectionately known to all of us as ‘the doubter’ …” (and you can see Thomas cringe a little as he says this, wishing that people would just refer to him as plain old ‘Thomas’).
And Thomas comes on and says, “Yeah, they used to call me ‘the twin’, you know? Me and my brother Bob … ‘hey, we’re seeing double’ …but nowadays everybody has a different nickname for me… But I’m not going to talk about that today. I want to talk about the doctrine of the Trinity today”.
And you can hear everybody cry, “NO, tell us your Easter story. We love that story.” For indeed we have always loved that story, as Christian women and men down through the ages have always loved that story! And we love that story and that man Doubting Thomas so much because they embody for us something that we all struggle with this time of year and every time of the year – and that is doubt!
And I don’t just mean doubt of a purely cerebral nature – doubt such as we find in universities, and that becomes the focus of any number of intellectual discussions. ‘oh, I doubt if the resurrection could have taken place as the laws of nature don’t allow for that sort of thing …’ I mean that more specifically Thomas-like form of doubt that is embedded in pain and disillusionment, leading to cynicism:
‘Does he still love me? I doubt it! I just don’t believe what he is saying any more. I thought I knew the man but now I’m not sure that I ever did!’
We’ve heard this before from our closest friends, haven’t we, even if we haven’t said it ourselves: “He’s not he man I married? I don’t feel I know him any more!”
That’s doubt, isn’t it, and it’s a very different sort of doubt from the type of doubt that philosophers might have calling into question a particular metaphysical proposition.
Intellectual doubt of that kind is cheap! It doesn’t cost us anything. We see that sort of doubt in full swing when St Paul addresses the Areopagus on Mars Hill in Athens (as recorded in Acts 17).
We are told there that when Paul raised the issue of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead there that a lot of his audience expressed their disbelief by laughing! There is no good-hearted laughter associated with Thomas’ doubts though are there?
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger into them, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe!”
This is not just an intellectual issue for Thomas, is it? This is not about Thomas’ refusal to buy in to the metaphysic of the other disciples! This is not philosophical doubt. This is doubt in a person that you love. This is the doubt we associate with relationship breakdown, with depression and even suicide! It’s not about doubting some thing so much as it is about doubting some one, and about doubting some one around whom you feel your life revolves!
I don’t know her any more? I don’t think I can trust him any more!”.
As I say, if we haven’t said these things ourselves, we’ve heard our closest friends say them, and quite possibly we’ve both said them AND we’ve heard other say them, and perhaps we’ve heard them many times because, sadly, these sorts of doubts and disillusionment are a familiar part of life!
“People change, David!” I’ve heard that before, and it’s never a welcome statement. But is that really the problem? Is the problem really that people change, or is it more that we never understood them in the first place?
You get the feeling that in Jesus’ case it was the latter. In the case of Jesus and His disciples, you get the feeling that the Apostolic band, for all their good-heartedness, never really understood where Jesus was coming from most of the time, and certainly never understood where He was going until it all blew up in their faces!
And again, this runs parallel to our experience in other relationships that we often start out very starry-eyed and with a very simplistic view of those we love.
“She really wants nothing more than to support me in my work”. “He would never look at another woman now that he has found me.”
And we’ve heard these sorts of statements from young people mainly (though not exclusively) which is why we always counsel young lovers not to rush in to marriage and family without taking proper time first to get to know each other.
I’ve known far too many people whose desperation to find a partner in life has led them to dive in to intense commitments far too rapidly.
I remember one dear male friend ringing me up on the phone one day and saying, “I met this girl on the train on the way home today, and I proposed to her. Do you think I did the right thing?” And I said, “No”.
Conversely, I remember a young girl we had in the congregation here at one stage, and I told her quite frankly that I didn’t think she was ready for a long-term relationship. She asked me when I thought she would be ready, and I said, “when you aren’t quite so desperate for one!”
She didn’t appreciate that advice, and she left the church and managed to get herself married within the year, and for all I know she’s doing fine now, and she may well find this sermon on the Internet and email me a picture of herself poking her tongue out at me, surrounded by her lovely family?
And I hope that does happen, though we all know that most of these quick-fix relationships don’t work for the long term, as indeed my friend’s relationship with the girl he proposed to on the train didn’t last for long and didn’t end happily.
As I say, this is why we encourage people not to leap into intense relationships too quickly, though this of course does make it all the more difficult to make sense of the way in which Jesus recruited His disciples, using a procedure that was something like a first century version of speed dating!
“While Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers-Simon, who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew. They were throwing a net into the sea because they were fishermen. He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishermen of people!” So at once they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:18-20)
And this encounter was, of course, archetypal for the way in which Jesus enlisted new disciples to his team a role that would involve them living with him and sharing a life with him that would be very intense. And yet how much could these disciples be expected to know about Jesus based on the miniscule exposure they’d had to Him before they signed away their lives to Him?
I’ve raised a lot of questions here and I’m not pretending to have answers to them all.
I don’t know exactly what Thomas had thought about Jesus, though it’s pretty clear that he’d only picked up a small part of the picture.
He had probably started out seeing Jesus as a patriotic Jew who would restore pride to the people of Israel by ending the Roman occupation and re-instituting self-government, but how much his views had changed over the years though through the experience of living with Jesus we don’t know?
We know that the crucifixion had come as a shock to Thomas, as it had to all the twelve, and this despite everything that Jesus had said to them prior to the event that should have given them some clear ideas about where it was all heading.
We get the feeling from Thomas’ cynical and bitter statement “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger into them, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe!” that he was a man whose bubble had burst.
Like someone who marries his childhood sweetheart and then watches the relationship slowly fall apart to the point where it is irreparable, Thomas was a man who was being forced to abandon his first great dream! He thought he knew Jesus. He thought he understood where things were going. He thought so many things.
In the words of W.H. Auden:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
And yet we love this story this story of Doubting Thomas and we love it because, on one front at least, Thomas was not wrong. In terms of the love of Jesus lasting forever and the faithfulness of Jesus towards those he loved, Thomas was not wrong.
Thomas was a wounded man, and yet the miracle of the story of doubting, bitter, and disillusioned Thomas is that Jesus allowed His wounds to heal Thomas’ wounds, such that he (Thomas) could be whole again!
And we’ve all been where Thomas was. Whether it’s because tragedy has struck – our child has died, our marriage has broken down, our friends have betrayed us, or for whatever reason we have just lost hope. And we’re not sure about God any more, and we wonder whether He really loves us and we wonder whether He ever really loved us, and it makes us angry and bitter and cynical.
And Jesus comes to us, and He shows us His wounds, and He brings us healing. Amen.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, May 1, 2011.