Thomas, one of the twelve, who was called the Twin, wasn’t with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples kept telling him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he told them, “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!”
Yes, it’s the first Sunday after Easter, and Thomas is back with us!
‘Doubting Thomas’ we call him, and he pays us a visit every year at around about this time like some unwanted uncle who comes barging into the family home every Eastertide, just after the festivities are dying down and we were hoping to enjoy some peace and quiet for a while!
Every year he come barging in and plants himself in the living room. “Don’t mind me” he says, as he eats our food and drinks our alcohol, and scares the children with the same horror stories taken from his time in ‘Nam’!
Sorry … I’m talking about the uncle now rather than Thomas, but the truth is that I find them both difficult, and indeed I think it’s time we changed the name of ‘Doubting Thomas’ and Australianised him a bit. I think ‘Whinging Thomas’ works far better. For let’s be honest – all we ever hear him do is whinge!
“Why wasn’t I hear when the risen Jesus dropped by? I don’t believe you! And unless I stick my fingers into his wounds, I’m not going to believe you!”
There’s always one, isn’t there – one in every family, I suspect? Just when you’re thinking what a lovely day it is and how we could all go down to the park for some time in the sun, little mister glass-half-empty says, “But I don’t want to go out. It’s too cold. I’m too tired. I’m in the middle of a TV program. I just want to sit here and make everybody else’s life a misery.” And we say, “Oh … Thomas!”
Thomas does remind me of that story about the guy who joins a silent order of monks who are only allowed to come out with two words each year – both of which can only be written down on a chalkboard and shown to prior of the monastery.
After his first year this guy turns up at the office of the prior with two words written on his chalkboard: “Hard Bed!” The prior nods his head in understanding and the novitiate take his leave.
Exactly a year later the prior sees the same novitiate again. This time he has two more words written on his tablet: “stale bread”. Again the prior nods his head and the two part.
Year three the guy fronts up to the prior with two more words: “I quit”. The prior says, “I’m not surprised. All you ever do is complain!”
It’s a bit like that with Thomas, isn’t it? We work out way through the lectionary, week after week and month after month, without hearing a peep out of him, and then every year at this time, like clockwork – enter the whinger: “I don’t believe a word you’re telling me!”, “You’re all just having me on!”, “Why do things only ever happen when I’m not around, eh?”, “Unless I stick my fingers in his wounds and shove my hand in His side, I won’t believe a word of it!”
Now I’m conscious that in saying this I’m not likely to endear myself to very many people present as I suspect that just about everybody else here is a Thomas fan?
Everybody loves Thomas – good ol’ ‘Doubting Thomas’ – because we see something of ourselves in him. We love Thomas because he had doubts, and (while we don’t really want to say it too loudly) we have doubts too, and so we identify with Thomas as a fellow struggler, and the fact that Thomas has doubts makes us feel better about our own doubts.
Is that the way it works?
It’s a bit sad if that is the way it works because it suggests that Thomas’ role is just to make us feel a little less guilty about our own lack of faith on account of the fact that Thomas was even worse than we are!
That’s a bit like being encouraged by some of the exploits of King David because – hey, at least I haven’t committed adultery AND murdered someone both in the same week (yet)!
The problem with looking at Thomas this way is that it assumes that doubting and asking questions and struggling with faith issues is basically a bad thing (even if one of the Apostles got away with it), and I’m not at all convinced that any of these things are bad!
Let me say this clearly: I believe that having doubts and raising questions about what exactly it is that you believe is healthy. And indeed, the only alternative to ongoing self-questioning and struggle in matters of faith is a blind acceptance of whatever other people have told you that you are supposed to believe!
I don’t know where we got this idea that the opposite of faith is doubt. The opposite of faith, surely, is ‘mistrust’. Faith, as I understand it, is a relationship with God through Christ, and not a doctrine.
I appreciate, of course, that I can’t divorce that relationship with God in Christ from certain statements of faith, and yet the two are distinct, and being able to reflect upon those statements of faith and question those statements of faith in faith is absolutely essential, surely?
As I say, the only alternative to honest intellectual exploration is either unthinking acceptance of what other people tell you OR repression, such that we muffle our doubts and questions and try to think about something else whenever they start to bother us!
There’s plenty of that sort of religion about, of course. Karl Marx called it the ‘opiate of the masses’. My dad used to call it ‘Nuremburg Christianity’ – where the preacher up the front says ‘Amen’ and everybody in the congregation shouts back ‘zeig heil!’
I know there’s just been a big atheist convention in Melbourne recently, and I appreciate that militant Atheists are fond of caricaturing Christian people, and it is generally religious people at the ‘Nuremburg’ end of the religious spectrum that they choose to caricature. Such forms of religion do indeed, in my opinion, deserve to be caricatured! Our Atheist sisters and brothers just need to realise that we don’t all fit into that mould.
Religious fundamentalism indeed comes in a variety of flavours – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. – but it is basically the same phenomenon, I believe. It’s tribal, it’s dogmatic, and it’s unreflective – the same product repackaged for a variety of cultures, and none of them bearing any real resemblance to what we see in the New Testament.
Ask your questions! Don’t repress them! Don’t just nod your head and say ‘Amen’ to everything while secretly holding on to your dirty doubts about the what your church has told you that you are supposed to believe until one day you blurt out, “I’ve lost my faith!”
No. Paul Tillich said that true faith follows a death-resurrection cycle. The old, childlike faith must continually die, eaten away by doubts, to make room for a new, more mature faith. And as we continue to mature in faith so the death-resurrection cycle repeats itself.
A week later his disciples were again inside, and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were shut, Jesus came, stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Take your hand, and put it into my side. Stop doubting, but believe.”
Before jumping to the happy end of the story, let’s just pause and reflect for a moment on the way it is introduced:
A week later his disciples were again inside, and Thomas was with them.
We take it for granted, of course, but it’s worth noting that Thomas, despite the fact that he had denied the resurrection, was still with them!
I have a feeling that if Thomas had been a part of any number of modern churches he would have not been permitted to remain a part of the inner circle after having publicly gone on record as a resurrection-denier!
Now I know the situation was very unique and I know our context is very different, but it is worth recognizing that Thomas remained at the centre of Jesus’ band of followers, despite his questions, and despite his whinging, whining, bitter and disillusioned personality.
You see, I think we can do better than Thomas in the way we raise our doubts and ask our questions. We can do it with less militancy!
I know you think I’ve got it in for Thomas, but I think he was a difficult personality. He’s actually only quoted on two other occasions in the Gospels apart from this story, and in both instances he’s being cynical! Look them up!
He was just a difficult kinda guy. Never mind. Jesus loved him and so the disciples made room for him. And I’m sure that we’d make room for him too should he come by here.
For that’s the bottom line, I think: there was a place for Thomas at the side of Jesus – doubting, questioning, whinging, whining, bleating Thomas!
There was room for him, and so there should be room for volatile, punch-drunk, workaholic, mad-cap Dave too! And if there’s room for me and Thomas then there should be room for all of you other folk too (though I’ll refrain from using any more scathing adjectives).
Thomas answered him, saying “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Is it because you have seen me that you have believed? How blessed are those who have never seen me and yet have believed!”
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on April 15, 2012. To read the written version of this sermon click here.