Sunday 8 July 2018
Commemoration of St. Thomas, Apostle
Thomas is one of my favorite saints. Most people know only one thing about Thomas: that he doubted. In fact, Thomas is considered so synonymous with doubt that it has essentially become part of his name. Who is he? Doubting Thomas. But that is such a narrow and distorted view of this interesting apostle.
So what do we know about Thomas. Well, let’s start in the bible. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say that Thomas was one of the twelve, an inner circle of disciples Jesus set apart and sent out two-by-two into the world as apostles. But in all three gospels, Thomas is just a name on a list. There are no stories about him, no speaking lines. It’s the same in the Book of Acts. Thomas is listed as one of the apostles, but we get no information about him. Peter, James, and John are the most significant of the twelve in the three synoptic gospels, and we don’t hear much detail about anyone else.
However, the Gospel of John is a different story altogether. John’s gospel tends to marginalize Peter and lift up other, less remembered characters, like Thomas.
Thomas first takes the stage in John 11:16. Jesus has been informed that his friend, Lazarus, is sick. Jesus wants to go visit him, but the other disciples are arguing against it. Jesus has already stirred up trouble for himself in Judea; if he goes back there now, he might be killed. But when Jesus insists, it is Thomas who speaks up. He says, “Let us go also so that we may die with Jesus.” That doesn’t sound much like doubt to me. That is extreme faith. He seems to know that Jesus is going to die, and he follow him anyway, even if he himself dies. It’s Thomas who convinces the other disciples to go back into dangerous Judea with Jesus.
Thomas’s next appearance is in the gospel lesson we read this morning. Jesus is toward the beginning of his farewell discourse. They are at their final meal, and Jesus spends about five chapters just monologuing. This is the second chapter. In any case, Jesus is speaking those familiar words that we often read at funeral services: In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” At this point, Thomas interrupts. He says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” He asks a question. And his question leads to faith. Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
As we often find in the Gospel of John, Jesus uses a series of mixed metaphors to describe himself and what he is about. It often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense grammatically. In this case, we are told that Jesus will lead the disciples to Jesus so that they can be with Jesus and the way that they will get there is by Jesus. Jesus is the guide, Jesus is the destination, and Jesus is the route. How exactly Jesus can travel along Jesus in order to get to Jesus is not something that John seems very concerned with untangling.
In any case, the important point here is that Thomas’s question leads to a profound statement of faith: I am the way and the truth and the life.” We could, if we wanted to, say that Thomas is doubting here. “We don’t even know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” Why is he second-guessing Jesus? Why can’t he just trust Jesus that Jesus know’s what he’s talking about?
But the truth is, Thomas doesn’t know what Jesus is talking about. And in the face of not knowing, Thomas does the brave thing: he admits that he doesn’t know. He asks for clarification. The other disciples don’t know what Jesus is talking about either, but it is Thomas who is brave enough to ask.
The third appearance of Thomas in the Gospel of John is the one we know the best. It is Easter evening. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors. They are terrified as Jesus mysteriously appears in the room. He sends them out into the world. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And they are all amazed. But of course, Thomas wasn’t there in the room when the risen Lord appeared. They tell him, but he replies, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” There we have it, right? Doubting Thomas. Why wouldn’t he believe?
One week later, there are all the disciples, still hiding away in a locked room. But Thomas is with them this time. And Jesus mysteriously appears again, despite the locked doors. And Jesus speaks to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” Why is it that Thomas needs more proof than all of the other disciples? Why does he need to touch the wounds before he will believe?
Well, he doesn’t. It’s not actually true that Thomas needs extra proof in order to believe. The other disciples see Jesus appear in front of them, and they believe. That’s exactly the same thing that Thomas requires. He sees Jesus appear, and he believes. Thomas says after the first appearance that he won’t believe unless he touches the wounds. And when he appears the second time, Jesus invites him to touch the wounds. But he never actually does. Jesus invites Thomas to touch, but he doesn’t. When it comes down to it, Thomas sees and hears Jesus, and without touching the wounds, he declares, “My Lord and my God!”
That, by the way, is the fullest confession of faith in the entire gospel. No one else in the gospel says something as powerful about Jesus’s identity than Thomas’s words here: my Lord and my God.
Thomas does ask questions. But his questions don’t lead to doubt. They lead to faith. In fact, they lead to some of the strongest faith in the Gospel. It is Thomas who declares, “My Lord and my God!” It is Thomas who elicits Jesus’s words, “I am the ways and the truth and the life. It is Thomas who is willing to go with Jesus to Judea, even if it means he would have to die with Jesus.
And I think that’s something we can learn from. Some of us were taught that faith is about unquestioning belief. Don’t ask questions, don’t stir up trouble—that can only lead to evil. That can only draw you away from God.
But I don’t think that’s true. If we never ask questions, never express doubt, then we are left with an infantile faith. We are left regurgitating whatever our first Sunday school teacher taught us just because that is what we heard first. And our faith never engages with the real world, never engages with what is happening here and now.
But God gave us brains. God gave us intellect and curiosity and imagination. And God intends for us to use them.
That’s what Martin Luther was on about when he talked about sola scriptura, scripture alone. He said, don’t trust whatever your pastor or teacher tells you. Check it for yourself in the scriptures. See what they have to say. Make your own interpretation. Ask questions of the world. Ask questions of your faith. Ask questions of the bible. Think about it.
And our Methodist tradition gives us something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It suggests that when you have a question of faith, you should consult four sources. First, scripture: what does the Bible have to say? Next, tradition: what has the church said over time? Third, reason: what does your mind tell you? What makes sense? And finally, experience: what does your spirit tell you? Faith isn’t always simple. It requires thought, work, struggle to discern God’s will.
It is part of our religious DNA to ask questions, to think things through, to be skeptical, even. And it is not unfaithful to do those things. It is essential to our faith. If we are going to have a faith that makes any difference in our lives, it must be a faith that is tested, a faith that has gotten dirty in the experience of real life. Otherwise it is just hypothetical assertions. Our questions don’t make us lose our faith. Questions are essential to our faith.
And Thomas is our example of that. His questions lead to faith. According to Christian tradition, Thomas went east after Jesus’s resurrection, through Parthia to India, where he evangelized, built a church, and was martyred. His symbol is the spear and square—the square for his building and the spear for his manner of death. When Portuguese sailors landed in southwest India, they were surprised to find that there were already Christians there, Christians who worshipped in Syriac and traced their foundation to Thomas. Even now, there are St. Thomas Christians in India who believe themselves to be in an unbroken tradition that leads back to Thomas. That is quite a legacy for someone who is most known for doubt.
Questions don’t have to destroy our faith. Questions can lead to faith. Let us, like Thomas, bring our whole selves to Jesus, questions and all, so that we too might be sent out into the world in faith.