Thomas is Us
Sermon 4.18.21—Ron Loge
Let’s pray – Our Heavenly Father: we thank you for your written word so we may come to know you better and live lives worthy of our calling as followers of Christ. May the Holy Spirit give meaning and blessing to my words. Open our ears that we may hear the Good News today and everyday. In Jesus name we pray. Amen
Two weeks ago, we joyfully celebrated Easter with the Easter message, uplifting music, and lilies that reminded us of the empty tomb that first Easter morning. Like Christmas we left church on a “faith high.” The hard stuff of Holy Week was done. We expect an easier, upbeat story ahead.
But the Easter story long ago actually had its stumbles which I will consider in today’s message. Today’s sermon is about a topic rarely discussed in church. This sermon is about doubt. It is about looking at the example of Thomas in his response to meeting Jesus after the resurrection. It is about the intersection of doubt in the life of faith. This can be a challenge. So, tune your ears, open your mind and examine your heart.
I don’t recall hearing many sermons about this topic. But there are entire books in the Bible that deal with various issues of doubt – Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Habakkuk and some of the Psalms come to mind.
Let’s start off with a little quiz. Here’s the question. If the Apostle Thomas was American, what is his home state? Of course, the answer is Missouri, whose nickname is the “Show Me” state.
Well, of course, Thomas was not a Missourian. He was a Galilean and one of the chosen disciples of Jesus who has been tagged with the unfortunate nickname “Doubting Thomas.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we too have had times of doubt on our Christian journeys of faith and likely have subsequently had feelings of guilt and shame when we look around and see other Christians apparently filled to the brim with faith. The truth is they probably are just like you.
When I think of people so absolutely certain of themselves, it reminds me of the dad giving fatherly advice to his children. “Remember this, kids,” he cautioned: “a smart person always has doubts about something. Only an idiot is 100% sure about everything!” “Really Dad?” they replied. “Are you sure about that?” “Absolutely!”
Well, as we heard in today’s scripture reading, Thomas was not the type who was absolutely sure about everything. But does he deserve the moniker, “Doubting Thomas,” portrayed as weak, pessimistic and lacking in faith? I would like to dispel that notion. So, let’s take a look at Thomas and see what we can discern about him from the few entries where he is mentioned in the Bible.
As we study him, begin asking yourself about these equivalences. Is doubt the same as unbelief or heresy? Is doubt the opposite of faith? Is doubt incompatible with faith? Many people struggle with the concept that if you doubt one thing in the Bible, you are challenging the whole Bible and the word of God. Is this a valid argument? And finally, does doubt always endanger faith or can it actually enhance faith?
Last week during the children’s sermon Aaron Cashmore gave a vivid example of testing one’s faith in the face of doubt when she demonstrated that she could stand on a carton of eggs without breaking any. How many of you thought the eggs would break? Who thought she could do it? Even though many of us doubted her, she had faith that she could do it, stepped up on the carton of eggs, and they didn’t break.
Getting back to Thomas - what do we know about him from the Gospels? It turns out that though we do not know a lot, we do get a sense of his character. We first meet him in Matthew and Mark at the time that Jesus names his first disciples. He is introduced as Thomas, the twin. In the Gospel of John, he is first referred to as Didymus, meaning twin in Greek. He doesn’t have a part or script on the stage of the New Testament story until near the end of Jesus’s ministry as written in John 11.
One day while Jesus was preaching, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus to come heal their brother, Lazarus. They lived in Bethany which was some distance away. When Jesus decides to respond to this call, his disciples remind him of the mob action they faced the last time Jesus went near Jerusalem when the Jewish leaders threatened to stone him. To the disciples it seemed suicidal to go anywhere near Jerusalem. Jesus decides to go despite this perceived threat, but the disciples doubted the wisdom of this move. Jesus told them, “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s get going.” I think that this is really interesting. The disciples doubt Jesus’s judgment. But he responds that he was going to give them grounds to believe in him instead. He knows that he would turn their doubts into belief by raising Larzarus from the dead. The disciples are cautious. Jesus says they were going anyway. That’s when we hear from Thomas who says to his team-mates, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Was Thomas just being pessimistic seeing a disaster at every intersection here? Was this dark outlook his nature, a mark of depression or fatalism? Or was it an indication of great courage having heard his master previously say, “Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friend.”? He was sticking with Jesus no matter what. Here is love and loyalty and sacrifice and total commitment along with enormous courage.
The Gospel of John mentions Thomas again just before Christ’s crucifixion.
Here is the scene. It was Thursday night in the Upper Room after Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet. He clued them in about what was about to happen to him. Anxious about hearing Jesus foretell his death, they listen as Jesus speaks words of reassurance to them:
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going."
Thomas, hearing this, must have felt distress as Jesus anticipates his own death. He probably felt confused and abandoned. His days with Jesus had changed his life. This statement of where Jesus was going needed clarification. Coming and going? What does He mean? How about an address and a roadmap? It may have been distressing for the others too who must have shared those same feelings, but it was Thomas who spoke up in a moment of great humility and honesty:
5Thomas said to him, "LORD, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?"
As we will see later, Thomas did not have an easy, superficial faith lacking reflection. His personality demanded clarification if he didn’t understand. We know folks like that and many of us also want to see evidence before we decide on something important.
There can be value in honest skepticism. I confess that by nature and training, I am a skeptic and am a doubter. As a physician my best successes in diagnosis and patient care came when it was tempered with uncertainty. The more complicated or severe the problem, the more I questioned and doubted my diagnosis. This forced a rethinking of my assumptions and made me ask more questions. This caused me to focus better and ultimately solve the problem correctly. In the first week of my internship a wise professor warned me, “When you make a diagnosis, you stop thinking.” In other words, if you think that you are sure about something, the human tendency is to stop asking questions and then you use every bit of information to confirm your false impression. “What is the evidence?” has been my mantra. When I hear a news report or a political commentary or a report of a medical breakthrough, rather than thoughtlessly believe what I hear or read, I ask “What’s the evidence?”
So too, my spiritual journey has had questions and doubts at times since youth, and my approach has been to seek answers rather than throwing my faith by the wayside when challenged by these questions.
Back to Thomas. The thought of losing Jesus must have caused Thomas great pain. How could he and the other disciples even function without the presence of Jesus? He loved Jesus and was trying to reconcile that anticipated loss.
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him."
Thomas was not the sole disciple who voiced questions and lacked understanding. Philip then piped up, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” You see, it is certain that it was not Thomas alone amongst the disciples who did not understand the meaning of what Jesus had just said – despite all the time that they had spent together. So, perhaps one takeaway is that we should not be hard on ourselves if we do not intuit or have great clarity in all that is in the Bible. Jesus subsequently revealed the answers to these questions to his immediate followers and by the help of the Holy Spirit will enlighten us as well.
All too soon for Thomas and the other disciples, Friday came, and Jesus was crucified. Can you imagine their thoughts upon knowing the reality of the death of the gentle prophet whom they believed would restore the Kingdom of God in Israel? How did their emotions fare the next hours and days? This experience must have caused them doubt and terrible grief.
Two weeks ago, we celebrated that first Easter Sunday, and we heard the story of the empty tomb and the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene first, who relayed to the disciples that she had seen the resurrected Jesus. The disciples were in hiding in grief and in fear of recriminations from the Jewish authorities. Had they believed Mary’s witness? Had it given them hope or confused them? Then is happened! Later that day Jesus suddenly stood among them and responding to their fear He said, “Peace be with you.” The last words the disciples knew Jesus had said was on the cross, “It is finished.” And now they hear from him, “Peace be with you.” - “Shalom.” After he showed them his hands and his side, their mood instantly turned to joyfulness. They may have remembered that he had told them only a few days before his crucifixion, “So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” They experienced the peace and the joy of God’s presence in the risen Jesus.
In Gospel of John’s account, Thomas was not present with them there. We don’t know why. Perhaps he felt he needed his own space for reflection and grieving or he had his own refuge from the Jewish authorities.
Here’s what we know:
John 20:24-25: Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So 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."
Put into current vernacular, the other disciples told him, “Thomas you’re not going to believe this, but…” and Thomas said out loud what he was thinking, “Like, ah, you want me to believe what? No way - unless I see for myself exactly what you got to see.” Can you imagine what the astounded dynamic in that room and what that would have looked and sounded like? Here is a rhetorical question, how would you have responded in that situation?
Put yourselves in Thomas’s shoes here. Jesus had appeared to the other ten disciples and had shown them his wounds as proof it was him and he was alive. Prior to that the ten were grieving and in a state of disbelief no different from Thomas. In Luke it says they took Mary’s witnessing the living Jesus as an idle tale, and they did not believe her. The scripture notes that the other disciples didn’t rejoice on first seeing Jesus but only after he showed them his wounds. Thomas was simply asking for what all the other disciples got in their encounter with Jesus. No more, no less.
Eight days pass and still no connection with Jesus for Thomas.
It’s like if you were told by a good friend that you had just won the raffle, and someone would bring you the papers for your new Lexus soon. And you wait and wait and wait and you don’t hear anything. Are you wondering if this is legit?
After 8 days of waiting, does Thomas have any reason for reassurance? He might have been mulling a whole host of questions. OK, so what have these last years meant? What was the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and my time with him? What was the meaning of his crucifixion? Did he really defeat death? Is he truly the son of God? Were the other 10 disciples aboveboard about seeing Jesus and His wounds? It must have been a tough 8 days with a lot of questions.
But then it happened to Thomas:
John 20:26-29:26 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!” 27 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.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Notice something here. Jesus appears and utters his same greeting, “Peace be with you” to calm their troubled hearts. And then he immediately speaks to Thomas. OK, so who had told Jesus? Who had been talking to Jesus about Thomas needing proof? Jesus knew Thomas, and he knew his mind and his heart. He knew the wilderness of doubt that he had been wandering in since the crucifixion.
Jesus spoke to Thomas as a disciple whose faith was in a weakened stage, not as one with a sinful spirit of unbelief. The text does not reveal if Thomas did touch Jesus’ wound. Rather, just seeing Him face to face convinced Thomas of the resurrection. Thomas’s answer was immediate, “My Lord and my God.” His doubts had vanished as he saw the glorified Christ. This disciple who spoke with the greatest doubt made the greatest proclamation of faith. Honest doubts can become the bedrock of faith.
There is a difference between honest and dishonest doubts. Some people just do not want to believe. They are good at rationalizing their disbelief. Thomas was an honest doubter. He wanted to believe.
Jesus came for Thomas in his time of doubt. Some scholars say that at this point Jesus rebuked Thomas. But it seems that when you look at this passage, Jesus was meeting Thomas exactly where he was on that day with gentleness and patience. Jesus was there to recognize Thomas’s skepticism and to provide testimony and witness of His own resurrection so that Thomas could believe.
The understanding Jesus showed with Thomas doesn’t stop with him. He understands, too, when we are in our wilderness of uncertainty. I am reading a memoir by ornithologist Caroline van Hemert about her wilderness trek across Alaska with her husband. In her prologue she states, “Living with uncertainty is OK. It is the only option.” It seems so, doesn’t it.
It seems to me Thomas has been unfairly singled out as the skeptic because of this account in John. But when you read the other Gospel versions of the disciples’ responses to the resurrection you find the common theme of doubt and disbelief from most all of his closest followers. Thomas was not alone in thinking this news was too good to be true. Think about that. We often believe that all of the apostles were bastions of faith. But they had times that they waivered. Despite all the time the disciples spent with Jesus and learning from him, they didn’t get it. They didn’t understand that he would really rise from the tomb. They all had to see him to believe it.
This singular example of Thomas shows us the patience and gentleness that Jesus has for us in our moments of doubt and that he will meet us where we are. Thomas stands as a model of how one becomes a disciple.
One of the big secrets that we all have is that we are at times doubters. You may have major intellectual doubts such as: Is the Bible the word of God? Is Jesus really the Son of God? Did the resurrection really happen?
You may have personal doubts such as: Am I really a Christian? Why do I feel inadequate or not as holy as someone else? Why is the church sometimes associated with division, anger and judgment against others who are different from me if Christ really is in charge?
You may have doubts that arise from life circumstances such as: Why did I develop cancer? Why did I just receive bad news, or why did I lose my spouse if God is love? Why are there wars and genocidal dictators if God loves his people? Why is my family life unhappy? These questions are intersections of biblical faith and the real pain of a fallen world.
Let me share a story that exemplifies the honest doubt of Thomas and the gentle leading hand of Jesus meeting a voyager on her life’s journey of faith.
I hold here a well-used Bible. It belonged to my Aunt Borghild who died at age 99. This Bible was her guide the last 30 years of her life. In it she notes the time and date that she finished reading every book – all three times. The key verses are underlined, and the margins are filled with commentary and questions. As a young woman she suffered from severe depression and carried self-doubt into her later years. In the margins were questions like, “how could this have happened?” After the verse in Psalms that says, “I do not swerve from thy testimonies,” she writes,” I wish I could.” About the woes of Job, she noted, “True of me.” In the New Testament she wrote, “Why did Jesus say this?” and “What does this mean?” Do these doubts and questions call into question her faith? No. Her faith is revealed on her commentary on the passages about Easter Sunday where she wrote, “On Easter Sunday, we have not come to the end of the story, but the beginning.”
It was also revealed in her last days. As I sat beside her in her hospital room, many visitors came to pay their respects. They repeated the same story of how her faith had inspired them as she taught them in Sunday School as youngsters, when she took them to Christian youth conferences and later led them in Bible studies as adults. Her questions and her doubts had strengthened her faith and guided others in the same path. Her path was like that of Thomas. She was a disciple for Christ like Thomas.
As my Aunt Borghild wrote, Easter and the resurrection - it is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. For Thomas, too, it was the beginning. Tradition has it that he took his strengthened faith beyond the borders of the Holy Land to bring the gospel to India.
Consider this: faith is progressive. It certainly was for the disciples of Jesus from the time he chose them to the time he came to them that first Easter evening. With each miracle that Jesus performed, with each parable he told, with each sermon he gave and with each blessing he bestowed they progressively began to believe in him more and more. Their faith grew. The climax of their faith journey was their encounter with the risen Jesus. Thomas was on the same progressive path of faith, only reaching his high point a week later than the others. That did not make him less of a disciple. So, too, is our faith progressive – step-by-step.
You may have been brought up in Christian education much like I was assuming the more faith we have, the fewer questions we will ask. That’s a big burden to carry – to be perfect in faith. But the story of Thomas and Jesus offers a different picture of faith wherein faith and doubt are intertwined. This happens to us more often than we’d like to admit. Remember that faith isn’t knowledge or the ability to quote 100 Bible verses. Paul says in Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (REPEAT) Just as Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
That would be us. Thomas is us. Thomas doubted. Then Thomas saw. Then Thomas believed. We may have doubted. We have not seen as Thomas did, but Jesus asks us to have the assurance about what we do not see. To go from doubt to faith.
Take this gospel story with you. May the seeking of the answers to your questions be the energy of your faith. And thereby experience the peace and joy of the presence of the Risen Jesus. And then we can always sing like the precious children, “Jesus Loves Me This I Know.”