Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Thomas the Confessor” (John 20:24-29)
April 23, 2017
“Resurrection Did Not Happen, say quarter of Christians.” That was the title of an article on the BBC website earlier this month. Now the data and survey techniques have been criticized and honestly the survey also shows a large percentage of Christians in the UK do believe in the resurrection. What floored me in the BBC report was a comment from a Priest in charge of a progressive theological movement in the Church of England. She said, “I think [people answering the survey] are being asked to believe in the way they might have been asked to believe when they were at Sunday school. You’re talking about adults here. And an adult faith requires that it be constantly questioned, constantly re-interpreted, which incidentally is very much what Modern Church is actually about. Science, but also intellectual and philosophical thought has progressed. It has a trickle-down effect on just about everybody’s lives. So to ask an adult to believe in the resurrection the way they did when they were at Sunday school simply won’t do and that’s true of much of the key elements of the Christian faith.”
Did you hear the key part, “an adult faith requires that it be constantly questioned, constantly re-interpreted.” Somewhere along the way in teaching and critical thinking skepticism has become a virtue. We might see our gospel reading today as supporting the idea that skepticism is a virtue. Sadly, Thomas is often remembered for being a “doubter” of the resurrection of Jesus instead of being the first person in John’s gospel to confess that Jesus is God.
How does Thomas go from doubt to faith? First, Thomas was allowed the freedom to doubt. Notice in the text it begins with Jesus appearing to the disciples the evening of Easter. Then there is a comment that Thomas was not there. When the other disciples report Jesus’ resurrection to him. Thomas makes the statement that unless he put his finger in his hands and his hand in Jesus’ side he will not believe. Now does this sound like an unreasonable request? There is this thought that the disciples (and many of those who lived in ancient times) were so superstitious and pre-modern that it was somehow easy for them to believe in the resurrection. But the ancients knew, as we do today, that people do not rise from the dead. They had categories for ghosts, apparitions, and spirits but nothing really for a dead man rising from the grave as a truly living person. Thomas is allowed the freedom to have a reasonable doubt about a truth claim, and he is allowed to stay within the community despite his doubts. The text says, “A week later his disciples were again in the house.” He isn’t shunned or ostracized for not believing a seemingly impossible event. Yet for so many of us doubt is seen as a greater danger to the Christian life than sin. Second, it would appear that Thomas’ doubt does not mean he willingly excludes himself from the disciples. He doesn’t, like so many today, think that he’s got some sweet memories with Jesus and doesn’t need the fellowship of the church. The reason Thomas goes from doubt to faith is because the disciples who love him allow him to doubt while being part of the community. And Thomas stays in fellowship with the disciples despite his doubts.
As I drove down to a conference this week, I had the opportunity to catch up with my stepbrother who just finished tax season. My stepbrother is Jewish and he married a Christian woman who interestingly enough is also named Amanda. As we were talking about kids, relief that tax season was over, and other things, he said to me, “You would be so happy, I went with Amanda’s family to church on Good Friday.” I said I was surprised and happy and asked him how was the service and what he thought. While he said he enjoyed it, he was shocked to discover that Good Friday is really depressing. The young zealous pastor vividly described the horrors of crucifixion. What surprised me more than my brother going to a Good Friday service, was how quickly he spotted a poor reading of the Bible. This young pastor also read the part of John we heard today and told the congregation again in graphic terms how Thomas put his whole hand into Jesus’ side so that his doubts turned into faith. My brother raises his voice as he is telling me this and he says, “Now, I was angry because we just read that passage and I am looking at the Bible and it doesn’t say that Thomas touched Jesus…so what’s up with that?” Despite centuries of iconography, art, and popular retelling of Thomas’ story, my brother correctly caught that nowhere in the text does it say that Thomas ever does what he says he needs to do in order to believe. Why did Thomas not do what he said he would need to do in order to believe? The simple answer is, he had no need to touch Jesus to confirm he was alive. Jesus showing up when he was supposed to be in a tomb was proof enough. The presence of Jesus pushed away all doubts, the fact that Jesus was alive and came for Thomas was enough, Jesus is always enough for us and our doubts.
By the time I was headed into my senior year of college, and I went to a conservative Christian college, I was completely burned out by other Christians. I wanted a more loving, inclusive expression of the Christian faith. I wanted a place where some of the questions and doubts I had concerning various parts of Scripture and theology could be voiced without judgment. I decided to go to a seminary that would allow me the opportunity to explore all my doubts. God gave me, like he did Thomas, exactly what I asked for. I arrived at the seminary in mid summer to start a job on campus. I met several of the students and learned many things that confirmed I was in the right place. Then came the first day of classes. My first class was on Christology, the theology around the person and being of Jesus Christ. To begin this class, the professor said, “Here doubt is a virtue. Here we can be honest and say things we wouldn’t or couldn’t in the pulpit at church. Let’s say them: Jesus was a man and never claimed to be divine. The creeds we recite were designed to force conformity and quiet dissent. Jesus did not rise from the dead but was likely left on the cross or really did have his body stolen by his disciples. Our aim in this class is strip away all the central tenants of the Christian faith so we can get to a purer message – how to live a good life.” Like Thomas, all the questions and thoughts I had about faith and Jesus were repeated back to me and I was overwhelmed by the real Jesus. Yes a man, but God. Yes he died, but he is alive. Yes questions and doubts are healthy and good, but there is truth and a person who desires us to know the love and salvation of God is the embodiment of that truth. I’ll close with these words from our Lord Jesus Christ and John to those who doubt and to those who confess Jesus as “My Lord, and My God,” “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written 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.” Amen