Pastor Roger Barkley goes beyond the simple label of “Doubting Thomas” in order to explore the nature of belief.
The Daring Faith of Thomas
John 20:24-31 April 28, 2019
The disciple Thomas – the so-called “Doubting Thomas” – has been the butt of a lot of religious jabs that for the most part, miss the point.
In the first part of today’s reading, Jesus walked through locked doors to bless and commission his disciples, but John made a point of telling us that Thomas was not there.
Where was Thomas?
Could he have been feeling overwhelmed?
That certainly was possible.
Back in seminary, I chose to write a term paper on Jesus’ lengthy discourse and prayer that he shared with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.
Within ten minutes I realized I was in way over my head.
Those passages are poetic … thick in metaphor and deep in symbolism.
While the other disciples apparently sat nodding in feigned understanding at statements like (John 14:2, 4) In my Father’s house are many rooms … You know the way to the place where I am going.
Only Thomas was audacious enough to challenge their rabbi: “Whoa. Wait a minute. Enough with the metaphors, already. For real, where are you talking about, and how are we supposed to know the way to join you?”
So, a few days later, when Thomas hears from the other disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead, it was natural for him to say, “Oh, I get it: this is another of those metaphors things.
“Well, maybe that works for you, but I’m not buying it this time unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands.”
Another thought is that Thomas wasn’t there that evening because he’d been bold enough to venture out of the locked doors to get supplies for everyone … and that actually is in character because he already had demonstrated exceptional bravery.
One time, Jesus announced that he was returning to Judea to raise his friend Lazarus from the grave, even though he had been threatened there with stoning.
It was Thomas who spoke up to the frightened disciples, (John 11:6) Let us also go, that we might die with him.
So, we can only guess where Thomas was that evening the resurrected Jesus visited the disciples, but we do know some important things:
First, Thomas has gotten a bad rap as a man of weak faith.
Rather, he was audacious enough to challenge Jesus and bold enough to risk his life to follow Jesus.
And second, Jesus cared enough for Thomas to return the next week specifically to reach out to him.
Jesus did not come back later to recruit a new and better team because these disciples had disappointed him.
Jesus returned to these same folks who had abandoned him when he was arrested been too dense to understand his teachings, and had bickered amongst themselves about who was the greatest.
I find that encouraging …Jesus reaches out to me and to you because he loves us for just who we are – doubts, blemishes, and all.
Then when he comes face-to-face with Thomas, Jesus did an astonishing thing: he modeled authenticity by inviting Thomas to touch his wounds.
Think about that: Don’t we put a scarf or a long-sleeved shirt over our scars?
Margaret Guenther is a priest and spiritual director whose early training included working with a wise psychologist whose patients were deeply troubled children.
He taught Margaret that to fully understand the children she’d also have to look at their parents
He gave her a life-long lesson when he said, “It is the good mothers who tend to be a little bit messy. At least, their grooming isn’t perfect.”
He understood that the touch of the small child seeking assurance of safety and love should not be hampered by warnings not to rumple a blouse, spoil makeup, or ruffle carefully arranged hair.
Jesus did not want to hamper love by shooing their touch of his wounds.
We quite naturally want to put our best foot forward.
Admire my “lookin’ good self”, and please don’t look too closely at my wounds.
But here Jesus is saying, “Don’t be afraid to touch me and see me for who I am … even the Son of God has wounds.”
Yesterday’s UCC daily devotion tells about two men who appeared at heaven’s gate and were ushered into St. Peter’s presence.
One of the men looked terrific. Tan, fit, a nice head of hair.
Except for the fact that he was dead, he could have been in GQ.
He smiled confidently at Peter.
The other man limped into St. Peter’s presence.
He had a welt on the back of his head.
His clothes looked worn and his face suggested he thought he was in the wrong place.
St. Peter assayed the two people before him.
He then turned to the first and asked, “Where are your wounds? Was there nothing down there worth fighting for?”
John 20:27 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.”
Thomas’s response is the high point of John’s Gospel: (John 20:28) “My Lord and my God!”
Until that moment, no one had named Jesus as God.
When Thomas gets it, he really gets it.
This also tells us something about the meaning of doubt.
Thomas had spent the past three years with Jesus questioning him, challenging him, trying to unpack his message … and yet boldly following him.
He was what in today’s lingo we call a “spiritual seeker” – someone who is on a journey to find God.
A seeker is fundamentally different than an unbeliever.
An unbeliever isn’t looking for God – they either don’t believe in God or don’t care.
A seeker has endless questions about God; often trying-on and testing different faith traditions.
Many seekers today aren’t satisfied with pat religious answers, especially when they see churches acting hypocritical, judgmental and self-righteous.
That’s why the fastest growing demographic in American religion is “spiritual but not affiliated.”
A seeker struggles with God and with how to lead a godly life.
But an unbeliever isn’t asking God questions.
The luxury of being an unbeliever is that you don’t have to worry about praying “Thy will be done”, that may lead you to uncomfortable or even dangerous places.
The luxury of being an unbeliever is that you don’t think anything or anyone can really change.
The luxury of being an unbeliever is that you can wrap yourself in your comfortable despair and entertain yourself into a coma.
Being an unbeliever is easy.
Thomas reminds us that the alternative requires risk and effort.
And Thomas reminds us of something else: the alternative to unbelief cannot just be unfounded wishful thinking.
He was a seeker, and so he wanted a direct experience of the Resurrected Christ.
Jesus cared enough to make a return visit for his sake.
I do believe in the human spirit.
I stand in awe of people of little or no formal faith who challenge themselves to run marathons or who rise above gang-infested neighborhoods to build a successful life.
But the human spirit will only take you so far, and that isn’t necessarily where God wants you to go.
Have you ever invested years struggling up a ladder only to realize years later that it was leaning against the wrong wall?
As a Christian community, we see hope beyond what the human spirit alone can deliver.
We have witnessed more than lives and relationships improved by positive thinking: we have witnessed lives and relationships transformed by the power of the Risen Christ.
And so we can look at a world of hunger and pain and know that more than charity is possible, that the Risen Christ urges us to partner with Him to transform what to us may appear impossible.
Thomas was so inspired by his encounter with the resurrected Christ that he set off to proclaim the Good News through Syria and all the way to India, eventually dying there as a martyr.
Child psychiatrist Robert Coles followed the lives of some black six-year-old children who in 1961 were part of desegregating New Orleans public schools.
Day after day these little kids were threatened by angry mobs calling them the vilest names.
It took a squad of helmeted National Guardsmen just to get the children inside the doors of their school.
One of the children, a little girl named Tessie, couldn’t take anymore and one morning told her grandmother that she was feeling sick and wanted to stay home.
Her wise grandmother responded this way: “It’s no picnic, child – I know that, Tessie … Lord Almighty, if I could just go with you and call all those people to my side, and read to them from the Bible, and remind them that Jesus is up there watching over all of us.
“Lord, I pray for them, those poor, poor folks who are out there shouting their heads off at you. You’re one of the Lord’s people; He’s put his hand on you. He’s given a call to you, a call to service in His name.”
Tessie decided that maybe she was feeling well enough to go to school after all.
The Lord has put His hand on you, too.
Given the growing problems we are facing today – the rapid deterioration of our planet, the growing struggle against racism and homophobia, plus all the crises of our personal lives – we can no longer depend on the human spirit alone to be our salvation.
It hasn’t worked.
Nor can we sit back and think that someone else it going to fix things for us.
Whether you put your hope in Barack Obama or Donald Trump, that hasn’t worked, either.
But God did not intend for us to either go it alone, relying just on the human spirit, or to throw up our hands in despair at the monumental tasks ahead.
Rather, He put His hand on you.
He invites us to walk in partnership with Him, tackling the issues He calls us to, using the gifts and passions He’s given us, working in a faithful community relying on His strength and guidance.
Faith is a choice: what will we put front and center in our life?
Even if we have questions or doubts, what will we be loyal to?
Since none of us will be physically putting our hand into Jesus’ wounds we cannot rely on physical proof of Jesus’ presence, which is why Jesus said to future generations:
John 20:29 “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”
Frederick Buechner said,
“Can I prove that life is better than death,
or that love is better than hate?
Can I prove the greatness of the great
or the beauty of the beautiful?
Can I prove the friendship of my friend?
When I experience it, I don’t need to prove it
and when I don’t experience it, no proof will do.”
You will never lead someone to Christ by quoting scripture at them.
Rather, you will lead people to Christ by sharing how He’s shown up in your life, how you are different today because of your relationship with Him.
And when it feels safe, they might be open enough to share some of their life story, and like seekers through the ages wonder if Christ could transform their life, too.
Once you’ve seen the work of the wounded and risen Christ in your life, then you can join Thomas and Tessie in doubting your doubts and getting on with what you are called to do in this life.