|René Thomas, a French race car driver.|
Lots of Thomases in this world.
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
Preached at Ewing Presbyterian Church
Scripture Readings: Revelation 1:4-8 and John 20:19-31
“Blessed are those who believe who have not seen.” This blessing is often taken as an indictment of Thomas and others who have their doubts. Doubting Thomas—that disciple who didn’t have the fortitude to hold onto his belief even a few days into the crisis of Jesus’ death. We read his story out of context, as if all the other disciples jumped to belief at the first moment of Jesus’ appearance—or even rather that they had belief all along, and it was just Thomas who was lacking in the faith department.
Oh, Doubting Thomas! The poor wretch. Jesus loved him anyway, but what a sad scolding he received, we think. Blessed are those who believe and do not see, we repeat smugly. And there is room for us to be smug on this side of the millennia. After all, it’s been 2,000 years since we last had an appearance of Christ on this earth—what other choice do we have? Either believe without physical evidence or walk away, because Jesus isn’t around to ask anymore. From our side of this 21 century divide, we are safely ensconced in deep traditions of belief without a body, without physical testimony, without the voice of Christ to call us to belief. Poor Doubting Thomas—how could he be so skeptical?
But let us put Thomas into perspective in the last few days of Jesus’ life. He showed up for the Last Supper, expecting a Passover meal. Instead he got a good-bye dinner, complete with a lengthy sermon on what to do after his beloved Jesus died. His feet were washed by his Teacher, which was an odd change in the order of master and servant. One of the twelve was accused of betraying the fellowship. Jesus offered up the bread as his body and the wine as his blood, telling them to remember him every time they shared a meal together.
After dinner they wandered off to the garden where Jesus prayed anxiously. By the end of the night, Jesus had been arrested. By Friday he was condemned to die on a cross by the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and Herod. Jesus was whipped, forced through the streets and up a hill and then strung up on a cross to die. Peter himself, the Rock, the one on whom Christ would build his church, Peter denied him three times the night of Jesus’ arrest. So let us be clear where the doubts began.
By the time Jesus was dead on the cross, the only disciple left standing as witness was John, the beloved disciple, and the three Marys. And that night others took his body down and prepared it for burial, leaving him in a cave in a nearby garden.
Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty on Sunday morning, and although she was confronted with fantastically glowing angels, she still thought Jesus was the gardener until he called out her name. The disciples who had come with her didn’t even see the angels and had already wandered back to the others, where they were huddled together in a house, fearful of the past few days events.
The Magdalene ran back to the house where many of the disciples were gathered and told them that she had seen the Lord. But they did not believe her. So that when Jesus came and stood among them—even though the doors were locked from the inside, and nobody had let him in—they did not know it was him.
Christ called out to them “Peace be with you.” But it wasn’t until he showed them his wounds that they believed and saw that it was Christ. So it is really no surprise that when Thomas showed up, and the other disciples said, “We have seen the Lord,” that Thomas did not believe them any more than they had believed Mary Magdalene. It may be true that they had witnessed the raising of Lazarus and other miracles, but the disciples had not come to a belief in their own healing powers or in the idea that Jesus transcends death. This would take time and it was early days yet.
And really, if Jesus showed up today in my living room and declared himself present, even though I had locked the door, I would want proof then too. I’d probably call some friends to come over and verify. I might take him to the doctor to have his cuts looked at. I would certainly call my pastor and spiritual director. I might call my shrink. I might indeed call the police to report an intruder into my home, and I would certainly be reluctant to bring my children too close to this man who popped up where he shouldn’t, couldn’t have been.
Doubting Thomas? Well how about Doubting Katie, because that’s true enough. And if this blessing “Blessed are those who believe and have not seen”, if that blessing is meant for me, then I have not lived up to my side of that bargain—not every day, not even most days. It’s easy enough to speak of old myths and traditions, legends of days gone by, stories told in ancient texts, translated and interpreted a thousand times over. It’s easy enough to ascribe to a creed, or even several confessions. Easy enough to follow church polity, and to bury myself in books to see if I can’t tease out the meaning of an old ancient text for today’s context.
But belief? Real honest to goodness belief? The kind of faith that would let me see Jesus with no extra coaching, no calling of my name, no breaking of the bread so that I might suddenly know it was Christ? That kind of faith few of us attain. We are left huddling behind our locked doors, half way hoping for a miracle that Jesus might come back and show us the way.
It is interesting that we refer to Thomas’ lack of sight as doubt. And equally interesting to me that we make a significant event out of this last appearance of Christ to Thomas. Some people have suggested that Thomas was grieving somewhere else, unable to bear the pain of gathering with others around the death of Jesus. But I suppose it is equally plausible that Thomas was busy. A practical man, the kind that wants evidence to back your claim, perhaps he was off in the community carrying out Jesus’ last wishes of caring for others and spreading the gospel. Thomas was not one of the disciples huddled under the roof of the house when Jesus first arrived to proclaim his resurrection. He wasn’t at the tomb that morning with Mary, holding on to his grief over the Teacher’s death. Perhaps he was out and about tending to matters at hand. Jesus after all had said that the living should leave the dead to the dead. Who knows what Thomas was up to in that week before Jesus appeared to him as well?
I can’t prove it with scripture, because the evidence is not there. We have no accounts of Thomas’ activity that week—no proof that he was working and healing and praying and living out the gospels. But what if he was? What if his busyness that week kept him from seeing Jesus—what if in some important way his belief was more intact than any of the others—what if “Blessed are those who believe and have not seen” was meant for Thomas—because he had believed and carried on with the work at hand, even though he had not yet seen Christ risen. What if Christ’s words were meant as an affirmation to the disciple who had not stayed behind locked doors, afraid of the world, refusing to risk in order to love? What if what he was saying was, “Thomas, you don’t believe because you have just seen me. I can see your belief in your everyday work, in the practicality of not waiting for the second coming. And bless you for that.”
Perhaps not. You’re entitled to your doubts.
I am not alone in speculating about Thomas’ absence. Other ancient texts offer intriguing possibilities, including this text from The Book of the Resurrection, attributed to Bartholomew the Apostle:
Thomas was not with them, for he had departed to his city, hearing that his son Siophanes (Theophanes?) was dead. It was the seventh day since the death when he arrived. He went to the tomb and raised him in the name of Jesus…Thomas and he went into the city to the consternation of all who saw them. He, Siophanes, addressed the people and told his story, and Thomas baptized twelve thousand of them, founded a church, and made Siophanes its bishop. Then Thomas mounted on a cloud, and it took him to the Mount of Olives and to the apostles, who told him of the visit of Jesus and he would not believe. Bartholomew admonished him. Then Jesus appeared, and made Thomas touch his wounds and departed into heaven. (Most, 109)
That sounds like a busy week, doesn’t it? Raising his son from the dead, baptizing 12,000 people, founding a church, and flying back home on a cloud, only to deny Christ’s resurrection—a fantastical story for sure!
Elaine Pagels wrote a book on the Gospel of Thomas—another ancient text that was left out of our Biblical canon. In working with this ancient text, she suggests that the Gospel of John was written specifically to counter the teachings of so-called “Thomas Christians” who taught that God was light and the light is in each of us, and that therefore (and this is a gross oversimplification), we might come to know God by coming to know our own selves. The Gospel of John admonishes us that God is unknowable and that true belief does not require proof—for proof is not possible! Thomas’ insistence that he cannot believe unless he feels the wounds of Christ for himself—this crisis comes at the very end of the gospel. After all the acts and words of Jesus, Thomas still does not have his proof. In the gospel story he stops short of actually touching Christ’s body, but he comes to belief. Blessed are those who believe but have not seen, Christ says.
Then John’s gospel closes with “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.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God…These things are written so that you may come to believe, and that through believing you may have life in his name. There is an agenda here, and Thomas is set up as the fall guy to make the point. Poor Doubting Thomas.
But there is another way to frame this story. We might well wonder where Thomas was in those early days after Jesus’ death. Thomas had gone AWOL. He’d gone prodigal. He’d done a bunk, as they say. Nowhere to be found—for all we know he went on a 7 day binge, drinking away his grief. Or he’d gone off on an adventure to resurrect his son, baptize 12,000 people, found a church, and float home on a cloud. Regardless, he wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared to them—they got THEIR visual proof that Christ had returned, but Thomas was late to the party.
Jesus could have said, “you snooze, you lose.” “too bad, so sad.” “Were you there, Thomas? No? then that’s it!” Jesus could have left Thomas to his doubts and grief with no relief in sight. But like the woman with the lost coin, Jesus saw that one of his own was missing on that first day, and he came back. This God of second chances counted the coins and came up short, and swept the tent until the last coin was found.
The last act of the Gospel of John—a book written so that we might believe—the last act in this gospel is Christ’s offer of a second chance. My dear doubting Thomas: touch my side if you must; I have not left you.
May each of us be so blessed.