Poor Thomas. He is a disciple who is only mentioned once in each of the three other gospels, and then only in a list of the twelve, who has become for many Christians the symbol of doubt.
How did this happen?
What can we learn from Thomas about our faith?
In John’s gospel, Thomas is mentioned three times. In the first reference Thomas declares to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” in response to Jesus’ explanation to the disciples about the death of Lazarus. The disciples are confused about whose death Jesus is speaking. In reality Jesus is speaking of his own death and Thomas is courageous in saying that they should all go to Jerusalem to die with him.
In the second, Jesus has told the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them and Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas is confusing physical and spiritual place and demonstrating the confusion of all the disciples. Jesus responds with, “I am the way the truth and the life.”
And in our reading today the entire story now revolves around Thomas and his absence from the group when Jesus shows himself to them on the first day of the week following the crucifixion and resurrection.
We don’t know where Thomas was on this occasion, since all the others were gathered together in fear behind locked doors.
Is he is even more fearful than the others and hiding alone?
Or, maybe he is being bold and is out and about even considering the danger.
Meanwhile, Jesus greets the ten who were there, saying, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and his side. After they rejoice he says to them, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Our version says that he then breathed “on” them, but the actual translation from the Greek is breathed “in” them.
John seems to be making a connection here between the creation story from Genesis, where God breathes into human nostrils the breath of life. In our story it is the Holy Spirit breathed into the disciples.
Further, he gives them the power to forgive sins.
This is the point in our story when Thomas becomes the dissenter. He refuses to believe what they tell him and says that he too must see the wounds, wounds that still appear on the resurrected Jesus as permanent marks of his sacrifice for the life of the world.
Is his reticence to believe based on the need to have a personal experience to be certain?
Is it that he simply was not with them in community to receive the risen Lord?
Now it gets interesting. They are all gathered eight days later, this time including Thomas. Jesus again appears to them with the same greeting and addresses Thomas directly. Jesus does not wait for Thomas to speak, but instead offers him the opportunity to do what he said he must to believe.
Meanwhile, Thomas only needs to see the wounds. Our text does not tell us that he puts his finger in Jesus hands and side. (Which I must tell you is a little disappointing to me since the Caravaggio painting showing this scene is one of my favorites… it’s one of the images that helped me through seminary and ordination!)
Our text says that Jesus tells Thomas not to doubt, whereas the original Greek only tells him not to be “unbelieving, but be believing.” Somehow through translations and the interpretations of our culture it has come to be doubt.
This seems to me to be one of the problems we have in our culture. We take a concept or an emotion or feeling and drive it to it’s complete and opposite value; right, wrong; good, bad in a dualism that goes completely against our monotheistic tradition.
Hear O Israel, the lord your God, the lord is one.
We do what God commanded us not to do in the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, which is to judge like only God can. In this way we think we can make easy decisions about our beliefs, our behavior and the behavior of others, instead of engaging in discerning what action brings the most loving and caring outcome. We like it when we can proclaim we are right.
And we put people to that test daily.
Thomas becomes “the doubter” because we cannot see the value of holding the process of finding our proper relationship with our God and our world through discernment.
Jesus demonstrates for us in his crucifixion and resurrection how one can die to bring about life… abundantly.
Not that that long ago, we learned that Mother Teresa had “doubts.” Her private journals revealed that she felt alone and separate from her relationship with God. People questioned if she should be made a saint.
How could this be, that a woman who had emptied herself in the service of the dying could have doubts?
In reality, she, like Jesus, sacrificed herself to be a light to the poor and dying of Calcutta. Her believing was her work, which she demonstrated to the whole world. That she expressed her struggles with her faith only further shows her courage.
The reason our ancestors found their way to monotheism was not only the hunger to find God, but also the realization that it’s about finding the oneness, the unity of creation. As the body of Christ, we should be about seeking this unity in our lives, in our community and in our world. A unity that means not always getting what we want in the interest of all of God’s creation.
This is hard work. There are times when we must give it up to God to hold for us; when we cannot imagine a good outcome of a situation with which we struggle, or when we think that to continue to hold it in our hearts we might burst from the pain and frustration. And it’s then that we should practice the work of letting go and letting God.
This is where I believe Thomas found himself. Wherever he was on that night that Jesus appeared to the other ten, the most important meeting in the history of the world was taking place with the commissioning of the disciples.
And in a situation when all those around him might think that he had lost faith Thomas now makes one of the most definitive and powerful statements of faith ever made by a disciple, "My Lord and my God!" He acknowledges Jesus as God.
Does this sound like the testimony of a man who doubts?
It is hard for me to ignore the fact that the other disciples had all still been hiding behind closed doors in fear. In his first visit, Jesus commissioned them to go do the work and yet here they are.
Is this why Thomas does not believe? Is it that he is not believing in the other disciples, but once he sees the wounds, he sees that Jesus is God.
Thomas’ struggle must have been that if indeed they had seen Jesus as they had been telling him, and he had commissioned them as they told him, why would they not be out about the business of bringing the Kingdom of God to this earth?
Biblical Scholar and Princeton Professor, Elaine Pagels, says that the reason that John tells this story about Thomas is to counteract the Gospel of Thomas. You see, the Gospel of Thomas has no miracles, no crucifixion or resurrection. It is a book of 114 verses, more of a restatement of Jesus’ sayings, some of which are familiar. It was widely read at that time, even though a copy of it was not found until our time. The Author of John might have interpreted this gospel as a lack of believing. That believing, requires knowledge of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but the Gospel of John is all about believing. John’s Gospel contains the Greek word Pisteuo; to trust, to believe, 98 times. And all of these 98 uses of the word are not the noun form, but the verb form.
Among the other four gospels the next highest number is 14 in Mark.
This demands that we pay attention to believing in a way far more compelling than any other gospel.
For the author of John, it’s not about holding this knowledge of who Jesus is inside, it’s about the doing of it, the manifestation of it in the world.
Do not be unbelieving but believing.
Many scholars now believe that the original gospel of John ends with the last two verses of today’s reading, even though there are no copies of this version.
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.
These lines were written for the Johanine community of the time of the writing of this gospel. But it also poses the question:
Where are you?
Are you hiding behind closed doors waiting over and over for Jesus to come to you?
Are you showing the world through your life that you are believing through the power of the Holy Spirit?