Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Doubting" Thomas...

If I had another service to preach this week, I'd do it on this astounding statement, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." After all, instead of permission to hold a "holy grudge" against people, it's in effect a reminder that forgiveness is not just a gift to ourselves, but a duty to carry out. Seventy time seven, and all that sort of thing.

But poor old Thomas, and his unfair representation as the eternal doubter, is the subject for this attempt at a sermon. I hope you'll comment, constructively criticize, etc.

Acts 5:27-32
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."

Revelation 1:4-8
John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? 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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

If you held a contest to decide who the Biblical figure most maligned by tradition is, it would likely be a close race between Mary Magdalene and Thomas.
Mary Magdalene has had a hard time because tradition has labeled her a reformed prostitute, a claim which Scripture never makes. On the strength of our Gospel reading today, Thomas has been, for millennia, unfairly labeled “The Doubter.”

What’s more, we don’t really even know Thomas’ name! We’re told that Thomas was called “The Twin,” which in the Greek is “Didymus;” what we often miss is that the Aramaic word for “twin” is, in fact, “Thomas.” Some scholars have supposed that Thomas’ real name was “Judas,” which is possible, since “Judas” was a very common name in that era. They surmise that the Biblical writers wouldn’t have wanted to cause confusion with Judas Iscariot, so they called him by his nickname.

In any case, when you look at what little we know about Thomas, doubt was never his problem, and fear doesn’t seem to have been a big factor, either.

Here’s what I mean: We only hear from Thomas three times in the Gospels, and they’re all in John. When, in the 11th chapter, Jesus sets off toward Bethany, it is apparent to everyone that it’s far too close to Jerusalem and those who want Jesus killed. Everyone listening to Jesus knows that for him to go to Lazarus is to sign his own death warrant. Thomas is the one who stands up, dusts himself off, and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” There is no doubt in those words, but resolution, even courage. The worst is yet to come, yes, but we’ve come this far with Him, let’s finish the journey.

In Chapter 14, at the Last Supper, at one point Jesus says to his disciples, “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And 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. You know the way to the place where I am going.” It is left to Thomas to ask Jesus the one question which had to be pounding in the disciples’ heads: “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Thomas is not rebuked for “doubting,” but is rewarded with one of the clearest Scriptural statements about who Jesus is and why He came to live and die among humankind: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

And now we come to the day of the Resurrection. The disciples are still locked up tight in the Upper Room, still afraid that at any moment the Romans or the temple guards were going to come looking for them to nail them up just like they’d done to their leader. Well, ten of them were, anyway. Where was Thomas?

Could it be that Thomas wasn’t letting fear control him? Maybe not, maybe he’d simply not gotten the memo about the meeting, or perhaps he’d drawn the short straw and had gone out to get food, but I like to think of Thomas getting sick of hiding behind locked doors and leaving. Just walking out in the open for all to see, visiting with family, hanging out in the marketplace, whatever.

Maybe he just needed some space to think, to come to grips with the loss of his beloved Rabbi, maybe to figure out how on earth to atone for having let Jesus down when He had needed Thomas the most.

We have to remember, we Resurrection people, that the only person who had actually seen Jesus at this point was Mary Magdalene, and there’s nothing to suggest that anyone had believed her when she told the disciples what she’d seen that morning. Perhaps they dismissed it as the lunatic ravings of a distraught woman, perhaps they didn’t know what to make of it, but it’s apparent that no one besides her, and possibly the Apostle John, thought anything about the empty tomb beyond the idea that someone, for some nefarious reason, had stolen Jesus’ body. So they were all still dealing with the fear, still processing the grief, still coming to grips with this harsh, cold, hateful new reality.

The next moment, Jesus was there.

I have no idea how the disciples reacted. I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to have someone that I was absolutely certain was dead and gone suddenly appear in the room with me – physically, really present, not some apparition or impression or whatever it is that scares the Ghost Hunters so much every time the promos come on the TV. Shock, terror, horror, certainly fear. I cannot imagine joy or relief or an ounce of comprehension in their minds.

And the first word Jesus spoke to them was not what they expected, certainly! After all, they had betrayed him, abandoned him, forsaken him, and left him to die. Yet He said, “Peace.” They saw him, perhaps touched him, felt him breathe on them and say “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Not a word of condemnation or disappointment or reproof, only peace, purpose, and the promise that things would never, ever be the same.

Then he was gone.

Sometime later, either Thomas came back, or perhaps the disciples went and found him, and the stories they had for him… well, think about it: would you have believed them? “Dude, Jesus is alive! No, seriously, we saw him! No, really, right there in the upper room!”

He must have thought they had all, to a person, gone stark raving mad!

But when you look at what Thomas actually said to the disciples, what did he asking for?

All he demanded is that he experience the same thing the other ten had: the risen Lord. I have to tell you, that isn’t doubt!

However you and I define our faith, whatever shape or direction our different faith journeys have taken, the common denominator is that they are uniquely contoured and defined by our experiences with the risen Christ.

We may share a common language, may hold the same basic theological definitions of the central tenets of the faith, but in the same way that Thomas could not be satisfied that Jesus had risen simply on the breathless, excited, and perhaps incomprehensible babbling of ten wild-eyed friends, we cannot depend on one another’s faith and experience to take us where we are going!

Yet it could well have been the testimony of the ten that had Thomas in that same room a week later. Without them, Thomas may well have missed seeing Jesus altogether! However certain it is that our faith journey is and must be our own, we most certainly depend upon one another for fellowship and support in the journey.

And Thomas didn’t really need to put his fingers in the nail-holes after all, did he? All he needed to do was see for himself… and when you think about it, that is all any Resurrection person has ever needed – to, in our own way and in our own time, have seen the risen Christ.


  1. I think this is very succinct, and very well spoken. In fact, I'm going to forward this link to my priest. Very well done, kudos, Tweety!

  2. I'd say Thomas demanded proof, based upon the biblical account. I can't remember the exact verbiage, but didn't he say 'unless I touch the wounds, then I can't believe'.

    How is it that Thomas was granted this chance to obtain empirical proof of the Risen Christ? Man, I'm getting close to coming back, but then something like this comes along and you say 'why don't I get a similar chance?'

  3. It is an interesting perspective; and it begs the question: how then can we experience the risen Christ? You rightfully leave this question open - the answer is going to be different for everyone. Faith, if it is to mean anything, needs to have substance - and some of us are more fixated on earth than on heaven.