Believing Thomas

Categories: News,Sermons

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Sunday, October 15, 2017

 

person in church looking up

John 20: 24-29

 

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.

 

Like last week, this is another very familiar story from scripture. Similar to the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, this idea of a Doubting Thomas has also kind of jumped the sacred-secular line into our culture. And Poor Doubting Thomas – made famous for being that guy who just couldn’t believe.

 

You know what, though? I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap. I know, for my part, growing up in the church, his story did not make him sound so good. When I was told the story of Doubting Thomas, it sounded something like this:

 

So Jesus had died and risen from the dead, and everybody believed it without any proof, except Doubting Thomas. Thomas was the only one who doubted. And when Jesus showed up, Jesus caught Thomas right there in his doubts. It was a real gotcha kind-of-moment. Jesus repeats the words Thomas had said about what he would have to see to believe. In the version I remember, Jesus was sort of scolding Thomas, saying, “Oh, so you need to see my wounds to believe. Well, fine, here you go.” And Jesus shamed him. He showed that Doubting Thomas how ridiculous – maybe even how bad – he was for not believing.

 

Now, that I think about it. In retrospect, it’s not just Thomas who got a bad rap here. In that understanding, let’s be honest, Jesus kind of looks like a jerk. Now, to be fair, I was learning about Thomas in my childhood religion classes, so it’s possible that I am misremembering, or that it was just my teachers who taught it this way. But since poor Thomas can’t ever be remembered without the word “Doubting” in front of his name, I suspect they were just giving me the same impression they had gotten when they were taught about Doubting Thomas. In fact, I think that interpretation is common in the tradition. Which is both 1) unfortunate and, 2) I would argue, a really inaccurate reading of the scripture.

 

When I first got excited about Christianity about 9 years ago, I actually started reading the bible myself rather than just remembering the way I had been told these stories. And I started reading commentaries about the stories. Commentaries are written by people who have actually really studied the bible and read it in its original language (Hebrew or Greek depending on the Testament) and know the cultural and historical context it is written in. These folks are experts.

 

But even though they are experts and some of the commentaries I read were really complicated… some commentaries didn’t do much else than just get me to read the plain words on the page to see what they really said – rather than read them with the assumptions my religion class teachers and our cultural imagery had given me.

 

The story of Thomas is a great example of this. I have to give credit to commentator Gail O’Day who helped me see it. So, here is what really happens in the Gospel of John (from which the Thomas story is taken) after Jesus rises from the dead. Everybody doubts. Everyone. Every disciple who encounters Jesus after the resurrection in the Gospel of John either doesn’t know or doubts it is really him until Jesus gives them some sort of proof. And Jesus gives every person what they need to believe.

 

The first person to encounter Jesus after the resurrection is Mary Magdalene. She goes back to the tomb looking for Jesus’ body. She assumes he is dead. Now, you might remember that when she encounters Jesus there, she mistakes him for the gardener. It is only when Jesus says her name that she understands who he is, that she believes he has been raised from the dead. And she goes and tells the other disciples.

 

So next Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples: all of them except Thomas. Now Mary has already told them that Jesus is risen. So he appears in the locked room in which they are staying. And do you know what he does? He shows them his hands and his sides. And then they rejoice because they know it is Jesus. Jesus shows them his wounds, and they believe.

 

Now, when the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus, he does not believe them. That’s when he makes the declaration we heard that he must see his hands and his sides in order to believe. Now, let’s stop here to see if you are following along. Who else needed to see his hands and his sides in order to believe? That’s right. ALL of the disciples, except Mary – she recognized Jesus at the sound of her name.

 

They all doubted. Thomas is simply very honest about his doubts. And so, just like with the other disciples, Jesus shows up and offers Thomas his hands and his side, and says “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” When you read the text – and this is supported by the commentators, and just for good measure, I looked up the Greek myself – there is absolutely no reason to think Jesus is rebuking or shaming Thomas.

 

What a difference it makes when you can imagine Jesus approaching Thomas with tenderness, wanting to help him believe, generously offering Thomas his very body so that he might be able to have faith. This reading should not be surprising to us. Why would Jesus, the incarnation of the God who is Love, respond any differently?

 

Jesus gives each of the disciples what they need to believe.

 

Jesus also gives each of us what we need to believe.

 

But we do have to show up to receive it. That was the difference between Thomas and the other disciples. He simply wasn’t there when Jesus revealed himself to all the others. He wasn’t there when Jesus appeared in that locked room. Nor was he there with Mary when she followed her longing for Jesus and went back to the tomb to find him.

 

We don’t really know why he wasn’t there. One commentator speculates that he was off grieving by himself, though I don’t believe the text gives us any actual insight. I don’t think it’s possible to figure out what Thomas was doing when he missed experiencing the Risen Christ. I think the more important question is: What is keeping us from showing up, from being open to God’s presence?

 

I suspect the answer to this might be different for all of us. Maybe some of us miss opportunities to experience God’s presence because we are distracted. Gosh, life is so busy – it really is. It is easy to keep on the treadmill of doing, doing, doing – so much that we don’t stop and reflect on why we are here, what really matters, and where God is working in our lives.

 

Or maybe it is doubt that keeps us from showing up. It’s easy to look at some of the big claims of our faith and think, I’m not sure if I believe that. And if you’ve been taught that faith is about certainty, maybe having doubt makes you stay away from church or keeps you from praying. Keeps you from showing up.

 

And when I hear about people who don’t show up because they have doubts, it hurts my heart. Doubt is part of faith. It is a part of the journey. We are meant to struggle and ask questions about what we believe. It means we are really engaging with the questions that matter the most. And when we do have doubts, it’s not the time to take a break. It’s time to double down on showing up. God gives us what we need to believe, but we have to show up.

 

As you can probably hear, I am passionate about this. Because I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t shown up in spite of my doubts.

 

Let me tell you my story. Some of you have heard this before. Back in 2009, I had been attending First United Methodist Church for a few months. At that time, I would describe myself as agnostic but slightly hopeful. I had been coming to church and was just waiting for the pastor to say something to offend me so I would never come back (which is of course a kind of stressful realization now that I am myself a pastor…but I digress). What I am trying to say is that I had lots of doubts. But I kept coming to church anyway.

 

And then this thing started happening. I started feeling a pull on my heart, what I now would call the nudging of the Holy Spirit. Week after week, I’d show up, I’d start experiencing this pull, this nudging, and I’d put up my guard. I’d tell myself to quit imagining things.

 

And finally, one week I thought to myself, what if I just stop resisting this? And during some particularly moving piece of music, I found myself filled to overflowing with the assurance that God was real, God was present, and God claimed me as beloved. And I cried with joy and relief. As the founder of our Methodist movement would say, my heart was indeed strangely warmed.

 

Because of that experience, I realized some things about how I had been living my life. I realized that I did not have to spend all of my time trying to be perfect anymore. I realized that God forgave me for my mistakes, and so it was possible for me to finally forgive myself. In traditional language, you might say I was saved, and I am being saved every moment in every day. I was saved from the death-dealing expectations of our culture to which I could never live up, and I was saved for the task of loving the world into wholeness the best I could.

 

That’s all I had to do, and I didn’t have to do it alone. Because God is with me and working through me, and God is with you and working through you. And God is with us and working through us. And God has a dream for a world of peace and love and justice, and God has promised that dream will come to fruition one day, whether we live to see it or not. And we are called to work alongside God to help bring that beautiful world into being, so now I have something worthwhile to do.

 

If I had stopped showing up to church eight years ago because I had doubts, I wouldn’t be a lot of things. I certainly wouldn’t be your pastor today – which would be a real shame. And I would have never had the opportunity to stand up here and tell you with all sincerity that my encounter with Christ that day changed my life…and that my life as a disciple of Christ continues to fill my days with more love and joy than I ever would have hoped for.

 

And all I did was show up, and Jesus gave me what I needed to believe.

 

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 

May it be so for all of us.

 

Amen.

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

 

  1. Think about the times you have heard the story of Doubting Thomas in the past. In the versions you heard, what was Thomas like in the story? What was Jesus like in the story? What lessons were you supposed to learn from the story?

 

  1. Think back on your faith journey. Was there a time when you were having doubts? How did you get past your doubts? Or what are you still struggling with?

 

  1. What is keeping you from showing up, from being open to God’s presence? (You might also think of this in terms of what keeps you from showing up to the practice of prayer, or showing up in worship, or doing whatever else might help you grow in your faith.)

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