Doubting is good.... and Thomas was courageous....
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, April 8th, 2018
Have you ever been in a class, or a presentation, or a business meeting and been mystified by some term, or acronym, or concept but been afraid to ask for clarification for fear that it would make you look stupid?
You base this feeling on the assumption that everyone else is sure to know the answer already, since it must seem such an obvious thing, and everyone else is nodding in agreement with the presenter and taking notes.
If you are really lucky, someone braver than you will put up their hand and ask the question that you really needed to ask but couldn’t, and then you both have the answer you need, but also the smug sense of self-satisfaction that everyone else in the room assumes that you knew the answer all along and therefore must be much smarter than them.
The tragedy, of course, is that probably half the people in the room probably were going through the exact same inner turmoil that you were and just as paralyzed as you by the fear of being silently judged.
But you can all thank that one courageous soul who asked the question and – as it happens – didn’t look stupid, and probably didn’t care what everyone else thought anyway. Caring too much what other people think can be very debilitating. The way social media has developed, incidentally, hinges on us caring way too much what other people think of us, and is causing, I believe, an epidemic of mental ill-health. But that is another whole thing entirely.
Anyway, back to that courageous, plucky, soul who asked the question you wanted to ask but didn’t. That courageous, plucky soul is in our gospel reading today. That courageous, plucky soul is Thomas. Yes, the Thomas that we all call ‘Doubting Thomas’ because he had to have proof, whereas we wouldn’t have needed proof, would we? The Thomas we call ‘Doubting Thomas’ because he lacked the faith that we all would have had that Jesus would come back from the dead, right?
I think we know what we would have thought. If we had all been in that room and Jesus had appeared, what would we have thought? I suspect that we would all have been highly relieved that Thomas asked the question that none of us would have dared to ask, but all wanted to. We know that we would have reacted like this because, in fact, a little after this particular episode in this room, some of the disciples are fishing in boat and they see this guy grilling fish on the beach, and shouts to them to come and have breakfast, and (we are told) none of them dared to ask him who he was, because they knew it was the Lord.
It’s often very easy to get typecast, isn’t it? Thomas, despite his evident abilities is labeled for all of history as someone who had in some way fallen short. As I have said on more than one occasion from this pulpit, we humans do love to categorize people into boxes and label them. And then we have something of an expectation that people will behave according to the box in which we have placed them. Sometimes, we live in those boxes for so long that we ourselves believe that we are confined to behaving in a certain way. Just think of all the people who thought that they couldn’t do such and such because they had been told that they couldn’t. What a waste of talent this has often ended up being.
What do we know about the disciple Thomas? Well, not very much. Thomas is a derivation of the Hebrew word for twin. And he is also known as ‘Didymus’ in Greek, which also means twin. So, not surprisingly, all the evidence points to him being a twin. He was likely of humble birth, and could well have been a fisherman, but not necessarily. Anyway, whatever he was, and did, he gets unfairly labeled in the mainstream. So, let’s rehabilitate Thomas.
He was as we have already seen, courageous. And he was also a loyal friend, an inquisitive student, and a hard-working missionary.
It is St. John’ Gospel that we learn most about him. In Chapter 11, when Jesus learns that his dear, close friend, Lazarus has died, he announces his intention to go to Bethany, where Lazarus had lived with his sisters Mary and Martha. Bethany is very close to Jerusalem and Jesus was by this time persona non grata with the religious authorities and to go that close to Jerusalem was taking a significant risk to his safety. The disciples, in the main, appear to think that this is in fact too risky, but it is Thomas who gives them the pep-talk that galvanizes them. He doesn’t deny that it is indeed very risky – maybe even fatally risky, but he says, ““Let us also go, that we may die with him”. Loyal, and willing to stand by Jesus through it all.
Then, in Chapter 14, at the Last Supper, when Jesus refers to his impending death and says, “you know the way where I am going”, Thomas again is the one who has the chutzpah to say to Jesus, “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Logical, inquisitive and quite probably what the others wondered too. If Thomas had not asked this question of Jesus, we would never have had one of the most profound sayings of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Jesus was not just on a road somewhere, he was the road. Spend any amount of time with a small child and you will know that the most natural and effective way to learn is to constantly be asking questions, even seemingly obvious ones. In terms of our Christian faith, the same holds true. Keep asking questions, even seemingly obvious ones. That’s the way that we will learn and grow. If we never ask questions, never voice doubts, we will most assuredly not grow. And we shouldn’t assume that everyone else already knows the answer, because the chances are that they don’t. In just the same way, we shouldn’t look around us and assume that everyone else is more holy, or more effective at prayer, or more tuned in to God’s wavelength. All of us are going through the same doubts, and questions and struggles, and Thomas can be our inspiring encourager.
In the end, it seems that, after the Resurrection, which Thomas did receive physical proof of (in much the same way that most of us would like to have as well), there is strong evidence to suggest that he traveled to India as a missionary and is the de facto Patron Saint of India. It is said that he was a reluctant missionary. Again, one has to be inspired by the straightforwardness of Thomas. Most missionaries are somewhat reluctant. Thomas was, as we would be, reluctant – and yet he went ahead an did it.
And we should not forget that Jesus’ disciples were reluctant to associate themselves with him when the chips were down in the early hours of Good Friday morning. Peter, as we know, completely denied all knowledge of Jesus, yet he has not been labeled ‘Peter the Denier’ by history. Let’s un-label Thomas as the doubting one. Rather, let’s see in him a fallible, human role-model that helps us to grow as Christians so that we, like Thomas can be loyal to our Christian faith, inquisitive about our Christian faith and missionary about our Christian faith so that all of us, like Thomas, are able to say in full certainty to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God’.