When I was in eighth grade, I decided that, despite attending church every Sunday, being in the Church Youth Group, and being a pastor’s kid, I was not in fact Christian. As I saw it, there were too many beliefs, ideas, and propositions that I either couldn’t figure out or couldn’t get behind, so, with much thoughtfulness, sincerity, and all the wisdom of a fourteen year old boy, I set out to figure out my own religion: a set of beliefs, statements, and positions that I could fully get behind. It took me about an hour, and came out to a little more than one page, single spaced, in Microsoft Word. I picked a cool font, slapped a title on it in WordArt, and called it done.
That was about nine years ago, and while I hope that my relationship to Christianity has matured somewhat since then, I have to admit that I often find myself back in eighth grade, struggling with a complex faith, trying to figure it all out in my head, trying to make it work intellectually, to make it logical and comprehensible. It often feels like Christianity is a puzzle that I am trying to solve. Trying to somehow get it right.
There is a word that is used to describe Christians, a word that sets them apart from others and captures the essence of who and what they are. It is a word that has been with us from the very beginnings of the Church, when those who identified themselves as followers of Jesus began to gather together to worship and to share their lives with one another. The word is “believers.”
Christians became known as “believers” because they believed and trusted
that Jesus was the Son of God,
that he had come into the world to reveal to us the true nature of God,
that after his death on a Cross he had been raised from the dead,
and that he was with us still, and would be to the end of time.
“Believing” is one of the principle themes of the Gospel of John, from which our gospel lesson today is taken. John begins his telling of the Good News by revealing to us, his readers, who Jesus is and why he came into the world. It is as if he is drawing aside the curtain, letting us in on the secret, true identity of this humble teacher from Galilee, letting us glimpse what he and others have come to know over time. John begins his account by telling us that Jesus is “the Word” who was “with God” and who “was God” from the very beginning of time (John 1:1). He tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14), bringing “light” and “life,” in order to reveal to us the nature and purposes of God. “No one has ever seen God,” he tells us, “it is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). And “to all who receivedhim, who believedin his name,” he proclaims, “he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).
This morning we hear one of the most quintessential stories in all of the gospels; so definitive in fact that it has given birth to a term that is used to label a person we deem as a skeptic. When someone we know is unwilling to believe something without concrete evidence, we call them a ‘doubting Thomas.’ Beginning with Easter Day we hear an abundance of post-resurrection stories witnessing to the disciples and those close to Jesus seeing, speaking, and eating with Him, giving credence to the fantastic rumors that His body had not been stolen, but that He had in fact risen from the dead three days after his gruesome crucifixion, just as He had prophesied. Our lection from John begins with one of these accounts: it is the first day of the week following the crucifixion and Jesus’ disciples have hidden themselves behind locked doors out of fear for their lives. Jesus appears among them bidding them peace, and then he immediately shows them his hands, feet, and side: the wounds that were inflicted on him to assure his torture and resulting death. John says: ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’
But the gospel writer says that one of them was missing: Thomas, who was called ‘the twin.’ Where was Thomas? Was he out surveying the scene, plotting a safe exit from Jerusalem for the others? Was he discreetly purchasing food and other provisions that they needed? We don’t know, all we can surmise is that Jesus’ disciples were hiding in fear and that Thomas was not with them. Considering the little we know about Thomas, this is not altogether surprising. There seems to be an implicit bravado associated with him. Earlier in John’s gospel, it is Thomas who exclaims “let us also go [with Jesus}, that we may die with him,” demonstrating that Thomas was utterly devoted to Jesus at the most, and at a hothead at the very least.[i]
There was a Sunday afternoon when I was a child that I sat my mother down and demanded to know about life and death, where babies come from, and where we go. When my mother had answered all my questions to my satisfaction, I announced, “I’ve learned a lot today,” and left the room confident in my grasp of existence.
The apostle Thomas has been branded “Doubting Thomas,” but that’s unfair, and it’s inaccurate. The opposite is true. There are two scenes in the Gospel prior to what we’ve just heard that shed light on the apostle Thomas. One scene is when Jesus was trying to say “good-bye” to his disciples, just prior to his being seized in the garden at Gethsemane. Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…. I go to prepare a place for you… and you know where I am going….” No. Not so. Not at least for Thomas. It seems only Thomas has the courage to admit that he is clueless. “My Lord,” Thomas says, “We don’t have the slightest idea where you are going! How can we know the way?” (1) (It’s a good question; an honest question for us, too. How can we know the way, especially when the path is dark and the risks are many, and the fear is great, and the route is unsure?) “How can we know the way?” Quite.
The Apostle Thomas has been caricatured as “doubting Thomas,” but that’s unfair, and it’s inaccurate. I think the opposite is true. Thomas is heroic and exemplary. There are two scenes in the gospels prior to what we’ve just read that shed light on Thomas. One is when Jesus was trying to say “good-bye” to his disciples, just prior to his being seized in the garden at Gethsemane. Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…. I go to prepare a place for you… and you know where I am going….” No. Not so. Not at least for Thomas. It seems only Thomas had the courage to admit that he is clueless. “My Lord,” Thomas says, “We don’t have the slightest idea where you are going! How can we know the way?”[i] (It’s a good question; an honest question for us, too. How can we know the way, especially when the path is dark and the risks are many, and the fear is great, and the route is unsure?) How can we know the way?