Try to forget, if you will, everything you think you know about the apostle Thomas.
And please start with the dreadful nickname “Doubting Thomas” that hangs over the apostle like a dark cloud of shame and guilt.
Please forget that somewhere along the way you were taught or otherwise came to believe that the main things to remember about Thomas are his doubt and his inferior apostolic status because of his misgiving.
And please forget any notion that Jesus rebukes Thomas for his lack of faith, because that’s simply hogwash, too!
Let’s start with Thomas’s perennial bad rap as a doubter.
Nowhere in any of the Gospels is Thomas labeled “the doubter.” Instead, Scripture names Thomas “the Twin” – the matching copy of whom no one knows with any degree of certainty. Nevertheless, in the eyes of Scripture, Thomas is named “the Twin.”
Further, midway in John’s Gospel, when Jesus declares his plans to return to Judea and the other disciples try to steer him in a different direction because they know a trip to Judea will end in his death, it is Thomas who urges the others to follow Jesus “so that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
That makes Thomas not so much a filthy doubter and more so a practical realist.
Just days before he appears in our lesson this morning, Thomas encounters the bloody reality of crucifixion when he watches his close friend and Lord God nailed to a cross. And now, when his fellow apostles tell him that they’ve seen the risen Christ, Thomas pushes back with the honest skepticism of a frank realist who simply asks for and receives some much-needed assurance.
Remember, now, that Thomas’s request for physical proof of Jesus’s resurrection is exactly what all the other disciples received just a week before.
When he appears to the other apostles, the Lord shows them his hands and his side and only then do the apostles rejoice because they’ve seen the Lord. So really, despite his bad rap as a “doubter,” Thomas carries no more doubt than the rest of the gang cowering in distrusting fear behind locked doors.
Perhaps, no one then and none of us now understands the true nature of faith.
That’s because, for whatever reason, we make the false assumption that having “more” faith means having fewer questions and needing less assurance.
But the Bible paints a much different picture of faith – one in which faith and doubt are knit more tightly than most people imagine.
Faith, after all, isn’t knowledge that resides in your head. Faith is the confidence, abiding in your heart, that what you hope for will actually happen someday. Faith offers assurance about things you cannot yet see and for now can only dream. (Hebrews 11:1)
But, thanks be to God, Jesus condemns no one for wanting to be sure.
Please try to remember that – even as you forget everything you thought you knew about Thomas, about faith, and about doubt, as you listen with hope and assurance for the Word of the Lord by the power of the Spirit. As we enter the story, it is evening on the first Easter:
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 12, 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.” (John 20:19-29)
I’d surely hate to be remembered only for my greatest moment of doubt.
Because I’ve had boatloads of doubt, and I definitely bear the hefty weight of doubt in these days of deep darkness, vile discourse, anemic integrity, and untimely death.
Quite easily could I be “Doubting Grant,” and I’m guessing some of you are feeling similarly compelled to such self-naming. Like Thomas, some of us – maybe most of us – are living in a liminal place of faith and doubt.
But here’s the thing: Faith and doubt are not polar opposites. Faith and apathy are more opposite than faith and doubt. And doubt is what fuels the journey of faith. At times, doubt is what keeps us moving forward. Other times, doubt is what forces us to pull over and stop.
And when that’s where we find ourselves – stopped on the side of faith’s road with our hazard lights flashing, that in no way makes anyone a “bad” Christian whose faith has gone sour.
Our moments of doubt signal that we take seriously our relationship with God – so much so that we screw up the courage to be totally honest with God about our doubts, even while remaining committed to a journey of faith with Christ, even though clueless in knowing exactly where his Spirit will take us.
That’s Thomas in a nutshell.
To many he’s “Doubting Thomas,” but to millions more he’s Saint Thomas. Christian tradition holds that, after Jesus returns to heaven, Thomas sets sail for the east and is the first to spread the Good News of Gospel in India.
His real, honest doubt – and his desire to see Jesus for himself – is what brings Thomas to faith.
His real, honest doubt – and his desire to see Jesus for himself – is what moves forward a journey of faith that brings the Word of the Lord to an entire nation of people.
If you go to parts of India today, Saint Thomas is remembered with honor and thanksgiving as the one who doubted and believed, the one who gave God’s people much-needed permission to doubt and believe, the one who by word and deed revealed the nailed-scarred hands and pierced side of his risen Lord and living God.
Easy enough for Thomas, I suppose.
Because, without question, Thomas is blessed with opportunity that none of us has had – the opportunity to see, touch and experience Jesus in the flesh, one on one, up close and personal. None of us has encountered Jesus the way Thomas did – at least not yet, anyway.
And sure, the Church made Thomas a saint, and we’re all saints in our own right.
Still, that doesn’t offer much hope for you and me as we wrestle with our own doubts.
Or maybe it does.
I once heard a mature woman recall her story of being in her 30s and one day having an overwhelming spiritual moment of encountering the Lord. She felt God’s presence so intimately that she couldn’t deny it, and she felt God calling her to do something different – something new, frightening and difficult.
It was the sort of spiritual experience that most of us want – a moment of crystal clarity, like Thomas’s opportunity to touch Jesus, that hands us our well-specified marching orders.
That young woman did, in fact, go forth as the Lord instructed her, and for the next 50 years, she did some really amazing things.
But inside she doubted.
She wrestled with faith and endured more “dark nights of the soul” than you’d image – sometimes even questioning the existence of God. And what she perceived as a lack of faith troubled her.
She easily deserved the title “Doubting Teresa.” But instead, you and I know her as Mother Teresa, the woman whom many regard as living the life of a true-blue, honest-to-goodness saint.
When I, as a young news photographer, snagged the coveted assignment to cover Mother Teresa’s visit to Milwaukee back in the early 1980s, all I could think as I snapped the camera shutter was how holy and full of faith she was – so certain of what she was doing, so fruitful in the work God called her to undertake.
But, in later life, Mother Teresa was always willing to fess up to her doubt – just as Thomas did, just as some of us do, just as some of us might like to do but can’t or won’t.
And even with her doubts, Mother Teresa was no less the saint. Or, maybe more accurately, Mother Teresa was and is a saint because of her doubts.
We all doubt – at least do those of us who see conversion and coming to faith as a journey and not simply as a moment.
Events unfolding around us rattle and unravel our faith, and we fret about why Jesus doesn’t appear to us when everyone else seems to see him full well pitching his tent in the neighborhood.
And, in our own dark nights, we toss and turn in restlessness on the lumpy mattress of shame because we question, because we doubt, because we’re simply not sure.
I wonder if Thomas felt that way.
“Why can’t I just accept what the others accept? Why did I have to see for himself? Maybe I should just turn tail and get the heck out of Dodge, because I’m definitely not ‘one of them’ anymore – if indeed I ever was ‘one of them.’”
And yet, Thomas goes back. For whatever reason, Thomas returns to that community of fidgety faith.
Maybe Thomas goes back because being together is better than being alone.
Maybe he goes back because he thinks maybe, just maybe, Jesus will come again.
But maybe, in fact, Thomas goes back because he loves Jesus so much that he needs to hear the other apostles talk about their love for Jesus and his love for them, even if no one is yet totally convinced of that truth.
At the end of the spiritual day, doubt indeed is what propels us to faith.
Doubt is what shakes us up, pushing us out the doors of our once-comfortable places, to help the Lord re-make creation into a new and better place, as the words of our mouths and works of our hands offer glimpses of God and God’s Kingdom in our very midst.
No, doubt does not signal the absence of God, but instead doubt announces the reality of God working to do something new in us and in our world.
Generations before Thomas, the Old Testament tells the story of God’s people fleeing slavery in Egypt, pursued by Pharaoh’s vengeful army, and caught between a rock and a hard place against the shoreline of the Red Sea.
In the movie version of that anxious moment of fear and doubt, Moses lifts his arms in a dramatic gesture that parts the waters of the Red Sea like a hot knife slicing through butter, and God’s people easily spy safety on the sea’s other side.
But I think the reality of the moment goes more like this:
Someone puts one foot in the water, gingerly and tentatively, and the waters roll back a little, creating just enough space for yet another step.
Which that first brave soul takes.
And then the waters spread a little wider, and others follow along.
And so on, and so on, and so on, until God’s people – feet caked with muck – finally stumble into an assurance of deliverance.
So it goes with doubt, which clouds your vision of freedom and safety on the other shore. But you don’t have to see clearly, for God is already there, even as God walks with you through parting waters.
Doubt as much as you need to, but leave just enough room for faith that God will show you the next right step to take and create a path for you to move forward.
Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
That’s living a life of doubt. That’s living a life of faith.
And when Scripture calls Thomas “The Twin,” perhaps it’s because he lives a life of faith and doubt that’s identical to ours, a life that’s blessed by God, inspired by Christ, and driven by the Holy Spirit.
May it be so! Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, September 20, 2020. It is the eighth sermon of his series, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary, reflection and scholarship by Emily C. Heath, David Lose, and V. Gene Robinson inform the message. (Artwork: Lauren Wright Pittman, Grieving Thomas, SanctifiedArt.org)