Monday, April 8, 2013

Hope for Thomas

Ran across a post using this Emily Dickerson excerpt for preaching on "Doubting Thomas" (in a thoughtful reflection by UCC minister Nancy Rockwell):

Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all.
                       - Emily Dickinson

Yes, we remember him as "Doubting Thomas".  When we use that phrase, we assume a position that is bad and should be avoided, as this Facebook picture suggests:

(Cartoon by Inherit the Mirth, on Episcopal Church Memes)

I've preached before on Unbelieving Thomas, but I thought it best to highlight his three episodes in The Gospel of John (the only of the four canonical gospels to tell more than Thomas' name).

[Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief takes an in depth look at The Gospel of Thomas, and suggests that John's gospel was written in part to counter it.  She makes persuasive arguments that could certainly be true, and her book is an excellent read.   But I think it is also fair to suggest that Thomas' doubt in John's gospel is not really a bad thing at all.  For the sake of this blog post, I'll venture again down that road, but check out Rick Morley's 2011 use of Pagels' ideas.]

Earlier in John’s Gospel, when Jesus decides to go to Bethany to heal Lazarus, Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)

There was grave danger to Jesus in Bethany: people were already trying to kill him. Thomas knew that there was a good chance that none of them would live after such a trip. Thomas is professing a willingness to follow Jesus into very real danger. This is not someone who lacks faith.

Scene number two with Jesus is during the last supper.  

Jesus says in John 14:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’  
Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

But after this, Thomas (along with the other disciples) fails miserably.  He runs away when Jesus is arrested.  He remains in hiding when Jesus is crucified.  All of his good and sincere intentions have been overwhelmed by fear.
So when the other disciples tell Thomas “We’ve seen the Lord,” he doesn’t believe their words.  He even makes an outrageous request: “Unless I see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Now, Thomas is asking for some serious proof. The question, is why? What’s going on here? Why this extreme reaction?

Imagine what it must have sounded like to Thomas when the disciples came to him, saying that they had seen the Lord...

It was too much to hope for. It was too much to believe. It was like saying that all was forgiven, and Thomas was not in a place where he was able to even consider the possibility of being forgiven.

In this context, we can begin to understand his outrageous claims of touching hands, feet and side. It wasn’t about Thomas doubting. It was about Thomas still being caught in fear.  It was about lost hope.

But Jesus gives Thomas what he needs in this morning’s Gospel.  He restores his hope, to which Thomas responds in the pinnacle saying “My Lord, and my God!”

Isn’t this the ultimate reflection of “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Thomas voices what he has now seen.  

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe” then becomes a mantra for John’s audience (who live in the faith without the firsthand experience of the risen Christ) rather than a putdown of Thomas, who now stands fully in the hope of God.

Christians are called to be Easter people:  that means people marked by hope.  It is to permeate every aspect of our lives, and it is in hope that we work together to make God’s vision of love, peace, and justice come true.

Hope is the thing with feathers, 
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words, 
And never stops at all.


Joy said...

What if it's not doubt that was Thomas' "problem" but rather, certainty. He was so certain that the only path ended in death that he had trouble being open to the possibility that he may, in fact, be wrong.

Kurt said...

That works for me Joy!