Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Unbelieving Thomas

(a reworking of numerous Thomas sermons:  he remains one of my favorites to preach on)

We talk about the disciples fairly regularly here at church:  we see and hear them at their best and worst throughout the New Testament scriptures.

But one thing I find interesting about the disciples is that their traits and actions have not, for the most part, been incorporated into everyday sayings.

Take Peter, for example. He gets two known personas from the Gospels: he gets nicknamed “the rock” for his tendencies as a leader (perhaps also for saying things that are dense as a rock). Peter is also widely known for his denials of Jesus.

And yet, people don’t go around saying “your such a denying Peter.” And if someone calls you a rock: well, there’s all sorts of possibilities as to what they’re saying about you, but I’ve never actually heard anyone say “you’re such a rock like Peter.”

That’s pretty much true for all of the disciples. There are only two exceptions that I know of:

I have heard people be called “Judas”: usually in mock betrayal, and much less often with a real sense of betrayal. Thankfully, for obvious reasons, I think most of us are hesitant to really call someone a Judas.

The other exception is found in this morning’s Gospel: “Doubting Thomas” has made it into our vocabulary.

Being called a “Doubting Thomas” is seldom a good thing. The suggestion usually is that you are stuck in doubt that is misplaced, wrong and hurtful.

Thomas was wrong to doubt, says conventional wisdom.  And Jesus seems to call him out, saying that those who don't have to see to believe are blessed.

This leads many people to get the idea that doubt is something to be avoided...that we are not suppose to question things...and that when we question issues of faith, it must mean that our faith is weak.

In fact, it is often suggested that the opposite of faith is doubt.

Ironically, the Greek word for “doubt” is not found in this passage...anywhere. Yes, our NRSV Bible translates Jesus’ words to Thomas as “Do not doubt, but believe.” But that’s not really what the text says.

It’s more like: “And do not be unbelieving but believing.”

Now, you might say that “unbelieving” and “doubt” are about the same thing, but I want to challenge that notion. “Doubt” is questioning something. Doubt is honest searching for answers. Doubt is challenging one’s beliefs in order to understand. Doubt is about taking new discoveries, on both an individual and a world level, and then attempting to understand how it clarifies and challenges previous understandings.

Doubt is not a threat to faith. In reality the reverse is true: doubt and questions help us strengthen our faith...it allows our minds and our hearts to grow with new insights and understandings.

“Unbelieving” is different. “Unbelieving” suggests that Thomas is going through something other than doubting or questioning. And it is important that we understand what it is.

In one way, Thomas is just like the other disciples. They are all hiding away behind locked doors, out of fear of the authorities (not the Jews…I’ll say it yet again…everyone here is Jewish).  None of them really believed Mary Magdalene when she told them that she’s seen the Lord. It’s only after that they see Jesus that they believe.

So then the disciples go and tell Thomas “We’ve seen the Lord.” And, just like the others, Thomas doesn’t believe 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?

I think the answer can be found in what we know about Thomas. 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)

It’s another extreme reaction, but an understandable one. 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 survive such a trip. Thomas is professing a willingness to follow Jesus into very real danger. This is not someone who lacks faith.

But what has happened since then? In the garden, Thomas nerves got the best of him. He, like the other disciples, was not strong enough to remain with Jesus when he was arrested. Thomas gives in to fear.

And then, in the midst of feeling ashamed of himself, Thomas witnesses the worst thing possible: Jesus’ crucifixion, and the end to all of the hopes and dreams that Jesus had inspired.

Thomas’ heart was broken.  There's a line of poetry that comes to mind, from Emily Dickerson...something that's hard to access when your heart is broken:

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

Can you imagine what Thomas was thinking as he walked through the streets? He must have been in pure agony. He must have hated himself right there and then. There was no way to go back: no way to change what he had done.

So consider 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 fearing.

It is fear that is the opposite of faith. It is fear that keeps us from living the way God wants us to live.  As I said on Easter, Mark’s Gospel ends with the women saying nothing because they are afraid, but it’s not just that one moment where fear creeps in.  All of the events of Holy week are laced with fear.  Not only did fear cause Thomas and the other disciples to flee, but Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, Caiaphas’ plotting, and the crowd’s anger:  they are all about fear. Even Jesus...at the table, in the garden, and on the cross...has to confront his own fears. Fear is a powerful, undeniable force in the world: whether we’re talking about 1st Century Palestine or 21st Century America.

But the miracle of Easter is that fear is not the end of the story. Jesus lives because he refused to give in to his fear: and brings us new life in faith, hope, and love.

This is what Jesus offers to Thomas, with the words “And do not be unbelieving but believing.” Jesus offers Thomas what he needs to find life after fear and despair: new life found in hope and love.

And it’s Thomas, in choosing faith instead of fear, who then makes the boldest statement found in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God.”

What would it take for us, today, to challenge the fear that presently dominates our world?

What outrageous proof would we require to make us believe that we could end poverty and have economic justice...that we could peacefully address our differences...that we could acknowledge our wrongs and heal our pains....that we could preserve and care for our environment...that we could truly love our neighbors as ourselves?

Our fears tell us that these things are just not possible.

The Gospels counter this by suggesting that God offers what we need to overcome fear.  Thomas receives exactly what he needs to move past his fears, and Jesus promises we have what we need as well.

The ending…“Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe”…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’ disbelief, it is a statement for us all to stand 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.

Jesus tells us: “do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

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