This is the Sunday that we hear about and celebrate the apostle commonly known as ‘Doubting Thomas’, considered by some theologians to be one of Jesus’ ‘bad boys’.
We find the other ten disciples cowering in a room, afraid to come out. The doors were shut and locked; the drapes were drawn, the widows were closed and the disciples were full of fear and despair.
They have just seen their Lord and Master crucified on a cross and buried. Then on the third day His body disappeared from the tomb. Although the angels at the tomb tried to reassure them, they were still afraid.
“Overwhelmed” is a good way to describe the disciples after Jesus died, huddled together in their fear and confusion, not knowing where to turn or what to do next. Their leader and teacher who had held them together all those long months was dead and buried, executed like a common criminal, and his body now missing from the tomb. What a disappointing turn of events! When Jesus was laid in that tomb, there went all their hope, their vision, their sense of direction and purpose in life. They were left only with an overwhelming sense of failure, loss, and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need.
Were they more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high?
What were they afraid of?
I don’t think they were just worried that those who killed Jesus would kill them as well. Their fear went deeper. Maybe they didn’t want to deal with the scorn or ridicule of those who knew they had failed. They had even failed at protecting Jesus. They had denied knowing him. In spite of all their earlier bravado, all their zeal and conviction, they were afraid of the cross.
So on the night of the first Easter Sunday, the disciples were hiding together behind locked doors. They didn’t remember or wouldn’t believe Jesus’ promise of resurrection. Imagine the speculation which took place behind those closed doors
- They feared those who caused the death of Jesus would come after them. Not an unrealistic concern.
- The suspected someone had stolen Jesus’ body
- Or perhaps they would be accused of stealing His body
- They surely wondered where the body of Jesus was
But most of all, they were paralyzed with fright – they did not know what to do or what was going to happen to them.
But they must surely also have felt shame:
- Ashamed that they had not been able to save Jesus,
- Ashamed that they had deserted and denied their leader, their Lord
- And perhaps, ashamed that they did not believe in Jesus enough to feel assured of His resurrection.
I have to ask you, who are the ‘bad boys’ here?
Here at the very heart of the Easter gospel, when the mightiest act of God is occurring, when Jesus has just been raised from the dead by the power of God, when the blaring trumpets of Easter have exploded in celebration, we learn there is doubt. That there is plain, old fashioned doubt.
On such a grand occasion as Easter morning, you would have expected the disciples to have been filled with awe and adoration. But the Bible tells us on that first Easter Sunday, there was doubt.
On the first Easter Sunday the disciples were gathered together, the doors were locked. Suddenly they became aware that Jesus was standing among them. The same thing happened the following Sunday.
Thomas was the only disciple out running the streets. We do not know for sure why he wasn’t with the rest of the disciples, but we are told that he was not.
Was he faithless, separating himself from the community?
So where was Thomas anyway that first Easter Sunday? In my childhood Sunday school classes, Thomas was a “bad guy.” When the other ten disciples told him that Jesus was alive after his crucifixion, Thomas refused to believe it. He separated himself from the others and demanded to see Christ for himself. In short, we learned that he was a dull, doubting follower of Christ whom we should not imitate.
The moral of the story was clear —
- Don’t be like Thomas!
Remember, Mary Magdalene had told the group that she has seen Jesus. Maybe Thomas couldn’t imagine hiding when someone has just reported seeing Jesus alive. Perhaps he was trying to find out the truth. Or maybe he was the only disciple with enough sense to recognize that This hiding thing could take a long time, and that he’d better go out and get milk and bread for the group.
Have you ever been to a party or a ball game or a concert and the next day a person comes up to you and says, “You should have been here last night. That was a fabulous game. Or, the Braves won last night in the fifteenth inning. Or, you should have been at that concert last night.”
So it was with the early disciples. “You should have been here last night, Thomas. You missed something else. You missed it. Jesus came back to us and he was alive.” And what was Thomas’ reaction?
- “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. Until I see the holes in his hands and side, I won’t believe.” (John 20:25)
He didn’t go along with the crowd. He didn’t cower with the other ten disciples. He stood alone against the crowd and expressed his doubts and incredulities.
But why do so many reject Thomas in our gospel lesson today? To some he is the poster child for unbelief because he dares to bring doubt into our lives of faith.
- Heaven forbid we bring doubt into our faith;
Heaven forbid we name the one thing we’ve all encountered at one time or another.
Thomas merely spoke what so many have been thinking throughout the ages. Thomas did not believe just to believe. He wasn’t the kind of person who blindly accepted the faith without question. Thomas questioned, doubted, thought, pondered. He had a challenging and inquisitive mind.
We find two moments in the gospels where we meet Thomas and on both occasions he was asking questions
- We heard about Jesus going to prepare a place for us, a heavenly mansion in John 14:2. It was Thomas who scratched his head and asked,
- “Jesus, we don’t know where you are going and we don’t know the way.” (John 14:5)
Thomas did not understand what Jesus was saying so he asked Jesus questions. None of the other disciples raised their hands and expressed their curiosity. Thomas did.
- And the second story about Thomas is in today’s gospel when ten disciples expressed wonder and amazement that the resurrected Christ had revealed Himself to them, Thomas didn’t go along with the crowd and say, “OK, that must be true. You all said so.” Instead, Thomas expressed his reservation and doubt:
- “Unless I see him with my own eyes and touch his wounds with my own fingers, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)
Thomas was not the kind of person who would rattle off the creed without thinking of what he was saying. He would not say “I believe in the virgin birth, descended into hell, ascended to the right hand of the father, the only Son of God, the same substance with the Father” without thinking them through.
Thomas wanted proof. And he wanted Jesus. When Jesus again appeared to his disciples in the locked room, Thomas was there. And far from rebuking Thomas, Jesus offered to meet his conditions. “Put your fingers in my hands, touch my side.” The Gospel story gives no report of Thomas doing This, and I don’t believe he felt any need to do so. The personal encounter made Jesus’ resurrection real to This follower.
In fact, Thomas’s answer,
- “My Lord and my God!”
is the high point of John’s Gospel. When Thomas got it, he got it. No one else had offered such devotion or named Jesus as God. Thomas held out for an experience of Jesus on his own terms until he found his terms seemed foolish by the reality of seeing Jesus. Only then did he make his statement of faith
So Thomas doubted. But when he behold and spoke with his Lord, when he heard the love and concern in Jesus’ voice, he believed.
So I suggest that we are should indeed be more like Thomas. Two-thousand years later in our complex and sophisticated world, we also have questions and we should express those questions. We shouldn’t hide them.
We need to look at the role of doubt in our faith.
A doubter today is a likely a person who searches for God and the godly life; the person is on a journey, a quest, a search to find God and the love of God
As one beholds This vast universe and our existence alone on This big blue marble earth, a doubter today is a person who has thousands of questions for God; questions about life, love, God’s existence, purpose, the divinity of Christ and many other questions.
Daily bombarded with violence, cynicism, cruelty and injustice, today’s doubter is a person who struggles to live a godly life, who struggles to find the purpose of life, to understand who God is, not as an unbeliever but one trying to reconcile reality and faith.
So, what is the purpose of doubt in our Christian faith?
We can accept that doubt is normal and perhaps healthy for human beings. All Christians, sometimes during our lives, have doubts, questions and skepticisms. That is the way that God made us: to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort things out.
Doubts, questions and skepticism often lead to a greater faith. Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe. Christians of his era were using and quoting the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus doubted the validity of those peoples’ interpretation and his doubting of their interpretation of the Bible led him to a larger and deeper understanding of our place in the world and the wonders of God’s creation. Galileo took This further to his own excommunication from the church, but a strengthened faith in God. Doubt often leads to deeper faith.
There comes a time in life where we begin to doubt our doubts, question our questions, and become skeptical of our skepticisms. We start to understand that our doubts, questions and skepticisms are a phase of our life and that we can actually become fixated with our questions, doubts and skepticisms.
Doubting Thomas was very much like each of us, wanting to believe and still unsure that Jesus has actually risen. He wanted to see the scars and touch them to assure himself that it was really true – Jesus was alive and had overcome death.
Just as Thomas wanted tangible proof, we, in our complex and cruel world, need to be reassured of God’s love and forgiveness.
And we get that every Sunday. Jesus is with us whenever the Church comes together in His name, especially on the first day of the week, which is now the Lord’s day.
When the priest says:
- Peace be with you, (John 20:21)
This is what Jesus told the disciples when he first appeared to them. . . when he blessed them with the Holy Spirit.
Just as Thomas doubted, we must also see for ourselves. And we see that risen Christ each time we partake of the Eucharist.
Let us pray:
Almighty and everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight. Please empower us to be carriers of that faith to others. Give us the ability to share it in all its loveliness so others can know your salvation and not face your justice after having rejected your gracious gift of Jesus in whose name we pray. Amen.
Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, 19 April 2009