The Strong Faith of Thomas

A Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau

John 20:19-31

 

            How many of you have been on the receiving end of a phone scam telephone call?

 

            I am certain that every single one of you has been bombarded by the telemarketers that call at any time of day, any day of the week, but seemingly always at dinner time, or just as you sit down to relax for the evening. Just like a precise clock, the church telephone rings at three o’clock nearly every afternoon with someone on the other end trying to sell me something.

 

            As annoying as those telemarketers are, they are not nearly as troublesome or dangerous as the scammers. The telemarketers are trying to get you to spend money that you would not ordinarily spend. The scammers are trying to steal your money! You have likely seen the news stories about them:

            - They claim to be an IRS agent, or a debt collector saying that you owe a lot of money, and are going to be arrested. However, if you bring money down to a designated location, you can settle the matter.

            - They call and pretend to be one of your grandchildren and tell you that they are in jail in another part of the country, or out of the country. They beg you not to call their parents, and ask you to wire money to get them home.

 

            We actually had a guy calling the church almost every day ... sometimes twice a day ... trying to scam one of you! The scammer must have been under the impression that you work here! I finally threatened to call the police, and they have not called back since.

 

            The scammers use your email addresses as well. They send you a virus that locks up your computer and the only way to release it is to send them money. Or, they claim to be in possession of a large fortune in foreign currency, and just need your help with some cash up front. Then you will receive a large payout as a reward once the person gets access to that fortune.

 

            The recent proliferation of these telemarketers and scammers has turned us into skeptics. How do we know who is on the other end of the line? How do we know that they are who they say they are? We may be reluctant to answer the phone when it rings. Thank goodness for caller ID, but even that is not foolproof. The evil, ill-willed people still manage to get through, deceive innocent people, and steal their hard-earned money and necessary resources.

 

            I hate that this has happened to us as a society. I hate that it has happened to me as a pastor! I would love to simply answer the phone certain that a family member or friend was on the other end of the line. But I do not. They have made me doubt. A couple of months ago, a charitable organization reached out because someone wanted to make a donation to the church. My response was, “How do I know that you are who you say you are?”

 

            How awful to even think that way.

 

            When the disciples came to Thomas with the fantastic news of a risen Savior, they asked him, “Would you believe ... that Jesus is risen?  Would you believe ... that Jesus who was crucified between two thieves is alive?  Would you believe ... that he has appeared to Mary and to all of us?”

            Thomas’ response is an emphatic, “No, I would not believe such an idle tale.”

            In spite of such unbelieving rhetoric, the time has come to rehabilitate the reputation of Thomas.  Poor Thomas has had to walk the corridors of history known as “Doubting Thomas.”  There is a Doubting Thomas Anonymous for those who are not satisfied with blind faith.

            It does not matter that Thomas was no better and no worse than the average disciple who would not, or could not, believe either.  It does not matter that tradition has him carrying the gospel to India, where there still exists an order known as Christians of St. Thomas of India.  Nor does it seem to matter that this same tradition has Thomas suffering martyrdom for the faith.  No, he will always be “Doubting Thomas.”  Thomas, the patron saint of all of those who are the last to know, or the last to believe.

            However, I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap.  His reputation as a skeptic is not only undeserved, but is also the result of a too casual reading of the text.  After all, today’s gospel lesson is not the only place in Scripture where Thomas is seen in action.  What do other scriptural passages tell us about him?  And has the moniker worn by Thomas as a “doubter” colored the way we read the various accounts of Thomas?  Can Thomas teach us anything about what it means to believe?  What can we learn from the faith of Thomas?

            John began to flesh out the personality of Thomas in an incident surrounding the death of Lazarus in chapter eleven of his gospel.  Jesus told the disciples that the time had come for them to go to Bethany that they might comfort the grieving family.

            The disciples could hardly believe what they were hearing.  Given the hostility of some of the residents of Jerusalem toward Jesus, and the proximity of Bethany to Jerusalem, to go to Bethany at a time like that was nothing short of putting one’s head into the mouth of an angry lion.

            But then Thomas spoke up and, addressed himself to his fellow disciples, and said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

            To make such a bold statement, to take such a stand, required a significant amount of courage and devotion.  Thomas was the one who was willing to lay down his own life in a spirit of solidarity with his Lord.

            Is the courage of Thomas, and his willingness to die, diminished because of his later caution surrounding what he perceived as hysterical reports of Jesus’ resurrection?  If not, then why is it that we do not remember him as “Courageous Thomas,” rather than “Doubting Thomas”?  Why should one solitary event define the life of Thomas any more than any other?

            As followers of Jesus, we must decide if we want to be God’s score-keepers for wrongs done, or grace-givers of God’s forgiveness.  This first glimpse of Thomas should remind us that there is more to a person than a single “defining” moment.

            The next time we hear from Thomas is in chapter fourteen of the gospel of John.  Jesus was speaking somewhat cryptically about his departure to do some heavenly site preparation.  “You know that I go to prepare a place for you.”

            Thomas admitted that he, for one, did not have a clue about what Jesus was talking about. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (v.5).  This, in turn, led Jesus to speak in clear and unambiguous terms that even we can understand, providing one of the most memorable passages in the New Testament: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (v.6)

            It took remarkable, self-assured honesty for Thomas to acknowledge that, for him, Jesus was not making any sense.  So then, why do we not call him “Honest Thomas” instead of “Doubting Thomas”?  Because of his willingness to admit his own ignorance, we are all the wiser.  Because of his honest confession of his confusion, we are the recipients of those hope-filled words that have sustained us across the years in our own moments of loss and separation.

            The third scene in which Thomas plays a significant role is found in today’s gospel text.  Jesus appeared among them fully aware of how incomprehensible his appearance must be to the minds and experiences of those gathered there.  He took the initiative and showed them, in his hands and his side, the undeniable markings of the crucifixion.

            So that we do not miss the significance of this, let me put it another way.  The disbelief of that group demanded no less proof than the doubt of Thomas, and what is more, it demanded the same kind of proof. Those disciples doubted just as Thomas doubted, and just as we would most likely doubt if we were in their place.

 

            And could it be that Thomas was the only one strong enough in his faith to question the appearance of Jesus?

 

            Let us recall that early on in Jesus’ ministry with the disciples, he warned them, “Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)

 

            Beware of false prophets that come in sheep’s clothing! What better time than that for someone to try to take advantage of the disciples? They were emotionally devastated, battered and broken. They had been on that joyous ride as Jesus entered Jerusalem two weeks earlier, then crushed when the crowds turned on him. Their hearts were torn into pieces as Jesus was nailed to the cross and breathed his last breathe before their very eyes. They wept as he was laid in the tomb, and then their hearts leapt with joy when they heard the news on that first Easter morning.

 

            Jesus told them to meet him in Galilee, yet there they were locked in that room for fear of the Romans. Those disciples had been through the wringer, and clearly did not know which way to turn ... so they locked themselves away.

 

            The disciples would have been the perfect targets for a first century scammer!

 

            “Hey there, disciples! Here I am ... Jesus … are you ready to follow me? Oh no, I am the real Jesus ... trust me. Of course, I look a little different ... sound a little different ... I am the RISEN Jesus, not the earthly Jesus. Believe me. Come on … follow me.”

 

In their desperation, in their fear, could they have followed one who claimed to be Jesus? Could someone with ill-intent have mislead them down a different path? Could the mission of Christ have been corrupted by someone with self-serving purposes?

 

            Perhaps. And could it be that Thomas was the one that had the strength to bring up Jesus’ warning about false prophets? Could it be that Thomas was protecting the disciples ... protecting the faith? Could it be that Thomas’ doubt and questioning was not due to a lack of faith, but rather because of the strength of his faith?

            Too often, some in the “church,” dismiss or discount doubts and questions as the products of an immature faith.  Sometimes we simply repeat the same religious platitudes that we found unsatisfying in our own struggles of faith. Sometimes in our conviction or confidence that we possess some of the answers, we act as though we have all of the answers. The three least used words in our religious vocabulary are, “I do not know.” We would rather fake it than admit that we are unsure or do not know.

            Could we not, however, respond more positively to these questionings and doubts by using them as teachable moments?  Here the example of Thomas can help us.  We can learn from Thomas that even though we do not know where our journey may lead, it is enough that Jesus Christ makes the journey with us.  And in those times when our faith needs the reinforcement of tangible reality, it is good to know that our Jesus does not meet our doubts with chastisement, but rather with a manifestation of grace.

            Doubt can be a very powerful force.  It can be negative and destructive if we allow it to control or overwhelm us.  Doubt can disrupt our lives if we allow it to cast unreasonable or irrational questions upon those whom we love an trust causing us to lose our way.  However, doubt can also be a useful force.  Doubting can make us ask the meaningful questions. Doubt can result in the regular practice of reflection and self-examination.

 

            Doubt can also be that positive and constructive force that drives us toward deeper questioning and exploration. Doubt can lead to asking questions of our faith, and can ultimately strengthen and deepen our faith.

            Sometimes I contemplate the duality of my life as both a skeptic and a preacher of the faith. There are questions with which I wrestle, and there are other aspects of my faith and life that I know for certain.

 

            I know that the extravagance and extent of God’s love and grace is beyond the scope of my human comprehension.  I know that the unconditional and sacrificial love of Jesus Christ is offered to each of us every day.  I know that the power and presence of the Holy Spirit of God fills this room, and moves within and throughout our lives.  And I know that all of that love surrounds us with a sense of sanctuary, even on, and perhaps especially on, those days when doubt tickles our brains.

 

            Many churches, this one included, may be home to any number of persons who hold unresolved issues of faith and belief.  However, unlike other churches where there is often no safety zone where those doubts can be raised without the questioner being made to feel like a second-class Christian, this church family is a place where all are welcome.

 

            Jesus calls us to be disciples, just as he called that original group, and just as he has called across the generations. He calls us just as we are, with our faults and our weaknesses, with our gifts and our strength. Jesus calls us to walk with him, and learn from him. He does not call us because we are perfect ... far from it. He calls us because we are willing and faithful.

 

            Come, let us walk with Christ. May we, like Thomas, ask the questions that strengthen and deepen our faith. Amen.