A clergy friend has told me that there are many people who don’t know where the phrase “doubting Thomas” comes from. They assume that it’s associated with some well-known Thomas, like Thomas Jefferson, or Thomas Edison – or, for those with children or grandchildren, Thomas the Tank Engine. We’re all one step ahead, then, in interpreting this story. We know that it comes from John’s gospel – and that Doubting Thomas refers to the Thomas the apostle – the apostle who was absent when Jesus first appeared in that upper room.
I have to confess though, that for years I’ve believed that Thomas has gotten a bad rap. He’s far more complex than the simple label “Doubting Thomas” implies. And – to be even more radical – I suggest that doubt has gotten a bad rap too. But let’s begin with a simple question – what do we know about Thomas?
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each mention that Thomas was one of the twelve apostles. None of those gospels, as far as I can tell, give us any other information about Thomas. He only appears in the crowd scenes.
In the gospel of John, Thomas actually has a speaking role, so we have the chance to see more deeply into his character.
The first time we actually hear from Thomas is when Jesus and the apostles learn that Lazarus has died. Jesus wants to go to him. But the disciples make it perfectly clear that they have no desire to go to Judea . People there are trying to kill Jesus – it simply isn’t safe. Yet Jesus persists “But let us go to him.” And who speaks up? It’s Thomas. Now one commentator says that he probably sounds like Eeyore – the ever pessimistic, gloomy, depressed grey stuffed donkey in Winnie the Pooh. “Okay – we’ll go – and die with him.:” “But think about it – Thomas is trying to rally the troops – to get the other apostles to come as well. So, I think that when Thomas says – “Let us also go, that we may die with him” he sounds more resolute than Eeyore ever could. And instead of pessimistic, Thomas is just being realistic. And brave and loyal as well. No matter what happens, Thomas is saying, we need to stay with Jesus. So why is it simply Doubting Thomas? Why not Thomas the loyal – or resolute – or brave? We’re so quick to label people –but if we get to really know them, we usually discover that they’re a lot more complex than we thought they were. And I think it should be obvious that there’s a lot more to Thomas than his doubts.
The second time we hear from Thomas is at the last supper. The supper is finished, Judas has departed, and Jesus is speaking at length with the apostles. And, at one point, he speaks words of comfort – promising that he’ll be coming back to them- and that where he is, they will also be. But then Jesus goes on to say . “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” I can imagine that there’s now complete silence from the apostles – all of them sitting there, looking at each other a bit furtively, thinking – I have no idea what Jesus is saying or where he’s going or how to get there. It may be one of those moments when it’s just too embarrassing to admit that you’re confused or ignorant. But not for Thomas – he’s way too honest and earnest to pretend that he understands “the way” that Jesus is taking about. So – alone of the apostles – honest and brave Thomas speaks up: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going – so how can we know the way?” And Jesus responds “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus doesn’t give specific directions. He just promises that he will be with them and lead them. Stay with Me and I will show you the path. Eventually, Jesus and the apostles go out into the night and venture to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is arrested, and the events of the Passion play out. Jesus undergoes a sham trial, is crucified, and buried.
And now – we come to the upper room of John’s gospel. The apostles, grieving and fearful, are staying together with the doors locked. Suddenly, Jesus appears. He shows them his hands and his side. He breathes on them and they receive the Holy Spirit. And John tells us that the apostles rejoiced.
But Thomas wasn’t there. Where was he? Well, we don’t know. We know he is brave, so maybe he’s out doing a little reconnaissance – eavesdropping at the market place. Or maybe he volunteered to go out and bring back some needed provisions. Or maybe he just needed to get some fresh air or be alone in his grief The only thing that we do know is that, unlike the others, Thomas isn’t in hiding.
Now – for a minute – put yourself in Thomas’ shoes. He comes back to the upper room and the apostles appear to have gone mad. They grab Thomas – we saw Jesus, he was here. They’re overcome with joy. They’re rapturous. And what does Thomas do? Well, he asks to have the same experience that they did. That’s all. Nothing more. Notice that Thomas doesn’t say “Jesus coming back to life? Can’t happen. Impossible.” His response is more – “Okay. That’s fine. I‘ll believe it but I need to see it, just like you did.” And Thomas’ reaction shouldn’t surprise us. Thomas will never pretend to understand something that he doesn’t – or to say that he believes something if he isn’t sure that he believes. He won’t pretend that he has no doubts if he does.
And – is it really such a bad thing to have doubts? When I was growing up, it seemed that doubt was wrong – even sinful. You were supposed to believe what you were told. Yet we grow up. Thinking matures. Doubts seem inevitable.
Some of the most thoughtful reflections on doubt and faith that I’ve seen come from Elie Wiesel – a well-known Holocaust survivor, renowned author, and champion of human rights. These reflections are included in a book, written by Ariel Burger, called Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom. A number of us read the book as part of the Diocesan Lenten Book Study. Here is what Wiesel says about doubt: “Doubt together with faith – that is good. It can deepen faith, and make it more real.” And, in another section of the book: “If you have faith, question it. If you have doubt, question it. Whether you have certainty or uncertainty, question it. And the questions will lead you higher.”
Barbara Scoville gave a wonderful sermon a few weeks ago. And in that sermon, she told us how her doubts regarding faith and her search for answers were important parts of her spiritual journey. I, too, had doubts and questions – and, in my case, they arose from what I came to see as a contradiction between my faith and my religion. I’m not a cradle Episcopalian. I happily worshipped as a very active and involved member of another denomination for decades. Yet, as my faith grew, so did my understanding of God as a God of an all-encompassing, all-inclusive love. And I become increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that, in my religion, not all were welcome at the table. Was my view of God wrong? Did I even have the right to question my religion? As my discomfort grew, I researched other religions. I prayed. But I wasn’t getting any answers. I felt exactly like Thomas must have felt when he asked his question at the last supper. I had no idea what path I was being called to follow
Then one Sunday, as I sat in church, I looked at the Cross, still filled with doubts and questions. But this time, I had my answer. I felt two strong emotions: anger – at the walls erected to keep people out – and sorrow – for the hurt to those people who were being told they were not worthy to join us at the table. The next Sunday I walked into St. Clare’s. I had found the Episcopal church and the faith community where I belonged – one of welcome and acceptance for all. My doubts had indeed led me higher.
And now – it’s time to come back to Thomas. He’s had several days to wrestle with his own doubts. And knowing Thomas, honest and inquiring Thomas, I suspect that he’s used that time well – turning his questions over and over in his mind. If the apostles were wrong – if they had not seen the risen Jesus – then what could have caused them all to think that they had. And if they had seen the risen Jesus – then an even more profound question – what did that mean?
And finally, Jesus appears again in the upper room. And he shows Thomas his wounded body – just as he has shown his other apostles. Thomas’s reaction, though, is different from the others. John’s gospel does not say that Thomas rejoiced. Thomas seems to have moved past joy to something deeper – more profound. He has moved passed his doubts and understands fully that the figure standing before him is not simply Jesus, a great prophet – it is divinity itself. And Thomas – brave and loyal and honest – responds with just five words – words that many have called the clearest declaration of Jesus’ divinity by any person in the gospel .
And in those precious moments in our own lives, when we can feel the presence of God so strongly that we don’t just believe – we know – that God is with us – then we can join with Thomas who, with absolute certainty utters those simple words: “My Lord and my God.”
Sermon: April 24, 2022
St. Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church