Sermon - Easter 2 - Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index | Questions and Comments |
The faithful doubter
What a marvellous encounter it was between Thomas and Jesus that second Sunday night after he was raised from the dead. Thomas had said that he would not believe that Jesus was alive unless he could see and touch him for himself:
As John tells the story, a week later Jesus appeared and stood among them although the doors were shut. He gave the traditional greeting, "Peace be with you," and then confronted Thomas:
Then comes the great affirmation of faith which is the climax of the story and, indeed, the climax of the whole gospel according John:
That is the basic belief which distinguishes Christians universally from all other people. To believe in Jesus is to relate to him as Lord and God. That belief is linked to belief in the resurrection. As Paul put it to the Romans:
It was to bring others to the same conviction that John wrote about the "signs" of Jesus being the Messiah:
Jesus had reinforced this hope with his last comment to Thomas:
Thomas the apostle
The role of the apostles and evangelists was to provide a witness to what Jesus had done so that others could come to faith without having the advantage that Thomas had of meeting him in the flesh and being challenged by him. Thomas was one of those witnesses. He is important because he shared in the witness of the apostles to the life, death and especially the resurrection of Jesus.
We do not know for sure what became of Thomas. He was with six other disciples who later, according to John's last chapter, went fishing in Galilee and then met Jesus again on the shore of the lake and had breakfast with him. The last we hear of him in the scriptures is that he was amongst those who were gathered in the upstairs room in Jerusalem waiting for the great outpouring of the Spirit which came at Pentecost.
There is a strong tradition that Thomas took the gospel to India, and there is an ancient branch of the Syrian Orthodox Church in India which traces its history back to the earliest centuries and claims to have been founded by St. Thomas. That is not impossible from an historical perspective, for there was some trade between the Roman Empire and South India. Roman coins have been found near Madras. If you go to Madras today they will show you where Thomas met a martyr's death on a hill near the city, and the Cathedral Basilica of St Thomas where he is supposed to be buried. It is a Catholic Church. When I went there one Sunday morning some years ago the large building was packed with people, standing room only, and a colourful lively liturgy was in progress. There I saw evidence of the continuing strength of the witness of the apostles, whatever the details of the history that brought people long ago and today in different cultures to a living faith in the risen Lord Jesus.
It is most important to recognize that the Christian faith depends upon the witness of the apostles. That is not to say that personal experience is not also important for later believers. We do have personal experience of Christ in our devotions, the sacraments and in the service of others; and the living witness of people we know who are believers has often been very important in bringing us to faith; but what we believe is not constructed subjectively only out of our experience if it is true to Christ. It is tested by and depends upon the best evidence we have of what happened to Jesus. Thomas and the other apostles provide the essential link back to the historical figure of Jesus, and that includes their being witnesses to the resurrection. Without that there is no Christian faith. There might be great spiritual experiences, but whether or not they are Christian depends upon that link with the historical Jesus. That is what is meant by "the tradition" concerning the faith. Paul referred to it in the passage we read on Easter Day:
Or, as we heard today from the Acts of the Apostles:
Or in the first letter of John as we were reminded on Easter Day:
That was the primary function of the apostles, and Thomas was one of them, for which we give thanks to God.
Poor old Thomas: a man of faith who has been branded for ever as "Doubting Thomas," though he provided us with the confession of faith, "My Lord and my God," which countless millions have since repeated because of the faithful witness he and the other apostles have given us. Though I look to Thomas primarily as a man of faith, and value his example for that, I also greatly value his honest doubting.
There is a great difference between honest doubt and cynical disbelief. When we doubt or question honestly, we are asking for good reason to resolve our doubts, one way or the other: that is, we are open to being convinced by the evidence. Thomas wanted to see and touch before he would suspend his disbelief. He had an opportunity we do not have, though we can gather other kinds of evidence. Thomas was not a "bad guy" or a bad example. I would go so far as to say Thomas provides us with a good example in not being too easily convinced by what others say. As we have been reminded lately in various ways, there is a lot of nonsense being put abroad, the con men are having a field day in religion or spirituality, and people are being too easily seduced, especially when they rely too much on their own experience. A little honest doubting might well save people from what might appear at first to be a harmless bit of fantasy but can develop into serious consequences of false belief.
[A little of what I have said in debate on the need for an objective view of the evidence for the faith follows, in this written version only of the sermon:-
One relevant factor in our contemporary Western Society is the very high value placed on personal freedom, which can be combined with a postmodern cynicism about the impossibility of any objective truth. Modern liberal thought has developed a new dogmatism affirming the ultimate value of subjectivity: so people speak of "your God" and "my God" as if there is no difference between the idea of God and God, so that it makes no sense to debate the nature of God as if it had any meaning independently of what any of us might think, and apart from our various perceptions and opinions of it.
So, it is thought, every person should be able to develop his or her own view, and no one else is in a position to question it; every person's spirituality is of equal value and should be respected. It is as if we should never say that another person's beliefs are false, because it is not the business of anyone else; and often it is even assumed that anyone should be able to believe anything they like without fear of the consequences.
Now, I think it does matter what people believe. It matters both to them individually and to society; and I would add in the appropriate context, it matters to God. While I would be a strong defender of personal freedoms in matters of civil rights, and I think my public record would vindicate that, I wanted to challenge the tendency to give ultimate value to personal freedom in matters of belief, and to claim that it is worth asking whether it is true regardless of what any of us might prefer or imagine. A while back I used the Heaven's Gate group who committed mass suicide and the current fashion for seeking alternatives to orthodox belief to raise that question: is it OK to pursue any religious interest that appeals to one personally? I wanted to encourage people to come to the Biblical evidence and the history of Christian experience with a mind open to the possibility that there might be something there worth believing about what happened to Jesus, objectively, and that it could matter to us whether the apostles were true witnesses of something external to themselves.]
Jesus did not chastise Thomas for his disbelief: he invited him to do what he had said he needed to do to be convinced, to see and touch for himself the wounds that proved the figure before them was the man who had been crucified, and then to replace disbelief by belief. Jesus asked him to give up doubting for good reason, as a consequence of the evidence.
[For those who want to go into the Biblical text more deeply, it seems to me that the translation of John 20:27 which makes a separate sentence of "Do not doubt but believe" is rather misleading, because the Greek for this phase links it by implication with what has just been said. The word used for "not" here has a conditional sense of denial, so that a more literal translation would be, "and then (for this reason) do not be disbelieving but believe".]
Thomas was an honest doubter and with his concern for the evidence he illustrates one of the ways in which Christians can and should have much in common with scientists. You might be surprised at that because many people believe that science is the enemy of faith, and there is a kind of scientism, an ideology, that is really a dogmatic commitment to unbelief; but good science does not depend on that dogmatism any more than true faith depends on another kind of narrow dogmatism. If you think about it you will see that both faith and science depend upon a sense of wonder. Remember the beginnings of faith on the part of Moses when he saw the burning bush and said:
Asking "why" can lead to faith as well as what we now call scientific discoveries, and a little wondering can develop into a great sense of awe that is the basis of worship. There is more to be said about that. Meanwhile, let us accept that honest doubt can help to protect us from accepting nonsense and leave us open to discovery of the truth. But, as any true believer will tell you, that is not all there is to faith.
The personal commitment of faith
When Jesus confronted Thomas he did not simply invite him quietly to examine the evidence for his resurrection. It was a much more personal challenge. The language is more or less violent. Thomas had spoken previously in very strong terms when he said he would not believe what they said unless he could put (more literally push in or thrust [Greek ballo, most often meaning to throw]) his finger where the nails had been and his hand where the lance had entered his side. The nails were probably about the thickness of a man's finger and the lance which had pierced his side about the width of a hand. To think in these rather brutal and personal terms about the wounds of Jesus indicates intensity and must arouse very strong feelings. There was a good deal more going on than any kind of detached questioning. When Jesus took up himself what Thomas had said he threw back to him his own language at least in regard to the second part about thrusting his hand into the wound in his side. He was reminding Thomas of what he had said in a very personal challenge.
We do not need to take all this tough language literally. It is doubtful whether Jesus actually expected Thomas to thrust his hand into the wound in his side. Jesus often used language in a form of dramatic exaggeration. His spoke for example about a great log in a person's eye, and about swallowing a camel or a camel going through the eye of a needle. And he knew that Thomas was a man of strong emotions, given sometimes to saying impetuously what he felt. For example, when Jesus had said he was going to Jerusalem and the disciples tried to persuade him of the dangers of going there it was Thomas who apparently agreed only with resignation:
It was Thomas too who dared to question or challenge Jesus when he was having his last conversation with them about going to the Father, before he went to the garden where he was arrested:
So the relationship between Thomas and Jesus was one in which we might expect that they would occasionally have provoked each another. It was a real life encounter. When Jesus issued his challenge, "reach out your hand", it was a challenge to the whole attitude Thomas had towards him. He responded with equal strength in the expression of his attitude now towards Jesus. It could only be a whole hearted commitment: My Lord and my God.
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