Doubting Thomas

Good morning, Friends!

Last week was Easter, and it’s always tempting to say, “There! That’s all done for another year!

The trouble is, Easter is really the beginning of the Christian story. In a way, the gospels and all of Jesus’ life on earth are really a prequel to the rest of the story.

We’re all here because of Easter! That’s the only reason we’re worshiping here – because people were so excited by meeting the risen Christ. They shared their experience, and they convinced other people that Jesus was and is alive.

They traveled to every corner of the world. They made countless new disciples. They didn’t go back to “business as usual” – their whole lives were changed as a result of Easter.

So, if you say, “OK, Easter’s over, see you again at Christmas!” you’re missing the whole point of the gospels. In fact, you’re missing the whole point of the entire Bible.

All four gospels agree that on Easter morning, and for some time afterward, people were afraid. They were uncertain about what had really happened, and they had lots of questions in their minds and hearts.

The thing was, people kept coming in with stories that they had met Jesus. Like, actually met him. He’d been arrested, tortured, executed and buried. But now people were meeting him.

Mary, in the garden – we heard her story last week. Peter and the disciples. Two other friends of Jesus, as they were going down the road outside of town. More and more stories of people meeting Jesus kept pouring in.

This morning’s gospel is just one of these stories. It’s one that I specially love, partly because it tells about someone who didn’t believe.

On the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples were together. They had locked the doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came in and stood among them. He said, “May peace be with you!” Then he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were very happy when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “May peace be with you! The Father has sent me. So now I am sending you.” He then breathed on them. He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Thomas was one of the 12 disciples. He was also called “the Twin”. He was not with the other disciples when Jesus came. So they told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But Thomas said to them, “First I must see the nail marks in his hands. I must put my finger where the nails were. I must put my hand into his side. Only then will I believe.”

A week later, Jesus’ disciples were in the house again. Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus came in and stood among them. He said, “May peace be with you!”

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen me but still have believed.”

Jesus performed many other signs in front of his disciples. They are not written down in this book.

– John 20:19-30

For some reason or other, which I have never figured out, the state of Missouri in the U.S. has always been called “The Show Me State”. If you ever see a license plate from Missouri, that’s what it’ll say on it – “The Show Me State”.

I don’t know how that nickname originated. Maybe it got started with Harry Truman. Maybe it goes back a long time before that.

In any case, people from Missouri have a reputation for not taking anybody’s word for anything. “Show me,” they say there. “You want me to believe something? Show me.”

Now, it doesn’t say where Thomas, the disciple who was featured in today’s reading, came from. The Bible says that Peter and Andrew and James and John came from Galilee, in the northern part of the country. Other disciples we don’t know about. We can only try to make guesses.

But after a long and careful study of today’s reading, I believe that I have made a significant contribution to serious Bible scholarship. Thomas, I have now determined, came from Missouri.

It was late on the evening of Easter Sunday, when Jesus’ friends got together. They wanted to talk about the unbelievable rumors which everyone had heard.

The word was out that something had happened. Peter said one thing. Mary said another. Nobody knew what had really happened. Everybody was scared.

What it all added up to, was that early that morning, they had gone to the tomb, and they found it empty. And Mary, at least, claimed to have seen Jesus, alive again.
But while they were talking about it, it says that Jesus himself appeared among them. It doesn’t say how. It doesn’t give any details.

And the very first words that Jesus said were, “Peace be with you...”

The first word of the risen Lord is, peace.

And he held up his hands, so that they knew it was him.

And then he said again, “Peace be with you…” And Jesus told them, “Just as I was sent by God, so now I am sending you. . .”

And then Jesus breathed on them. A long, slow, steady breath. And he said, “The same Spirit which I received, I’m giving now to you. The Holy Spirit. If you free people from their sins, they are truly free. But if you close the door to forgiveness on people, they will not know that they are forgiven…”

Well, everybody who was there that night was impressed. They went and told everyone else they met about it. They told anyone who would listen. They talked about it all week.

But Thomas was from Missouri. And he wasn’t there that night, Remember, he was the one who said, “Show me. . .”?

Thomas said, “Unless I see in his hands where the nails were, unless I can lay my own finger on them, and unless I can place my hand on the wound in his side, unless I can do all that, I’m just not going to believe that it’s Jesus. . .”

What do you think? I think we might call that an understandable attitude. Thomas’ nickname, down through history, has always been Doubting Thomas.

People tend to put down Thomas in this story. They say, “He didn’t have enough faith! He wasn’t a real Christian! He should have believed, when they all told him. . .” Stuff like that.

Thomas wasn’t being cynical, though. He just happened to be from Missouri.

It wasn’t that Thomas didn’t love Jesus. He did. Thomas is actually mentioned inthe gospel, as being extremely courageous. When Jesus was headed towards the capital city of Jerusalem, they knew it was dangerous. But Thomas was the one who said, “Let’s all go, too – even if we die with him.” (John 11:6)

Peter is the one who everybody said had faith like a rock. Peter was the person who would get out of the boat and try to walk on water if Jesus asked him to. And Peter made his living as a fisherman, remember. If anybody knew that walking on water was impossible, Peter certainly did.

So if Peter is the patron saint of unquestioning belief, then Thomas is the patron saint of honest skepticism.

Skepticism doesn’t mean you don’t believe. Skepticism is that cast of thought or attitude which questions any claim which seems to run counter to reason, or which seems to lack sufficient proof. It’s not crabbiness. Some of the pleasantest people I know are skeptics. And it’s not unfaithfulness.

Skepticism simply says that everything should be tested. It says that nothing is beyond doubt. And in the face of any claim which runs contrary to our general experience, the only rational thing to do, is to express our doubt, preferably in such a way that we can investigate and see if that strange new claim is true, or not.

Doubting Thomas simply said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

That seems like a pretty reasonable challenge to me. I think that I might have wanted to take a closer look, myself.

Maybe we need more people like Doubting Thomas, the disciple from Missouri. Maybe we need people here to say to us, “Show me. Don’t just talk about it. Show me.” Maybe our church would be a stronger place if we had more people like Thomas around.

Other people, people of good faith, demanded proof, before they would believe in something new.

Philip, one of Thomas’ fellow disciples, was probably from Missouri, too. Philip at one point said, “Show us this God who you’re always talking about. We’re tired of hearing about God every week. Enough of this second-hand stuff. Show us!”

And Jesus replied, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you don’t know me? Anyone who has seen me, has seen God. Don’t you believe that I live in God, and that God lives in me? The words that I speak aren’t spoken on my own authority. God who dwells in me carries out the work through me. Believe what I say, that God is alive in me, and my life is given to me by God. Believe that, or else believe because you see what I am doing. . .” (John 14:8-11)

Or take another “Show me” situation, when John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus. They said, “Are you the one? Or should we look for somebody else?”

And Jesus answered, by showing them what he was doing. He said, “Go tell John what you hear and see – the lame walk, the blind see, unclean people are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. . .” (Matthew 11:2-6)

What I’m trying to say, is that asking for evidence is all right. Skepticism is an attitude which is all right in the sight of God, especially if it keeps people from falling into the trap of mistaken belief.

We need our skeptics. They help keep us on our toes. People like Thomas are an essential part of our community. Without them, we would be wide open to all sorts of spiritual manipulation.

The flip side of that, though, is the caution against being too cautious. That’s the point of this morning’s story.

Thomas said, “Unless I see. . .unless I touch. . .unless I can feel for myself. . .”

There’s a danger in that word, “unless”. “Unless” means, “unless it’s my way.” If and only if the proof is presented to me in exactly such-and-such a way, I will not believe. It’s like demanding God to perform, in a time and place and in a way which we specify.

It’s one thing to ask for proof. It’s another thing to say, “Unless the proof comes the way I say it should, then count me out. . .”

That’s the difference between what I would call an open-minded skepticism, which simply says, “Show me,” and what I would call a closed-minded skepticism, which sets such difficult conditions that nothing is going to be adequate proof.

The real proof, as this morning’s story shows us, is the presence of Christ. Maybe Jesus doesn’t turn up in the same way now as he did then. But millions of Christians will testify that they have felt the living presence of Jesus.

Jesus turns up beside us, here at worship. Or sitting across the table from us, at a meal. Jesus can be with us, waiting in a hospital room, or next to us, at a march or demonstration.

Jesus comes into our prayers, or lying awake at night. He’s there in a helping hand, and he’s there in the person we reach out to help.

I can’t begin to tell you all the places people have said they found Jesus, as alive as you or me.

If you experience that, you’re not going to be a twice-a-year Christian. You won’t show up here just for Easter and Christmas. If you know you’ve met the living Christ, you’ll be here, and you’ll be looking everywhere to meet him again.

My guess is that Thomas always remained something of a skeptic. Even when God changes our lives, I don’t think that God destroys or disables a basic part of our personality, such as our desire to ask questions and to receive reasonable answers.

But I also think that when he came face to face with the presence of Christ, that Thomas the Skeptic found that he didn’t need to ask anything, any more. The crowning moment of the story isn’t the questions which Thomas asked of his friends. The crowning moment is when Thomas sees Jesus for himself and says, “My Lord and my God!

Nobody could see it for him. That’s what made him a skeptic. And nobody could ever take that moment away from him. That’s what made him a believer.

Jesus said, “You believed because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. . .

Whatever way we take – the way of direct faith, and direct acceptance, or the way of honest but skeptical faith, God is still there for us.

It’s not for me to judge – it isn’t for any of us to judge – the way or the journey or the path by which each person comes to whatever kind of faith we honestly hold to.

It is up to each one of us to encourage the other, by sharing what we have found, by spreading the good news and the teaching of Jesus, by questioning what seems to us doubtful, and by letting God be the one who speaks to us wherever we are.

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