"Honest Thomas"

Scripture: John 20:19-31

Thomas’ Label

“Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”  I recently overheard one of the kids at work say that to another kid who had just been called a mean name in an unsuccessful attempt to calm him and encourage him.  The kid was clearly hurting because of the words that somebody else said to him.  No matter how many times somebody tells us that words don’t hurt, we all know that they do.

Words are particularly painful when we are given labels by others that we don’t deserve.  It hurts to have somebody else attempt to define you or put limitations on your perceived worth as a person.  You’re ugly.  You’re dumb.  You’re annoying.  You’re a failure.  You’re worthless.  

Labels hurt because we can’t help but wonder if there is some sort of truth in them.  They take opinions of others and make them feel like they’re a fact of life.  They take moments and mistakes of our lives and make us continue living them, over and over, perpetuating the feelings of judgment and condemnation.  “I have a new label,” we tell ourselves, “so I guess that’s all I’m ever going to be.”

It’s a curious thing that we’ve singled Thomas out among all of the disciples and given him the title, “The Doubter.”  None of the other disciples have such negative labels attributed to them.  I came across a comic this past week that gave me a chuckle – it depicts Thomas talking to a group of disciples, and he says to them, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter’ or Mark ‘Run-Away-Naked Mark.’  Why should I be saddled with this title?”

It’s a valid question.  We don’t get this title from the gospels.  The gospels only give people cool nicknames, not mean titles.  You might remember that Simon Peter is called “The Rock.”  James and John are the “Sons of Thunder.”  We’re not entirely sure who, but somebody got the nickname, “The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.”  And Thomas, himself, is only ever called “The Twin.”

So, this morning, I want to propose that we relieve Thomas of the weight of being called “The Doubter.”  And, though I don’t want to limit the way we think of Thomas to a single label, I want us to think of him, for the time being, as “Honest Thomas.”

Tom The Realist

Frederick Buechner points out that in the few times that Thomas is mentioned in the gospels (which happens only in John’s gospel), he comes across as very honest and straightforward.  He says, “Imagination was not Thomas's long suit.  He called a spade a spade.  He was a realist.  He didn't believe in fairy tales, and if anything else came up that he didn't believe in or couldn't understand, his questions could be pretty direct.”

The first time Thomas is given any recorded speaking lines is in chapter 11 of John’s gospel, when Jesus shared with the disciples that he intended to return to Judea.  The disciples started trying to talk Jesus out of going because they knew that going to Judea would put Jesus’ life in danger.  Thomas, however, recognizes that Jesus is set on going, so he boldly says to the rest of the disciples, “Let us all go with him, so that we might die with him.”

A few days later, Jesus and his disciples had supper together for the last time.  During the meal, Jesus was talking about his coming death and how he would be leaving them soon, but it wouldn’t be forever.  He tells them, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

All of the other disciples didn’t utter a word while they at least pretended to understand what Jesus was saying to them.  Thomas, on the other hand, couldn’t hold back about his own confusion.  He was blatantly honest about his lack of understanding.  “When you got right down to it, Thomas said, he personally had no idea where Jesus was going, and he didn't know the way to get there either. ‘I am the way,’ was what Jesus said to him, and although Thomas let it go at that, you can't help feeling that he found the answer less than satisfactory.  Jesus wasn't a path, he was a man, and it was too bad he so often insisted on talking in riddles.” (Footnote 1)

So it’s really unfortunate that Thomas, the realist with a noted lack of imagination, wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus came to them in that locked room with the shades drawn.  Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus greeted the ten disciples with the words “Peace be with you,” and then proceeded to show each of them the wounds on his hands and his side.  And he wasn’t there when he blessed them and breathed the Holy Spirit on them and commissioned them to continue their ministry.

Tom’s Honesty

We’re never told where Thomas was at the time.  Beuchner suggests that because Thomas was a realist, he was less apt than his friends to work himself into a panic.  Maybe he was the one who volunteered to go out to get food for the rest of the disciples who were too scared to face the crowds.  Maybe he’d gone out for a cup of coffee, or to just sit on a bench in the park watching the squirrels chase each other.  Regardless, we know that when he returned, he found that the mood had drastically changed from fear to joy, and the others were declaring that they had seen the risen Lord. (Footnote 2)

But as we all know, hearing their declarations wasn’t enough for Thomas.  He reacts with the skepticism one would expect from a realist.  Thomas reacts to the news much like a terminally ill patient who has accepted his fate might respond to news of a new “miracle cure.”

He tells the disciples, “Your news is great, to be sure – so good, in fact, that I have to assume that it is too good to be true.  So, unless I am able to see, to touch, and to experience the presence of the risen Lord myself, I’m afraid I simply cannot believe.”

Does Thomas doubt?  Sure.  But more importantly, Thomas is honest about what it is that he needs in order to believe.  Thomas didn’t believe just to believe, just because he really wanted what they were saying to be true.  He doesn’t approach faith by checking his brain on his way through the door.  He questions, thinks, ponders and – dare we say it?  He even doubts.  But we shouldn’t let that doubt be his primary characteristic, and we shouldn’t even be so quick to characterize his doubt as a negative characteristic.

After all, the proof that Thomas sought was nothing less and nothing more than what the other disciples had already received.  It wasn’t until Jesus appeared in person that they themselves were filled with joy – so they must not have believed Mary Magdalene when she proclaimed to them precisely what they proclaimed to Thomas: “I have seen the Lord!”

For their part, the other disciples don’t seem to hold this honest doubt against him.  They welcome Thomas into their midst – we know this, because he was still with them eight days later when Jesus appeared again.  But what happened during those eight days?

A colleague of mine suggests that during that time, the other disciples – the ones who had seen Jesus – poured out great compassion on Thomas.  Perhaps they took turns sharing with Thomas what they saw and felt when Jesus was there, trying to make their experience of the appearance as vivid and real as possible.

“For eight days, [Thomas] lived in doubt and sadness and longing, but the love of his friends sustained him.  The Holy Spirit that Christ had breathed into the ten was, in turn, breathed by them into Thomas.  They kept him and cared for him until he, in due time, could also see the Lord.  At a time when the risen Lord was not apparent to Thomas, Jesus was still present with him in the arms and hearts of the disciples.  The wounded hands and pierced body of Jesus Christ became the caring hands and compassionate hearts of that first Christian family of men and women.” (Footnote 4)

 It is easy to imagine that, in response to Thomas’ honesty about his struggle to believe, the others make an honest effort to help him experience the Lord.

At the end of those eight days, when Jesus appeared again to those gathered in that tightly locked room, it didn’t take much convincing before Thomas made his profound proclamation of faith, “My Lord and my God!”  I wonder if Thomas was already brought to the cusp of belief by the fellowship and testimony of the disciples, and Jesus’ appearance was just the icing on the cake.

So What?

So, what does the story of Doubting…  er…  Honest Thomas mean to us today?

First, it tells us that Jesus welcomes even people who struggle to believe, who need to experience the risen Lord before they can go “all in” and join in the rejoicing.  It tells us that, wherever we are right now in our faith journeys is okay, and that Christ will meet us there.  Thomas’ journey is an invitation to be honest about our struggles and our needs.  Jesus never seemed to shy away from the big questions of life and faith, so we shouldn’t be afraid to ask them.

This story also speaks to us as a community of faith.  We are called to be that community of Jesus’ followers who lovingly welcomes, accepts, and supports the Thomases who come to us.

And if there is one thing that I can be sure of, it is that Thomases are all around us.  I also know that the coming week will give us plenty of opportunities to encounter those Thomases in our midst.  We will encounter needy, the doubting, the lonely, the hurting, the broken and the lost.  Thomas is among us in both friends and strangers who are seeking support and seeking community.  

We are Easter people, and we walk by faith to do the will of God.  While we proclaim that we have seen the Lord, we also need to be seeking every opportunity to reveal Christ to others.  Like the first disciples, we are also disciples called to love each and every one of God’s people.  As long as even just one of them is crying, God will give us grace to love them.  With God’s help, we must be willing, as the first disciples were, to be the non-judgmental, loving community that wraps them in love in their darkest moments.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Weekly Sermon Illustrations, accessed at http://frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustrations-thomas-0

[2] Frederick Buechner, Weekly Sermon Illustrations.  Emphasis mine.

[3] David Lose, “Faithful Doubt,” accessed at http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=473

[4] Julie Olt, Sermon from April 4, 2013.  Preached at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Elizabeth, IN.