“Unless I See”
Poor Thomas, or should I say, “Doubting Thomas”… for indeed that is the name we hear more often. I saw a cartoon this week that features Thomas, hands on hips, saying, “It’s just not fair. It’s not like people go around calling him ‘Denying Peter.’”
It’s a dreadful mislabeling of the man, if you ask me. Thomas only wants what everyone else has already received—a glimpse of Jesus, resurrected. In fact, the word “doubt” does not appear anywhere in this passage if you go back to the original text. The New Revised Standard Version renders Jesus’ words, “Do not doubt but believe.” But Jesus doesn’t say not to doubt. He says, “Do not be unbelieving.”
Doubt, after all, is an element of faith, not a sign of unbelief. And I don’t think Jesus need have worried about Thomas being an unbeliever. Because if Thomas were an unbeliever, he’d be off living his life. He wouldn’t be sitting up there with the rest of the disciples, hoping Jesus might show up again. He is there because this was the place where Jesus was last seen. He’s up there, waiting, wanting to see evidence of this amazing thing that has taken place. Those aren’t the actions of an unbeliever. That’s someone who’s still engaged with the push and pull of his faith. Who’s willing to struggle and wait and watch and hope.
Thomas means the Twin, and as my friend Deryl likes to say when he preaches this text, he’s your twin, if you want him. And I know he is the twin of many of you, because you have told me your struggles and your questions… and yes, your doubts.
He’s a twin that folks would be blessed to have. I’d certainly like to write him into my family tree. Rather than trying to diminish him as many have done with the “Doubting” moniker, today I suggest that Thomas has the most robust faith of any of the disciples. He doesn’t grandstand like Peter: Watch me walk on water! Jesus, you will never wash my feet! Nor does he jockey for position like James and John, who elbow each other out of the way to see who might sit at Jesus’ right hand.
Consider the places we meet Thomas in the gospel of John. We see him in the story of Lazarus (ch. 11), whom Jesus loved, and who is ill, and later dies. Lazarus’s sisters have called for Jesus, who is game to go to Judea, but the disciples say, No, don’t go there, the Jewish authorities want to stone you. That’s the last place we want to be. But Thomas, notably, does not join the chorus of people eager to save Jesus’ skin, and their own. He says, Let’s go, so that we may die too.
We meet Thomas again a few chapters later (ch. 14). Jesus is teaching about God’s house, which has many rooms. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says. “I go to prepare a place for you… You know the way to the place where I am going.”
And Thomas answers, Umm, actually, we don’t know the way.
We might ding Thomas for interrupting what is one of the more eloquent discourses of Jesus, except that his question is vital if you actually care about following the man.
You don’t ask that question unless you intend to go where Jesus wants to you to go.
So. That’s Thomas in chapters 11 and 14, and then we have chapter 20 to round out our character sketch. We just heard that the first time Jesus appears post-resurrection, Thomas is off somewhere. I preached two years ago that Thomas is the patron saint of the day late and the dollar short crowd. They all get to see Jesus, while he’s off buying Cheetos and Mountain Dew at the 7-11.
But that’s not right, either. Where is Thomas? What is he doing? It seems obvious, doesn’t it? He’s not on a beer run; he’s looking for Jesus. Mary Magdalene said he’s risen, so Thomas is going to find him. He’s certainly not going to cower behind a locked door, quivering with the other disciples for fear of the religious authorities. Thomas is the only one brave enough to be on the outside. So let’s call him Courageous Thomas, not Doubting Thomas.
In the years to come, after Jesus is no longer with them, the disciples will go on to spread the good news and found churches. Thomas has a special distinction: he is the only one of the disciples to have ventured beyond the Roman Empire to spread Christianity. The tradition tells us he established churches in southern India, for heaven’s sake!
Thomas is a man of movement: “Let’s go to Judea, even if it means our death.” “I don’t know the Way, Jesus, but I want to know, so tell me.” “I’m not going to sit up here in the upper room with the door bolted. If Jesus is alive I’m going to go find him and I’m not going to be afraid.” That search takes him all the way to India, further than any disciple was willing to go.
* * *
You may have heard the story this week about the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker. Booker was coming home the other night and saw his neighbor’s house engulfed in flames. A woman standing nearby screamed that her daughter was still inside, and so without thinking, Cory ran into the house. He and members of his security detail were able to save the woman and others. Cory threw her over his shoulders, sack-of-potatoes style, and ran through the flames. He suffered smoke inhalation and a few second-degree burns, but he and the others are OK.
Now as often happens on the Internet, people decided to have some fun with this and inflate this government bureaucrat into a butt-kicking hero. A twitter feed sprang up on Friday called Cory Booker stories, and they are the 21st century equivalent of the tall tale: “When Batman needs help, he turns on the Cory Booker signal.” “When Chuck Norris gets nightmares, Cory Booker turns on the light and brings him warm milk until he calms down.” “Smoke was treated for Cory Booker exposure."
Those are fun, aren’t they? But the detail that made me sit up and take notice was from an interview Booker gave the next day, in which he said that the decision to go in was a “come to Jesus moment.”
Now, he probably means “come to Jesus” as in a moment of decision. That’s how we normally think about “come to Jesus.” But think about what the phrase means literally. Come. To. Jesus. He went toward a person in grave danger and called it a come to Jesus moment. I hear strains of Matthew 25 in that: For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was perishing in a burning building and you dove in and saved me. That which you did to the most vulnerable and imperiled, you did to me.
Thomas, our disciple with the robust faith, would approve. He was a Come To Jesus kind of person.
* * *
This morning, several of my friends are preaching from the book of Acts, one of the other assigned texts for this day. A few of us were puzzling about how to connect Thomas with this snippet from the early church:
4:32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…. 4:34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 4:35 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Sometimes we press this text into arguments about communism and socialism, and I think that misses the point. The point is this: the church helped create an alternate system in which everyone’s needs were taken care of. Nobody had too much; everyone had enough. Everyone.
It is the church’s job to lift up an alternate vision in which that is possible. It takes a robust faith to do so…
And if Thomas is our twin then we have no choice. Notice he does not say, “Unless I see Jesus walking around in a perfect body with a halo…”
He says, Unless I see the puncture wounds in his hands… unless I see the split in his side. Unless I see that Jesus is a Jesus who suffered the depths of human pain and lived, then what’s the point. Unless I see that Jesus is the one who goes right to the heart of human suffering, taking it on… then I have no use for him.
That’s the Jesus worthy of Thomas’s faith. And ours.