Close Encounters: Thomas

Part 3 in a series I’m doing called “Close Encounters with the Risen Christ.”  I’ve had some help and guidance from the book, Encountering the Risen Christ, by Mark Bradford.

John 20:24-29

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”  But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Words for reflection: “Anything worth believing is also worth doubting.” -Brad Watson, Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection

A man was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence of his guilt, but no corpse.  When the time came for the defense to give a closing statement, the lawyer, knowing that his client would probably be convicted, tried to stump the jury. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all,” as he looked at his watch. “Within one minute, the person presumed dead will walk into this courtroom.” As he turned to the courtroom door, the jurors, looking stunned and confused, looked on eagerly, awaiting the entrance of a so-called dead person.

A minute passed, and nothing happened. Finally, the lawyer confessed, “Well, actually, I made up the previous statement, but you all looked as if someone was going to walk through the door.  I therefore say to you that there is reasonable doubt as to whether anyone was murdered, and insist that you come back with a verdict of not guilty.”

The jury, still looking stunned and confused, left to make their decision.  A few minutes later, they returned with a verdict: guilty.  The lawyer, surprised, asked, “But how?  You must have had some doubt because I saw all of you stare at the door.”  The jury foreman replied, “Oh, we looked….but your client did not!”  (Mark Bradford, Encountering the Risen Christ)

Doubt, or lack of it, can be very revealing- it certainly was in the case of Thomas! Poor Thomas! He has gone down in history as possibly the 2nd worst disciple (behind Judas), and he’s most well known as Doubting Thomas, the one who needed to see the Risen Christ in order to believe that he had actually appeared to the disciples. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), he is simply mentioned as being one of the 12 disciples. But in John’s gospel, we get a little bit more about who he is.  When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died, Thomas’ loyalty comes through when he says,“Let us go, too, that we may die with him.”

And later, Jesus explains to his disciples that they should not worry, because Jesus goes to prepare a place for them, and says that they know the way place he is going. Thomas, however, speaks up and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  In his childlike way, Thomas asks questions that a child would ask, but that an adult might be afraid to ask. I admire him because he’s not embarrassed, but just comes out with it.  Thomas is the guy who doesn’t always “get things” the first time, but is unafraid to question or challenge what he hears or sees. We are not always great with people like this in the church…but Jesus’ grace and patience show us a different way.

I remember in my previous appointment, I was teaching a class on the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, which for some, are surprising and very challenging on certain topics. I had one person in the class who I was convinced thought that his job was the question or challenge every single thing that I said.  It took all the patience I had to try to explain or answer his questions in a way that would appease him, or at least get a point across.  At one point, I finally had to realize that out of every person in the class, he was at least the one who dared ask tough questions and be interested enough in the material to challenge it and assess it for himself! At least he showed up to class to see for himself what was being discussed and was able to immerse himself in the conversation rather than hearing about it from someone else outside of class.

So we have to admire Thomas, and feel a bit sorry for him that he wasn’t with the group of disciples when they first encountered the Risen Christ. Imagine how that week in between the two appearances must have been for Thomas- he would have put up with everyone talking about it and saying “you should have been there!” Because he wasn’t there, he is isolated from the group, and feeling left out.

So when Jesus appears again and Thomas is there, Jesus shows kindness and grace to him in the midst of his doubt.  The Risen Christ meets Thomas exactly where he is in his skepticism. He doesn’t condemn or judge him. Instead, Jesus invites Thomas to see and feel the evidence for himself- his pierced hands, his side, the top of his head.  Interestingly enough, our text doesn’t say that Thomas actually touched Jesus.  I think we assume that he did, but perhaps the sight of Jesus alone was enough for Thomas’ doubts to be removed, and Thomas experiences “the benefit of the doubt.”  We shouldn’t ignore the fact that the disciple who doubted Jesus the most also gave him the highest praise and confession of faith found in the gospels by proclaiming him as, “My Lord and my God!”  Perhaps, Thomas accepted more quickly than anyone else what the resurrection would mean about who Jesus is, and he needed some extra time to wrestle with it. According to tradition, Thomas was the first disciple to leave Jerusalem, and he didn’t waste any time doing so. The other disciples remained in the upper room for quite some time, but Thomas, after encountering the Risen Christ for himself, was ready to go and tell others about him.  (Bradford)

That’s the evidence of a true encounter- that we are called to do something about it! Tradition also states that Thomas traveled further than any of the disciples, going all the way to the tip of India, where he gave his life for Christ as a martyr. Thomas sure went a long way with his “doubt.” If that’s the case, then I think we could all use some! Was he the second worst disciple? I don’t think so!

Thomas is actually one of my favorite disciples, and the reason that we chose Thomas as Xavier’s middle name.  He should be best known not for his doubting, but his curiosity.  He wasn’t satisfied with the run of the mill answer, or by things he had just heard. He wanted to experience and believe in the Risen Christ for himself.  He wanted to get the answers for himself. He wanted more- a richer experience and explanation, and to dig deeper.

I would even challenge the idea that he was doubting Jesus, and say that instead, he was longing for Jesus.

He had a deep longing for what Jesus had said to be true. Thomas wanted it so much that maybe he couldn’t bear to open himself up to the possibility without assurance that it was real. He was longing for Jesus enough to ask the questions in the first place. And Jesus honored his curiosity with the invitation to reach out and feel his hands and side.

It’s unfortunate that a lot of the time in the world of faith, that doubt is viewed in a negative way. Christians especially are made to feel guilty if they express doubt or question their faith, the teaching of the church, or teachings about the Bible. Overall, the church has sent a message that doubts are not welcome, when really, the church should be a place where we encounter the Risen Christ as someone who receives our doubts and questions with grace.

We also live in a society where knowledge, facts, and evidential proof have the final say on complicated matters.  The church has a hard time fitting into this type of society because it seeks answers to some very difficult questions without concrete answers. Faith asks very different questions of us than science does!

There hasn’t been much space provided in our world today for doubt or suspicion. The church should proudly be that safe space where people bring their questions, doubts, and skepticism about life, faith, and beliefs.

We also have to get out of the trap that sometimes it’s easier to just be told the answers instead of wrestling with doubt or seeking answers for ourselves.  This is a dangerous way to live out our faith. We should always be seeking answers, asking questions in community, and being honest about when we struggle with our faith.

If we never doubt or ask questions, then we will never grow. If we never get uncomfortable with our faith, then we will be stuck in the same old pattern and will never move forward in our relationship with God. So much of the church today has been tamed. We don’t allow enough room for those scary questions or doubts about our faith.  Mike Yaconelli, a writer, theologian, and co-founder of Youth Specialties, speaks this hard-to-hear truth that we have embraced the wrong understanding of faith. “Faith has been reduced to a comfortable system of beliefs about God instead of an uncomfortable encounter with God.” When was the last time your faith in God made you feel uncomfortable?

When was the last time you asked a tough question about life or faith? Where are you settling for simplicity rather than journeying through the complexity?  Where are we too passive?   Living off of what others have to say and settling for second hand encounters rather than longing for a passionate encounter with the Risen Christ for ourselves?

I get the feeling I’m not alone when I say that I question my faith in God as an itinerant pastor every time I get a call for a move. That’s really when I have to sit with the complexity of life, the vocation I have chosen, and the faith I have that God calls me into this complicated and difficult lifestyle. There have been times when I have asked Corey if my faith in God is strong enough to go where I am sent and trust that God will meet me there in the midst of it all. Even as a pastor, I have my moments of doubt about my faith in God.  I am challenged most often when I look at the brokenness of the world and wonder where God is in the midst of it all, or if God is there at all. I wrestle with writings in scripture that contradict themselves, portray God as violent, and wonder about these strange laws that no longer apply to us today, and wonder why, 2,000 years later, many still see them as absolute truth. There are times I question if all that we do in the church or as pastors is all for nothing.

And then I remember Thomas and how his doubts actually turned his heart outward to a strong life of faith. His encounter with the Risen Christ and the way that Jesus received him gave him the strength in the midst of his doubt to carry out the mission of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and perhaps the first to go out and tell the world about him.

Doubt is not wrong! In fact, it is biblical, and not something to shy away from. Just think of all of the biblical figures who experience doubt-Job, when he was tested, King David laments over and over again about God and asks where and how God is present. John the Baptist, from prison, sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is really the one to come or should John expect someone else. Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane had his doubts about the path before him,asking God that if possible, to remove the cup of suffering from him.

Doubt is not just biblical, but beneficial and necessary. I wouldn’t be standing here before you today if I had never doubted my faith. Because of my doubts, I sought answers for myself about God and Jesus and this whole Christianity thing. If it were not for my doubts, I would have never found my faith.

Thomas was not afraid to share his doubts about the resurrection. In fact, he denied the resurrection by saying that unless he sees for himself, he wouldn’t believe. The challenge of believing in the resurrection is not just about getting our beliefs, arguments, or words right, but it’s about getting our lives right as well. We must be people who practice a resurrected lifestyle led by the power of love, grace, forgiveness, justice, and holiness- and we must do this even in the midst of our doubts, by digging in, asking the questions, and not waiting until we are 100% certain in order to move forward in our relationship with God.  God is there in the midst of our questions, our fears, our doubts. God meets us where we are and invites us to observe his hands, his side, to reach out and touch for ourselves, that we might believe. And when we are bold enough to proclaim in the midst of our doubts, “My Lord and my God!” or even, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” may we press on to live lives as those who have affirmed the resurrection out there in the world.

Peter Rollins, a writer and theologian, was once asked at a conference if he denied the resurrection. Let’s see what his response is.

So may we, like Thomas, not be afraid to voice our doubts, ask our questions, and confess that at times, we too deny the resurrection. But let us also go forth to proclaim and affirm it in the world out there that needs to have an encounter with the Risen Christ for themselves.  May we, with childlike curiosity, let our doubts lead us along the path to faith. And may we find God in each step along the way, that we will join Thomas in proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”  Amen.


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