When we’re first introduced to Thomas in the Gospel of John, Jesus is preparing to go to Bethany, the suburb of Jerusalem where his close friends Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived. Lazarus has died and Jesus is preparing to go, in his words, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(11:4) Most of the disciples urge Jesus to stay put, to avoid Jerusalem, to let the tensions cool down. Otherwise, they fear what will happen, and they’re pretty sure it’ll involve death. But Thomas speaks up, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”(11:16) Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless, and strong, at least strong-willed. Where the others are timid and scared, Thomas is undaunted.
Fast forward a few chapters, to the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, and you’ll meet Jesus in the middle of a long farewell speech to his followers and friends. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” (The New Revised Standard Version gives the more accurate translation – “dwelling places” – but many of us like the King James’ Version of at least this one verse a lot better: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”) “And you know the place to where I am going,” Jesus goes on, explaining that he’s going to prepare a place for us and that he’ll lead us there, in time.
This sounds wonderfully reassuring to our ears, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus’ disciples back then. They didn’t want him to die. They didn’t want the movement to end. They expected to help him bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. Like students in a classroom, they were probably very confused, even more worried now that he was telling them to not worry. But no one speaks up, that is, no one except Thomas. Thomas states the obvious, “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” he says, bluntly. “How can we know the way?”(14:5) Thomas is unafraid to speak his mind, bold and unassuming.
And then this chapter, John 20, a famous story which has ever since made ‘Thomas’ synonymous with ‘doubt.’ Thomas tells his friends that he doesn’t believe they’ve seen the Lord, and that he won’t believe until he can see it himself, until he can put his own finger in Jesus’ scars.
Why would Thomas believe? The other ten didn’t believe, themselves, until Jesus showed up in their midst, and even then they didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t until he showed them his pierced side and the marks of the nails in his hands that they recognized him, and believed it was, in fact, their now-Risen Lord. Thomas wasn’t there, so why would he believe?
We’ve gotten so carried away with this one snapshot of Thomas that we forget the larger picture. He’s everything leadership consultants tell us to be. Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless and strong. He’s a natural-born leader and a good one, at that. Thomas has everything we’re told we need to have if we want to succeed or win friends or influence people, or everything we wish we had within.
And yet we keep calling him Doubting Thomas, focusing on that one episode – an episode that’s perfectly, ordinarily human, I might add.
Every year, I suppose, we are supposed to say something profound about doubt. If that’s what you’re expecting, I have to disappoint. I have nothing profound or lasting or moving to say about doubt, except for what I consider a basic, shameless truth: Doubt is. It’s there and it’ll always be there. It’s part of a faith life. I’ve got plenty of doubts and I’m sure you do, too. Doubt will always rub up against belief, and belief will always challenge doubt, and those two – doubting and believing – will be for ever locked into a wrestling match in all things in life. (And let me add that I’m also glad to be part of a tradition in which I can say this, openly. In my reading this week, I came across a sermon preached by an evangelical pastor who said what I just did – doubt happens and I, too, have doubts – but he included a footnote in which he explained those apparently off-the-cuff remarks and stated that, after the sermon, an elder of the church pulled him aside and said something like, “Now, Pastor, you can go around saying such things…”) Sometimes, though, the honest truth is the best one, at least the best at which to begin. Doubt and belief are powerful forces, and they’ll continue in you.
But the longer we keep talking about doubt, either excusing it or making it sound poignant or challenging it, the more we miss the point. This story isn’t about doubting or believing. It’s about faith, and that’s another order of things, entirely.
Let me explain by way of a story.
You don’t go to divinity school or seminary unless you’re serious about training for the ministry or you’re really interested in having all your presumptions and assumptions and faith-claims laid out naked before others and questioned and challenged. For me, I’m glad I studied in a ministry program in an academic divinity school because I feel I got the best of both worlds – serious preparation for ministry in an ecumenical context as well as a chance to be interrogated by and rub against the challenges of a great secular university, a chance to not let my faith statements rest, simply, on pietistic niceties or baseless claims of belief, a chance to both re-ground and challenge belief in order to develop something more, something I’d call faith. But some people don’t like to have their belief system tested. Some people are quite happy with having faith be, for them, a series of statements of what they believe. After my first year, and after many first years in seminaries and divinity schools, a number of students dropped out. After a long program, some students are so changed from who they were when they first enrolled, as well. Seminary or divinity school is not a hard thing to do, by and large – you have to learn languages and read books and write and talk a lot – but the hardships are on the inside, and for some that’s truly hard.
A book that was something of a required initial read for anyone entering the University of Chicago Divinity School is Martin Gardner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm. Published in 1973 and set at that divinity school in the late 1930’s, the novel features the transformation of the fictional Peter Fromm, a young, believing, Christian evangelist wanna-be from the oil fields of Oklahoma who ventures into that great secular university’s divinity school to take on the heart of liberal theology, itself – all of which is the first step in Peter’s life’s campaign to win the hearts of America for Jesus Christ. Peter is bright but naïve, intelligent but with an agenda driven by evangelical theology, gifted but unrooted. The story, overall, is about his transformation, but it’s also about a man’s breakdown and faith’s remodeling.
Early in the book, while he’s still a good believer, there’s a passage that’s long spoken to me, especially as relates to Thomas in our New Testament. It’s a scene from a chapter in which Peter’s dating a Catholic girl named Angelina.
“…Peter lingered for a moment to peer through the gate’s iron grillwork at the large stone statue of Saint Thomas that stands in front of the church’s entrance. It was dusk and the Saint’s face was in deep purple shadow. A powdery snow was clinging to his head and shoulders and to the arm outstretched as if to touch the wounds of Christ.
‘I am his brother,’ Peter said in low tones.
‘What do you mean?’ Angelina had never read the Gospels. If someone had asked her who Saint Thomas was, she would not have known how to answer.
‘He refused to believe the Lord had risen from the dead,’ said Peter. ‘He refused to believe until he could put his finger in the nail prints or rest his hand on the wound made by the soldier’s spear.’
‘Did he ever do it?’
‘No, when he saw Jesus he believed. That was when Christ said to him, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’’ Peter’s voice had a curious ring. ‘It was the last of the beatitudes.’
Puzzled and a little more frightened, she studied the statue more carefully through the softly falling flakes. ‘Why are you like him?’
‘Because,’ Peter answered desolately, his words blowing clouds of whiteness into the freezing air, ‘I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.’”
“I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas,” Peter says. At times throughout life I could’ve and probably wanted to say the same. I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas. I’m not sure I believe he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe even after his friends told him they’d seen the Risen Lord. It seems so strange, so unpredictable, so odd that someone with such boldness and courage and inner strength, someone exactly like Thomas, couldn’t, wouldn’t believe. It seems, to us, that the trick to doing something or becoming something is to will it, to want it, to make space in your life for it. Want to lose weight? Do it, then. Want to acquire a new skill? Get to it. Want to be a better believer, a more faithful Christian? What are you waiting for? Start praying more frequently, attending more regularly, resisting more forcefully.
But what if it’s not at all up to us? What if the big things in life, the stuff that really matters, isn’t in our power or control at all?
I suspect that’s the case. And I fear that the longer we keep pretending that things might be in our power, that the secret to faith, for instance, has something to do with doubt or belief, the further we get from the truth. For the truth of the matter is that the story of faith is not about our searching for God, our yearning and our hoping and our desires, as good and well-founded as they may be. Even if the desire to please God, as Thomas Merton once famously prayed, may in fact be pleasing to God, it’s not entirely satisfactory to our Creator. The story of theology and, in particular, our faith is not at all about our searching for God. It’s about God searching for us.
I’d like to say that we need to let go of worrying about belief and thinking about doubt but that, in itself, is still on you, that still requires your initiative. I’d like to tell you to practice letting go, to practice as an Easter celebration no longer trying to be a better person or a more faithful Christian. Practice ending practices.
But the truth is that we can’t do this, not entirely on our own.
What we’re talking about is simply being in front of God, naked and vulnerable and you.
After all, I believe, that’s the real story of Thomas. Even though so many artistic depictions of this scene have, over the centuries, featured Thomas actually touching Jesus’ wounds, I don’t see that happening, not in the text at least. True, Thomas said that he wouldn’t believe until he touched the marks, but nowhere does it say he actually did it once Jesus appeared. No, when Thomas stopped searching and fretting and doubting and believing and God found him, after all, just as when God finds you, all of that other stuff dissolves and drifts away, and you and I are left face to face with the One who knows us more intimately than we, even, know ourselves. It’s in those rare and beautiful moments, then, that we, like Thomas, find ourselves having dropped everything we were once concerned with and, together, utter in our hearts the greatest confession of faith made in the pages of the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!”
From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland