If we have ever been called a Doubting Thomas, it might be time to consider that a compliment.
To be a Doubting Thomas is meant as a criticism. It is meant to say that we lack the vision of the critic. And maybe that’s true. But Thomas, with his straightforward questions and his faithfulness, can be a model for all of us who seek to walk in the Way of Jesus.
Thomas and his role as a disciple is one of many aspects of the life of Christ that is given to us only in John’s Gospel. In the other three gospels, his name appears only in lists of who the disciples were. He’s in the attendance book.
John gives us a disciple, a student – that’s what the word means, from the Latin, discipulus – who always has his hand in the air, not to show off, but for clarity. In high school, my older sister, a student in Advanced Placement physics, earned a nickname from the teacher. She was known as I.H.A.Q.I.D.U. That stood for, “I have a question; I don’t understand.” And that’s our Thomas. In John 11, Jesus learns that Lazarus has died. He tells his disciples: “Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples misunderstand, and we are told that Jesus “had been speaking about his own death.” And then Jesus says: “Lazarus is dead…. But let us go to him.”
And it is Thomas who tells his fellow students, “Let us also go… so that we might die with him.”
Any time in the Gospel of John that Thomas gets the clarification he has been asking for, he completely understands, often in a far deeper and far more faithful way than many of the other disciples.
In John 14, even closer now to the crucifixion, Jesus has washed his students’ feet and given them a new command, to love one another. And then he teaches them some more.
He says, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling spaces. And I go to prepare a place for you. And you know the way that I am going.”
And there’s that hand in the air again. “Teacher, I have a question; I don’t understand.” I.H.A.Q.I.D.U.
“We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
This is the question for clarification. I believe that here, our Thomas is asking for something to trace on a map.
And Jesus gives one of his “I Am” statements, one of seven in this gospel, and the second-to-last for those scoring along at home, and says: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
That’s a whole other sermon. Let me see … um, maybe not today.
And that brings us, at last, to today’s appearance from Thomas, and from Jesus, first by his absence and then with his presence.
Scholars describe these appearances from Jesus, found in three of the gospels, as “post-resurrection” appearances. (The one with no post-resurrection appearances is Mark, whose conclusion we saw last week on Easter Sunday.)
There are two in John; this is the first.
It is evening of the day on which the followers of Jesus have discovered the empty tomb. The students, the disciples, are together in a room with the door locked, because of course the authorities will be hunting them. For whatever reason, Thomas is not present.
And Jesus appears. First he isn’t there, then he is. And he shows them his wounds, to prove to them that it is truly him.
And after that, the other disciples tell Thomas: “We have seen the Lord.”
And Thomas, Doubting Thomas, I-have-a-question-I-don’t-understand Thomas, says: “I want to see those wounds.”
Well. Fair enough.
And so a week later, that’s exactly what happens. And the moment he sees those wounds, Thomas says: “My Lord – and my God!” He gets it.
He gets it.
I think our challenge is in John reporting that Jesus says to Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” Have belief, rather than having ambivalence…in the Greek
And so we understand from that sentence that for a follower of the Way of Jesus, doubt is bad. Doubt is darkness rather than light; it is the opposite of faith. The classic dualism we find in the Gospel of John.
It is Paul Tillich, Lutheran theologian, died in 1965, who said: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is certainty.” And it is Lillian Smith, author of the 1944 novel Strange Fruit, who said: “Faith and doubt are needed, not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve.”
So here we go into the time between Resurrection and Pentecost, around the familiar curve that still contains so much that is unknown, so many invitations to know, to learn, to walk together, to question and clarify and, with Thomas, to get it.
To question, to clarify, and – with Thomas. With Doubting Thomas. With I-have-a-question-I-don’t-understand Thomas.
To have the courage, the core, the heart, to question. To have the willingness to raise our hands and ask for clarity. To have the faith, the strong and necessary, faith enough to doubt. Amen.