Sunday, March 30, 2008

Faithful Thomas

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 30, 2008

Year A: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
(1 Peter 1:3-9)
John 20:19-31
Psalm 16

“Faithful Thomas”
Each year on the Second Sunday of Easter – otherwise known as “Low Sunday” – the Apostle Thomas gets his moment to…doubt. Now, I’m not just saying this because I’m a Thomas too, but I think the Apostle Thomas has gotten a bad rap thanks to today’s familiar reading today from the Gospel of John.
Yes, obviously, John criticizes Thomas as someone who actually needs to see Jesus in order to believe in Jesus. Now, before all the Peters and Andrews of the world start congratulating themselves, let’s remember that the other apostles didn’t believe Mary Magdalene’s story of the resurrected Jesus, either. They needed to see Jesus too. But we don’t use the expression “Doubting Peter” or “Doubting Andrew,” do we? No, of course not. Thanks to this gospel passage, it’s only Thomas who seems forever to be stuck as the doubter.
And let’s face it, Thomas does say “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And so Jesus gives Thomas what he seems to need – Jesus shows him his wounded, resurrected body; Jesus invites Thomas to touch, to believe. And then, amazingly, Thomas says maybe more than he actually understands, crying out to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” It’s Thomas more than the others who really recognizes who Jesus really is – “My Lord and my God!”
So, yes, it’s true - Thomas is a doubter. And the gospel uses Thomas as a stand-in – as sort off a model for all of us who do not see Jesus in the flesh but are called to believe. But, I would like to suggest to you that Thomas is also for us a model of faith. One of my professors at the seminary said something a few times that has stuck in my head. This professor suggested that we are wrong to say that doubt is the opposite of faith. No, he said, the opposite of faith is certainty.
The opposite of faith is certainty. Try that on for size. The opposite of faith is certainty.
And I think he’s right. Aren’t you usually suspicious of certainty? Doesn’t certainty close our minds and hearts? Doesn’t certainty often get us in to trouble? Certainty seems so easy – it seems almost dishonest. I mean, honestly, how can we go through our lives, seeing and experiencing all the mindless and purposeless suffering that we do, and not sometimes wonder – where is God? Why does God allow these terrible things to happen? Maybe this sounds strange to say in church, but it is very healthy and normal to doubt, to question, to be skeptical.
These past few months I’ve learned a lot from teaching Confirmation class. We’ve talked about some of the major topics of the Christian faith and many of these young people have been open and honest about their questions and doubts about the faith. All I’ve asked of them is to really grapple with these questions and doubts. I’ve asked them to take the faith and their questions seriously – to keep asking and searching. And I believe that our doubts, our questions, our struggles give God just enough room to enter into our lives and hearts.
Now, if we think of faith as having convinced ourselves of something, if we think of faith as something you either have or you don’t, if we think of faith as something that you can get but can also lose, then doubt can be a truly frightening experience. As a young man, Martin Luther was very concerned about how he could know he had enough faith. He worried, what if I need just a little more faith? Or, what if I was supposed to say just one more prayer? Or go to one more Mass? What if I don’t have enough faith? What if I haven’t done enough? Maybe you know the feeling! Luther called his predicament the “terrified conscience.”
After agonizing about this for a while, Luther finally came to realize that it’s not about us, but instead it’s about God and God’s grace. Luther came to understand that faith is not a thing that we can possess, but instead faith is opening our hearts to let God’s grace work within and through us. Faith is putting our trust in God. In a real sense, faith is a way of living, it’s not a thing that we either have or we don’t have.
Like love, faith is a verb, not a noun.
If we recognize what faith really is, then it’s pretty easy to see Thomas as a man of faith much more than a man of doubt: Faithful Thomas, not Doubting Thomas. Truthfully, we don’t know too much about Thomas, but he seems to be a man of action, a courageous man, a true disciple of Jesus. Back in Chapter 11 of John’s Gospel, Thomas says to the other disciples, “let us go, that we may die with him.” Despite that boldness, the events leading up to Good Friday must have been shocking and frightening to Thomas as they were for the others. Like nearly all of Jesus’ followers, of course, Thomas stayed away from Golgotha. He didn’t hear Jesus cry out from the cross in agony or ask God to forgive his persecutors. He didn’t see Jesus breathe his last.
What happens next is crucial. If faith is just a thing then it’s very easy to imagine Thomas giving up in the face of this horrible execution. I was fooled. I thought this Jesus was the messiah, but I was wrong. Look at what’s happened to him – the most shameful death of all. I should have listened when people mocked me and said I was crazy to follow this carpenter from Nazareth.
But, faith is not a thing; it’s openness to the power of God. It is not necessary to have everything figured out. Faith is a trust that God is at work in the world, restoring the world to the way things were meant to be. So what does Thomas do after Jesus’ death? Well, we don’t know, but we do know that he is not fearfully hiding with the other disciples. Maybe he went off by himself to pray and to try to make sense of these horrible events, this huge disappointment. Maybe he cried out to God – Why did you let this happen? Jesus preached the Kingdom of God was near – why did you let his enemies arrest him and kill him? Was it all fake? Was I fool for following Jesus? What do I do now?
Maybe that sounds like doubt. But, really, it is faithfully reaching out to God. It’s honestly admitting to God that this does not all make sense – but I’m not going to give up, I’m not going to close myself off, no matter how much I’m afraid, or confused, or skeptical.
So what does Thomas do when the other disciples tell him about the resurrected Jesus? Is he doubtful? You bet. But the story doesn’t end there. He doesn’t say some first century equivalent of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” He goes back with the disciples to the house – despite his doubt, he is still open to the possibility that God is at work, that things are not quite as they seem, and that death is not really the end of the story.
It’s that openness that gives Thomas the insight and the wisdom to say to Jesus more than he probably understood, “My Lord and my God!”
Faith - that openness to God, that trust in God, is easy to talk about but not so easy to live out in our daily lives – it’s not even easy when you’re like me and surrounded by church nearly all the time. It’s a constant struggle to be open and mindful – to let God work through us - to really pay attention for God at work in the world around us. But, here’s the good news - we don’t have to do all the work. If we’re open even a little, if we leave even just a little room for God, then God will do the rest.
I am sure in the years after seeing the still-wounded, yet gloriously resurrected Christ, Thomas still sometimes wondered and doubted. It was all so amazing. Had it all been a dream? What did it mean? In a way, it seemed like Jesus had changed everything, and yet nothing had changed. Death was defeated, yet there was still plenty of evil and suffering and death all around.
Like us, Thomas no longer saw Jesus in the flesh but was still called to believe – to trust – in Jesus.
According to a wonderful tradition, Thomas’ faith led him to bring the Good News all the way to India. Wherever he ended up we can trust that, despite his doubts, despite his uncertainty, he remained faithful - he remained open to God’s work all around, and within, him. And, according to tradition, Thomas gave his life for his faith in the Jesus he could no longer see. As he faced a martyr’s death, even if he had doubts, even if he was afraid, even if he was not totally certain, “Faithful Thomas” must have cried out to Jesus once again, “My Lord and my God!”