My son Thomas, who has been known to doubt on occasion.
This was a sermon that I gave at Jimmy's Cafe in Elgin, Iowa to the congregation of The Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on April 19, 2009. The service was moved due to construction at the Church.
The scripture basis for this message is John 20:19-20:31
Thomas must have felt that he had a bit of a raw deal. For he really missed out on that first Easter Sunday. Thomas must be the definitive everyman, for there is a little bit of him in each of us, and what he missed has much to teach us.
Firstly, Peace. “Peace” Jesus said to the disciples in the locked room. What a relief for them, a frightened, persecuted, and bewildered group, hidden away in a locked room “for fear of the Jews”. It could conceivably have been the same upper room that was the site of Christ’s final, most significant teaching: triumph become disaster within only a few days. His first words were “Shalom” – “Peace”. He could have spoken first of his disappointment, of his anger at them for their denial, abandonment, misunderstanding and betrayal. However, Peace is what he bestows on his disciples, and in saying this he echoes what he had said in the upper room on the last night he had been with them: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid”
And Thomas missed the peace.
Next, Pardon. Jesus had already forgiven or pardoned the disciples when he bestowed peace upon them; but he spoke explicitly of pardon when he spoke of forgiving and retaining sins. What Christ empowered the apostles to do, his Church continues to do.
The pardon of our Saviour can be available to us, only if we make some concessions: God cannot fill our cup with forgiveness if it is already filled to the brim with bitterness.
God cannot embrace us with forgiveness if our arms are carrying the heavy burden of resentment.
God cannot take our hand in forgiveness, if our fists are clenched in anger.
God cannot forgive the malevolent, shadowy side of our spirits if our minds are darkened by revenge and hate.
In his cry of doubt, Thomas shows his own unwillingness to make concessions to Jesus, expecting Christ to come to him and show even his most intimate wounds, associated with the world’s greatest humiliation, with nothing given in return.
So Thomas missed out on the pardon of Christ.
Finally, Presence. The real, concrete, Glorious Presence of God came to those disciples. Woody Allen said that “95% of life is just ‘showing up’” Thomas had simply failed to ‘show up’.
And so Thomas missed the presence.
He missed out, and that must have hurt; especially for one so previously intimate with our Lord. Peace, Pardon and Presence, Thomas missed them all. In their place he demanded a substitute for them, something which our cynical society constantly craves, and which we, in our inmost, darkest times before the dawn hanker after, another “P” – “Proof”
And this is why I must conclude that Thomas must be just like us, because although graced with apostolic sainthood, he is shown to be above all like us. In our struggle to maintain the Christian life, we too miss out on Peace, Pardon and the Presence of Christ, and in return we torture ourselves over Proof.
Despite being promised how blessed we would be if we believe without physical proof, the burden of rationality rests upon our faith like a cumbersome weight - `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’. Thomas craves certainty, clarity, proof: an empty tomb and the reports of his colleagues are simply not enough. And these things have not changed: the quest for proof to bridge the gap between us and the living Godhead remains constant through the ages: from the Upper Room, through the middle ages, past the reformation and into our present age.
So, was Thomas just going through the motions of discipleship? Was he incapable of commitment to faith beyond proof? I think not, for he learns in his shame that his Lord was indeed his God: a shame almost comparable to the remorse felt by Peter when he had denied Christ. Both are forgiven, both are justified by the risen Christ, and they are used as examples to us, we the less immediate disciples: learn from Thomas and believe without having to put your hand into his side.
There is a painting I've seen, where Jesus lets Thomas get right up close to see his wounds. Thomas is bent over – at eye-level with the pierced side, and Jesus is guiding his hand so that he might feel the wound for himself. Most graphically, Thomas’ finger is buried in the gaping hole in Our Lord’s side, all the way up to the knuckle.
We do not have that privilege; but how much we would all like to swap places with Thomas, and to be able to quench those nagging doubts once and for all with a little physicality.
When Thomas was given the opportunity to experience the risen Christ, the Presence of Christ in his life, he was also able to experience the Pardon, a blessing even, and through that he is able to experience the Peace; a true peace which can only come from an intimate, life-changing encounter with the risen Lord. Thomas therefore was ultimately able to catch up with those special events, and through this, to be able to conclude that he was faced by “My Lord and My God”. He did not miss out.
‘Blessed are those who believe when they have not seen’ . St John the Evangelist speaks directly to us at the end of this Gospel passage, a ‘direct-to-camera’ piece which reminds us of the purpose of his gospel, the purpose of all the gospels, which is to enable us, nearly 2000 years after these marvelous events, to be able to believe. He says to us that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” , events which may have been trivial: encounters, comforts, healings even, which the risen Christ took part in during those heady days between Easter and the Glorious Ascension, proof which existed, but which we do not need.
As Thomas discovered, faith is therefore not something which can be scientifically rationalized, and all such rationalizations have been ultimately disappointing in their conclusions. Thomas thought to begin with that he needed a concrete solution, and failed to realize that he ignored the qualitative, the abstract, the core that makes up Faith; for this he nearly missed out, and the danger is that we too may miss out.
Look beyond the Proof – and there is proof out there, if you really want to fruitlessly search hard enough for it – and seek the faith that is found behind this account.
We will always remember Thomas as the one who dared to question the reports of his fellow disciples – “doubting Thomas”. However, his one definitive statement is the finest example of belief – “My Lord and My God”.
How dare we call him doubting Thomas after that: “professing Thomas”, perhaps, “confessing Thomas”, maybe, and now, most undoubtedly, “believing Thomas”
“My Lord and My God”.
We bear witness.