Who Were These Guys, The Apostle Thomas, 4-27-14
By The Reverend Connie Frierson
John 20:24-29 Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘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.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
I have a ton of people in my life. Not only do I have a great family and extended family, I have a great church family. I even have a few good friends outside of church. Plus I have former teachers and past and current mentors and associates and colleagues and acquaintances. But the really wonderful thing is that I am not limited in the people in my life to just the living. I count the lives and spirits of lots of people who are currently dead. But that’s not all; my life is peopled by people I have never actually met. When I read about Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or Gandhi or a thousand other people that I read about, they change me. My life is peopled with people who aren’t physically here. In fact the people who aren’t here, (pointing out) are often the people who matter most here, (pointing inward). That is one of the reasons for this sermon series. If we can understand some important things about these apostles, then we can be formed, changed and deepen by them.
So I got to pick my favorite, Thomas. What do we know about Thomas? Well you would think we know all about him, He was Doubting Thomas. You would think we know what his name was right? But like so much of ancient texts it’s not always so simple. Thomas was Thomas (called the Twin). Right? But maybe not. The name Thomas comes from the Aramaic word toma, which means ‘twin’ or the Greek word for twin ‘Dydymus’. Toma or Thomas was his surname, his dad or grandfather’s name. So it may have been that Thomas wasn’t a twin at all, but that his dad or grandfather was. The ancient historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea tells us that Thomas’s real name was Judah. But he was called Thomas to distinguish him from two other Judah’s, Judah, brother of St. James and Judas Iscariot. But whatever he was called before, once he became a disciple, he was known as Thomas forever afterward. Thomas’s very name was changed by following Christ.
We know Thomas through the Gospel of John and we know Thomas from the writings of the early Christian writers. This is what we know. John records three important instances in Thomas’s life, three little snap shots of the kind of man Thomas was at John 11, John 14 and John 20. In John 11 Lazarus has just died but Jesus and the disciples are away. Jesus decides it is time to go back into Judea. The disciples urge him not to go as the Jesus had narrowly escaped being stoned. But Thomas speaks up saying “Let’s us also go, that we may die with him.” Such a tiny incident but it tells us so much about Thomas. He loved deeply and completely. He loved Jesus to the point of being willing to share death. He had courage to speak in opposition to dear friends around him. He had the courage and devotion to be “all in” no matter what the cost. I glimpsed this kind of love once close to home. Many years ago I was on a western vacation with my sister, Nancy and brother-in –law David, Sr. and their ten-year-old son, David Jr. We drove and camped and hiked and climbed in the National Parks of the Grand Canyon, in Arizona and Brice and Zion in Utah. In Zion National Park there is a trail that leads up a pinnacle of stone and over a natural stone bridge to a rock formation called Angel’s Landing. From the floor of the Virgin River gorge the trail doesn’t look that fierce. You start out with a lot of switchbacks, where you can walk four abreast. But as you approach the top you are on a very narrow path. You go along holding to a chain secured to the rock and you are in danger or pitching down 300 feet on both sides. This was more than we had anticipated in a walk with a ten year old. As we went along this steep drop, little David started humming a children’s hymn from Vacation Bible School. We were all relieved because then we knew he was very sensibly frightened. David Sr. moved to be right before him, his mom, my sister, Nancy, was right behind. We made the peak and it was magnificent. But late that night David Sr. shared that if little David went over edge. He was going to jump to join him and wrap him in is arm’s as they fell. I knew and know to this day that David, Senior was speaking the utter truth. This is the kind of love Thomas had. Another Thomas, St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The things we love tell us who we are.” Thomas loved Jesus.
The next insight into Thomas comes in John 14, at the last supper Jesus that he will go away and promises to prepare a place for them and that they will join him there. But Thomas speaks up again, saying, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way.” Thomas shows that he is not one to sit in silent confusion. Without Thomas’s question we may never have heard the words of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the light”
The final question of Thomas’s is in our text today, John 20, in the upper room. The other disciples have met Jesus in his resurrected body. But Thomas was not there and naturally expresses exactly what is on his mind. Thomas tells them what he needs, to see and touch. Jesus meets Thomas the next day, exactly at the point of his doubt. Thomas utters the words that have described Jesus for millennia “My Lord and my God.” St. Augustine said that ‘Thomas doubted to allay our doubts.’ Pope St. Gregory, the Great said ‘The doubt of Thomas is of more benefit to us in our search for Faith, than the faith of the disciples who believed.’ Thomas was the disciple who is closest to my skeptical modern heart. Thomas didn’t settle for second hand faith. He needed to have a personal experience of Christ. Thomas is saying what we all need and want, a personal experience of God. Thomas had that experience. It changed him, his name, his goals and his life.
I want us to look at this fabulous painting called The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio. Caravaggio was a master painter and this large canvas is filled with figures. But at the heart is the image of Thomas touching Jesus wound in his side. Look closely at this picture. Do you see how the whole is drawing you to Thomas’s face? It is a face wrinkled. The brows are raised in incredulity and concentration. The figures in back are crowding in close as though they too want to see and touch. But notice this small detail. As you look at the face of Thomas, his eyes are not focused on the wound he is touching. His gaze skims past this wound in front of his face. His gaze is peering into space, into the middle distance not the wound. So was Caravaggio just not that good a painter so that the focus of the whole canvas is just off because he couldn’t get the angle right? No the painting is trying to get us to participate in a profound truth. The struggle between doubt and belief is not focused on touching Jesus side. Thomas’s struggle and our struggle is an internal one. We are all Thomas and we are all battling for belief and trust in our own hearts and souls. Belief in a God who comes to us in pain and doubt is an internal battle. This is the work of our spirits and God’s spirit meeting us where we are.
The next things we know about Thomas is that of all the disciples he traveled the furthest, confronted the world outside of the Roman Empire. He lived among people of different races. He dealt with religions very different from the Jews or the Greeks. While this history is shrouded in traditions and the ancient writings of bishops and martyrs and travelers, there are many sources that point to Thomas traveling east, outside the Roman Empire, to Persia and then to India. Perhaps of all the disciples Thomas lived out Jesus command to go and make disciples in all nations. And like so many of the disciples Thomas did love Jesus enough to go and die as needs be. In fact even Thomas’s confess that Jesus is “My Lord and my God” was a dangerous and seditious action. The Gospel of John was written during the reign of Domitian. Domitian was the Roman Emperor who killed Christians who refused to pledge the Domitian was ‘Lord and God’. Thomas was killed in southwestern India, probably lanced by soldiers of a king who was not pleased at the conversion of his queen and son. But to this day there are St Thomas Christians in Edessa, now Turkey, and Malabar, now India. That is the short answer for who Thomas was.
What was so important about Thomas that we should make him one of the Saints that populate our heads and form who we are? Thomas shows love despite doubt and a wholehearted courage to follow God. I love Thomas because he says the things I was once afraid to say and then when he gets an answer he follows with devotion. I suppose there are two types of people in the world, those who believe and those who doubt. Those effortless believers are like Moonlings to me. I don’t get them. I know there are people who have always felt the existence and love of presence of God. I know this because I have met some people like that and I know it is genuine. I figure it is some kind of special spiritual gift that just falls down on those special ones. But I’m not one of them. I clearly fall in the doubter’s camp. And I wonder if most of us aren’t like this. So I think we are supposed to look pretty closely at the doubt business. Of the doubters there are two types; those who doubt but grow to trust and those who doubt but deteriorate into unbelief. That’s the place we need to study. Why do some doubt but come to trust and believe or maybe just trust without belief and others calcify into hardened rejection of God? What happens in that confusing time of uncertainty and doubt?
Thomas helps us here too. Thomas had the seeds for faith in him all the time. Like Dorothy in Oz who always had the ruby slippers that would send her home, Thomas had all he needed to believe. He had love. He had community. He had feet to move him into action. Thomas loves without having to know all things. When Thomas was willing to be stoned in Judea beside Jesus, he did so without a full blown understanding of who Jesus was. He just knew that Jesus was his hope and dear friend. The kind of love that would embrace anything to be with the beloved is the kind of love that will in time bring along faith. Thomas was willing to lead with love, not demand a theological blueprint. Next Thomas had a community. He was willing to stay and be with believers who followed Jesus even if they had experiences he didn’t or that he didn’t yet. He was able to stay with his community, with his disciple family even if he didn’t experience everything in the exact way they did. That is called tolerance and flexibility and putting love and relationship ahead of the tyranny of your own opinions. This is exactly what the church can and should be, a place to rest with others who love God, even if you don’t know how this Jesus business all works out. We need to make this place for each other and we need to be in such a faith filled and faithful community. Finally when Thomas was blessed with a revelation, he didn’t rationalize it or discount it, but he acted on whatever faith he received. Acting on Faith grows faith. This is the spiritual truth. If you have a bit of faith, whatever small glimmer, you need to take a step forward. What happens when you do this is you are in a place to see and receive the next revelation, the next gift of faith, and the next and the next. If you do not take a step, if you do not step forward, you are stepping backward. Faith now acted on is faith that dies. You might not know it at the time. Because the death of faith can be slow, you just feel like you are biding your time. But faith not nourished with active service and movement gets weaker and weaker. By not acting on the small gift of faith you let that glimmer wink out. This is a step back and then back and then back again. Until someday you realize you have no faith at all. Thomas took the faith he received and walked with it, into perhaps Persia, then Edessa and then the farthest reaches of India. We need the faith that travels well. We get that type of faith by loving, building community and serving with blessed action that grows more faith.
This is the kind of faith that can go high and far. This is the kind of faith that can cross over the narrow and frightening stone bridges of life. So that we too, can see the view from the top. Amen.