Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The feast of St. Thomas, Apostle
Texts: John 14:1-7 (with references to John 11 and John 20)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Where is it written that doubt is bad, a sign of weakness?
Why did we ever believe that, beat ourselves up for that?
Today we celebrate the life and witness of our brother Thomas, Apostle. Witness. Martyr. Saint. Doubter.
Let’s proudly claim that title, St. Thomas the Doubter. We’re used to “doubting Thomas” as an insult. Sometimes we’ve understood his doubt. We’ve said, “sometimes doubt happens to the best of us.” But we’ve rarely claimed doubt as important. Today we say doubt is good. Without doubt, there’s no faith.
Thomas’ doubt helped him become all those other things, apostle, witness, martyr, saint. Thomas’ doubt led him deeper into life in Christ and into faith. Thomas’ doubt reveals truth to us. Thomas’ doubt gives us courage to be drawn into who we are becoming in Christ.
Now, Thomas isn’t an important disciple, which helps us.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke only mention Thomas once each, in their list of disciples. He’s nowhere near the leadership group. He’s an ordinary, everyday follower, about whom, if we didn’t have John’s Gospel, we would know nothing.
Thomas is us. None of us are likely to be famous or remembered beyond our immediate circle of those who love us. The work of God each of us does in the world will be a blessing, but it’s not likely hundreds of years later someone will write a book about the good we did. That’s not bad. Most of the good done in Christ’s name for 2,000 years, most of the sharing of the good news, most of the healing of the sick and preaching of God’s grace and love has been done by people like us, unknown to any but their closest group.
Today we celebrate one of us. And thanks to John, we know a little bit more about Thomas than many of the other anonymous saints of God. In three brief glimpses that take place only in a period of maybe a month, John shows us truth about our brother that can change everything we thought we understood about faith and following Christ.
We first meet Thomas in John 11.
Thomas isn’t central to this story, he’s just his normal, unimportant self. Jesus is in Galilee. His dear friends Mary and Martha in Bethany, near Jerusalem, send a message that their brother Lazarus, his friend, is dying.
Jesus stays two more days, then announces they’re heading to Judea, to Bethany. This is only a few weeks before the crucifixion, and in these latter days of Jesus’ ministry the opposition among Jewish religious leaders has become a real threat. So his disciples speak up and say he’ll be killed if he goes south. They’re right. Coming to Bethany was the beginning of the end for Jesus, and led directly to the cross.
Jesus was going to go whether his disciples approved or not. But it’s anonymous Thomas who speaks for them: “Let’s also go, that we may die with him.”
Listen to him! The leaders of the twelve are afraid. Thomas has to be afraid. But he knows only one thing, he’s following Jesus. If Jesus dies, well, he’ll die, too. Thomas is the only one who speaks up in faith and so he’s the one, not the leaders, who emboldens the others to follow Christ’s way, not theirs.
The next time we see Thomas is today’s Gospel.
Once again, Thomas isn’t a lead player, he’s one of the folks in the crowd. Peter’s already bragged he’ll die with Jesus and has heard the horrible truth that he will in fact betray him. So, Jesus urges Peter and the others not to let their hearts be troubled, to believe in him. Then he starts talking.
Now, this night has been emotionally charged for these women and men, gathered for Passover. They can feel all the tension in Jesus, and in the streets and city about him. Jesus has washed their feet and called them to do the same. He’s fed them the Passover, saying it was his own body and blood. And now he’s going on about rooms in Father’s houses and going away, and coming back for them, and he says, “you know the way to where I am going.”
We know these words so well. We’ve heard them at so many funerals of loved ones and have found comfort and hope in them. But it’s hard to imagine any of them, not even Mary Magdalene or John, had a clue what Jesus was talking about.
But anonymous, unimportant Thomas, is brave enough, courageous enough to say what everyone else was thinking: “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jesus. Could you please explain? We don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?”
For the second time in only a few weeks, Thomas’ courage gives us a gift, because Jesus explains what we didn’t know, either. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.”
We may still have questions about what Jesus means, but if Thomas doesn’t ask Jesus, if Thomas doesn’t admit his ignorance and confusion, would we ever get these powerful words of hope we’ve clung to for 2,000 years?
The third time we meet Thomas he’s a lead actor in the story, in John 20.
The risen Christ appears to all the disciples on Easter, the women in the morning, and all of them, men and women, in the Upper Room in the evening. All but Thomas. When he arrives, he’s overwhelmed by their excitement that Jesus is alive again.
He says something to them that could blow away a lot of bad Christian theology if only people actually listened. He says, “Look, any talk of a risen Jesus is worthless, any story of God raising our Lord is meaningless, if I don’t see wounds. I might not know anything, but I know I saw our beloved Lord wounded and killed. That’s the only way I’ll recognize him.”
Thomas’ doubt is based on a certainty: he will only know his Master by the wounds his Master bore for him. He doubts any other story that tries to understand what God is doing in this terrible suffering without dealing with the wounds.
A week later, when Jesus shows up and Thomas is there, he sees those wounds. And anonymous, sidekick Thomas is the only one in all the Gospels to declare this truth about Jesus. “My Lord and my God,” he says. “I know you. You’re my Lord, the one I will follow and obey always. And you are God, my God, who was wounded and killed and now lives.” Thomas declares the truth that changes everything about our faith in Christ, that in the risen Jesus’ wounds we recognize him as God.
Thomas is the model of faithful following.
He is the antithesis of the arrogant, smug person of faith who knows all the answers, who never doubts, who can always package up in a neat box with a bow all the truth about God.
Thomas is the person of real faith, a faith that draws on the strength of God through Christ Jesus, not on his own strength. A faith not based on him having it all together, but on his trust that God in Christ has it all together and that’s enough for him.
This is the heart of what we learn from Thomas: only openness to our not knowing, our fears, our doubts, will lead us into the heart of Christ. When we think we have all the answers, and know the path, when we never admit we’re afraid or lost or confused, we’re not walking the path of Christ, we’re making our own. Our doubts and questions are what make us open to centering our lives on the Triune God rather than ourselves.
Thomas never trusted himself to know what was going on. But in trusting Christ Jesus, he showed a path that all people of faith can follow.
But today, on his day, Thomas would want to speak to us.
He would say, “Remember it’s not about me. I’m not important. The only thing I really knew was that I trusted in Christ Jesus, the Son of God.”
He would say: “Walk the path with Christ, knowing you will lose, even die to yourself. It’s Christ’s way, not your way, and on it is life and love and grace.”
He would say: “Ask your questions, even if you think they sound dumb. God will show you Christ’s truth, which becomes your truth. And you’ll bless everyone else who had the same question but was afraid to ask.”
He would say: “Remember when you struggle with suffering and pain – yours or anyone else’s – that any answer that forgets the wounds God suffers with us isn’t worth anything. Resurrection life, Christ’s life, which is now yours, comes through God sharing our suffering and death.”
Thomas would say to us today: “Don’t look at me, look at Christ. Then you’ll also recognize your Lord and your God. You will find the way, the truth, and the life.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen