Thomas’ Integrity Rises above his Doubts

Click here to watch the full service.

A sermon based on John 20: 24 – 29

Thomas’ integrity rises above his doubts

Rev. Dr. Eric Bacon 

As with any church season, we are invited to revisit it by joining in its journey and opening ourselves up to its message. Today we still find ourselves in the season of Easter and its second Sunday, one of seven before the Day of Pentecost. We need to recognize that, despite the huge focus on Holy week with its crisis and triumphant points, the season in its entirety is vital to whatever stage of faith in which we find ourselves. It is certainly a week of highs and lows, of grief and celebration, and the fickle crowd whose cries of hosannas quickly turned to crucify him. Not everyone is comfortable with the journey to the cross and that is perfectly understandable. It is so much more comfortable to just take in Easter Sunday, the flowering of the cross, catching up with friends, and hearing the voice of Mary Magdalene exclaiming that she had seen the Lord. Hold that thought of a physical appearance, as I will come back to it later.

Throughout ministry, I have been constantly reminded that for me, the sermon assignment first began with a blank sheet of paper and of course now it is a blank screen.   As clergy, it is our hope that what fills the page or screen will resonate in some way with the congregation. In the early years it is quite common for a minister to follow what is called the Common Lectionary cycle of scripture readings which means that the same readings will surface every three years. On a typical Sunday we have a choice of four readings, namely from the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scripture), the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. Lectionary preaching becomes a discipline in that after the complete cycle, one has covered the core readings that constitute biblical teaching.  We have the option of following the Lectionary on a permanent basis, or moving on to scripture that we feel passionate about. Passages which we want to raise up as particularly relevant and helpful to the business of life, and addressing the many questions with which we are faced as Christians. On a lighter note, I recall the cartoon that depicts a young girl Clara watching her father, a minster, writing his sermon. She says to her father, who tells you what to write down? Father replies: Well of course Clara, God tells me. Clara was quick to respond: Then why are you crossing things out?! This morning the passage that Andree read is the Lectionary Gospel reading for this the second Sunday of Easter in Year B and happens to be a reading that I am especially passionate about. It is one of several post-resurrection stories. It has considerable depth. To fully appreciate its significance requires us to set aside the stigma that has been attached to the disciple Thomas, simply because he had doubts and has been referred to in that negative context for centuries. I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon that speaks well of his character. He is often portrayed as the contrary one, the black sheep of the disciples, the disciple who didn’t rely on what he was told by his colleagues, and one who didn’t follow the party line. I am reminded that preaching on this John passage to which I have been exposed tends to be critical of Thomas, rather than looking deeper to discover what he has to teach us today.

I just want to take a moment to introduce another couple of learnings from seminary that have been central to my own faith journey and particularly in the presentation and interpretation of scripture. There is a school of thought that suggests clergy do not share enough of their own learnings from a seminary education and so that is the context in which I share with you this morning. I may well have spoken to these personal epiphanies before, but they are well worth repeating as relevant to today’s message. Father John, a Catholic professor introduced his course on the Gospels with what I consider an absolutely critical piece of advice. John said, bear in mind that the authors of the gospels took ordinary events and made them extraordinary. Let me cite an example that will be most familiar. I speak of the birth of Jesus as recorded by the author of Matthew’s gospel as one conceived of a virgin. Yes, an ordinary birth described as an extraordinary birth. May I respectfully suggest that we not get hung up on that birth description, but rather understand that the gospel author’s objective was to raise the significance of the person of Jesus. I believe that to continually try to sort out whether such and such an event really happened, as recorded in the gospels, eventually leads to a skepticism that can dismiss the story all together. We need to guard against this outcome.

Later in my journey after ordination, I attended a lecture by the late Marcus Borg, a leading New Testament scholar and Chair of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. A fine theologian who left us much too soon. In introducing scripture that will form the basis of his lecture, Borg makes the following statement: The facts of this story are not as they are described, but the story is true. That was, for me, a validation of Father John’s advice in that first class on the gospels. Both Father John and Marcus Borg have contributed to my understanding and a workable theology that has informed my ministry. I encourage you to keep their wisdom in mind as we turn to today’s reading.

This passage from John’s gospel is a rich and poignant post-resurrection story that has considerable depth, notwithstanding that historically, the disciple Thomas has been unfairly characterized.  Somewhat of a bad rap compared to his fellow disciple Peter, who was apt to put his foot in his mouth and, as we know, denied Jesus on three consecutive occasions when Jesus needed critical support and compassion. And so, we might ask how fair is this characterization of a disciple who, in my opinion, displays the utmost integrity. I suggest that he is in a class of his own and so let me go deeper into how I view this man and why.

Returning to this familiar scripture passage, having preached on it a number of occasions, requires further discernment as to how the reading and the character or characters in the story are viewed in current theological reflection. Ministers too, grow in understanding and so to simply do a rerun of an old sermon is not particularly fulfilling for both minister and congregation. Having said that, you can appreciate that some significant learnings resurface when the story comes around again in the Lectionary cycle.  Such is the case today. To make use of an entire old sermon narrative, however good we might regard it, is to risk becoming stale and shortchanging the congregation. Preaching can then become maintenance rather than a quest for further enlightenment and relevancy in an increasingly challenging vocation. It is not my intention this morning to rhyme off a bunch of quotations that I have recently discovered. However, I have chosen one that is key to the question: Why focus on the disciple Thomas?  In the publication Feasting on the Word, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, the answer is abundantly clear. A contributing writer to this Bible Commentary, Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary in New York, provides a powerful opening statement to her perspective on the John 20 reading and I quote: Of all the characters Jesus meets in the post-resurrection world of John’s gospel, none has left a stronger mark on the imagination of Western Christianity than Thomas. We love him. He is the incredulous nonbeliever who hides in us that resists easy answers to hard questions of faith, who always wants a little more proof. Allow me just one more quote that is very supportive of the place of doubt in the journey of faith. The late Reverend Paul Gibson of Trinity College says: Faith needs the refining quality of questions born of doubt. Yes, Thomas is not alone in that questioning and many of us, dare I say a large percentage of us, belong in his company of doubters. To walk the road of faith is to do so with an element of doubt, questioning, and unbelief.  Let me respectfully offer my own perspective on the question of doubt. Preaching that suggests that to doubt is to sin is off the wall and can be abusive.  On the contrary, I believe that doubt can lead to a renewed faith.    

Given that you have heard the story read afresh this morning, it is not necessary to repeat the sequence of events. Rather, I want to go directly to Thomas’ encounter with Jesus. I look upon this story and other post-resurrection stories as brilliant. Using extreme imagination, the author adopts a mythological approach to storytelling. An imaginary meeting between Jesus and Thomas is perhaps a stretch. On the other hand, the gospel writer has elevated the character of Thomas to a higher distinction that far exceeds the stigma of doubter and other undeserved descriptors. Thomas wanted to see for himself. His request, not unlike a child’s reaction, was simply, show me.  When hearing his fellow disciples declare that they have seen Jesus, Thomas found it far too good to be true. His response to them was perfectly reasonable: Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe it. Fast forwarding to a week later, the writer introduces that imaginary encounter between Thomas and Jesus. Thomas is invited to see and feel for himself. I suggest to you that it is not important whether this did or didn’t take place. But at that moment, Thomas had, what I will call, a moment of Clarity. To confirm that realization, Thomas utters words of recognition, My Lord, and my God. In that personal moment, in whatever form it might have taken, Thomas stops doubting and begins to believe. A moment of truth has arrived. Colloquially, Thomas would say today: Now I get it!

Thomas had the courage to disclose his doubts but when he was sure, he went the whole way. He integrated Jesus into his being. We meet here in this sacred space week after each week because we have claimed the identity of Christians. At some point in our faith journey we too have had that moment of clarity when the person of Jesus and his significance for our lives became real. It registered in our very being. It didn’t necessarily still all our doubts, but it was a strong foundation on which to build a meaningful faith. It is totally acceptable to have doubts. It is through our doubts and humanity that we can achieve authentic growth. As Dr. Serene Jones has eloquently observed, Thomas is the incredulous nonbeliever who hides in us that resists easy answers to hard questions of faith. We are in good company. Thomas’ integrity did arise above his doubts.

This reflection would be incomplete without Jesus’ final words in this encounter with Thomas: He said to Thomas, have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. You and I are in good company! Easter is a season that affords us the opportunity to rediscover the essence of Jesus for ourselves. That is the good news of the gospel. May this be so for all of us this morning.  Amen.