Thomas gets a bad rap because he doubted the resurrection of Jesus insofar as the story the other disciples told him didn’t make sense to him. But remember, it’s this same Thomas who, when the crowd picks up stones to kill Jesus, says to the others, “Well, come on then, we may as well follow him to his death!” Well, if it is true that the greatest love one can show is to lay down one’s life for a friend, then it really is as a risk-taking friend not a doubting friend who makes it clear that he’ll support Jesus no matter what.
Here’s a little history lesson. By the time John started to write his Gospel, Thomas had already written his own. While it is true that the Gospel of Thomas didn’t make it into the final cut of NT books, it is also true that Thomas’ Gospel is older than all of them—AND furthermore, it’s clear that Mark (our earliest Gospel) was familiar with Thomas’ Gospel because he borrows heavily from it when writing his own version. Many of the sayings of Jesus in Mark are taken directly from Thomas, and even more interesting, Thomas picks up on some things from Jesus that are quite different from those selected by John. Some of the scholars even suggest that John appeared to stress Thomas’s deficiencies to imply that John’s was the more reliable gospel. Perhaps this is why John says that Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the disciples on that first Easter night—in order to prove that Thomas wasn’t in the “in” group of disciples.
In John’s gospel it’s pointed out that Thomas expressed doubt when told by the others that Jesus had come back to life—which is pretty reasonable! Dead people tend to stay dead. I understand his skepticism: if I had witnessed someone’s death, then a few days later at the funeral home had been told by someone that the deceased had, in fact, come back to life, I wouldn’t believe it. Just like Thomas.
But the story of Thomas does not end with his doubts. John records him as meeting Jesus a few days later with the words “My Lord and my God”, but we need to hold on to the truth that it’s not our words that define our faith, it’s our thoughts and actions. For Thomas, his faith is deep enough for him to travel to India and eventually to die a martyr’s death.
My question to each of us today is simple: what would convince us of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection to the point that we would take risks and change our lives?
During WW2, a man named Lord Cherwell, a former professor of physics at Oxford, was named scientific advisor to Churchill. One problem Cherwell was charged with rectifying was the problem of fighter planes going into tail spins and crashing suddenly to the ground. The very tight turns during dog fights often resulted in these uncontrolled spins. So Cherwell worked out the physics, and thought he had the answer—the problem was, if he was mistaken, more pilots would die. Cherwell had a solution. He took flying lessons, then as soon as he was able, he took the plane up to a height, put it into a spinning dive, then to get out of the spin applied his theoretical solution – and it worked. Then just to be certain he went up again, this time putting it into an anti-clockwise spin, to show that the solution was just as effective the other way. Because he trusted sufficiently in his solution and could show it worked, pilots were convinced and many lives were saved as a result. That is an example of someone taking a risk for the truth he knows to be true.
I’ve been a priest and pastor for a little over a decade, and the more time I minister, the less I know for sure. But this is something I hold dear: I never give a sermon or express a theological reflection unless it is legitimately mine, unless it is part of who I am as a man. I don’t preach what the institution might expect me to, and as a result, the Christian truth I try to proclaim is an expression of my own identity, which is why, I think, my sermons are different from most preachers I know. In other words, I try to be like Thomas.
Thomas tried to live with integrity; he wasn’t going to believe something just somebody else told him it was a good idea. And more than that, he also knew that faith isn’t about high sounding words, it’s about changing the way we live. The early Christians appear to have understood the realities of how faith is meant to impact on life. They had a special word for it. They called it “pistis”. Pistis is not properly translated as meaning faith. Rather it is more like: trusting, abandoning or even venturing. To have Pistis in Christ certainly didn’t merely mean that Christ was there in some mysterious way. Rather it meant the slender hope that the reality Jesus represented might also have value and truth for the ones who trusted him enough to follow.
For Christians, the arguments about whether or not we might think God exists have little meaning away from what Jesus showed this God to mean. Because these days our firsthand experience of witness comes via other people, it is worth remembering that from the days of the early Church obtaining inspiration is not only based on what can be learned from studying Christ, but also via those in each generation who have been prepared to follow Jesus. Lives lived with integrity are inspiring and attractive in every generation.
In the debates about which books should be included in the Bible, the Bishop of Lyon (Irenaeus) dismisses the Gospel of Thomas as an “abyss of madness and blasphemy against Christ”, yet when Thomas’s long lost book finally resurfaced amongst the caves at Nag Hammadi in 1948, the modern biblical scholar Elaine Pagels, far from finding madness and blasphemy found Thomas recording sayings of Jesus in a way she found helpful in her own belief. For example from the gospel of Thomas:
“Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what you will bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
The genius of the saying is that it doesn’t give us doctrine, it merely challenges us to find what lies hidden inside ourselves and to bring it out. In addiction recovery we often say, “you are only as sick as your secrets”, so to me this saying of Jesus rings true.
In John’s Gospel, Thomas is eventually persuaded by the evidence of his eyes, but he is converted not to a doctrine, but to an awakened form of living. Because of his encounter with the Risen Christ, Thomas finds inner strength to leave behind his comfortable life in favor of adventure and risk. And though we may have individual doubts, those don’t matter and they don’t need to prevent us from witnessing to the resurrection of Christ with our lives.
The Church Universal has wasted a lot of time arguing theology, when what we should have been pointing to were changed lives, transformed lives based on the inner truth of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Nothing can stop an individual prepared to work wholeheartedly for the transformation of the world. Thomas who doubted grew into someone who made a difference. And if that can happen for doubting Thomas, just think what it might mean for you and me!