Our first three-and-a-half readings this morning presented a common image: of a Church united in faith and the blessings that unity brings. In the Acts, we hear of the sharing of all property among the Apostles and their followers, who were “of one heart and one soul” because they believed. Then our Psalm speaks of how truly wonderful it is “when brethren live together in unity,” even to the point of being blessed with “life for evermore.” Finally, in the Johannine Epistle, we have an emphatic assertion of faith from a collective “WE” that connects this eternal life to the person of Christ, and to all that was heard, seen, and even touched. The goal of this assertion is that we, too, may have fellowship with the letter’s author, and thereby with Christ. Finally, in the first half of the Gospel, Christ finally appears to the disciples and commissions them to continue His work through the power of the Holy Spirit. All of these things combine into a clear message, and one that we would scarcely be surprised to hear in a Christian Church, especially in the season of Easter: join the believers in their fellowship and be united with Christ so that you may have life everlasting.
So the anti-hero of our Gospel this morning stands out like a sore thumb. When all the other disciples were at last convinced of Christ’s resurrection, he not only remained obstinately skeptical, but even insisted on physical, tactile evidence, and pretty gory stuff at that. This obstinacy earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas” a term that can now be applied to anyone who refuses belief without personal proof. The imagined climax of this obstinacy is very popular in visual art, with image after image showing Thomas gingerly inserting his fingers into the wound in Christ’s side. The traditional interpretive approach to Thomas’ obstinacy can be heard in one of John Calvin’s comments on the passage: “The stupidity of Thomas was astonishing and monstrous; for he was not satisfied with merely beholding Christ but wished to have his hands also as witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Thus he was not only obstinate, but also proud and contemptuous in his treatment of Christ.” Here, then, is someone refusing to join the believers, refusing to be in fellowship, until Christ Himself appears and subjects himself to an autopsy to prove beyond any question that the miraculous has indeed occurred. Or so it would seem.
Actually, I identify with Thomas, and I think most of us probably could with just a little effort, particularly in today’s culture. We are surrounded with voices that insist that religion is unreasonable because it is not based on falsifiable hypotheses the way science is: we must be stupid or gullible or deluded to insist on believing in spite of the “progress” of reason in our age. Our culture would probably see Thomas’ response as the reasonable one, and in most contexts other than church we would be praised for responding to an incredible story the way Thomas does.
I also identify with Thomas because I have been in situations before where I seemed to be the only person in the room who wasn’t completely convinced of something upon which our whole conversation depended. When everyone agrees on something, it creates a powerful sense of community. We saw what that can do in the first three and a half readings this morning. But when everyone except you agrees about something, it makes you feel isolated, alone, rejected, abandoned, crazy, insecure, full of doubts...Doubting Thomas may end up describing the way he felt about himself among all those other disciples fired up with the Holy Spirit more than it describes the way he responds to their story.
Finally, I identify with Thomas because I have felt left out before. John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us why Thomas wasn’t there with the disciples. Calvin speculates that he missed the meeting because he was lazy, but we know how Calvin feels about Thomas, so he is probably begging the question. John does tell us that the door to the room is locked out of fear, so I think Thomas wouldn’t be out there alone if he weren’t up to something pretty important. Maybe he was scouting for news. Maybe he was buying supplies.
Thomas only shows up in a speaking role in two other places in the New Testament, both in John’s Gospel. In one spot (John 14:5) he betrays how literally his mind works by insisting that the disciples don’t know where Jesus is going, so how could they possibly know how to follow him? But the other (John 11:16) is at a moment when Jesus has informed the disciples that he is heading back to his friend Lazarus, who is sick, and the rest of them freak out: “they drove us out of there with stones, and you want to go BACK?” But Thomas, when he understands how important this trip is to Jesus, says to the other disciples: let’s go back with him and die by his side.
That sounds like some fierce loyalty and courage to me. I don’t think he missed the meeting because he slept in. In fact, I think he was probably up to something pretty important, and I think he was deeply hurt when Jesus decided to show up at the very moment he was gone. There is a lot of emotion in his insistence on sticking his hand in Jesus’ wounds, and in fact, he doesn’t actually go through with it, which makes it sound to me more like bluster than a real request. All Christ has to do is appear again, just for Thomas this time, and as Christ Himself points out, just seeing him is enough: no wound probing turns out to be necessary. The emotional wound, the hurt Thomas felt at being the one disciple left out from Christ’s splendid return, is healed, because now he has been singled out in a different way: as the only disciple that the resurrected Christ showed up specifically to speak to.
There is something else unique about Thomas’ reaction when Christ actually appears. Even though he claimed he would need to feel the wounds to be convinced, all it really takes is for Christ to offer the wounds to his touch. It is Christ’s action of offering himself in precisely the way Thomas requested that convinces Thomas, and convinces him so completely that he responds with the clearest recognition of Christ’s true nature to be found in this gospel (see the Jerome Biblical Commentary, ad. loc.): my Lord and my God, he cries. In the end he doesn’t need to feel the wounds, he doesn’t actually need the physical evidence. This is because the belief at the core of our faith is not objective but relational: it is not simply the assertion of the truth of some objective fact, but a trust that is placed in the person of Christ whom we have come to know more and more through relationship.
The Greek of Christ’s exhortation to Thomas makes this plain: where our translators have written “Do not doubt, but believe,” the Greek actually says “Become trusty, not untrusty.” The Greek words here are more obviously opposites: pistos and apistos, the first meaning “characteristic of a trusting relationship” and the second “uncharacteristic of a trusting relationship.” If there is any rebuke here, it is that Thomas has behaved as though the relationship of trust between Jesus and himself has been shaken, and Christ is here offering what Thomas has asked for to restore it.
I take three lessons from this, all of them Good News in my view. The first is that the image of Doubting Thomas as a stupid, obstinate skeptic is hardly in keeping with the gospel, and is more about the way we like to mock those who do not share our views than it is about Christ’s response to our moments of uncertainty. The second is that we are not expected to believe unquestioningly and unreasonably in certain objective facts. We are instead asked to trust in the relationship God invites us into through the gift of His Son, and to make that the center of our response to the stark realities of the world with which we are faced. And the third, and most important, is that our faith in Christ is relational, and proceeds itself from Christ’s actions: He will meet us in the way we need, not the way our companions in this life might insist that we accept, just as He met Thomas in the way he needed, and did not (unlike the other disciples) expect faith in the absence of personal relationship. Doubt does not have to prevent this, but can rather serve as a catalyst for it. Paul Tillich (in Dynamics of Faith) has observed that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather a necessary component of it. Doubting Thomas’ case illustrates this perfectly, since his earlier doubt allowed him to move to an expression of faith no other disciple quite reached, when he cried out “My Lord and My God.”