Monday, April 24, 2017

Thomas the Believer

John 20: 19 Thomas
Chatfield UMC
April 23, 2017
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Let’s look at the disciple Thomas today; whom we often refer to as the doubter, based on this one passage alone. But we have to be careful when we make assumptions about truth based on one incident and one scripture. And we have to be careful when we use a word like doubter thinking that it is a bad thing.

So, Thomas, who was he? And why does his name keep popping up in the Gospel of John.

For some reason, Thomas wasn’t in the locked room with the other disciples and we never know why that is. Was he not afraid of the Jewish authorities? Was he done with it all? Was he grieving on his own in his own way?
We don’t know.

For the purposes of the story in John, Thomas shows us after Jesus has come through the locked door. After Jesus has made his first appearance to his disciples. After Jesus has given them the breath of new life. Oh, there is so much in this passage we could explore. But let’s stick with Thomas.

“We have seen the Lord,” the disciples tell Thomas. But Thomas said, “First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I won’t believe unless I do this!”

This is where we get the idea that he is a doubter. Which I think is pretty unfair. Even if this incident is all that we might know about Thomas. Because it isn’t like a bodily resurrection was an every-day occurrence.
And we do know a little more about Thomas than this.
For example, earlier in the gospel of John, when Jesus is on his way to raise Lazarus from the dead, heading toward Jerusalem which was a dangerous place for Jesus; the other disciples were trying to get Jesus to no go, but Thomas said bravely and maybe a little resignedly: Let us go with him and die with him. Already Thomas knew that it was inevitable. That eventually Jesus was going to cross that line and someone was going to kill him.
Thomas knew that Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness and inclusion and freedom was so radical and so threatening to the Roman and Jewish authorities; Thomas knew Jesus was going to die an early death.
Of all of the disciples, Thomas knew.

The next time we hear from Thomas, Jesus is trying to explain to the disciples about his death and ascension into heaven. This is the passage in chapter 14 that is often read at funerals. In my Father’s house are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you.
We read this at funerals as if we know what it means. Jesus was telling his disciples this and they were listening as if they understood what he meant. Yet, how could they make any sense of this talk? How can we? It is Thomas who blurts out: ‘What are you talking about? I don’t understand this at all. How can we know where it is you are going?’
There are times when I read this at funerals and what to say the same thing. I don’t understand this Jesus. I want to believe it but I’m just not sure I get the whole picture here.
And I think that is the proper response to this great mystery.

I read a story about a former narcotic addict who had learned through a very long, long relationship with other Christians to believe the message of God’s love through Jesus. But what had put him off Christianity was what he called the hype. He would say, ‘don’t believe the hype.’ And I think this is what he was talking about. Just because others say it is true and just because others act like they know and understand the deep mysteries of life, doesn’t mean that they do. And if they tell you that they have it all figured out. And if they tell you should just believe it the way they tell you to believe it…well, run. Don’t believe the hype. Don’t be afraid to call out the stuff that doesn’t make sense. Don’t be afraid to name the incomprehensible. Don’t be afraid to stand naked and vulnerable in the face of the mysteries of God’s truth.

Thomas was willing to call out the stuff that didn’t make sense. That was incomprehensible.

And now we are with Thomas after the crucifixion. Remember, Thomas was the disciple that was willing to go to Jerusalem to die with Jesus. It must have been horrible to watch as Jesus, his mentor and friend was murdered. To expect to be with him. And then to not be able to stop it. To watch as Jesus seemed to just let it all happen.

You can see why he is so confused. And so unable to process all that has happened.
Thomas wasn’t a doubter. Thomas was a man just like any other human being, after all he had seen and experienced and believed he wasn’t ready to go out on one more limb until there was evidence that it would support him.

I mean why should he believe the other disciples? Why should he trust them? None of them have acted with great integrity over the last few days.
Betrayal, fleeing the scene of the crime, cowering behind locked doors. 
It would be logical to say: ‘yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.” But Thomas even goes further:
“First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I won’t believe unless I do this!”

Now before we jump to the end of the story, I want to take a pause here.
I want us to live a moment with Thomas. It will be 8 more days before Thomas sees the proof he needs to believe that Jesus is resurrected and that hope is still alive.
I wonder what those 8 days were like for Thomas.
I wonder if they weren’t like our own 8 days, or 8 years, or 8 decades, or 8 hours. Living a normal human being wondering if he will ever be loved again. If any of it was true. If any of it made any difference?
We often move a little too quickly to the end of the story.
We often skip the part where Thomas has to decide whether to believe or not believe.

Here is where the church’s hype and ‘stuff that doesn’t make sense’ gets in the way.
The pictures we see of the disciples now look like the one on the screen. An icon. A saint. We give them a holy glow and construct myths around them. We have made them into saints and mediators between God and us. But they aren’t. They just aren’t. We do ourselves and them a disservice when we do that.
I saw a video clip this week about how we have made the masculine archetype into this silent, strong, brooding, guy who always wins at the end. Always wins. Always has the right answer. Always, through some force of power and domination, comes out on 

And we have done the same thing to Jesus followers. Made them into John Wayne’s and Luke Skywalker’s. But they aren’t.
They are and always will be just like us.
Where it is always a question of why? And how? And Really?
As in, really, God, you want me to do that? You want me to believe that?

Thomas is the one who doesn’t take things at face value and wants to be involved but isn’t sure exactly what to make of it all.
Can you relate?
Yeah, I want to take up my cross and follow Jesus; but I’m not sure that I want to be all that committed to something that might seem, well strange.
Yeah, I want to live each day in sure and certain hope of eternal life. But I don’t really know what that means most days.
This is what I love about the disciples. They are just like us. And we should never make them into anything more or less.

Actually, Jesus said that we, we are the ones who are the most amazing.

There are some rather gruesome paintings of Thomas and Jesus meeting after those eight days of limbo. In the paintings, Thomas is actually sticking his finger into the wounds on the side of Jesus. Now Jesus did invite Thomas to do that. “A week later the disciples were together again. This time, Thomas was with them. Jesus came in while the doors were still locked and stood in the middle of the group. He greeted his disciples 27 and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and look at my hands! Put your hand into my side. Stop doubting and have faith!”
But there is no record that Thomas actually did need to touch the wounds. It seemed that it was enough for Thomas just to hear the voice and see the face of Jesus.  For Thomas proclaimed, “You are my Lord and my God!”

And then Jesus said: “Thomas you believe because you see. The people who have faith in me without seeing me are the ones who are really blessed!”

We are the ones who are really bless-ed. Because, while it was hard enough for Thomas to make sense of it all and to believe; it is harder for us.

Because all we have to go on is the revealed love of God that shows up when we, sinners as we are, show love to each other. All we have to go on is the stories of our faith and the ways those stories make sense when they are lived in and through the lives of others. In and through our lives.

You see why we don’t need the disciples to be saints? Why they can’t be anymore saintly that we are. We need them to be people just like us. Getting it wrong. Not believing. Believing. Betraying. Fleeing. Staying together. Showing up. Learning. Leading. Vulnerable. Open.

Just like us. Because the world needs people just like us. It is the only way they will see God’s love revealed.


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