By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Do you like to work crossword puzzles? If so, here’s an easy one for you: What’s a six-letter word beginning with the letter, T, whose clue is, “doubter?” Piece of cake, huh? It’s Thomas, of course, the “Doubting Thomas” of the New Testament – a name that will forever haunt his memory because he wouldn’t take the others’ word for it when they told him they’d seen the risen Christ.
I used to think of Thomas in terms of word association: What’s the first word that pops in your mind when you hear the name, Thomas? Then I used that one day in a children’s sermon. Do you know what the little buggers said? “The Train!” In case you don’t know it, Thomas the Train is a fixture among the kindergarten crowd.
This morning I’d like for us to go beyond the typical stereotypes and get to know Thomas up close and personal. But before we do, beware: To look at Thomas is to see yourself.
My hunch is that’s why we’ve been so quick to castigate him – he reflects the doubt and skepticism we all harbor deep down inside. He reminds us of who we are and what we’re made of – a curious mixture of belief and unbelief. We want proof when all God offers us is the possibility of faith. We’ll get back to that thought in a moment.
In the meantime, what do we know about Thomas? Except for the fact that he’s listed among the Twelve in Matthew, Mark and Luke and mentioned once in the Book of Acts, all we have to go on comes from John’s gospel. There he’s named five times, the most familiar being the passage we heard this morning.
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To recap, let’s go back to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday. John says she arrived at the tomb at the break of day and found that the stone had been rolled away, and the body was missing. She stood there weeping when a man approached her. She thought he was the gardener, but when he called her name, her eyes were opened, and she recognized that it was Jesus.
That night, Jesus appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be to you.” Then he showed them his nail-scarred hands and the place where the spear had pierced his side. But Thomas was not among them. He missed it all. To this day, his whereabouts is a mystery. Where was he? What was he doing? Why was he not there with the others? There are several theories:
• One is he went into hiding. The Romans had crucified Jesus. Who’s to say he wouldn’t be next?
• Another is that he went into mourning. Perhaps he was so despondent over Jesus’ death that he went away to be alone. That happens.
• Yet another is that he went back to work. As far as we know, he could’ve been delivering meals on wheels or sitting at the bedside of a dying saint.
The bottom line is we don’t know where he was or what he was doing. All we know is that when Thomas returned, the others were ecstatic. “We have seen the Lord!” they exclaimed, and they told him all about his appearing, what he looked like and what he had said. But Thomas was dubious. He said,
“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails,
and put my hand into his side,
I will not believe.” (John 20:25)
Ever since then he’s been dubbed, “the doubter.” I, for one, believe he’s gotten a bad rap. And so, I’d like to take a few minutes to make a case for Thomas. What I hope to show is that he’s actually a model disciple, one we could all stand to be more like.
To begin with, there’s nothing to indicate that Thomas doubted the resurrection of Jesus, he simply doubted the testimony of the other disciples. In this sense, he’s no different than the other disciples who doubted the testimony of the women who first discovered the empty tomb. Luke says when the women returned to tell the others the Good News that Jesus had been raised from the dead,
“These words seemed to them to be nonsense,
and they didn’t believe them.” (Luke 24:11)
If you back up to a week or so before the crucifixion, you’ll find that Thomas had more than proven his loyalty to Jesus. Here’s what happened: Jesus got word that his friend, Lazarus, was ill. Lazarus lived in Bethany, and Bethany was only a couple of miles from Jerusalem. The problem was the last time they’d been to Jerusalem, Jesus had so offended the Jewish leaders that they’d threatened to kill him. (John 10:31, 39-40)
Now Jesus was being asked to come back to Judea where he was sure to face further hostility. The other disciples begged him not to go. They said, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (John 11:8) Only Thomas stood with Jesus. He said, “Let’s go also, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
Thomas was anything but wavering in his faith. He believed Jesus was the Promised Messiah and that the kingdom of God was at hand, and he was willing to sacrifice his own life, if necessary, to help Jesus complete his mission.
When it came to the resurrection, it wasn’t Jesus Thomas questioned, but the disciples. I say good for him. After all, when they’d seen Jesus walking on the water, they’d thought they’d seen a ghost. (Matthew 14:26) Who’s to say they weren’t mistaken now?
Furthermore, when Thomas demanded to see for himself, he wasn’t asking for special favors, he just wanted to be treated the same as the others. Jesus appeared to the other disciples and showed them his hands and his side. Why should he be any different?
Face it; we all want to see for ourselves. We want to experience God’s love first-hand. It’s not good enough to ride the wave of another’s faith. We want to have our own encounters with the living Christ.
Some like to say, “God has many children but no grandchildren.” And there’s a certain truth to that. While we embrace the faith of our fathers and mothers, we also look for ways in which God reveals himself to us and invites us to know him and walk with him along our life’s journey. Thomas wanted a first-hand faith, and so should we.
Finally, to the extent that Thomas was a doubter, well, aren’t we all? And who’s to say that doubt is such a bad thing anyway? Personally, I believe a certain amount of honest doubt and disbelief is essential to strong faith. Maybe that’s why I’m Presbyterian.
Seriously, I don’t want a religion where I’m spoon-fed and expected to march lockstep in tight formation with everyone else. I want to ask honest questions, hold the scripture up to the tests of historical criticism, openly debate the issues of modern-day society and come to my own understanding of God’s will for my life. Implicit in all this, I’m confident that God is big enough to accept my idiosyncrasies, wise enough to answer my questions and loving enough to overcome my irreverence, impudence and immaturity.
All this is to say I like Thomas. He had the courage to stand apart from the others and the honesty to say what he believed, even though it was not politically correct. For example, just before Jesus was arrested, he told his disciples,
“In my Father’s house are many homes.
If it weren’t so, I would have told you.
I am going to prepare a place for you.
If I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come again, and will receive you to myself;
that where I am, you may be there also.
Where I go, you know,
and you know the way.” (John 14:2-4)
The truth is the disciples didn’t know where Jesus was going or how he was going to get there. This whole passage is metaphorical and abstract. They didn’t have a clue as to what Jesus was talking about; yet, the way John tells the story, they sat there nodding their heads as if they did. Only Thomas had the gumption to interrupt Jesus and say, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5)
Oh, I suppose you could fault Thomas for showing his ignorance, but, as far as I’m concerned, he’s to be commended. How are you going to learn unless you ask questions? And how are you going to grow in your faith unless you’re willing to be honest about what you don’t understand?
The Good News is that Jesus came back to the Upper Room, this time for Thomas. He singled him out and invited him to examine his hands and his side. That’s all it took. There’s no indication whatsoever that Thomas touched Jesus in any way. He didn’t have to. He could see for himself, Jesus was alive and well. He’d been raised from the dead. Thomas confessed, “My Lord and my God!” (28)
Now, let’s go back to what I said at the outset of the sermon, that to look closely at Thomas is to see yourself – that we call him, “the doubting Thomas,” because he reflects the doubt and disbelief we harbor deep down inside.
There’s an undeniable truth at work here: We tend to be critical of those who reflect the qualities in us we’re most in denial about. “He talks too much,” we say. “She’s a busy body.” “He’s so arrogant; he thinks he knows everything.” “She always has to have the last word.” The fault we find in others is often the fault we carry within.
You all know the verse of scripture that says, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” (Mt. 7:1) But do you know the verse that follows it? The whole passage goes like this:
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.
For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged;
and with whatever measure you measure,
it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
To stand in judgment over someone else is unwittingly to stand in judgment of yourself. In his book, Notes to Myself, Hugh Prather puts it this way:
“If something you do rankles me,
I can know that your fault is my fault too.”
This brings us back to Thomas. Did you know that his name in Greek was Didymus? It means, “the twin.” Most likely, he had a twin brother or sister. We don’t know who that was, of course, but, for the sake of a handle to hold on to, think of Thomas as your brother, your twin, so that to look at him closely is to see a reflection of yourself.
There’s a wonderful old legend about Thomas. It goes like this: After Jesus ascended into heaven, Thomas took the gospel to India and succeeded in planting the seeds of Christianity in southern Asia. In time, Thomas endeared himself to King Gondaforus who was looking for a master craftsman to build his royal palace. Thomas assured him that he could make plows, yokes, measures, wheels, whips, oars and steering poles out of wood, and from stone he could make statues, houses and – and wouldn’t you know it – royal palaces. The king commissioned him to do the work and promised to give him all the gold and silver he needed to complete the task. Weeks and months went by – and a small fortune was spent – as the king awaited word on how the work was proceeding. Hearing none, he sent his servants to investigate. They reported back to the king,
“He hath done nothing except go about the city and throughout the region teaching the people about a new god and healing the sick and casting out demons, and the treasures thou didst give him, he hath given to the poor and needy.”
King Gondaforus sent for Thomas at once and demanded to see his new royal palace. Thomas replied,
“Thou canst not see it now;
only when thou hast departed from this world
wilt thou be able to see it.”
The king was furious. He had Thomas arrested and thrown in jail while he considered how he would have him put to death.
In the meantime, the king’s brother, Godon, died and went to heaven. There he saw the most beautiful palace he could ever imagine. He asked if he could have it for his own. The angel replied, “It belongs to your brother, Gondaforus.” So, Godon persuaded the angel to let him return to earth to ask his brother to sell it to him. The angel agreed, and when Godon appeared before King Gondaforus and told him of the beautiful palace he had seen in heaven, and that it belonged to him, Gondaforus understood what Thomas had told him. He had Thomas released from prison, asked for his forgiveness and gave his heart to God.
Whatever else you may think about the Doubting Thomas, remember this: When the chips were down, he was willing to die for Jesus’ sake; he was willing to expose his ignorance in order to know the truth; and, when Jesus came back to show him his hands and his side, he had the courage to lay aside his doubt and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Friends, dare to be a little more like Thomas – honest about your doubts and strong in your faith. After all, he’s your brother.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.