I have here a selection of the cards I carry around with me – my Co-Op card, driving licence, student card. And then there is my passport. All of these things serve to confirm my identity. Ah, but that’s only the beginning – for those of you familiar with computers and the Internet, there is a whole new world out there which requires confirmation that we are who we say we are. I do shop on-line and, for each place I shop, I have to provide a username and a password. This sounds simple, but I can promise you, it isn’t. The more places I shop, the more variations there are on what is acceptable as a username and password: my simplest user name is eclarke, but that doesn’t always work. I am often told that that name has already been used, well that’s okay. But then I try eahclarke or lizclarke or lizahclarke and I get the same message and I begin to question – are there so many of me around! I begin to doubt my own identity.
And then there’s the computer system in school: 3 different log-ons every day (I have to say that (John/my husband) says that that is what he does to the fire in the evening): anyway, one username and password just to get on to the computer system, a second to get access to the Internet and a third to get on to e-mail. So I have all these usernames and passwords I’m supposed to remember and keep secret. Well I’m afraid to say that I have to write them down (secretly of course) in case I forget a critical one. But there’s still one more thing – just as I am finally comfortable with my log-ons in school, I’m asked to change them! – again for security. So off I go again, having to prove that I am who I said I was!
And that is what the reading today is about – Jesus had some difficulty making people believe that it really was him standing in front of them, let alone convincing Thomas who only had the word of the others who had been present when Jesus appeared.
I can relate to Thomas. Thomas, the Doubter.
There’s not much in the Gospels about Thomas at all. In fact, other than listing him as a disciple, you won’t find a thing in Matthew, Mark or Luke. Unless I missed something in my search, there’s just his name, Thomas, alongside other disciples, until you come to John.
The writer of the Gospel of John seems to have had a special relationship to Thomas because there are multiple passages in John where Thomas is not only mentioned, but has dialogue attributed to him.
When Jesus ventured near Jerusalem, for the episode we now refer to as the raising of Lazarus, it was clear to all that Jesus did this at great personal peril. The authorities were not happy with him and he risked his life in travelling so close to the big city. But, despite this risk, when Jesus states his intention to go, it is Thomas who says to the rest of the disciples:
“Come along. We might as well die with him.” (John 11:16)
…and then when Jesus tells the disciples that …”in my Father’s mansion there are many rooms,” … that Jesus was on his way to get their room ready… and then Jesus says to them…
“And you already know the road I’m taking.” Thomas responds quite practically, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?” (John 14:5)
Yes, I feel a connection with Thomas. I recognize my own spirit in his questions, in his requests for clarification.
… which leads us to the most famous interchange of all … the passage read earlier this morning… the one that has forever labelled Thomas, the Doubter… “Doubting Thomas.”
Following the crucifixion, after reports from Peter and Mary that Jesus had risen, Jesus appears, John’s Gospel records, to all the disciples who had huddled, frightened, behind locked doors. …but Thomas wasn’t present and when all the others told him of Jesus’ visit, he scoffed. “I’d have to see that for myself.”
It means a great deal to me that in that very first Easter event one of the disciples heard the story from the others and said… “I don’t believe it.” In the Resurrection story as recorded in Mark’s Gospel we read that the women came back to tell the disciples that they found the tomb empty and NONE of them believed it.
Why, then, do I like Thomas? Because I understand where he is coming from.
“Doubting Thomas.” If you look up this phrase in the dictionary, you’ll find something like: “one who habitually or instinctively doubts or questions.” A “doubting Thomas” is somebody who always lags behind in matters of faith. A “doubting Thomas” always needs more proof, more time. A “doubting Thomas” has a hard time trusting others.
In defence of “doubting Thomas.” I’d like to suggest a new phrase for this disciple, not “doubting Thomas,” but “honest Thomas.” I think that description accurately portrays the character of the one who was willing to be honest even when it wasn’t pretty, and even when others were not quite so truthful.
More importantly still, when we really understand what’s going on with Thomas, we’ll find new freedom to be honest about our own faith, or, as is sometimes the case, lack of it. I’m going to suggest that you and I need to be more like Thomas, not by doubting more, but by being more honest with God and with each other.
Thomas didn’t share the other disciples’ joy or confidence. He said to his fellow disciples, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.” There you have it: doubting Thomas.
To be candid, if I had been in Thomas’s shoes, I’m not sure I would have been able to accept the testimony of the other disciples. You see, I’m a bit of a sceptic myself. I think a lot, maybe too much. So putting myself in Thomas’s place I might wonder: Wouldn’t it have made just as much sense to suppose that the disciples had had too much to drink, or that they’d seen some sort of ghost, or that their grief had overwhelmed their reason?
Whether Thomas should have believed or not, at any rate he was bluntly honest about where he was. He didn’t pretend. He didn’t fake anything. He told the truth. Was he “doubting Thomas”? Well, perhaps but even more clearly he was “honest Thomas.”
Thomas in fact turned out to be more honest than some of the other disciples. As far as we know, none of them admitted to having any doubts about Jesus at this time. They were happy to go along for the Resurrection ride. But if you look in Matthew chapter 28, you read something quite startling. The disciples have followed Jesus’s orders to go to Galilee, their home ground, and meet him there. Verse 16 says “Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him-but some of them still doubted!” “But some of them still doubted.” As far as we know, these disciples had been willing to play along as if they truly believed, but in fact their doubts persisted. Unlike Thomas, however, they weren’t honest. They pretended to have unhesitant faith when all along they weren’t quite sure.
If there is a time when we’re struggling with doubt, we shouldn’t pretend. Doubt is a natural part of the faith journey of many, many Christians. If you are having doubts, be an “honest Thomas.” Tell the Lord about it. Don’t hold back in your prayers. God can cope with your doubt.
I recently watched a film on TV – one I’ve seen several times – you might know of or have seen: Brassed Off. (describe what the film is about and then the incident in the church – Borrowed money, on strike, house emptied, wife/children gone, father has miner’s disease). “Where is God in all of this?”
So how does Jesus respond to Thomas in the reading. It says, “Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them.” Think about that: “eight days later.” For eight days Thomas was left in his doubt. For eight days he stood around watching the celebration of his colleagues while he was stuck in indecision. Don’t you think Thomas began to wonder if Jesus had forgotten him? Maybe he began to fear that he would never get to see the risen Jesus, that he would be stuck in doubt forever.
The fact is that Jesus chose to let Thomas wait. He didn’t appear straight away to relieve Thomas’s fears. We don’t know why. We don’t know what needed to happen in Thomas before Jesus appeared to him. All we know is that Jesus made him wait.
There will be times when we are struggling with faith and doubt, and God will make us wait. It won’t seem fair at the time but God knows what he’s doing.
When, after eight days, Jesus finally appeared to the disciples in Thomas’s presence, he addressed the “doubter” directly: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”
There is something missing here. The rebuke! The guilt! The lecture on not doubting! It’s not here. Jesus doesn’t take Thomas to task for his unbelief. Rather, he gently and mercifully offers Thomas exactly what he had wanted. Jesus met Thomas right where he was and he offered himself to Thomas: “Here, touch me, and believe.”
In his time and in his way, Jesus comes to us and makes himself known to us. Sometimes he does it in the way we have wanted, sometimes he doesn’t but he always gives us exactly what we really need. And it comes, not because we’ve earned it, but by grace.
Notice how Thomas responded to Jesus. It’s curious that we’re never told whether or not Thomas actually touched Jesus’ wounds. The silence of the text suggests he didn’t. Confronted by the gracious presence and offer of Jesus, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” He didn’t need to touch Jesus after all because the presence of his Lord had touched his heart.
There is something crucial here. Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” This makes him the first person in the gospels to confess Jesus not only as Lord, but also as God. Doubting Thomas, or better yet, honest Thomas became faithful Thomas, bold Thomas, believing Thomas.
This is where honesty with God leads. This is the outcome of an open confession of doubt. This is not pretend faith, it’s a 100% genuine faith that comes from our soul, a faith that transforms our lives.
Notice also how Jesus finishes his encounter with Thomas: “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who haven’t seen me and believe anyway.” This is a word of encouragement for you and me, because we don’t get to see Jesus. Someday we’ll see him face to face but that day is still a long way off. In the meanwhile, you and I are those who have to believe without seeing.
As it says in the last two verses of today’s reading,” Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So, no matter where we are in our relationship with Jesus today, the good news is that he meets us in that place. In his time and his way, he draws us near so we might know his love and grace. No matter where we are on the road of faith, let the risen Jesus walk with us today, tomorrow, and every day from here on.