John 20: 24-29
September 16, 2012
Today our exploration of Jesus’ disciples brings us to Thomas. And I’d like to get one thing straight right from the start: if we’re going to call him “Doubting Thomas,” then we have to label all of the disciples that way. We have to also talk about “Doubting Matthew” and “Doubting Andrew” and “Doubting Bartholomew.” Certainly we must talk about “Doubting Judas” and “Doubting Peter.”
I imagine there is something about seeing your friend and leader captured, tortured, and killed that would dampen anyone’s spirits and make belief rather difficult.
So I won’t be referring to “Doubting Thomas” this morning. He’s just plain old Thomas. One of the followers who gathered around Jesus during his earthly ministry. Actually, according to the account in John’s Gospel, Thomas is one of the most faithful disciples. One of the most passionate about following Jesus.
It’s not at all fair to read this story of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples without also considering the story we heard at the beginning of worship. Remember? Jesus knows about Lazarus’ illness and eventually announces his plans to go see Lazarus and Mary and Martha in Bethany. “The disciples” remind him that last time he was in that region, some people tried to kill him. Perhaps Jesus should rethink the plan.
When it becomes clear that, despite the disciples’ wise counsel, Jesus intends to go to Bethany, it is Thomas who turns to his fellow disciples and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Have you ever been the one in the group to speak up? The one to disagree with what all of your other friends were saying? We can throw the term “peer pressure” around without thinking much about it, but there can be an almost physical pressure–I feel it in my gut–as the people around you keep talking and talking and talking and you slowly realize that they all agree with each other–and you disagree with them. A pressure. A tensing of the shoulders, the jaw. So you can barely open your mouth to say the words: “We should go with Jesus. We should be willing to die with him.”
Thomas loves Jesus. Thomas believes in Jesus. Thomas is the only disciple in John’s Gospel who indicates his willingness to die with Jesus.
Now, in this current story, Jesus has died and Thomas is still alive. Plus there are all of these crazy rumors spinning around about an empty tomb, a resurrection.
Thomas isn’t there the first time Jesus comes to the disciples, and when his pals tell him, “Hey, Jesus showed up last week while you were gone,” Thomas doesn’t merely say, “Whatever you crazy lunatics. I’ll believe it when I see it.” He says, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
It’s a reasonable, if grotesque, request: I need to stick my hand into the spear wound in his side before I will believe that Jesus is alive.
When Jesus shows up the next week, though, Thomas doesn’t actually need to touch the wounds. He sees Jesus. He hears Jesus. And he knows: “My Lord and my God!”
This is considered by many to be the climactic moment of John’s Gospel–the declaration of Jesus’ identity as Lord and God, the circling around of John’s prologue–the Word become flesh and the flesh become Word. This is the moment of Thomas’ conversion from unbelief to belief.
This idea of “believing” is important to the writer of John. Immediately following this story we have what most scholars believe to be the original ending of the Gospel: “But these [things] 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.”
Believing is at the heart of John’s Gospel. It’s why the Gospel was written. It’s why God sent Jesus to us: “that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” That’s in John, too.
And in this dramatic scene between Jesus and Thomas, it is believing that wins out over unbelieving when Jesus shows up and speaks.
Believing is central to discipleship in John, so if we want to understand discipleship in general, and the disciple Thomas in particular, we need to consider what it means to believe according to John’s Gospel. You know those people who hold up John 3:16 signs at football games? I feel fairly confident in saying that John doesn’t mean what they think he means by the term “believe.”
For John, “to believe” is not about holding a particular set of intellectual understandings, but about having a relationship,. I find this explanation from biblical scholar and seminary professor Karoline Lewis particularly helpful:
“Always a verb, never a noun, believing for John is a statement of abiding in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is not an assertion of certain doctrinal commitments, nor is it something that is strong one day but wavering the next. To believe in Jesus is the same thing as saying ‘I abide in you and you abide in me.’“
For Thomas to believe in Jesus means that Thomas abides in relationship with Jesus. Which is why he is willing to die with him. Which is why he is hurt to think that Jesus would show up on the one Sunday Thomas misses church. Which is why he would want to touch the wounds of Jesus’ hands and side. Which is why he finally declares: “My Lord and my God.”
Believing as abiding. . . . It’s hard to know what intellectual agreement looks like. But we know what abiding looks like.
We know what it looks like when we abide with our families–our parents or our children.
I was moved this week by the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So. In looking at what the Bible says about homosexuality, the film highlights five Christian families and how the parents reacted when their children came out. Talk about a long, hard road of abiding with someone.
The Reitans are a good Minnesota Lutheran family–very Garrison Keillor, by their own admission. The family with four children went to church every Sunday. Mom Randi was a Sunday School teacher and Dad Phil was the president of the congregation. The Reitan’s youngest child, Jake, distinctly remembers that his pastor once preached on homosexuality “and it wasn’t in the best of light.”
Jake was in Jr. High when he realized that he was gay. He came out to his older sister when he was 15, and about a year later he finally told his parents. The news hit his dad hard. He says, “I felt like I just had a death. Like somebody had kicked me in the stomach and it just took all the wind out of me.” This feeling didn’t go away for months. It’s something Phil thought about constantly–my son is gay. It felt like so many dreams that he had for his son were shattered. In addition to theological misgivings, Jake’s parents were also concerned for his health and safety. They were worried about AIDS. They were worried about bullies. Jake’s mom remembers going out to get the mail one day and seeing F-A-G written in chalk at the end of their driveway. She quickly brought out a bucket of water and a scrub brush to get rid of the letters before Jake saw them.
The Reitans decided to learn “everything there was to know about homosexuality.” Their exploration through Bible study, through books, through talking to psychologists led them to accept Jake for who he was and to join him in his efforts to combat homophobia, especially among fellow Christians.
In 2005, Jake and his parents joined over 125 other activists in a peaceful rally at the headquarters of Focus on the Family. Randi read a letter she had written to the organization’s leader, James Dobson, explaining how his anti-gay teachings were harming Christian families like hers. As the three Reitans walked onto Focus on the Family property to deliver the letter to Dobson, they were all three arrested.
Believing as abiding.
We know what it looks like to abide with those we have chosen to love–as friends or as spouses.
When I was growing up my family knew a couple–about my parents’ age. They didn’t have any kids of their own. They did have a vibrant life together. He was a filmmaker. She was an artist. They loved to volunteer at Cow Town in Wichita–dress up in the old timey costumes and everything.
Like I said, they were my parents age, which to me meant old. I know now, of course, that early 40’s is terribly, tragically young to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The wife knew that this ran in her family. After her dad became debilitated by the same illness at about the same age, she watched her mom withdraw into work and other outside duties while she and her siblings cared for her dad until he died in his early 50’s.
Our friend hid her illness as long as possible, because she didn’t want those she loved to abandon her. After she got lost driving home from the store one day, she would just make up excuses for why she couldn’t run errands. She would judge by her husband’s reactions and body language how well she was expected to know people they ran into when they were out–mastering the skill of having vague conversations without using names.
She couldn’t hide the disease forever though. She was eventually fired from her job and her husband took her into the doctor for a diagnosis. But she needn’t have feared he would abandon her. He cared for her at home as long and as well as he could. It helped that one of the first things she forgot was how to open a door. Still, there were so many–too many–trips to the emergency room for falls and burns and cuts. Do you know what the doctors and nurses think about a man when they look at his wife’s chart and see that she comes in frequently with these types of injuries? He got some disgusted glares and had to say, “Please read her whole chart.”
Eventually she had to move to a nursing home. Still, her husband visited her every day, sometimes more than once. He would come at different times of day to make sure that the staff was treating her well, to see how she was doing, to just be with her. He did that until she died at the age of 52.
Believing as abiding.
We know what it looks like to abide with a community through difficult times.
The people who have been in this church the longest could tell stories. Stories of the transition from a house church to a “real” church. Stories about the first pastor, John Linscheid, who came out as gay and was subsequently dismissed as pastor because the church could not afford to pay him–the Conference saying they would not continue their substantial support of the new congregation if the pastor was gay. Stories of theological and political controversies about feminism, about homosexuality, about the limits of openness and inclusion. Stories about renting space at the Ecumenical Christian Ministries building–the spiral staircase and dirty bathrooms and a precariously tilted parking lot.
Those of you who have been here the longest have, I’m pretty sure, not always been on the “winning” side of the church controversies. Things have not always gone your way. Words spoken to you and about you may not always have been kind words. And yet you are here.
Believing as abiding.
Thanks to Thomas, we know what it looks like to abide with Jesus.
Thomas, we can assume, leaves behind whatever life he has grown accustomed to to traipse after this interesting yet itinerant rabbi. He watches Jesus heal. He listens to Jesus’ words that sound strange and yet true. He asks Jesus questions. He tries to understand what Jesus is up to. He offers to die with Jesus. But instead he watches helplessly as Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. He keeps meeting with all the other disciples, worshiping and hoping and . . . he doesn’t really know what it is he’s doing. He just keeps doing it. And, finally, Thomas bears witness to the resurrected Christ. Thomas claims his eternal relationship with Jesus: “My Lord and my God.”
Believing as abiding.
When we understand belief as holding to specific doctrines, then doubt quickly becomes the enemy, the opposite of belief. But if belief is about abiding in relationship, then it makes sense that those with the most intense relationships will not only have–in our contemporary understanding of the terms–the most intense belief, but also the most intense doubt.
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
This passionate, committed disciple is not Doubting Thomas, but Abiding Thomas. And his relationship with Jesus can serve as a model for our discipleship today. Thomas shows us that whether at any moment we experience belief or doubt, there is a deeper anchoring–an abiding.
We are called, like Thomas, not to give assent to a specific set of propositions, but to root our lives in our relationship with Jesus Christ. To walk with Jesus. To listen to Jesus. To talk to Jesus. To be willing to sacrifice for Jesus. To abide in Jesus and claim for ourselves, “My Lord and my God.” Amen.