Thomas the Who?
Thomas has an incredible amount of bad press over the years and I would go so far to suggest, an undeserved bad press. The expression “a doubting Thomas” has become almost a term of derision. Yet even the little we know about someone who is only mentioned three times in the gospels – and then only by the writer of the Gospel of John, should make us pause before leaping to judgment and scornfully writing off Thomas as Thomas the doubter.
The first time we hear his name it is in the form of a risk taker. Remember the scene. You will find it in John Chapter 11. Jesus had previously had a hard time in Judea – the crowd had taken up stones to deal to him, so when Jesus suggested going back to Judea to where Lazarus had been reported as having died, it is hardly surprising the disciples tried to talk him out of it. Perhaps they were secretly worried that next time in Judea if they were seen with Jesus they too might be at risk. When Thomas has his say, there is no sign of a timid doubter. “Let us go with Jesus to Judea and be prepared to die with him”. Well, if it is true that the greatest love one can show is to lay down one’s life for a friend, then it really is as a risk-taking friend not a doubter that Thomas said “we’ll support you in going back to Judea”.
By the time John started to write his gospel you need to understand that Thomas had already written his gospel even if it didn’t make the final cut of New Testament books. The Gospel of Thomas was apparently earlier than the four gospels in the New Testament and according to a number of scholars we can see evidence that Mark borrowed some of Thomas’s writings and added a bit to his record of what Thomas records Jesus saying. Thomas also picked up on some things from Jesus that were quite different from those selected by John.
Some of the scholars even suggest that John appeared to stress Thomas’s deficiencies to imply that John’s was the more reliable gospel. Could this be why John notes that Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus showed himself to the other disciples, leaving the impression that he wasn’t in the in-group?
Pointing out Thomas expressed doubt when listening to their testimony when the disciples tell Thomas Jesus has come back to life might suggest a lack of faith, yet I suspect many would find this perfectly reasonable. Dead people are not expected to come back to life and we should remember Thomas only has the other disciples’ word that it has happened. I for one can understand his skepticism. If I had watched someone die then perhaps a day later gone off to a funeral home to pay my respects I frankly admit I would be most unlikely to accept someone’s word for it that the body was no longer at the home because they had come back to life. That was after all in effect what Thomas was told by the others. I am certainly sceptical when amongst Matthew’s description of the first Easter I find him describing dead people coming out of their graves and walking about.
But the story of Thomas does not end with his doubts. John records him as meeting Jesus a few days later almost with a forced acknowledgment “My Lord and my God”, but we do Thomas a disservice if we use even this as a measure of his faith. In reality it is not so much what a person says, but what they are in thoughts and actions that are their faith. In a moment we reflect on what came next for Thomas … and this matters. The worth of our faith is surely in part what the faith leads us to become.
Since those who tell us of religious ideas are in effect offering us life changing choices and since there are many such offers in a modern world it is sensible to at least ask if the belief is likely to be worth following before making our own risky choice. Given that we are never able to see what the representative of faith is actually thinking we can at least make a reasonable judgment of their claims based on their actions, or if you like the fruits of their belief, and use this as a guide.
What would convince you? I think for example of the man popularly known as the Prof, Lord Cherwell, who was at one time Professor of Physics at Oxford and during World War Two, a scientific advisor for Winston Churchill. One problem Churchill gave the Prof was to see if he could come up with an answer for fighter planes spinning into the ground and crashing. The tight turns of the dog fights often resulted in these out of control spins.
Well the Prof put his analytic mind to the problem. First of all he addressed the physics. He worked out exactly what was happening from the theory of aerodynamics – then devised exactly what the pilot might do once the spiral had started. The catch was that although it seemed to work in theory, to show that the solution would work for a real spin was extremely risky. If he were wrong the pilot would die.
Lord Cherwell had a remarkable solution. He took flying lessons, then as soon as he was able, he took the plane up to a height, put it into a spinning dive, then to get out of the spin applied his theoretical solution – it worked. Then just to be certain he went up again, this time putting it into an anti-clockwise spin, to show that the solution was just as effective the other way. Because he trusted sufficiently in his solution and could show it worked, pilots were convinced and many lives were no doubt saved as a consequence.
The focus on actions can also tell us when the truth is less plausible.
Reflect for a moment on the hugely popular Bible thumping Trinity Broadcasting Network based in California. The TBN message that God rewards with prosperity those who are prepared to give to His work – ie sending money to TBN has indeed produced ostentatious rewards for the Network founders and top executives on a scale only matched by the life styles of top Hollywood stars and the glittering in your face splendor of Las Vegas. When however the money all seems directed at the organizers with their private jets and luxury cars we should, and indeed must, ask the question about how this fits with Jesus’ message of humility, of servant-hood and showing love to the least of our brethren.
So what happened to Thomas – the man who once doubted. Contemporary histories suggest that Thomas was sufficiently confident in his experience that he went from there to do great things. He is recorded as taking his message to Persia, then on to South India where tradition says he started the Church of South India where he was finally martyred.
Harry Williams in his book The True Wilderness is quoted as saying: “I resolved that I would not preach about any aspect of Christian belief unless it had become part of my own lifeblood. For I realized that the Christian truth I tried to proclaim would speak to those who listened only to the degree to which it was an expression of my own identity.”
This to me speaks of the same integrity that Thomas lived. Not for Thomas a credulous acceptance of others’ claims without first checking the claims out for himself. But more importantly, not for him either the life of vacuous words once he was sufficiently convinced. Thomas showed that beliefs are to be lived.
The early Christians appear to have understood the realities of how faith is meant to impact on life. They had a special word for it. They called it “pistis”. Pistis is not properly translated as meaning faith. Rather it is more like: trusting, abandoning or even venturing. To have Pistis in Christ certainly didn’t merely mean that Christ was there in some mysterious way. Rather it meant the slender hope that the reality Jesus represented might also have value and truth for the ones who trusted him enough to follow.
For Christians, the arguments about whether or not we might think God exists have little meaning away from what Jesus showed this God to mean. Because these days our first hand experience of witness comes via other people it is worth remembering that from the days of the early Church obtaining inspiration is not only based on what can be learned from studying Christ, but also via those in each generation who have been prepared to follow Jesus. And yes, what gives the inspiration is the attraction of lives lived with integrity.
No doubt the disciples each took a different path to their eventual pistis. And in an age where there is much of value in different forms of Christianity as well as much to generate caution, it might even be that we have need of the Thomases of our day to insist that we not be led astray by transparent fraud as well as needing those prepared to trust and follow without question or evidence. Yet no matter the path, and no matter the initial degree of doubt, the real test of lives lived in the spirit is whether or not we are truthful both to ourselves and others.
It is intriguing that although in the debates about which books should be included in the Bible, the Bishop of Lyon, Irenaeus had dismissed the gospel of Thomas as an “abyss of madness and blasphemy against Christ”, yet when Thomas’s long lost book finally resurfaced amongst the caves at Nag Hammadi, the modern bible scholar Elaine Pagels, far from finding madness and blasphemy found Thomas recording sayings of Jesus in a way which she found resonating with her belief. For example from the gospel of Thomas:
“Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what you will bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”……
Pagels explained that for her: “..the strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves; and, with a shock of recognition, I realized that this perspective seemed to me to be self-evidently true.”
Thomas we read is eventually persuaded by the evidence of his eyes, yet we must remember that for Thomas this was a persuasion not so much to a creed as to an awakened life. Just as Thomas was able, by his encounter, to discover a strength within to witness and lead in an eventual journey of adventure, our individual doubts need not stop us from the journey.
It is true that there is a sophisticated form of cynicism that claims that Christianity is merely a subjective theory to fill psychological needs. What ultimately confounds that theory is encountering the transformed lives. No mere theory can ultimately stand against an individual prepared to work wholeheartedly for the transformation of the world. Thomas who doubted grew into someone who could make a difference.
If that can happen for doubting Thomas, perhaps it might happen for you or me.
(NOTE This sermon is updated from my equivalent sermon in 2012)