Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Doubting" Thomas

The star of most homilies on this Second Sunday of Easter (at least in congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary) is good old “doubting” Thomas. In some of those homilies he will be presented almost like a villain, who gets scolded by the preacher (though not by Jesus) for being such a doubter. The message to the congregation is clear: Thomas doubted, don’t be like him!

For others (and I think this is far more likely to be the storyline in most Episcopal congregations) Thomas will be presented as a kind of courageous hero, as the “patron saint” of doubters everywhere. This version of the story suggests that doubt and questions are good and when expressed can lead us to faith. So here, too, the message to the congregation is clear: Thomas doubted, be like him!

As the story is told by John, a week has now passed since the Spirit first came to the disciples last Sunday night, on Easter Sunday. Thomas wasn’t with them, so this is round two.  Exploring the meaning of just one Greek word can lead us to a deeper understanding of Thomas. In English we tend to associate faith with belief—which has caused us all kinds of problems right up to the present day. We tend to think that what we think about our faith—our belief system—is the same as faith. That grows directly out of the Enlightenment, which means it’s been around for a while. But don’t forget that the Church is older than the Enlightenment and we need to go further back than the eighteenth century to make sense of Thomas.

I think the Church as a whole got confused along the way. Fundamentalists, and the liberal theologians who call themselves the Jesus Seminar, as well as those atheists who are certain that because they can’t prove that God exists, therefore God does not exist are all (it seems to me) stuck somewhere in the nineteenth century. They continue to fight old battles about why Jesus died, or how he was born or about the right way to read the Bible or about who can get married—and then think that their beliefs are what make them Christians. (Or not, as the case may be.) But I believe we have taken a wrong turn...

As we just remembered again ten days ago, on the night before he died for the sins of the world, Jesus took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, telling them (and us) that the world would know we are Christians by our love and by our willingness to be servants in a world bent on the use and abuse of power. You will know Christians by their practices, by how they behave, by how they treat each other and the poor. It does not say anywhere that I can find in the Bible that “you will know they are Christians by their doctrines.” St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth (who were fighting about doctrinal issues) that what makes us Christians is faith, hope, and love—but that the greatest of these is the last. We may have all kinds of gifts or knowledge or even orthodox theology, but if we don’t have love we are clanging cymbals. That’s what St. Paul says.

So what does this have to do with our friend, Thomas? The Greek word, pistis, is not referring to the content of faith—to what we think we know. It’s not about doctrine or a belief system, but something much more primal. Pistis is really best translated as “trust.”  And trust is a much better synonym for faith than belief is.

I think that the key to understanding Thomas is about whether or not he can bring himself to trust Jesus again, the one on whom he had previously staked his life, but then who went and got himself killed. Thomas is not struggling with his doctrine of the resurrection. Thomas is not asking (as far as I can tell) whether or not God still exists. He’s wondering whether he can still trust the God revealed in the life of Jesus.

We’ve heard from Thomas on two previous occasions in John’s Gospel. In the eleventh chapter, when Jesus decides to go back to Judea to raise Lazarus (even though it is clear at that point that the authorities are out to get him) Thomas is the one who says to the other disciples: “let us go with him that we may also die with him.” (John 11:16) So he is willing to follow Jesus to death; to stand in solidarity—to become a martyr if necessary. The Easter question before us today is a harder one, however: is he willing to embrace the new life Christ brings? Is he willing to live for Christ? That will require trust.

And then one of my favorite Thomas moments, in the fourteenth chapter of John, as awesome as the one we get today. Jesus is talking about his impending death. He is telling the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, but their hearts are troubled. He tells them that it’s going to be alright, because he is going to prepare a place for them and that in God’s house there are many dwelling places. And then Jesus says, “and you know the way where I am going.” 

Do you remember? That is when good old Thomas pipes up and asks the question that all the disciples want to ask. It’s like men and directions: Jesus says “you know the way” and everyone is nodding, oh yeah, we know how to get there, we don’t need no stinkin’ GPS! And it is Thomas who says, “excuse me, Lord but no…we don’t have a clue where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) That’s when Jesus tells his disciples: keep your eyes on the prize…keep your eyes on me! Don’t lose me, I’ll get you there: “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

So Thomas the twin, at least as he is remembered in the fourth gospel, has some history. He’s not afraid to die. He’s clearly the one who is not afraid to ask the hard questions. And he loves Jesus. I don’t think he is looking for proof today so much as the fact that his sense of trust has been shaken. He wonders if Jesus is still the way, still the truth, still the life—or is he just another dead martyr?  

So literally, the Greek should be translated like this, when Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds: Jesus says to Thomas: do not lack trust; trust. 

It's fine to talk about belief and doubt but the problem is that we tend to hear those words only in our heads. And faith - as trust - is a gut issue. 

Our faith goes nowhere until we figure out and navigate our way through trust issues. Some people will struggle with trust issues their whole lives. But you really can’t mature in faith until you find your way through those issues. Nothing else can really happen in the spiritual life until we begin to learn to let go and let God.  

Is Jesus worthy of our trust? Is he really the one who can show us the way to the Father? But how can that be if he is dead? Where do we put our trust when our world has been rocked? If we translate “do not doubt, but believe” I think we miss that in English. Rather, what I think Jesus says is this: do not lack trust…trust me. You can still trust me.

When Jesus comes to that room, he seeks to transform fear into trust. The disciples are hiding out beyond locked doors for fear of the religious and political authorities. The gift of the Spirit gives them a way forward: a renewed sense of trust. Now here, though, is where I want to move away from the traditional focus on Thomas that is at the center of most homilies this weekend including most of those I’ve preached in the past and this one so far. We can become so over-focused on Thomas that we miss something else.

So step back and check out the whole room. Let’s go back one week and backtrack to last Sunday night when Jesus first appears in that room to meet the other ten disciples. And as we heard today, Thomas wasn’t there. (He’d gone out to Dunkin Donuts or something because as everyone knows, grieving people drink a lot of coffee.) What I want you to notice is about the other ten disciples is this: the doors are still shut one week later. The Spirit came, and breathed on them, and the risen Christ came through doors that were locked, because they were still afraid.

So we spend a lot of time thinking about Thomas this weekend but here’s a question I want to ask: why are those doors still shut? I think the answer is that they are the ones who don’t yet get it. They had the experience, but they missed the meaning. Good old Thomas gets it, bless his heart, the first time around.

The Spirit is given to cast out fear. The focus here is on the Spirit as the one who looses sins. That’s a big part of trust: learning to let go and forgive in order to move on. Because when we do not forgive we get bound up in the past. We get stuck. We let people take up residence in our head rent-free. The Spirit helps us with that work, casting out fear in order to make room for faith, hope, and love.  The Spirit comes to empower and equip us for mission. That begins with trust.

The danger every church faces is that we keep our work focused on what happens behind closed doors. The point of Easter as we heard last weekend is that we are called to “go and tell.” We are sent into the world where Christ has already gone ahead of us. God has a mission and is already at work in the world. The Spirit comes because we are called to open the doors, and then sent out to share that work. We have become so accustomed to thinking that “church” is about what happens inside of a building. So Jesus comes not once, but twice, to deliver this message to the other ten, who in truth are slower than Thomas. 

Easter is about flinging the doors wide open—about rolling away all of the obstacles that keep us entombed.  It’s about making sure that the doors stay wide open in both directions: so that others can find their way in, but also to remind the gathered community that after the worship each week, the service begins: as we are sent out of this place to do the work God has given us to do, not to hide out here in fear.

So I love Thomas. But I think the real good news here is that Easter lasts for a season, not just one day. And that gives us all the time we need to breathe it in, to breathe in the Spirit as we uncover the true meaning of Easter, which is about finding our voices in order to go and tell. It's about flinging the doors wide open. Easter is about facing our fears and becoming more faithful witnesses to the gospel, and then continuing to do the work that Jesus started.  

So do not lack trust; trust! And then, together, with God’s help, we can take the next steps toward becoming God’s Easter people.

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