We don’t know a great deal about Thomas the Twin, who was a disciple of Jesus, but what we do know suggests that he ought to be remembered for more than being a “doubter.” The three synoptic Gospels (that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke – so called because they all tell the story of the life of Jesus in about the same sequence) include his name in the list of apostles, but have nothing else to say. But in the fourth Gospel, Thomas is the one who insists that the disciples accompany Jesus to Bethany after the death of Lazarus (John 11:16), and the one who tells Jesus that the disciples do not know where Jesus is going or how to get there (John 14:5). And, famously, he is the one who insists on seeing and touching the Resurrected Jesus for himself.
Now, there are two reasons that I think Thomas the Twin ought not to be known primarily as doubter – one reason is about language and one is about history.
The language issue has to do with the Greek verb that is translated as “doubt” – apistos – when Jesus says, “Do not doubt, but believe.” (John 20:27) This word does not mean “doubt” in the modern sense of “lacking confidence” or “considering something unlikely.” It is actually the opposite of a Greek verb that means “believe” – in the active sense of having a connection or a relationship with Jesus as the Word made flesh. So what Jesus said to Thomas was more like, “Stop un-believing and believe.” It was an invitation to a continuing and deepening relationship, not a reprimand.
And I am afraid that we often hear it as a reprimand – it sounds as if Thomas was somehow wrong to insist on encountering the risen Christ himself. And we hear that tone even more clearly when we read the next words from Jesus: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29) (More about that in a minute.)
The second reason is the historical one: I want Thomas to be known for more than doubting because his story was remembered and recorded in the way it was, partly because of when and where it was remembered and recorded. You heard in the introduction to the scripture reading that the Gospel of John was written sometime near the end of the first century, which means that the author was as far away from the events he was writing about, as we would be writing about events in the 1950’s. Over the course of time – whether ancient and modern – the interpretation of past events is influenced by present circumstances.
It is likely that the author (or authors) of this gospel were especially sensitive to issues in the churches of their own time as well as to the recounting of earlier days. The events in today’s reading resonated with those late-first-century Christians in particular ways.
One issue facing the early church was whether or not Jesus had truly been resurrected, or whether he had just appeared as a ghost to his followers after the crucifixion. Both the gathered disciples (on the first visit from Jesus) and Thomas (on the second visit) testify to the reality of the presence of Jesus, including the reality of the wounds he suffered during his torture.
Another issue was the challenge of keeping the faith vibrant when the person of Jesus was no longer present. Moreover, many early believers were expecting the imminent return of Jesus, which didn’t happen. It is easy to understand how important it would have been for the community to remember words of Jesus that spoke of having faith without having direct contact with him. Words such as, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that these events and words were contrived or invented by the gospel writer. What I am saying is that these authors would have found these particular events and words to be memorable and salient, and worthy of inclusion, partly because of their own concerns.
(A brief aside: this is one way that I often approach my own scripture study. I ask, “Why was this story or poem or saying so important to my ancestors who preserved it in scripture?” That often helps me to answer the question, “Why might this be important for me?”)
In a somewhat different form, I think these issues are still with us, and we watch and listen to Thomas the Twin with our own set of concerns. We, too, are faced with the mystery of the Resurrection; we, too, search for the presence of the Risen Christ who often seems elusive or hidden. And yes, we want to have faith that is an active verb, and not just passive assent to statements of doctrine, no matter how progressive and liberating they may be. We’d be grateful for something to touch.
Remember that the first time we heard from Thomas, he was with the disciples when Jesus decided to return to Bethany after the death of Lazarus. In this fourth gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the action that sets in motion the events of the passion and the crucifixion. We can’t know, of course, if Thomas realized what was at stake. What we do know is what he said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) There is a kind of courage in those words – courage and loyalty that are evidence of a powerful relationship with Jesus.
The second time Thomas is heard, he interrupts Jesus who has just said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:4) Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5) Thomas is able to articulate the question that was probably in all of their minds that day. His question made space for Jesus to answer, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) Questions (not doubting) show trust and open space for relationships to grow and deepen.
The third time we see Thomas, he refuses to accept the experience of the other disciples as proof for himself of Jesus’ presence. I am reminded of a scene in the first chapter of this Gospel where Jesus is approached by two disciples of John the Baptist. What he says to them is “Come and see.” (John 1:39) That is what Thomas wants to do: to come and see. It was true then, and it is true now, that there is nothing as powerful as seeing and touching for yourself.
It has been my observation as a minister that what brings people to faith is almost always some experience of seeing and touching what is holy. Sometimes – occasionally – that takes place in a religious community. I don’t know whether to be glad or sad that these moments are more likely to occur at a retreat or a camp or on a mission trip than they are to happen in the sanctuary on Sunday morning.
Truth be told, those powerful moments of seeing and touching the divine come upon us unexpectedly. Something touches us that is beyond us, greater than us, kinder and more merciful than we can be. Or we become aware of a reality that is more real than what is around us every day. Or we suddenly become aware of the one-ness of all of creation. Not all of these experiences are obviously “religious” – many are artistic or musical or literary; some are athletic or mathematical or scientific. What they have in common is the surprising and lasting impact that they make on us. Even if we cannot articulate it, we know that we have encountered the Holy, the Divine, the source and ground of our being.
I think that’s what happened to Thomas the Twin. His story is not really about “doubting” or not “doubting.” His story – and our story – is about relying on – and trusting — our own experience, our own encounter with (here, choose one or more of the following …) God, Christ, Spirit, Holiness, Divinity, Higher Power … It is about seeing for ourselves.