Archive for Doubting Thomas

Breathed Upon

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the Second Sunday of Easter, 2019.

John 20:19-31

1.

Thomas missed it.

Early that morning, before dawn, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty, the stone rolled away.

But Thomas missed it.

A little later that same morning, Mary met the risen Lord and was commissioned by him to go and share the Good News with the disciples.

And so she went and announced, “I have seen the risen Lord, alleluia”; she told them the Good News.

But somehow Thomas missed it.

Nor was he there later that evening, when Jesus himself came and breathed on those who had gathered together.

Sometime later still, when Thomas finally does show up, the disciples tell him the same thing Mary said—except now it’s not just I but we: “We have seen the risen Lord, alleluia.”

The testimony of one thoughtful, faithful Christian has now been bolstered with the strength of community.

But, still, Thomas misses it.

“Unless I . . . put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side,” he announces, “I will not believe.”

And so, our day in the Church calendar for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle is—can you guess?

Well, what day of the year would you assign to a guy forever remembered by the name doubting?

Yep, December 21st, the day of the winter solstice: the darkest, most doubtful day of the year.

Because—poor guy!—he missed it.

2.

Now, if you happen to be here today and you weren’t last week, you’re probably hearing the exclamation, “You shoulda seen it!”

We had an illuminated labyrinth this year. You shoulda seen it!

There was an Easter Vigil. You shoulda seen it!

We started the service by candlelight. You shoulda seen it!

There was a baptism. You shoulda seen it!

The Bishop’s Committee hosted a champagne reception. You shoulda seen it!

And on Easter day: the musicians were exemplary; the Easter egg hunt was joyful; Father David celebrated with his easy-listening British accent. You shoulda seen it!

But, if you happen to be here today and were not here last week, do you actually believe this exclamation?

Or, like Thomas, are you doubtful?

I mean, just look around!

Today, attendance is low. The Easter lilies have begun to droop. In many churches around the world, the pastor’s taking today off. Quite a contrast to last week! Maybe all the excitement is over-rated.

We clergy have a term for this Sunday, by the way: low Sunday.

If you ask me, I think maybe a better term is Doubting Thomas Sunday; because for all intents and purposes it looks like the Church around the world has missed it too.

Resurrection! New life!

Really?

Today’s feast is the Second Sunday of Easter; we’re seven days into the Great Fifty Days! It should feel just as celebratory as last week.

But, let’s face it, it just doesn’t.

Aren’t we all a lot like Doubting Thomas—whether we missed last week or not? He missed the actual resurrection: he was not a witness. And haven’t we all missed it too? After all, it happened two thousand years ago. None of us was around.

3.

However, I argue, the resurrection is still taking place, all around us, everyday! If we’re missing it, it’s only because, like Thomas, we haven’t yet learned how to see it.

Thomas did learn how, in time. The early Church historian Eusebius tells us that Thomas carried the Good News to India, believing so firmly in Christ that there he died a martyr’s death.

Even though we still call him doubting to this day, Thomas did learn how to see the resurrection first-hand. We can do it too.

Here’s how.

Today’s Gospel tells us that one week later, one week after he missed it, Thomas did encounter the risen Jesus with the other disciples.

So, what do you think happened during that week in between?

A week ago, Thomas said that he would not believe unless he should touch Jesus physically. Now, today, Jesus appears and—did you notice?—merely says, “Touch me, Thomas,” and Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas said he wouldn’t believe unless he touched Jesus; and yet today I don’t see him touching Jesus at all! He merely cries out at the sight of him!

What changed? What happened during that week in between?

Well, what happens when you experience something utterly fantastic?

The disciples must have been talking non-stop! All week long, Thomas must have been surrounded by, “You shoulda seen it! Jesus did this” and “he said that” and “he couldn’t have been a ghost because he actually ate with us.”

All week long, Thomas was engaging in conversations, eating meals, praying, fellowshipping, and doing things with these people who kept coming back to the amazing claim that they’d seen the risen Jesus.

You shoulda seen it!

So that when Jesus finally does show up, a week later, Thomas needs no further prodding. At Jesus’ word, Thomas falls to his knees and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

To which Jesus replies to all of us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Thomas missed the actual, physical resurrection. Thomas was not among the first people to witness the resurrected Jesus.

But for that week in between he saw the effects of the resurrection. For that week in between, he witnessed first-hand what belief in the resurrection was doing to the disciples.

Now, we may have missed it too. Like Thomas, we weren’t there at Jesus’ resurrection; we weren’t with the first people to witness it.

However, in the week since—or in the two thousand years since (same thing, really)—we have been surrounded by the effects of the resurrection.

And when we learn to see these effects, then we witness the resurrection first-hand.

4.

Well then, what do these effects look like—just what are we looking for?

For the answer, we return to the Gospel narrative.

In the twentieth chapter of John, two times the words to Mary Magdalene are, “Do not be afraid”; and three times Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”

The Gospel of John contrasts fear with peace. Incidentally, John also says elsewhere that perfect love casts out fear: there’s a strong connection for John between peace and love.

But to return to my point, according to this Gospel, peace is winning:

Two times : do not fear :: three times : peace be with you.

It’s two steps back but three steps forward. That can feel discouraging, sure; especially on this Second Sunday of Easter, low Sunday. But the net outcome is peace overcoming fear.

So: Where do we see peace overcoming fear in our world?

Of course, we see it in Jesus’ crucifixion. He remains peaceful throughout his passion—arrest, trial, mocking, and execution. Throughout, peace overcomes fear.

But, you know, we see it even before Jesus walks the earth, with—for instance—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the OT book of Daniel. These three young men peacefully resist the tyrant-king Nebuchadnezzar, even though he threatens them with the fear of death!

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see it with the early Christian martyrs. “Give up your faith or die,” they are told. Yet time and again they face whatever fearsome threats come their way; and, though many of them die, peace gains the upper hand.

We see it again in Church history with Martin Luther when he peacefully protests the Holy Roman Empire, standing resolute even though threatened repeatedly with violence and death.

We see it in our own nation’s struggle for Civil Rights, from the nonviolent songs of lament composed by slaves to the peaceful protests of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

We see it gaining remarkable steam around the world in 1989: peaceful students protest a violent military in Beijing, willing to die in Tiananmen Square so that others may live; and the border wall in Berlin tumbles to the ground, signifying the end of large-scale governmental systems of oppression.

Peace overcoming fear! Around the world!

And we see it still at work in our own day—arguably more now than ever before—as our society responds to violent acts of terrorism and hate in peaceful ways.

Light overcoming darkness; life overcoming death; peace overcoming fear.

In the end, like Thomas, we haven’t missed it; for every day we witness resurrection, the peace of Jesus, first-hand.

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Responding like Thomas

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 20:19-31

Why does Thomas get such a bad rap?

To this day—2,000 years later—he’s the butt of our jokes.  He’s not known by the name Didymus, the Twin, or simply St. Thomas; but forever gets the moniker Doubting.

In fact, I was at a church yesterday for a meeting, called St. Thomas of Canterbury, as if the church’s namers didn’t want anyone to confuse the church’s name with another Thomas, Doubting Thomas.

And, really, was his doubting anything more than the doubting we saw from Peter last week, who ran to the tomb, peeked in, and doubted Mary Magdalene’s testimony?

Oh, Peter.  Now there’s a piece of work!  Rash, thick-headed, and impulsive, he denied Jesus three times.  Yet we don’t nickname him Denying Peter.  Rather, we remember him as the Rock upon whom the whole Church was built!

But with Thomas the pejorative adjective has stuck.  He is and forever will be known as doubting.

But why is this so bad?  Isn’t a little doubt, a little skepticism, actually a good thing?  Don’t we as human beings in fact value a certain level of skepticism?

In our science labs we posit a hypothesis and then test it over and over.  And if our tests prove us wrong, why, we don’t conclude that the test results must be off but instead that we must rethink the hypothesis.  A certain level of skepticism is important in the science lab.

It’s no different in our courtrooms.  If one person files suit against another, it’s not automatically assumed that the prosecutor is correct.  Rather, we try—we don’t always succeed, but we try—to operate in our courtrooms by the adage “innocent until proven guilty.”  Gullibility is not valued; skepticism is.

And isn’t it the same in our research?  I can tell you, having endured three years of rigorous academic study in relatively recent personal history, if I were to state a little-known fact as part of an argument in an essay, I’d most definitely need to back that fact up with some kind of outside authority.  And Wikipedia doesn’t count!  We value skepticism.

This contrast between gullibility and skepticism comes to the surface even in some of our cultural traditions, such as April Fool’s Day.

I got on Facebook on Friday morning.  And on my feed was a post from a friend, which asked, simply, “What, is Trump really dropping out of the race?”

Well, by the time I saw this feed, posted by a friend two time zones to the east, there was already a slough of accompanying comments.  The first six or seven of this slough were expressions of amazement, shock, joy, and every other kind of emotion imaginable; until someone—someone skeptical—replied with these words: “I hate this day.”  Thereafter every reply pointed out that, oh yeah, it is April 1st; good one, Chris; I’ll get you back, just you wait; and, I don’t know how I could have been so gullible!

We value skepticism in our culture.

So, why then does Thomas get such a bad rap?

In line with science, then—not to mention our culture’s value placed on skepticism—let me posit a hypothesis.  We can always test it.  If you prove me wrong, I’ll revise it.  But I’ve been wrestling with it for a while now; and, as far as I can tell, it seems right.  Anyway, here it is:

Doubting Thomas gets such a bad rap not for being skeptical but because he takes his skepticism too far.

What do I mean?

In today’s Gospel we learn that Thomas was not there with everybody else when Jesus first appeared to them.  So, after Jesus left, the other disciples see Thomas and tell them what has happened.  “We have seen the Lord,” the say; “Jesus is alive, risen from the grave!”

This is where Thomas’s skepticism kicks in.  And we might think for good reason!  You know how it can be with the guys.  They like to act out jokes on each other, tell fibs, play pranks.  That’s all they’re doing now.

Or is it?

It’s not just one or two of the disciples we’re talking about here, but ten—twelve minus Judas and Thomas—plus some other disciples—at least Cleopas, Mary, and some other women.  There’s a whole group here saying the same thing!  Not to mention the grief is too recent!  No, this is not a prank.

Yet Thomas’s skepticism prevails.  And he says, “Look, friends, I don’t know what you’re playing at.  But, whatever it is, unless I see the marks in his hands and feet and side—no, unless I touch these marks—I will not believe.”

Now, it’s okay to be skeptical, to an extent.  But isn’t Thomas taking this too far?

Thomas is not trusting himself here to his community.  He refuses to listen to those who are actually in a certain position of authority over him: they have seen the risen Lord, he hasn’t; they are telling their story.  Shouldn’t he listen to and trust them?  Yet he refuses to believe.

Moreover, the disciples here are not far removed from Thomas in their authority, like some theologian who has written a book in a far off place whom the seminarian will never actually meet.  No!  These are the very people Thomas has been living with and among for the past three years, maybe more.  These are people he knows and respects, his community.  Yet in his skepticism he refuses to trust their testimony.

Hasn’t he taken his skepticism too far?

We value skepticism in our culture.  And there’s good reason to do so.  But, like Thomas, we often take our skepticism too far.

When?

Whenever we compromise community.  Whenever we don’t trust tradition.  Whenever we idolize individuality.

Now, I’ve mentioned it before: mainstream Christianity has seen a steady decline over the last four decades.  Decline is happening in the Church: the evidence proves it.

But a more difficult question to answer is why: Why has the mainstream church been in decline?

Perhaps it’s just this reason.  Perhaps it’s because we take our valued skepticism too far; we place a higher value on the skepticism of the individual than we do on the collective wisdom of the community.

A book I’ve been reading a lot lately says it this way—it’s an assessment, not a judgment:

“So many aspects of human life that in previous eras were decided for us are now matters of individual discretion.  Everything from what career to pursue, to where to live, to one’s social and political affiliations, and even one’s sexual identity is now a matter of ongoing discernment and self-discovery in ways unimaginable to previous generations.”

It used to be that people were shaped by societal factors largely outside of their own choosing, their own control.  But now, whether in where we go to college, where we work, or even where we choose to live, the author continues:

“we connect with people because we think they will meet our needs for intimacy or otherwise help us advance our own interests.  Of course, the reverse also becomes possible—when we feel like relationships are not meeting our needs, we switch out of them.  This applies to everything from friendships to jobs to marriage—and to church.”[i]

Individual choice—valuing the individual more than the community—is at the root of all this.  Yet Jesus Christ and his church are about the common good above the individual.

We value skepticism.  But when Thomas’s skepticism went too far and he compromised the common good of the early Christian community, he was branded forever with the moniker doubting.  Whenever we compromise the common good for whatever reason—whether it’s skepticism, distrust, prejudice, or plain old pride and arrogance—we go too far.

So what do we do about it?  I mean, if the predominant culture values skepticism and doubt to such an extent that we regularly and routinely compromise the common good and even idolize individuality, where can we go?  We are all products of our culture, whether we realize it or not.

Well, first, let me suggest where not to go.

Let’s not try to tackle this cultural problem as a church, standing on the corners and proclaiming to every passerby who might care enough to listen that you’re all a bunch of Narcissists.  That would make St. Paul’s look like we don’t really love this fallen world the way we say we do, the way Christ says we ought to.  So let’s not go there.

But, second, let me suggest where I think we ought to go: to ourselves.

We are products of our culture.  And that means all parts of our culture—the good parts and the bad.  It’s the air we breathe.  This means that we reflect the culture without even realizing it.  So, with respect to what we’ve been discussing today, yes, without even being aware of it we value skepticism too much.

If something comes up in our community we don’t like, more often than not it’s easier in our culture just to walk away from the community and find or create another one that suits our needs better.  Or, if there is some problem to be solved, isn’t it often the most critical, skeptical, independent minds that get noticed?  And don’t we want to get noticed?

So, the first step is to become aware of this cultural tendency—in the world around us, yes; but even more importantly in ourselves.

And, then, whenever we catch ourselves compromising the common good; whenever we catch ourselves not trusting tradition; whenever we catch ourselves idolizing the individuality of self—that’s when Jesus meets us.

Just like he met Thomas, one week after Easter Sunday; and he said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

In that moment, all Thomas’s skepticism and doubt fell by the wayside—all his compromising attitude towards the early Christian community; all his distrust of tradition; all his idolatry of self.

And he responded, simply, “My Lord and my God!”

Whenever we catch ourselves valuing our skepticism too much—whenever Jesus meets us in our individual arrogance—may we respond as Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

[i] Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church (2014), 16.

Doubt; Confusion; Snark

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on April 27, 2014 by timtrue

Serodine_Doubting_Thomas

John 20:19-31

Why do we call him doubting Thomas?

Yes, I know there’s this passage, here, about him. Jesus appears to the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” And Thomas isn’t in the room.

Soon afterwards Thomas hears about the Lord’s appearing and says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Sometime later Jesus appears again and says, “Peace be with you.” And Thomas is there this time. Jesus says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands”—a curious point to which we’ll come back—and then, “Do not doubt but believe.”

So is this why we call him doubting? Because Jesus himself said, “Do not doubt but believe”?

Just to put it out there, the other disciples were just a doubtful as Thomas. Yet we don’t call them things like skeptical Simon, at-a-loss Andrew, or befuddled Bartholomew.

So, why Thomas?

This question becomes even more absurd when we look more broadly at the man Thomas. In the other three Gospels, he’s barely noticed. His name is merely mentioned—and only one time in each narrative. Other than that he is one of the twelve, we learn nothing. Everything else we know about him comes from John.

With respect to John then, he shows up in two other passages before today’s.

The first is in John 11, you remember, that chapter where Lazarus dies. A messenger comes to Jesus and says, “Lazarus, the one that you love, is very ill, about to die.” Then Jesus waits for a couple more days where he is before going to raise Lazarus. He tells the disciples plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” And Thomas responds, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”

What is behind this response? Was Thomas being sarcastic? Like, “Yeah, right, I ain’t going back there. Last time you were that close to Jerusalem, Jesus, we almost all got killed. Yeah, guys! Hey, great idea! Let’s go also, that we may die with him.”

I don’t know. Maybe we should call him snarky Thomas, not doubting.

The only other time we see Thomas is just before Jesus says some very well-known words. Addressing his disciples, Jesus says something about going to his Father’s house, where “there are many dwelling-places.” He then adds, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Then Thomas says to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In this episode Thomas seems simply not to get it. Perhaps a better moniker would be confused.

Yet we know Thomas as doubting.

So, anyway, I’d like to suggest a new name for Thomas today. Granted, I’m not about to presume it will catch on. We Christians have been calling Thomas doubting for nearly 2,000 years; and one piddly sermon, I know, won’t turn that tide.

Nevertheless, looking at the broader Gospel of John suggests a more accurate name for Thomas; and, by extension, a more accurate name for us. For we are all very much like Thomas. We all have times of doubt, times of confusion, and even times of snark. And thus we have a lot to learn from this character, this doubting disciple.

So for today, I propose we call him unseeing Thomas. And here’s why.

The Gospel of John plays a lot with the verb to see. The word has many different shades of meaning in Greek, just like it does in English. When we say, “I see,” we can mean any number of things: I see something, a physical object; I understand; I feel; I believe; and so on. It’s the same in Greek. In fact, one commentary I read this week claims that there are fully 20 different meanings of the word “see” in the Gospel of John.

So we encounter Thomas, one of the twelve apostles who lived closely with Jesus throughout his ministry—who saw Jesus daily in other words—and yet somehow throughout it all failed truly to see. Or, to put it another way, Thomas failed truly to understand who Jesus was; he failed to believe. And in this sense he was unseeing.

Think back four weeks to that Sunday when Jesus healed the man born blind. Thomas was like so many others in that story. There were religious leaders, remember, who asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They didn’t really see the truth, did they?

Then there were the man’s parents. They feared the religious leaders and said something along the lines of, “We don’t know how our son now sees. Ask him, for he is of age.”

There were others in the story too—neighbors, people in the community who had grown up around the blind man and no doubt knew him; and, arguably, even some of the apostles—for whom it was the same. No one in the story could believe it.

No one could believe that Jesus had performed a miracle, that the man who had been born blind could now see. No one, that is, except Jesus and the healed man himself!

Then the story ends with a sort of twist. All the people who could see physically at the story’s beginning were unable truly to see—or, to believe—at the story’s end.

This seeing-yet-blindness—this unseeing—then, is what characterizes Thomas (and many others) throughout the Gospel. It is at the root of his doubt, of his confusion, of his snark.

And—I think you know this already—this unseeing is at the root of your spiritual struggles, and at the root of mine.

We are like Thomas; we are unseeing.

In society we hear about changing economies, wars over oil, and duplicitous world rulers; and we want to give up on humanity.

In our corporate life as a church we get caught up in our individual concerns and causes and lose sight of the great and marvelous calling Jesus has given us together, to reconcile a tweaked universe to God.

In our families we can lose sight of what we’re about—siblings angering one another and holding lengthy grudges, for instance, instead of rejoicing in all the stunning variety found in the closeness of blood relationships.

In our personal lives, too, we fail at prayer and other spiritual disciplines.

We seek to control others, or to control circumstances, to manipulate our environment, so that things will go well for us and those we love. But in doing these things, it is so easy to lose sight of Jesus, that he is giving sight to the blind despite our unbelief, that he is in control of our lives and the cause-and-effect circumstances that take place continually all around us. In doing these things we forget to trust Jesus; we knock him off his throne as King of kings and Lord of lords and we put ourselves there instead, in his place. In our own doubt, like Thomas, not only do we fail to trust; more significantly, we fail to see.

But notice how today’s passage ends. Jesus appears among the disciples a second time. And this time Thomas is here. Jesus looks at him and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands . . . Do not doubt but believe.”

Does Thomas actually touch the resurrected Jesus? We don’t know! The scriptures merely say that Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” not that he touched Jesus.

But—whether he touched him or not, that’s beside the point!—in his answer there is no doubt, no confusion, and no snark; only belief, only true seeing.

Thomas is our example this morning, for we are very much like him: doubting. But Jesus is right here in the midst of us, right now. Our only right response is to answer, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Blessed are those who truly see; blessed are those who believe.