St Thomas the Apostle - 2022 - John 20.24-29
“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
A quote from the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell which, I think, has much to commend it and which seems apt today as we celebrate the feast of St Thomas the Apostle, otherwise known as “Doubting Thomas”.
One of twins (the name Thomas in Aramaic means “twin” Thomas tends to be referred to by his famous nickname which I think, is a tad unfair, given how accounts of the resurrected Jesus clearly reveal that doubt wasn’t entirely absent in the other disciples either.
We first hear Thomas speak in chapter 11 of St John’s gospel just after the death of Lazarus. In the other gospels he simply features in lists of the disciples’ names. Patron saint of India (where he established seven church communities) he was martyred around AD 72 and is much revered by Christians and Muslims alike, his tomb in Mylapore having been maintained by a Muslim who kept a light burning there. But he was first thought to have been assigned to Parthia in North Eastern Iran and I rather like the story about him which is recalled in the Lion book “A Treasury of Saints” which I paraphrase as follows:
The Twelve Disciples drew lots to decide which countries they should visit in order to proclaim the Gospel. Apparently it fell to Thomas to go to India but initially he didn’t fancy that. It so happened that a merchant named Abban was looking for a carpenter to build a new palace for the King of Parthia (Gundafor) and Thomas, who was a carpenter by trade, decided to go there instead.
The story goes that the king gave him a great deal of money to pay for the new palace and then went on his travels but when the king returned he found Thomas had given the money to the poor and had spent his time preaching and teaching people the message of Jesus.
The king put Thomas in prison and threatened him with death but before that could happen the king’s brother took gravely ill and almost died. On his recovery he told the king not to kill Thomas, speaking of having been taken to heaven by angels and being shown a palace more wonderful than any on earth and being told that such joys were waiting in heaven for all who believed the Christian message.
On hearing that the king released Thomas and asked him to tell him about Jesus. Thomas did so and the king and his brother both became Christians. It is said that Thomas then journeyed on to India.
The Gospel of Thomas (also known as the Coptic Gospel of Thomas) is an extra-canonical sayings gospel, found among the group of books known as the Nag Hammadi library which were discovered in Egypt in December 1945 purports in its introduction to be written by Thomas, but most modern scholars don’t consider him to be the author.
But what do we learn about Thomas from our Gospel reading today?
The temptation with such a familiar passage, especially when the nickname is so entrenched in our tradition, is perhaps to avoid looking at it as closely as we should, to avoid examination of the whole and instead to latch on to Jesus’ words at the end of the short account which single out, for special blessing, those who believe without seeing.
The reading contains only six verses but actually there’s quite a lot of information in them. We’re told the other disciples tell Thomas they have seen the Lord. We’re also told that Thomas is very explicit that he won’t believe Jesus is risen, not just without seeing Jesus for himself, but unless he touches him. In other words, Thomas contends that not even his eyes are to be trusted. It will take more to convince him.
In our modern world, when we are only too aware that “seeing is not necessarily believing”, and when we’re all too familiar with the fact that images that can be manipulated, Thomas’ approach might have much to commend it. I wonder too whether Thomas wasn’t also displaying a fair amount of wisdom and common sense in not readily accepting the witness of his fellow disciples. After all, don’t people often see things they want to? Aren’t our perceptions often distorted by our desperate desire for things to be a particular way when the reality is quite different? And the disciples were, of course, desperate to believe that Jesus hadn’t been permanently taken from them.
What strikes me about the passage is what Thomas doesn’t say. He doesn’t say to the others. “Don’t be ridiculous!” He doesn’t say “Are you out of your minds?”or “Have you had too much to drink?” He doesn’t say “You stupid lot. You’ve been fooled or hoodwinked”. He doesn’t say that he won’t ever believe it. (Of course, wanting further proof in itself doesn’t necessarily equate to unbelief - one might want further proof for a variety of reasons).
But Thomas says he won’t believe “unless…..”. He sets out his criteria for believing. Indeed it almost sounds like he’s throwing a challenge down to Jesus. “Come on, show me then….” “Don’t leave me out if you want me to tell people about you!”
The more I read and re-read the passage the less sure I am that it is a passage about Doubt quite in the way we’re used to perceiving it. Because if we read on we realise that it’s not even clear that Thomas touches Jesus and actually I’m not convinced that it’s the act of ‘seeing’ Jesus which provokes Thomas’ declaration of Jesus’ divinity.
Rather, what we read is Jesus referencing Thomas’ own words - the words he spoke to his fellow disciples a week earlier. What we read is Jesus telling Thomas to do exactly what Thomas had said he needed to do. Imagine the impact the repetition of those very words must have had on Thomas! Jesus, who had not been present with him earlier, speaking Thomas’ own words back to him. That must have spooked Thomas. Was it hearing that, in fact, which convinced him? Was it Jesus, speaking into Thomas’ heart and mind which put all Thomas’ doubts to rest?
Given we’re not told that Thomas actually puts his finger where the nails were, or his hand into Jesus’ wounded side, are we to believe that, in fact, those criteria set by Thomas were cast aside and that rather it was Jesus’ address to him which convinced him to believe?
Is the passage really just about Thomas doubting Jesus’ resurrection? Or is it also about Thomas doubting the extent of Jesus’ love and care for him after he’s excluded from that earlier appearance to the disciples? And might it also be as much about Thomas doubting the collective witness of his fellow disciples - his lack of trust in his fellow Christians?
It takes a very personal encounter with Jesus for Thomas to declare his belief in Jesus’ divinity, no matter how many of his well meaning friends may have told him of their own encounter with their Lord. When Jesus commends belief in the absence of seeing is he perhaps also emphasising a need to trust in our own deeper instincts rather than in the reports of others per se?
The passage concludes not simply with Thomas declaring that Jesus is risen but by asserting that Jesus is God! His declaration goes much further than the initial declaration of his friends to him.
Sometimes I can’t help but think that in our desperate desire to introduce people to Jesus, and in the Church’s many mission initiatives, we forget the importance of, and the need to allow space for, the Holy Spirit to do its work in enabling such deeply personal encounters with Jesus to take place. Rarely, if ever, can we argue people into faith.
For me St Thomas really is an apostle to be celebrated. I love the honesty this account of him in St John’s gospel reveals. It seems to me there’s nothing wrong with wanting more proof though, as Jesus points out, we are indeed blessed if our faith is not dependent on seeing. To doubt is to be honest, a sign of intelligent and critical engagement with our faith, rather than an indicator of weakness.
I began with a quote and I’ll end with one from the Spanish novellist, poet and philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno
“Life is doubt,
And faith without doubt is nothing but death.”
© The Reverend Jane Walker
Richard Young (Rector)