Sunday, May 1, 2011

2nd Sunday of Easter - May 1, 2011

Aside from Judas the betrayer, there is no other disciple who has a worse reputation than Thomas.  Or should I say, Doubting Thomas?  Throughout the history of the church Thomas has been pointed at and warned against, “Don’t be like him!  He’s the one who refused to have faith in Jesus until he had proof.”  These days, however, there are folks who are rehabilitating Thomas, who even think that he outdid the other disciples in faith because he confessed that Jesus was God before any of the others.  So which is it?  Is Thomas a bum or a hero?  Is he doubting Thomas?  Or someone else?

First of all, what really happened?  Just how did Thomas get stuck with such a lousy nickname?  The traditional interpretation goes like this.  After Jesus was crucified the disciples gathered together in a house.  They were legitimately concerned about their own safety, so they were keeping their heads down.  Plus they were comforting each other in their grief.  Then they got the word from the women that Jesus wasn’t dead; he had been raised from the dead.  Later that night Jesus appeared to them and they all believed; they had faith.  Thomas had taken off somewhere, though.  And when he returned and when they told him what had happened, he refused to believe.  He insisted on physical proof, “Unless I see the marks 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.”  All the other disciples believed, but he did not.  Therefore, he is rightly called Doubting Thomas. 

It is true that Thomas did come to believe after Jesus again appeared to the group the following week.  Thomas was there this time and saw Jesus for himself.  At this point, he had his proof.  But the traditional interpretation is that his faith didn’t quite measure up to the faith of the other disciples because he had needed proof.  What Jesus says to him seems to reinforce this view, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Reading between the lines, this sounds an awful lot like Jesus is rebuking Thomas.  Hence, he has been saddled with the unfortunate nickname all these years. 

Now this interpretation follows pretty closely the bible text.  But it isn’t the only way that one can interpret the events that took place.  As I said, these days there are many who are trying to rehabilitate Thomas.  Perhaps he wasn’t as bad as we have been led to believe.  Their interpretation might be a bit more like this:

After Jesus was crucified, his disciples were terrified.  And so they hid behind locked doors.  They hid on Saturday and they were still hiding there on Sunday.  Some of the women had some courage and they went out to see the tomb.  Once they came back with the news that Jesus had been raised, a couple of the men went to check, but by evening time, they were all locked behind closed doors again out of fear.  It was on the evening of that first Easter Sunday that Jesus appeared to them.

There was, however, one disciple who was not there.  Thomas.  We are not told where he was or what he was doing, but it seems possible, maybe even probable, that he had more courage than the other disciples.  He wasn’t immobilized by fear and hadn’t shut up himself up behind locked doors.  In any event, he missed out.  Upon his return the disciples told Thomas, “Guess what?  We saw the Lord!” 
“Yeah right.” 
“No, really.  We saw him.  The door was locked and everything and then all of a sudden he was here.” 
“You bunch of sissy cowards.  You’re too chicken to leave the house and so you sit around and conjure up fantasies to try to make yourselves feel better.  He’s dead.  I saw him die.  Unless I see the marks 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.”

Interpreters who are sympathetic to Thomas will point out that Thomas wasn’t asking for any more proof than the other disciples had gotten.  And this is true.  Jesus had shown them the nail marks and the surely could have touched them.  And in any event, it’s no great example of faith that they had displayed.  Sure they believed, but they had seen him.  It’s easy to bring yourself to believe when you see with your own eyes.

The interpretation continues like this: when Thomas finally did see the risen Christ, he not only believed that Jesus was risen.  He also confessed that Jesus was God.  This confession went beyond what any of the other disciples had said.  And so, according to these interpreters, Thomas is actually a better example of faith for us.  Sure, he didn’t believe right away, but when he did come to believe, his faith went further than all the others.  You might even call it, “better faith.”

So which is it?  Are we right in calling Thomas, Doubting Thomas?  Is he really an example of a poor kind of faith?  Or is it just the opposite?  Was he more courageous than the other disciples and did he show a better understanding of who Jesus really was?  Did Thomas have better faith?

Perhaps you won’t be too surprised if I tell you that neither of these are right, that both of them completely miss the point.  How so?  Both of these interpretations teach that belief, faith, is somehow the responsibility of the individual.  They both teach that the individual is responsible for having faith and for the quality of that faith.

Let’s look at the first interpretation.  The disciples who saw Jesus believed.  Thomas didn’t.  Disciples = good.  Thomas = bad.  Those disciples must have done something right.  Thomas must have done something wrong.  Simple.
This is bunk. 

How about the second interpretation?  It makes the same kind of error.  The other disciples only call Jesus, “Lord.”  Thomas calls him, “My Lord and my God.”  Therefore Thomas has better faith.  Simple.
This is also bunk.

There is something here that he is hiding in plain sight.  There is an obvious point that has to often been missed.  Nobody had faith.  Nobody.  Not the women.  Not the men.  Not Thomas.  Not the other disciples.  When Jesus died, absolutely nobody had faith.  Period.  Nobody deserves to pat themselves on the back.  They didn’t have faith because faith isn’t something that a person can produce.  It’s not the result of a decision.  It’s not the result of being a good person.  Faith comes as a gift.  Mary Magdalene was the first to receive this gift.  Some of the disciples received it when she told them about the risen Lord.  For some of the disciples, faith was not given to them until Jesus came and spoke to them that first night.  And for Thomas?  Thomas did not receive the gift of faith until the next week.

The point of this is to hopefully make it clear that faith is not some kind of great thing that we choose for ourselves, something that makes us better than anyone else.  Faith is an amazing gift that has been given to us.  That explains the meaning of Jesus words to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  These words do not mean, “Good for those folks who believe without evidence.”  No, not at all.  Jesus’ words mean something more like, “Those folks who will come to believe?  They are getting such an amazing gift.”  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.

And so I tell you this morning, You all are so very blessed.  You have received an amazing gift.  You haven’t gotten to see Jesus in the flesh just yet.  Nevertheless he has given you the gift of faith, the same gift of faith that he gave to the disciples and the same gift of faith that he gave to Thomas.  Or should I say, “Believing Thomas?”

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