“Doubting” Thomas: A GOOD Role Model

The Sunday after Easter is known by several names. Most people will call it, “Low Sunday” because it is one of the Sundays churches experience the lowest attendance in worship. Everyone makes a big push on Easter to get the family to church, especially the members who normally don’t come. I think that takes so much energy to get the C&E crowd to attend (that’s “Christmas and Easter” folks), the regulars just don’t have enough leftover to come the next Sunday.

In the Episcopal Church, this same Sunday is also known as “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” Episcopalians rotate the readings for worship in a three-year cycle so that over the course of those years they will have read most of the Bible. That means on a regular Sunday, the readings you hear won’t be read all together again for three more years. The exception is the Sunday following Easter. Every year the gospel reading is that of Thomas questioning whether or not his fellow disciples truly did see the risen Christ while Thomas was out of the room.

Poor Thomas. He gets labeled as “Doubting Thomas” and we wag our fingers at him, saying, “shame on you, Thomas.”

If you do a Google search for Thomas from the gospels, the first articles you see tell the history of Thomas the apostle, mentioning that he’s known as “the twin” and also as “Doubting Thomas.” You also find a couple of posts that ask the question: How can I NOT be a Doubting Thomas?
But I love Thomas! This is one of my favorite Sundays to preach because I love this story so much, mostly because I relate to Thomas.

When the story begins, we find that all of the disciples except for Thomas were hiding in fear in the upper room. They were terrified because of what had happened to Jesus. John said they were “afraid of the Jews.” Of course, we know John did not mean that the disciples were afraid of all Jewish people, because they themselves were Jewish. But they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, who crucified Jesus.

Thomas was not in that room. Everyone else was afraid and was hiding, but Thomas was not there. I like to imagine that Thomas was out and about taking care of business; and I admire Thomas for that. The other disciples’ fear kept them in hiding and locked away from the world. I cannot presume to say that Thomas did not have fear, surely he did. However, Thomas did not allow that fear to keep him trapped in that room and instead, he was out doing what needed to be done
While he’s gone, Jesus showed up to the disciples, and they were able to see and hear Jesus. They had an encounter with the risen Christ, and Thomas did not.

When Thomas returned, the others couldn’t wait to tell him what they saw, which is that the risen Jesus appeared to them. Thomas’s reaction was perfect; it was exactly what I would have done and what I would have said. They said to him, “We’ve seen the risen Lord!” and he simply responded along the lines of, “Yeah right. Until I see it, feel him myself, and get a chance to put my fingers in those wounds, I am not going to believe it.”

I think there were very good, real human reasons for Thomas’s reaction. First of all, it’s healthy to be skeptical. Thomas saw Jesus die. He saw his dead body. He knew he had been crucified and laid into the tomb. It is completely reasonable for Thomas to doubt that Jesus would come back to life.
But I also think there was a part of Thomas that was afraid to believe because the person he loved – his teacher, his mentor, his Messiah – had been killed. No matter how much faith a person has, it would be a very real honest emotion to be afraid to believe that the other disciples had seen Jesus. There are times when we are afraid to hope in something that sounds too good to be true.

I also wonder if Thomas was angry because he had been the one out in the world continuing to live in defiance of the fear, not hiding up in the room. Surely there was a part of Thomas that resented being the one who was accomplishing things, but also was the one who was not allowed to see Jesus

The next time Jesus showed up, Thomas was in the room, and Jesus addressed Thomas directly. Thomas was allowed to touch Jesus, to feel the actual wounds of the crucified Lord. That is significant. The other disciples only heard and saw Jesus. It was Thomas’s doubt that led him to a more direct and intimate encounter with Christ than the others were granted. It was because he had questions and doubts about the validity of what the other disciple said that the opportunity opened for him to have a more personal experience with Jesus.

Part of why we wag our fingers at Thomas is because Jesus told him “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who will believe and have not seen.” Often this is interpreted as Jesus implying a sentiment of “Shame on you Thomas! Other people will be more blessed than you because they believe without seeing.”

But I hear in Jesus‘s words a little something different. I wonder if Jesus was giving Thomas instructions and a directive. Thomas had the benefit of seeing, hearing, and feeling the resurrected Christ, but Thomas was about to go out into the world and take the good news of Jesus to people who would not have that benefit. Jesus was going to ascend to the father and no one else would have the encounter physically with the risen Lord. I wonder if Jesus was also saying to Thomas here, “Thomas, you now will have to take this amazing experience that you have had and find a way to creatively share that with others”. He was letting Thomas know in some ways that Thomas had a big job ahead of him. He would have to somehow re-create his incredible experience of faith with other people so that they might come to believe and have a personal relationship with God.

The amazing thing is that Thomas managed to do just that! Thomas, amazingly by legend, was the one who took the gospel to India for the first time. Thomas went out into the world and taught people about Jesus Christ and converted them without any foundation in Jewish story. He shared the gospel with people who did not have the benefit of the long history of the Jewish people to set the context for why the messiah was important. They were people who had never heard about Jesus; didn’t know where Nazareth was; might not even ever have heard of Jerusalem. And yet, Thomas successfully was able to share the power of his direct experience with the resurrected Christ in a way that brought other people into the faith to have their own relationship with God.

This is why I love Thomas so much. I can relate to him so easily. How he responds to the disciples is how I would have responded. What he said is probably what I would have said. I wouldn’t have wanted to believe it on face value, but would have wanted to have had some experience myself to be able to see.

And isn’t that what we’re encouraged to do? We are meant to have our own unique, personal relationship with God. We cannot have that level of an intimate relationship solely based on what other people say. We cannot build our faith on the face value of other people’s experiences and interpretations. I can say, for myself, that the moments that I have doubted; the moments that I have had my faith shaken; the moments that I questioned everything about my faith are the very moments that opened the next door to allow me into a much richer, deeper and intimate relationship with God.

If I had based my faith solely on what people had told me, I would have no real faith at all. Instead, it is the questions, the challenges, the doubts that open up the possibility for us to have deeper and more transformative experiences and encounters with God. That is how God reveals Godself to us in new and amazing ways that speak particularly to us.

These personal relationships are what empower us to go forth into the world to use our own gifts and abilities to share the love of God with others. We have our own unique experience with God that informs how we go out individually as disciples sharing our experiences in faith. In so doing we invite other people into this relationship with God that teaches us about love and forgiveness and everything else.

Thomas instead for us is a wonderful example of how to be on our faith journey. Honestly, instead of reading posts about questioning how not to become a doubting Thomas, the better posts would ask God to make us better doubting Thomases.

One Comment Add yours

  1. hemmerjr says:

    I am proud that I also relate, very much, to Thomas, as you have so eloquently explained him!


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