You can say Thomas was in the area when Jesus died. He recognized the blood soaked, naked man who had been beaten within a half-inch of his life crumbling under the weight of the cross. Thomas felt the same fear of his more famous brethren, the celebrated fisherman, Peter and the Thunder sons, James and John, the natural leaders of the Apostolic band. He felt their shame. When an itinerant preacher/teacher died his movement routinely died with him. Thomas was in fear for his life, cut off from his support system, a member of a tragically failed movement and, at the moment, out of a job.
Thomas is the scapegoat of the phrase, “Doubting Thomas.” He got a report of Jesus’s resurrection but he had reason to be skeptical of the event itself. He had less reason than most to rely on the men who brought him the news. Have you ever wondered why the women in the Cross-Resurrection Event were more convincing than the men? The ladies who first discovered the Empty Tomb immediately took their report to men who then ran to the tomb. Thomas heard the news from some of the same men. He snorted in disgust. The women were more effective in evangelism.
Thomas doubted. He needed some proof of this latest miracle, regardless of what he had previously seen or heard. He openly expressed his skepticism. In so doing, he became the Most Valuable Apostle for post-modern times.
You and I, my friend, live in a time when people do not just believe in God. People who believe today have to believe in God while facing remarkable, laudatory advances in some sciences, arts, literature, music, ethics. God is not dead to the modern skeptic, just relatively unimportant.
That is to say, people today who believe in God do not believe in God without doubt. People who believe in God today believe in God in the midst of their doubts. So, Thomas, not Peter, is the Most Valuable Apostle in the 21st Century, because he is the questioning skeptic able to believe even though he doubts, wonders and questions.
Please understand, though this is a sermon, I have no intention to help you make up your mind about the existence of God, or if you should let God into your life (exactly how do you keep God out, if God there be?). There is little here you could call salesmanship and less poetry. I resent the dear idiots who need everything spelled out for them, calling themselves “simple” when they should use the word “lazy.” Belief and doubt require mental, emotional and spiritual activity, with great force. Belief may need more exertion but doubt stretches the spiritual muscles as well.
I do wish to say that Thomas is most valuable to our day’s Faith Community because he is able to believe while he doubts. He could as easily be called “Courageous Thomas,” as he could be called “Doubting Thomas,” but the latter is his nickname from back in the day and he is stuck with it. Perhaps that is a good thing. If we look at all we know about what makes up Thomas we could get some insight about how to live out our faith in a time of colossal doubt about matters of faith. What is so great about “Doubting Thomas?”
Thomas shows religious courage, John 11:7, 8, 16. Jesus, you see, spends the last eighteen months of His three year ministry repeatedly announcing His coming death in Jerusalem. He will go to Jerusalem. He will be delivered into the hands of persons who will do evil. He will die there and come again on the Third Day.
The last time we read about Jesus’ “coming death” announcement His epitaph is paired with a closing comment by Thomas. Thomas says, to the Apostolic Band, “Let’s go to Jerusalem with Him and there die.”
Thomas knows what all of the Apostolic Band knows. If Jesus goes and dies, the odds are pretty good they will all die with Him. Since Jerusalem seems to be the danger zone, the simple man might just decide to go elsewhere for the Holidays (Passover). You could to to Bethany, one of the suburbs of Jerusalem and stay away from the crowded areas, getting all the local flavor but without the Passion. You could go to Samaria, where you might not be welcome but at least they would not crucify you.
Or, you could just go home to the Galilee. If you once see the sun set over the Sea of Galilee you would understand why God would come there. Jerusalem has been torn up and torn down so often there are not even trees available from the New Testament times but it is hard to change a sunset or move a Sea. Thomas and the others could just go back to the Galilee, kick back and chill on the beach. Go to Jerusalem next year or the next. Let things calm down a bit.
Belief, which connotes obedient following, requires exertion, usually meaning risk, and some kind of meaningful emotional choice. Contemporary believers may miss the emotional and physical risk. We may look on the Scriptures as if the events described are told in some kind of replay, you know. like the instant classic version of a game involving our team, but one we know we win. There is less exertion in our fandom when we just look at the result from 2,000 years away. We know how things progress to a fixed ending, predictable, laid out in various steps. We may suck the humanity out of the event.
Thomas has no such illusions. He might just have well as said, “Sorry, this is not what I signed up for back then. I’m going home.”
Instead, Thomas exhibits courage. He has the most awesome kind of studied courage, for he has to overcome his fear of the crowds in Jerusalem and the apparent weariness of his fellows.
Why does Thomas have to apply Jesus’ announcement to the Apostolic Band? I think it must be that some of them just want to go home, or somewhere, just not to Jerusalem and apparent death. He is not announcing a consensus. Thomas is opposing his closest friends in order to take them up to Jerusalem to die with Jesus. If they go, it is because of Thomas, Doubting Thomas, not Peter, the Big Fisherman, or the Thunder Brothers, James and John. These three, Peter, James and John, get more ink than all the others put together. When it comes time to decide they will go on up to Jerusalem and die, however, the tactical command goes down to poor Doubting Thomas. He alone calls the Apostles to exertion, emotion and execution.
Thomas is the Most Valuable Apostle because of his courage. In our times, when leadership is so often determined by an electronic survey, courage is a precious commodity Thomas shows courage, courage against the foe, courage in the face of death, courage in the midst of his own weary faith group. Persons of courage are most valuable in all matters of belief.
In a time like ours, the person who chooses faith in God will need courage. So, Thomas, who shows courage in the face of death and in spite of corporate weariness in his fellows, is our example.
And, Thomas shows a fierce curiosity, John 14:1-6. When Jesus talks about heavenly things, He can get a bit poetic. He talks about Heaven like a native. Potential immigrants understandably want a map and a brochure. When Jesus says, “I am going to Heaven to prepare a way for you…and where I go you know and the way you know…” Thomas is the one who says, stubbornly, “Lord, we don’t know where or how. You are long on vision, short on details.”
And Jesus has to say, perhaps springing a trap He wanted all along, “I am the Way, I am the Truth, I am the Life.” Thomas looks for a way to his faith through his doubt. This is every believer in a secular age. Jesus knows the answer but we must still ask the question. Courage and fierce curiosity are necessary values for the present day believer, who looks for the sacred while he lives in a secular state.
The secularist has his problems to be sure. He has to look around and ask, “is this it? Is this the sum total of all things? And if this is all there is, what does it really matter?” A secularist can serve art for the sake of art or knowledge for the sake of knowledge but there are hollow idols if they are the end of themselves.
But the poor believer is all the more perplexed. Heaven is the next reality but how can it matter and how can he know? He wants the feeling of holding it all in his hands, not trusting in his leaking heart. How can he believe, more than a little now and believe enough tomorrow for his belief to matter in the trials Jesus says will come?
Believers must have a fierce curiosity. Jesus tells His closest fellows He is going somewhere they know and that they know how to arrive there. Thomas flatly contradicts Jesus to His face. This is the fierce curiosity of the successful believer. Thomas has fierce curiosity and that makes his Apostolic Trading Card Number One with a Bullet.
Thomas also has a crowning moment, John 20:19-29. This is the famous moment for Thomas. He escapes behind the barred door where the apostles are hiding. He hears the news of the Empty Tomb, with its Resurrection application. He expresses a perfectly acceptable post-modern skepticism about life after death. He must see Jesus to believe, he has to see Jesus’ wounds, before he will believe. Then, Jesus appears and offers auditory, visual and tactile sensations for Thomas.
Thomas falls down in front of Jesus. He calls him, “My Lord and My God.” This is a solitary expression for the identity of the Christ, Jesus. He gets a lot of names in His time. He applies certain ones to Himself, like Son of Man, allowing others room to decide just who He is and what He is about. There is room for the (truly) simple believer and the skeptic. In the face of overwhelming evidence, Thomas decides for Jesus. Jesus is not only Thomas’ Lord (leader; head of the Band) but Jesus is His God, the full expression of divinity in a human body. This is the crowning moment for Thomas. He gets it. From this moment, it is the other Apostles who need some reconstruction. Thomas gets it. He will serve Jesus for the rest of his life now.
Thomas, you know, is said to die much later and in India, not then, and not in Jerusalem. Church history depicts Thomas holding a spear in his hand, for it is believed he was killed with a spear and the ancient church often pictured the martyrs with the final instrument of their death. So, Thomas gets a spear in India, near Madras in December of the year 72.
So, he died, as die Jesus does in Jerusalem, as you and I must some day die. In the years remaining to him, somehow Thomas remains constant with the believers of the Way. He is one of the seven fishing in the Sea of Galilee when the Risen Lord appeared to them, cf. John 21. Galilee after all! He does get home, though church history says he walked all the way to India spreading the word as he goes. Thomas, Doubting Thomas, courageous, curious Thomas, completes his course, pierced by a spear in a far, exotic land.
I wonder if he wanted to go back to Jerusalem, then, or ever? Jews today use this word for a sojourn to Jerusalem, aliyah.” The word literally means “ascent.” If you are going to Jerusalem you are said climb, to walk uphill, to ascend, to seek the higher ground. If you and I are to believe like Thomas we must make our aliyah. The secularists around us (and we are they) might not go up with us. They might not seek the higher ground, courageous, curious about the final things, hopeful for a successful denouement. The world seems to be mostly in a descending spiral right now, a century or more after secularity took the microphone. Perhaps we should look back down the path to our secular brothers/sisters (we are they) and call them to make the aliyah, to ascend, to go up with us.
If we do, and if they come, we will see the Resurrected Savior. Up near Him, we might also catch sight of Doubting Thomas, close to the the throne, a quizzical look on his dark face.