April 28, 2019

John 20: 19-31 Doubting Thomas

Carla Wilks

A man was walking on the beach one morning after a storm.  All kinds of debris was washed onto the beach, including thousands of sea stars.  As he’s walking along, he sees a small boy with his mom, and he watches the boy as he carefully picks up sea star after sea star off the beach, walks to the end of a long pier, and carefully drops them back into the safety of the water.

After watching for a while the man says to the boy “There are thousands of sea stars, you can’t possibly save them all.  You could be here all day and still not get them all.  Why don’t you go play – there’s too many sea stars on this beach for one little boy to make a difference.”

..Picking up another sea star, the boy walked towards the pier.  Looking over his shoulder he held up the one in his hands and said, “You just watch – I’ll make a world of difference to this one”

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear about Thomas.  Perhaps more than any other disciple, Thomas encouraged the others to stay with Jesus in hard times – knowing that their faithfulness to this one man made a difference to God.  During Lent, we heard of Jesus telling the disciples that he is going to go into the city to be with Lazarus.  They try to convince him not to go – fearing that he may be killed.  When Jesus insists, it is Thomas who says, “Let us go, that we may die with him”.

We have almost no other stories about Thomas.  But if you were to go to a Christian church in northern Syria and Egypt – you would hear many more stories about Thomas – who they refer to as the twin of Jesus.  The Syrian church has a somewhat larger collection of stories that makes up their Bible.  Some of their Bible contains some pretty interesting stories – stories about Jesus in his childhood, throwing almighty temper tantrums, and some about Thomas’s missionary work in India following Jesus’ resurrection.  Thomas (Tau’ma) means twin in Classical Syriac, a form of the Aramaic which was the language of Jesus and his followers. And Didymus, a name by which Thomas is also called in the gospel of John, means twin in Greek. Perhaps some regarded the two as blood brothers.  Or perhaps the twinship was regarded as spiritual or symbolic.

In western Christian churches Thomas is known chiefly as the Doubter, the close follower of Jesus who had to touch his master’s wounds in order to be convinced that he had really risen from the dead. Among some of the earliest followers of Jesus in the Fertile Crescent, from northern Syria to Egypt, Thomas emerged much more prominently. He was seen as the special confidant of Jesus, recorder of his master’s sayings, and, in some sense, his twin. Churches across Asia came to regard him as their founding apostle.

They have one story about Thomas which, even if we don’t consider it to be Scripture, it is still a great story and may help us come to a deeper understanding of our Gospel reading today.

In chapter 17 of the book of the Acts of Thomas, Thomas offers to build a palace for one of India’s rulers, named Gundaphor.  Gundaphor agrees and sends him a considerable sum of money and supplies.  One day when the ruler comes to inspect the progress Thomas is making on his new palace – he finds that Thomas has used the money and supplies to build a relief program for the poor instead of a royal palace.  Gundaphor cries out, “I thought you said you would build me a palace!” and he throws Thomas into prison.  In the meantime, the Gundaphor’s brother happens to die and, while he is in heaven, the brother sees a beautiful palace and asks the angels if he can live there.  They tell him, “Well, you better ask Gundaphor, your brother on earth.  This heavenly palace belongs to him and was built with all the earthly works he did for the poor”.  After a ghostly visit from his brother, Gundaphor realizes his error, that Thomas was indeed building him a palace after all – but one in heaven, not on earth.

A neat story – not scripture in our tradition – but helpful.  It highlights our own understanding of this follower of Jesus.  Thomas is one who risks being with those who are suffering.

Thomas’s faith hinges on compassion in the true sense of the word.  The word, “Passion” from its roots meant, “Suffering”.  The word “Com-passion” means to “suffer with” – “com-passion”.  Thomas would never say that he was a follower of Jesus unless he was willing to suffer with him.

This sheds a whole new light on our Gospel story today.  Thomas returns from getting food, and there are all the disciples running around saying that Jesus is alive – that he’s back to his old self and everything is just fine.  Thomas is not impressed.  This is all a little too Hallmark for him.  Jesus has just suffered and died – this cannot be glossed over with sweet words.  Defiantly, he calls out, “Unless I can feel his wounds – I will not be a part of this!”

Thomas touched Jesus’ wounds on his hands and feet and side, and his life was transformed.

But what about us?  Where might we see the wounds of Christ today?

If you want to see the wounds of Christ – just look around you!  Last week when I was preparing the prayers of the people, I was checking the news late Saturday night, and saw the news of the bombings in Sri Lanka, then yesterday, another shooting in a synagogue in California.

We see in the news the violence that is unleashed on the innocent everyday all over the world.  With each act of violence, the pain is shared in the hands and feet of Christ.  Notice that when the risen Christ appears to the disciples, he is still wounded!  We would expect his hands to be healed after he appears to the disciples – but as Thomas shows us, they are not.  Christ does not just have compassion – Christ is compassion in the most profound way!  The risen Christ continues to suffer with his people!

So often, the suffering of this world is used as fundamental proof that God does not exist.  “How could God exist and allow all this suffering?”

But Thomas turns all this around.  He will not believe in a God who does not suffer with us.  He will not accept the joyous words of the disciples until he touches the wounds of Christ.  He touches the wounds – sees clearly the suffering of the world held in the palm of Christ’s hands – and this causes him to exclaim, “My Lord and My God!” – making him the only one – the only disciple in this Gospel to fully recognize the risen Christ.

It’s interesting to me that Thomas is often seen as one who was not quite as good a disciple as the others.  His faith is seen as less than the others.  We might have judged him as one who didn’t have enough faith as if faith was a commodity.

How often do we berate ourselves for not having enough faith, or we hear the call to not doubt but have faith?  I cringe every time I hear it said, “If I/he/she just has enough faith then this or that might not have happened.”  At best this belief is meaningless, and at worst, it is misleading and cruel and destructive.

Thomas wanted to be sure about the risen Christ.  What’s wrong with that?  Are we to believe everything we are told in matters of faith and life, or are we to search out and explore where the truth lies?

He was a member of a community of faith that allowed him to question, wonder and explore, and Christ was revealed to him in his questioning.

Perhaps he wasn’t so much a doubter but one who was seeking to believe, seeking the truth and that search required more than taking at face value what his friends said.

One of the things that I love most about the United Church and about Mount Seymour specifically, is that at our best we are an open and welcoming, forgiving, non-judgmental place where we are encouraged to wrestle through our faith issues and our wounded relationships so we can confess when seeing God’s presence, as Thomas did, “My Lord and my God”?

Wanting to be sure isn’t always about doubting.  It is sometimes about discernment, about watching and waiting to see the presence of Christ at work.  So, we need not fear questioning or wondering.   We need to be discerning.  We are called to be discerning, to see Christ’s peace at work and to offer Christ’s peace in the hard places with hard people.

And in our own lives – if we are ever like Thomas and want to know where Jesus is – all we need to do is to touch the wounds of Christ.  And we may begin with the wounds in our own life – Christ’s wounds, felt in the palms of our own hands:  Any of you who have lost a loved one – know this: Christ is suffering with us – Christ shares our wounds.  Shown through the care of friends and family, and sometimes even strangers, we can know that Christ is with us.  Those of us who have ever been hurt, whether by others or by life’s circumstances – Christ shares our wounds.  In the unexpected feelings of calm or healing that we may experience after such an event, we know that Christ is with us.  We are all wounded – this is simply a part of life for every living creature.

Consider a wound in your life that causes you suffering.  Imagine that wound, held gently in the caring hand of Christ.

And Christ, the one who is compassion, offers a healing presence by sharing these burdens with us.  By bearing these marks of death, we know he is still alive and working in our world and our lives.  By embracing our suffering, he embraces us, so that we too may live.

For those sea stars who were returned to the water, one by one, that boy made a difference to those creatures and offered them new life.

When we dare to see the woundedness around us, and reach out our own wounded hands to offer care to someone who is struggling or feeling isolated or unwelcomed, when we offer challenge in the face of injustice, or when we reach out to care for our environment in crisis, that’s when we can be the wounded hands of Christ, bringing opportunities for new life, making a difference in the world and in the lives of those we meet.

At different times and in different ways we see the risen Christ and in seeing we are to express as Thomas did, “My Lord and my God”, by being and witnessing to Christ’s peace in and for the world.

New life is being breathed into us.  Christ’s peace is ours.  As God sent Jesus, so Christ sends us.  What will that sending out look like as we embody Christ’s peace, in here and out there?

Christ’s peace is ours… Amen.