'Tales of the Unexpected'
From this one passage in John's Gospel, Thomas seems to have forever been labelled as 'doubting Thomas' but is that really a deserving label for Thomas? We don't call Peter the denier so why call Thomas the doubter?
In John 11, after hearing of Lazarus' death, Jesus announced that he was going to Jerusalem even though he knew people wanted to kill him there, and it is Thomas who courageously says to the other disciples, ' Let us also go, that we may die with him.'
Here we see Thomas, a loyal disciple determined to be faithful and willing to follow his master even to death. This is not the marks of a doubter but of a devoted disciple.
In John 14, when Jesus tells his disciples there is a place for them and they will be there with him, it is Thomas who says, 'Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?' That is not doubt but rather it is an enquiring mind seeking to understand, desiring to know and follow Jesus.
Now just imagine if you were Thomas and the disciples told you that they had seen the Lord, the same Lord that you had seen brutally beaten and crucified on a cross, his hands pierced by nails and his side pierced by a spear, the same Lord that you had seen die on that cross and buried in the tomb - would you believe them? Surely, this was impossible and unbelievable - dead people just don't come alive again!
We can all relate to Thomas and his doubting and putting conditions on our faith saying that we will only believe if we have evidence and proof.
We might think that Thomas' outburst of honest doubt would have resulted in a further appearance from Jesus there and then but instead Thomas was left to reflect on his words for a whole week - that couldn't have been an easy week!
But when Jesus returned to the upper room a week later and Thomas saw and experienced for himself the transforming presence of the risen Lord, he stopped doubting and believed, and so declared his faith and belief in the risen Lord, recognising the humanity and divinity of Jesus and crying out in worship to him saying, 'My Lord and my God.'
Thomas was the first of the disciples to confess Jesus, not only as Lord but also as God. Doubting Thomas, Honest Thomas became Faithful Thomas ! Bold Thomas ! Believing Thomas !
Thomas is no more of a doubter than the rest of the disciples or most of us!
Did the disciples not react with the same unbelief when Mary Magdalene told them that she had seen the risen Lord?
The disciples had encountered the presence of the risen Lord a whole week before Thomas and yet we don't see much evidence of their faith in action - of their lives being transformed by that encounter.
Jesus had given them the gift of the Holy Spirit and commissioned them to go out in his name proclaiming the gospel message and yet when he reappears they are still hiding behind locked doors.
It is no wonder that their experience of the risen Christ hasn't convinced Thomas to believe as it doesn't seem to have dramatically transformed their lives.
Thomas is just questioning what others have seen as he eagerly wants to know and understand the truth - in wanting to see for himself, and have that personal encounter with the risen Jesus, he is just asking for the same assurance that others have had.
Thomas had to make this personal connection with Jesus for himself. Mary couldn't experience the resurrected Jesus for the disciples, and the disciples couldn't experience Jesus for Thomas.
True faith in Christ involves a personal encounter and living relationship with Christ and so faith can't be borrowed from someone else.
We see in the passage that Jesus does not rebuke Thomas for his doubts but rather he treats him with kindness and compassion, greeting him with peace and offering him the assurance of faith that he needs. Jesus understands Thomas' doubts and wants Thomas to have the faith to believe and so he offers him the assurance he needs by showing him his pierced hands and side. Jesus tells Thomas to 'stop doubting and believe' - Jesus' words were not spoken to shame Thomas but rather to build his faith.
Maybe Thomas should have been able to believe on the basis of what the other disciples had told him - maybe the other disciples should have been able to believe on the basis of what Mary Magdalene had told them. They didn't and Thomas didn't, but Jesus meets them where they are, not where they perhaps should have been.
So this is not a story of judgement and reprimand but of hope and promise. Jesus is far more interested in whether we trust him than why, and that is why no two people's stories of faith are quite the same.
Not all of us see blinding flashes of light on the road to Damascus like Paul, none of us have touched the physical wounded hands of Jesus like Thomas, but for each of us, Christ reaches out to us in whatever way we need to be reached in order for us to believe and trust Christ. Jesus will meet us where we are as he longs to have a living relationship with us all, but will we allow him to meet us, and will we let that encounter transform our lives?
As Jesus appeared to Thomas and treated him with kindness, this reminds us that doubts do not disqualify us from discipleship. In fact it has been said that faith and doubt are both needed, not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve. As Paul Tillich said, 'doubt isn't the opposite of faith; rather it is an element of faith.'
Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and writer, puts it in more basic terms as he says that if we don't have any doubts, we're either kidding ourselves or asleep. He characterizes doubts as 'the ants in the pants' of faith - they keep it awake and moving!
So Thomas can be seen as a sign of hope to those struggling with faith and doubt, knowing that our faith can grow and become stronger because of our honesty in facing our doubts and striving to understand the truth. We all face uncertainty and doubt at times but how we deal with those doubts will show our strength of faith - our doubt must be exposed to test our faith and our doubt must be prepared to face up to the evidence.
So will we live in despair and let our doubts engulf us, or will we live in hope and allow ourselves to be honest about our doubts, striving to learn from them and so letting faith overcome?
Thomas had both faith and doubt, but his faith overcame his doubts as he encountered the presence of the risen Christ. When he recognised Jesus he cried out in worship saying, 'My Lord and my God' - he knew then the truth that Jesus who he had seen die on the cross was now risen and alive.
Although his common sense and fear told him that dead people don't rise and come alive again, he knew in his heart that it was true - that what seemed to be unbelievable and totally impossible is believable and possible in the power of God.
Sometimes when we read this passage, we don't hear anything else but 'doubting Thomas' but this story also shows great faith and is more about how the Risen Christ responds to our need for faith.
Jesus' tender words of 'Peace be with you' offer the disciples comfort and joy, and he offers us the same words today as he comes amongst us in his risen power, coming into our doubts and fears, our difficulties and our concerns.
When we are paralysed by the kind of fear that causes us to shut ourselves in, the risen Lord comes to us, speaking a word of liberating peace. However, Jesus does not just stop at offering peace, for He also then breathes the Holy Spirit upon us and says, 'As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.'
The purpose of the risen Lord's people is to be sent out, and so we can't stay hiding behind locked doors. As we encounter the presence of the risen Lord, we are challenged to allow that presence to transform us so we can then go forth in his name, proclaiming the good news of the gospel so others would then come to believe also.
For many of us, like Thomas, 'seeing is believing' and yet with faith we are challenged to recognise that 'believing is seeing' - that in faithful believing, we can truly see.
So let us have the faith to believe and to see the truth and so confess Jesus as our Lord and our God.
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