So, here are two interesting facts about the story of the man history has dubbed the “Doubting Thomas”. First, did you realize that none of the earliest Christian writings – Paul’s letters and the gospel of Mark – report any appearances of Jesus after the resurrection? These accounts weren’t part of tradition until 25 to 50 years after Jesus’ death. We can only then assume that they are parables about Jesus, told to convey a specific message.
Second, the story of Jesus appearing to Thomas is one of a handful of scripture that is proscribed by the churches to be read every year (for those of you familiar with the Common Lectionary, you’ll see that John 20:19-31 is the gospel reading for every year).
Both of these observations move me to ask “why?” Why did the author of John tell this story of Thomas? Why does “the church” want us to hear this story every year right after Easter?
I believe the answer to the first is relatively simple. John’s audience was generations after Jesus was gone and therefore had no personal experience of him or his disciples. In this parable, Thomas will only believe once he has seen and touched Jesus. And, while Jesus complies to his demands, Jesus also says, “blessed are those who have not seen and believed.” This was a call to faith, to trust in that which people hadn’t seen with their own eyes.
I’m a bit more cynical about the answer to the second question. Sadly, I believe the church has often lifted this passage up to make a negative example of Thomas. It has suggested that Thomas has fallen short and twists this parable so that we see Thomas as being shamed by Jesus into believing. This becomes a helpful tool in controlling the people. How many of you have been told don’t doubt, don’t ask questions, just believe, have faith. The implication is that if you doubt then obviously your faith isn’t strong enough.
Personally, I’m glad that the Thomas reading comes up in the rotation every year, but for exactly the opposite reason. It is a good and healthy thing for people to doubt and question and realize that Jesus will meet them right where they are without judgment. Why is it good and healthy? Because every story of spiritual growth that I have ever heard has begun with someone asking the tough questions, doubting what they’ve heard or been taught, struggling with the belief systems that don’t work. I pulled a bunch of spiritual and theological books off my shelves and, sure enough, author after author talked about how and event, or series of events led them to seriously question their understanding of God and themselves and set them on a journey to discover the truth.
We hardly ever receive answers as quickly as Thomas did. In fact, all of the people I read about spent years exploring their questions. They lived their questions, walked with them, discussed them with people they respected, and trusted that God was walking with them, providing what was needed until the pieces came together in ways that made sense. However, I never got the sense that any of these folks felt like they were “done”. They simply realized that it was ok for their beliefs, their understanding of God and the relationship with God to change and grow.
So, question, doubt, claim Thomas as your patron saint, and allow yourself to grow.
Love & Light,