Thursday, March 31, 2016

In Defense of Thomas

If your church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, this Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter, always features the same Gospel text from John 20. It is the story right after Mary Magdalene has her encounter with Jesus in the garden, featuring the disciples all huddled together in a locked room. Jesus suddenly appears to them, and they rejoice.

Except one disciple was absent. Thomas (sometimes called The Twin) was off doing something else that day. So the rest of the group made it a point to share the good news of the resurrection with him, but he's still skeptical. He even goes so far as to say that unless he can stick his fingers in Jesus' wounds himself, he won't believe. He won't trust the disciples' testimony; he wants to have his own experience of the risen Christ.

Sure enough, Thomas does so. Jesus even holds out his hands and says, "Here, stick your finger in there if you really want to."

Because of this story, we know Thomas by a certain name. It's not just Thomas and it's not just The Twin. No, Christians have saddled this disciple with the moniker "Doubting Thomas," forever branding him because of one moment of expressing disbelief; of desiring something more than the word of another.

We don't call Peter "Denying Peter." We don't call Paul "Persecuting Paul." We don't call Mary Magdalene "Seven Demon Mary" (look it up). But Thomas has had "Doubting" attached to him like a scarlet A, as if the most sinful thing a Christian can do is express doubt.

And really, that might not be far off from how some people in the church behave.

Thomas is actually quite an active guy in John's Gospel. We don't hear from him much in the other three, but he seems to show up right when someone needs to say something.

First, in John 11 when Jesus wants to go help out his friends Mary and Martha after Lazarus' death, all the other disciples are trying to talk him out of going. There are some people who want to kill Jesus in that area and they don't want to risk his life or their own. Thomas is the one who stands up and says, "Let's go risk death with him." He's the one who tells the rest to gird their loins and follow wherever Jesus leads. He's the one who encourages them to keep trusting no matter what happens.

Then, in John 14, Jesus talks about showing the way to God, and departing from the disciples soon. Thomas is the one who wants further clarification: "We don't know where you're going. How can we know the way?" Was this question on other disciples' minds, but they were too afraid to ask? Thomas wants more information so he can better comprehend what Jesus is talking about.

Thomas is the model of faith seeking understanding. He's not content to just go along with the crowd or with what others say. He wants to keep probing, seeking, questioning, figuring things out. He's the kid in your confirmation class who wants to go deeper than just accepting What The Church Teaches. He's the young woman who approaches the pastor after the sermon and says, "How can what you say be true when things are so difficult?" He's the man who stands up during the congregational meeting and asks how the church can follow Jesus beyond approving budgets and reciting creeds.

Too often, we haven't taken kindly to people like Thomas. Historically, we've given them disparaging nicknames at best, and excommunicated or killed them at worst. All in the service of comfort, power, control, and being correct.

The church needs its Thomases. The church needs to receive doubts and questions and address them with honesty and love. The church needs those people who aren't content with how things are or who are willing to push it further into active discipleship. We need the people who to the rest of us say, "Let's get moving" and ask, "Why?" They help keep us honest. They help keep us faithful.

Thank God Thomas was there to say what he did. He shows the rest of us have permission to do the same.