Today we get yet another New Testament figure who has seen a lot of revision in recent years. Last Sunday on Easter it was Mary Magdalene. For centuries she was a fallen woman whom Jesus lifted up. Now she’s pretty much just a wonder woman.
Back in Lent we had Judas Iscariot. For centuries he’s been the ultimate traitor. But in recent years he has been recreated as God’s patsy, the fall guy, or as a tragic figure who really did try to help Jesus, or, as the 3rd Century Gnostic “Gospel of Judas” suggests, Judas was Jesus’ secret collaborator who helped Him escape His prison of flesh to return to the pure spirit world of Barbello.
But today it’s the disciple Thomas, called Didymus, the Twin. For centuries Thomas has been known as “Doubting Thomas” because of his skepticism about the resurrection of Jesus. But in recent years he has been caught up in the revisionist tide of turning doubt from a vice into a virtue.
You know how the game is played. Doubt is set in contrast to certainty. And certainty, oh, that’s what all those religious fundamentalists have, and you know how bad they are! But doubt is what all the really cool people have, and that’s good! People with religious certainties are always beating up on others, like those fundamentalists do, and that’s bad! People with doubts are often made to beat up on themselves, and that’s bad! Because doubt really is cool, and that’s good!
So Thomas scores big in this new game. Those bad ol’ intolerant fundamentalists are always beating up on Thomas—“Bad Thomas! Doubting Thomas!” But the revisionists say that Thomas has integrity. He has honesty and strength, because he expresses his doubts. “Way to go Thomas. You da man!”
Yes, well…it’s a popular game, but it has nothing to do with faith. Doubt and certainty are all about “me.” But faith is not about “me.” Faith is about Jesus. Doubt and certainty are about what I believe or don’t believe. But faith…faith is all about Jesus, what He has done for us, and what He has promised for us.
What’s more, as Christians, we are always sinner and saint at the same time in this life. Always both. So, as sinner, we always have our doubts, our uncertainties, our difficulties with belief. And as saints in Christ, we always have Christ with us, so we always have our certainties, our trust, our confidence, which is the gift of God that comes by grace through faith. Being Christian is NOT about becoming more saintly and less sinful, more certain and less doubting. We always have both because we are both. No, being Christian is all about Jesus! Jesus, Gospel, gift, grace!
Because we are not saved on the basis of our certainties. Nor are we lost on the basis of our doubts. A hundred years ago there were plenty of people on the Titanic who were certain that the ship would not sink. There were plenty of people, too, who doubted whether that was a wise thing to conclude. But those doubts didn’t sink the Titanic, nor did all the certainties added together keep it afloat. Despite both the certainties and the doubts, the great ship sank because it hit an iceberg!
So the greater ship of the Church, captained by Jesus Christ, does not depend on the certainties of those onboard, nor is it affected by the doubts of those who don’t sail with Him. We are saved or lost on the basis of Jesus Christ alone…that He successfully steers His ship and keeps it afloat! Whether He is, in fact, who He claims to be. Whether He has done, in fact, what He claims to have done. It’s about Him!
And that’s what St. Thomas gives us by his famous story in this chapter. In the beginning of the episode it’s all “me, me, me, me, me.” There’s Thomas saying, “Unless I see…unless I put my finger…my hand…I will not believe.” So of course there’s doubt…it’s all about “me.” And the other disciples just wail on him, “We have seen.” “We have seen.” The certainty of “me.” But by the end of this account, there is no longer any “me” or “we.” There’s only Jesus. And given Jesus, Thomas confesses, “My Lord, and My God.” The words of faith.
There’s something of the realist about Thomas. In that Upper Room, on the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus had said mysteriously, “I go to prepare a place for you…. And you know the way to the place where I am going,” it’s Thomas who replies, “Lord, we don’t have a clue where You are going, so how can we possibly know the way?” Earlier in John’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks of going back to Judea, Thomas knows that for Jesus to return to Jerusalem is to go to His death. Yet it is Thomas who bravely urges the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”
In view of this, Thomas’ skepticism about the risen Christ is not so surprising. Reality had already made itself known in the form of a cross, when his Master had been crucified; when he had fled and deserted Jesus; when he was struck with the reality that all the hopes of the last three years were as dead as his Lord.
It’s no wonder, then, that when his friends share their joyous news, “We have seen the Lord,” he reacts with his famous words of doubt. “Yeah, right!” After all, you can’t banish your own doubt and skepticism by someone else’s certainties. It doesn’t work that way! And Thomas had more than enough certainties of his own. They were written in Jesus’ dead body.
And nothing is worse than getting all torn up again by your own broken dreams. Thomas wasn’t going to have it. He demanded proof. But Thomas doesn’t get proof. Thomas doesn’t get persuaded by the others’ certainty. Thomas gets Jesus…and he never seems to get around to actually touching those wounds.
Although very likely filled with the fear and shame of knowing that he not only doubted but also deserted his Friend, when Thomas is confronted by the risen Lord, when he is greeted by the forgiveness and the grace in Jesus and His words, “Peace be with you,” well, Thomas believes what had been so unbelievable. And he makes the great confession, “My Lord and my God!”
Does that mean there’s no place for proof? Well, yes and no. It’s like Jesus with His wounds. The wounds were there for Thomas, but that’s not what changed him. So if you want proof, it’s there. There’s Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And those who pooh-pooh these writers because it’s “the Bible,” well, they’re just parading their ignorance. The Bible has far more textual evidence and support than any other book out of the ancient world!
But, hey!, if you don’t want to take the word of the Gospels for it, then read the Antiquities of the 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus. Read the Roman historian Tacitus, his Annals and his Histories. Read the Roman historian Suetonius and his spicy books about the Caesars. Jesus shows up in all of them. No, they don’t read like the Gospels; you wouldn’t expect them to. But the simple fact that He’s in them, means something really did happen in Jerusalem way back when. And then there’s all the archaeological finds! But evidence does not turn a doubting Thomas into a believer and confessor. Jesus does that!
That’s why the Church’s primary work is to give people Jesus. It’s as simple as that. We give ‘em Jesus. He is there in what we teach and preach. He is there in the water of Holy Baptism, in the bread and wine of the Holy Supper. He is there in the words of Holy Absolution, speaking His pardon for our sin. He is there in the fellowship of the two and three gathered together to worship in His name. In the mutual conversation and consolation that goes on among and between Christians…He is there. Whether people believe it or not, whether any doubt or are certain, it doesn’t change the reality. He is here.
And it’s Jesus who makes the difference between a doubting Thomas and the same man who confesses, “My Lord and my God.” It’s Jesus who makes you and me Christian…with all of our own doubts and with all of our own certainties…some of which may even be true, and some of which may sink us faster than the Titanic.
But it’s not about us. It’s not about our doubts or our certainties. It’s always about Jesus. The Jesus who gives Himself for us and to us. The Jesus who says to us, “Peace be with you.” The Jesus who puts that confession on our tongues, “My Lord and my God!” As Thomas shows us, in the end, it’s always Jesus!