A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, given by Roberta Berke, 27th April 2014
“Do not doubt, but believe.”
The Apostle Thomas is often called, “Doubting Thomas”. I don’t think this is fair. A better name would be “Honest Thomas”, or “Human Thomas”. Thomas expressed the doubts that many people have when they are asked to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Let’s consider Thomas’ doubts, and then how doubt relates to our own faith.
Although Thomas is best known for doubting the reports that Jesus had risen from the dead, Thomas was not the only disciple to have doubts. In Luke’s gospel, when the disciples first heard the women’s news that Jesus was alive, they dismissed their report as merely, “an idle tale”. Even when Jesus appeared to the disciples, they “still disbelieved for joy and wondered.” In Matthew’s gospel, even when Jesus appeared to his followers on a mountain in Galilee, “some doubted.” What sort of person was Thomas? We can get some insight into Thomas’s character from his two previous appearances in John’s gospel. Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, parts of Judea were so hostile to Jesus that he was in danger of being stoned to death. Yet when Jesus heard news of Lazarus’ death, he decided to travel to Lazarus’ home in Bethany, despite the dangers. Thomas bravely urged the other disciples to go with Jesus, regardless of the risk. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” At the Last Supper, Jesus said many profound and perplexing things. Thomas, instead of keeping silent and pretending that he understood, was bold enough to question Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” His question brought forth one of Jesus’ greatest self-revelations: “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”
Thomas had not been with the other disciples when Jesus had first appeared to them a week earlier. We are not told why. Perhaps Thomas was the type of person who deals with his grief by withdrawing from his friends. He may have wanted solitude to ponder his master’s death, which had shattered his world. Thomas seems to have been a practical, down-to-earth, logical person, judging by his earlier question to Jesus. Thomas was not someone who believed vague rumours or hearsay. And Jerusalem must have been seething with wild rumours and speculation in those days following the crucifixion. As one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus said, the whole city was talking about these events. Some women claimed they’d had seen Jesus, but they were grief-stricken, hysterical, and probably saw what they wanted to see. Women were not considered to be reliable witnesses. Two adult men were required for any testimony to be accepted in a Jewish court of law. Peter and John had seen that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb, but this absence of a body could simply have been the work of grave robbers, or a prank by drunken Roman soldiers. So it’s no wonder that Thomas refused to believe the incredible news that Jesus had returned from the dead. Thomas needed to see the evidence with his own eyes. Even the testimony of his fellow disciples was not enough. Thomas probably had a heated argument with the other disciples. This dispute may have provoked his emphatic demand for physical proof. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” This is an extreme and even shocking demand. Touching a corpse or even a bleeding wound made a person ritually unclean. Thomas’s exaggerated demand reflects his anger at what he thought was the other disciples’ gullibility.
The first time Jesus appeared to the disciples who were cowering in a locked room, his first words were, ”Peace be with you.” Although this was a usual greeting, in this tense situation it meant more. Jesus repeated, ”Peace be with you” for emphasis, and perhaps to calm the disciples’ fears. They may have expected Jesus to rebuke them for their cowardice and desertion. But Jesus didn’t condemn them. Instead he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side as proof of his identity. A week later, Jesus appeared again to his disciples. This time, Thomas was there. Jesus invited Thomas not only to see his wounds, but also to actually touch them. Given the forgiving tone of his greeting, Jesus’ words, “Do not doubt but believe”, are not a rebuke, but an invitation.
Face to face with his Master, Thomas did not need to place his hand on Jesus’ resurrected body. Thomas no longer needed physical proofs from touch and sight that Jesus is alive. The divine power of Christ’s presence was overwhelming. Thomas answered Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” He recognised Jesus as not only his Lord, but as an aspect of God Himself. These words, “Lord” and “God” are very powerful and holy. They would never have been used as casually as they are today. Thomas’ acclamation goes far beyond any acknowledgement of Jesus’ true identity made by the other disciples. His words form the climax of John’s gospel. John says his purpose in writing is “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Is doubt always a bad thing? Is doubt the enemy of faith? Should we feel guilty if we find it difficult to accept everything in the Creed at face value? Tennyson wrote, “There is more faith in honest doubt, / Believe me, than in half the creeds.” John’s gospel includes Thomas as an example of “honest doubt”. Thomas’ belief is not based on hearsay or on simply agreeing with the other disciples. He must test his belief for himself. Only by a personal encounter with God’s presence will Thomas believe that Christ has overcome death.
What about us? We are those who have not seen but who have believed. We have not seen the risen Christ. What is our belief based upon? The sources of our belief are found in scripture, tradition, reason and personal religious experience. Yet our belief is more than simply parroting the words of the Creed. Like Thomas, we do not always believe everything immediately. We are honest about our doubts. Coming to believe in Christ as our Lord and our God, is a process. Note how both Jesus and the gospel writer say, “so that you may come to believe”.
“Belief” means agreeing that something is true. “Faith” means taking belief a step further. Faith is more than belief. Faith moves beyond the evidence presented for belief. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is not merely believing something is true, but acting on that belief. For example, I may believe that a ship is capable of carrying me across an ocean. However, if I get aboard the ship, cast off, and trust that ship to carry me safely to port, then I have faith, not simply belief. Faith is belief put into action.
Thomas put his faith into action. Tradition says he journeyed eastward, and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection to India, where he ended his life as a martyr. Christians in India still revere him, not as Doubting Thomas, but as the fearless Apostle who brought them the Good News of Christ’s resurrection. AMEN.
Copyright © by Roberta Berke 2014. All rights reserved.