In Defense of ‘Doubting’ Thomas

Have you ever heard anyone say “Don’t be such a doubting Thomas!”? It’s a phrase that has come to refer to anyone who is skeptical, anyone who demands concrete proof and direct personal experience as a condition for belief. Of course, that saying developed based on this passage of the Gospel that we heard this morningDoubt or fith, opposite signs. I’d like to say for the record that I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap.

When we talk about Peter, another of the twelve disciples, we talk about  how Jesus said that he would be the rock upon which he would build his Church. But don’t forget, Peter is the one who denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed in the crucifixion story. And yet we do not call him Peter the Denier. He remains Peter the Rock.

Many weeks during our services, we hear excerpts from the letters that Paul, who we call the Apostle to the Gentiles, that Paul wrote to the Romans, the Corinthians, and other communities about how to live faithfully in the service of Christ. This is the same man who persecuted many Christians before his conversion. And yet we do not call him Paul the Persecutor.

Maybe we should Thomas a new moniker. How about Believing Thomas? Or maybe Thomas of the Metanoia. Metanoia, a Greek word that literally means to stop and turn in a new direction, refers to the human capacity to experience a spiritual conversion.

Last week, on Easter, we heard about Mary Magdalene encountering the Risen Christ for herself. The Gospel of John said: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

This morning, we hear the response of the disciples to those glad tidings that Jesus is alive… They hid in a house, behind locked doors. These men, who had not seen what Mary had seen, hid themselves away “for fear of the Jews,” as the reading said.

I need to take one small detour here. We hear this reading every year…and every year, behind the scenes, clergy debate about what to do with this particular phrase. In a world rife with anti-semitism, I have a visceral reaction to this verse. It’s important to remember that the people in that room were all Jewish.

They did not fear the whole of the religious community. Instead, they feared the religious authorities of that time—the ones who had all the power and actively worked to have their beloved teacher nailed to a cross. The disciples were hiding in fear of those who held power, having seen how that power had been used for violence and destruction.

It’s understandable, this fear. The disciples had not yet seen Jesus for themselves…. and then he comes to them and the first words he says are “Peace be with you.” Then he commissions him to take all that they have learned into the world.

Mary Magdalene came face to face with the living Christ and she believed and was moved to action, running to tell all Jesus’ friends what she had seen. The disciples came face to face with the living Christ and their fear was taken away and they were sent, empowered to forgive sins. They were compelled first to share the good News with Thomas, and then to take their experiences to everyone they met.

Now, we meet Thomas and he asks for what all of his friends have received—a face to face encounter with Jesus, risen from the dead. The cycle of transformation begins again. Jesus appears with the message: “Peace be with you.” Thomas answered him with a pure and perfect confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!” In those few words, he greets and honors the man that he has known and the God that
he will follow for the rest of his days.

Even more though he expresses a willingness to encounter Jesus in a profound and intimate way. He wants to touch the wounds… to put his hands on the places where Jesus’ body had been wounded. This is the moment of metanoia, of new direction, for everyone involved.

Thomas must have been afraid. And yet he stepped toward what must have been a scary, scary thing and reached out to touch it. He reached out to touch what he thought was suffering, death, and maybe even impossible magic. What he found was life.

A few years ago, I went to a conference by Rachel Naomi Remen. She’s a doctor and an author who founded Commonweal, a center for those with cancer in Marin. This three day retreat was for medical professionals… and I was there in my capacity as a chaplain at Stanford Hospital. Most of the people, though, were doctors, nurses, therapists, and social workers. She asked us a question: When you see someone in distress, someone who is wounded or broken, do you feel the urge to run toward them or away from them?”

It was interesting to see that nearly every hand went up when the choice was to run toward suffering. She told us that we are wired differently than most people—that human beings instinctively run away from suffering because on a deep level we know that the presence of pain or injury means that there is danger, that we may not be safe.  That is true for most people. Some small group of people, though, spontaneously move toward those situations, she said, are drawn to them because they are healers.

Thomas was a healer. And, by virtue of our baptism, we are called to be healers too. Our task is to heal the world. We move forward willingly, even when are afraid, because we know that in those moments of suffering, fear, and death we will encounter the living Christ face to face.

Recently, my cell phone rang at 6:30 in the morning… Could I come? the caller asked. That morning a beloved family member was found to be very sick. The paramedics, the police, the firemen were all there at the house. Everyone was terrified by what was happening. When I arrived, I made my way through a tangle of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances. I met a police officer at the door. “Are you family?” he asked. I told him timgreshat I had been called… I was from the church. “They are working on him. Are you sure you want to go in there?” he said. My answer: I need to be with them.  OK, he answered, moving aside. “I just didn’t want you to be shocked.”

On the other side of the door, I encountered death. I came face to face with profound grief, shock, and fear. It was a hard, hard day. At the same time, I also encountered love and grace and peace. Friends arrived. Family arrived. We prayed. We shared memories. There were tears and laughter. Christ was certainly present in those hours.

When we sit with those who are sick, or dying, or distraught, we meet Christ. When we feed those who are hungry, we meet Christ. When we visit those in prison, we meet Christ. When we invite others into those moments when we are suffering, Christ is there with us. Those times that fill us with fear are the ones that make us more of who God intends us to be, because that’s where healing happens. 

The Gospel said “these things are written 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.” When you feel afraid, look around to try to find Jesus in the moment… Look for life, grace, peace…even in the darkness. In those moments, when we break through the fear…that’s when we meet Jesus face to face.

Preached by Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, San Mateo, CA on Sunday, April 23, 2017. 

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