By Rev’d David Dean
In Orthodox Churches around the world, today is known as St Thomas Sunday, when the apostle and martyr is remembered for one of the greatest declarations of faith we find in the Bible: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28)
Today’s passage from John’s Gospel comes up in the bible readings every year on the second Sunday of Easter, and each time I find myself reflecting on the character of Thomas. Somehow I relate to him, I suspect we all do.
Thomas is an interesting character indeed. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, he never says a single word. The only reference to him is in the record of the naming of the 12 Apostles (Matt 10:2-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:13-16). It is only on three occasions in John’s gospel that we find him saying anything (John 11:16; 14:5 and today’s passage, 20:25 & 28) We can see that the first two times we meet Thomas, he demonstrates that he is not fearful and doubting, but loyal and honest.
Now it is the Sunday evening of resurrection day, and the disciples are together in a locked room. They are fearful and confused, who knows what is ahead for them. And Thomas was not there. We don’t know where he was, we are not told, but we can see that he must have been distraught. This loyal and honest man wasn’t there, because his world had been totally shattered and torn apart, he wasn’t there, because his heart was broken, the one who he followed was dead.
Without Thomas there, the risen Jesus appears to the other disciples, shows them the wounds of His crucifixion, and commissions them to take the gospel message to the world.
They can’t wait to tell Thomas “We have seen the Lord, He is alive” But I think they would have been surprised to hear him reply “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in His hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in His side” (John 20: 25 NLT).
As we think about this passage, one thing we notice is the uncompromising honesty of Thomas. I would describe him as a serious seeker after truth. We’ll come back to that a little later.
Eight days later, Jesus appeared the second time to the disciples, including Thomas, He invited Thomas to touch His body to prove who He was, and that He was alive. And then we hear Thomas’s great declaration of faith, “My Lord and my God”
Now, I think Thomas has had some bad press. He is often named “Doubting Thomas”, but it’s easy to forget that in John chapter 11, where we meet him for the first time, we read that it was he who encouraged the other disciples to go with Jesus to the tomb of Lazarus, and to possible death at the hands of the Jews there. That was a courageous statement, yet he is not remembered for it.
Thomas comes across as a zealous and inquisitive follower of Jesus, who was a serious seeker after truth.
The second time we meet him in John’s Gospel is in chapter 14. There Jesus is talking about going to prepare a place in heaven for His followers, and He says that they know the way to it. But it seems that they didn’t understand what He meant.
But Thomas wanted to know. It was the enquiring mind of Thomas that responded with honesty and openness, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” This led Jesus to say some of the most important words in the New Testament to them, and indeed to us today: “I am the way the truth and the life, no one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT).
And now, the third time we meet him is on Sunday night and Thomas is confronted with a question that is real for him, about whether Jesus has really risen from death.
He cannot accept the testimony of the other disciples, he must experience the risen Christ for himself. We might ask why Thomas refuses to believe? Perhaps it was because he was a practical person, and he lived in a practical world. He was shattered on Good Friday when Jesus died. But he wasn’t about to succumb to fantasy. In the world, dead is dead, and that is it. No one in their right mind would doubt it when the Romans said a prisoner was dead. They were experts at killing. Perhaps it’s not that Thomas didn’t want to believe that Jesus was still alive, but he knew how the world worked. The sheer honesty and determination of Thomas is a challenge to us.
We are reminded of the words of Jeremiah 29 and verse 13, where God says through the prophet:
“When you search for me you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart” (NRSV).
Faith will be stronger out of serious seeking after God’s truth even when there are doubts in the seeking. That is what the great poet Alfred Lloyd Tennyson meant when he wrote “There lives more faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds”.
So lets think about Thomas for a few minutes and reflect on some challenges that this passage brings to us.
First this question of doubting. Life’s struggles can lead to genuine questions. We may be surprised how many times David and the other Psalm writers ask these questions. Like Psalm 10 “Why, O Lord, do you stand so far away? Why do you hide when I am in trouble?” (verse 1 NLT). Or Psalm 13 “How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?” (verse 2 NLT).
But these are a search for truth in struggle, they do not represent a failure of trust. We see the Psalmists go on to testify to the confident faith that overcomes doubt. Like “Lord you know the hopes of the helpless. Surely you hear their cries and comfort them” (Psalm 10:17 NLT) or “…I trust your unfailing love…” (Psalm 13:5 NLT).
In the early days of my Christian journey, doubt was seen as the opposite to faith. It was much later when I realised that doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is the opposite of faith, and the two are very different. Doubt says “I struggle to believe”, unbelief says “I won’t believe”. Doubt is the process of looking for light, unbelief is being content with darkness.
In fact, faith that is grounded and growing will see a value in doubt because, without doubt there would be no discovery, we would simply accept all we are told and never search it out for ourselves. Doubts, questions and uncertainties face every honest enquirer along the way in their search after God’s truth. Someone has written “If you don’t doubt, you don’t change, if you don’t ask questions, you stay where you are…”
And the great C S Lewis wrote “ One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like…..When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, he wrote, I think he has become less than human”.
There is nothing wrong with doubt in a Christian’s life provided it is creative doubt rather than negative doubt. We may all have doubts, the important issue is how we respond to them. Creative doubt is the kind experienced by Thomas, it came from a life wanting to find truth and was open to it, but struggling with doubt. Thomas needed to find out for himself, he needed to believe, not because of other people’s words, but because he had encountered the risen Christ for himself.
St Augustine wrote something and for a while I couldn’t understand what he meant. He said “I believe in order that I might understand”. I think he is saying that genuine searching for truth in the context of faith brings understanding.
When living faith in God’s truth grows, so does confidence, hope and trust. Hebrews 11:1 says “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (NLT).
We can respond positively to questions and doubts by using them as teaching and learning opportunities. We often hear people say “Seeing is Believing”. But Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). So, if we are to be like Thomas, and experience the risen Christ in our lives, we have to reverse that and say “Believing is seeing”.
Faith can be strengthened by the honest acceptance of doubt. Thomas discovered that. He learned that Jesus does not meet our honest doubts with criticism or chastisement, but rather with His grace. So, He came a second time, a week later, to the group of disciples to answer his doubts.
One important message we see here is that if we hold firm to our faith in spite of doubts and face the doubts honestly, our faith can grow and strengthen through them.
When I was in hospital in Sydney just before Christmas 2016 for spinal surgery, the future was not looking too bright. I was reading through the Psalms each day, and I really felt I wanted answers from the Lord about why He allowed this into my life, and what the future held.
One day I was reading Psalm 31 and I came across a verse that I had read many times before, but that day it was like it was on a massive sign board in flashing lights. “My times are in your hands” (verse 11).
There’s something wonderfully comforting and inspiring in the thought that our times are in His hands. It didn’t stop my mind asking the questions of the Lord, but it enabled me to leave the questions with Him.
When Jesus said to Thomas “Blessed are those who have not seen me, and yet come to believe”, He was not putting Thomas down for wanting evidence, but was saying that the reality of His manifestation to us today will be different to that experienced by Thomas. We have the promises of His Word, and the inner assurance of His presence, which is just as real, and we have the experience of His presence among us as His people, to give evidence to His risen life.
I‘d like to finish by noting two things about Thomas which I think help us see how we should respond to this experience of doubting. Firstly, we can’t help noticing again Thomas’s uncompromising honesty. He would not say he believed when he did not. He was not the sort of person who would rattle off the Creed every Sunday and participate in worship without reflecting on them and understanding what they meant for him. He would never silence his doubts by pretending they didn’t exist. So the first message is to face our doubts openly and honestly as a serious seeker after God’s truth.
And then we notice that when Thomas has dealt with his doubts, he expresses the greatest declaration of faith. When he said “My Lord and my God” – he meant it, because he had honestly worked through his doubts. There were no half measures for him. When doubt gave way, his faith was strong and real.
For Thomas it was a faith so strong that he is said to have proclaimed the Gospel as far away as India. For many centuries the Christians there in Kerala State have called themselves St Thomas Christians, holding on to the strong tradition that he went there and was martyred in India.
There are some inspiring stories of people who have followed in the tradition of Thomas and left a powerful example for us.
Like a woman in her 30’s who one day had an overwhelming spiritual experience. She knew God was present, and she felt God calling her to do something new and scary, and hard. She felt God’s calling so clearly that day, that she couldn’t deny it.
So she obeyed and went, and for the next 50 years of her life, she did amazing things. But inside she developed doubts.
She wrestled with faith. She experienced what Christian writers for centuries have called a “dark night of the soul”. Yet she gave her life to share God’s love with the poor and dying in one of the biggest slums on earth.
Others may have called her, “Doubting Theresa”. But you and I know her as Mother Theresa, the missionary to India, whose life has been honoured by the Church as a Saint. Even with her doubts, she was found worthy of this title. Or rather, because of her faithfulness through those doubts. We see pictures of her and think, she must be so holy, so full of faith. She must have been so certain of what she was doing. But she was like us. And she was like Thomas.
As we think today of the life of St Thomas, may we all learn from his example. And whenever doubts may come to us in our faith journey, let us quickly and honestly confront them and move on in confident faith. Because we can touch the risen Christ by faith today, and the wonderful news is that we can know Him through His presence in our lives.
Jesus said “Do not doubt but believe” and Thomas said “My Lord and My God”. May God give us grace to follow his example.
A concluding prayer:
Lord, we thank you for the example of Thomas, his honesty and his serious seeking after your truth. We pray for courage to follow his example. Through your risen presence, draw us beyond times of doubt and uncertainty, that we may grow in our love for you, and serve you with confident faith.
May your word live in us and bear much fruit for your glory. Amen.