Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sermon for Sept. 14th: 'Bible People You May Not Remember' #4: Thomas, the Faithful Doubter

For the past few weeks we’ve been thinking about the stories of some characters I call ‘Bible people you may not remember’. These are not the people whose names are up in lights, so to speak, in the Bible story; these are the ones whose names are in smaller print. We’ve looked at Barnabas the encourager, at Priscilla and Aquila who hosted a church in their home, and at Nathan the courageous prophet who faithfully delivered God’s message to King David, even though to do so was dangerous for him. Today we come to a character sometimes known as ‘doubting Thomas’ – although I hope that, by the end of the sermon today, you might possibly have a more generous view of him.

Some of you will know that my favourite character in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories is Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle. I won’t waste time explaining to you what a marsh-wiggle is; if you’re really interested, read Lewis’ story The Silver Chair! Suffice it to say that Puddleglum is the typical pessimistic curmudgeon, the one for whom the glass is always, not half empty, but ninety percent empty! He always sees the dark side of every situation, and he’s the one who always prophesies doom and gloom. And yet, when he’s been given a command by Aslan – the lion who represents Christ in the Narnia stories – he knows he’s bound to obey it, and he does so.

In one classic case, Puddleglum and the children in the story are faced with a choice about whether they should untie a man who looks very much like a madman, but who has implored them to let him go ‘in the name of Aslan’ – which was one of the signs Aslan had told them to watch for at the beginning of their quest. One of the children asks Puddleglum, “Do you mean it will be alright if we untie him?” The marsh-wiggle replies, “I don't know about that. You see, Aslan didn't tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn't wonder. But that doesn't let us off following the sign”.

This is why I love Puddleglum so much. He has all sorts of doubts, and he can’t see the way forward very clearly, and he’s the least hopeful person you would ever meet, and yet he’s always faithful to Aslan. He reminds me of another quote from C.S. Lewis, this time from The Screwtape Letters, that great imaginary correspondence between a senior and a junior devil on the art of temptation. In one of the letters Screwtape, the senior devil, tells the junior devil, ‘Our cause is never more in danger than when a human who no longer wants to obey God, but still intends to do so, looks around at a universe from which all trace of God seems to have vanished, and prays and asks why he has been forsaken – and yet still obeys’.

And this is why I love Thomas so much as well! Like Puddleglum, he’s the one who always sees the dark side of every situation; he’s the one who not only has doubts, but is willing to own up to them; he’s the one who’s not afraid to ask the difficult questions that no one else wants to ask. And yet, through it all, he’s still faithful to Jesus. Let’s recount the things we know about him from the gospels.

Thomas was one of the original twelve apostles, and in John’s Gospel he’s given the nickname ‘Didymus’ which means ‘The Twin’. He appears in all of the lists of apostles given in the various gospels, but the only one that mentions him at any length is the gospel of John.

The first mention of him comes in the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John chapter 11. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha seem to be special friends of Jesus; Lazarus gets seriously ill, and the sisters send Jesus a message about it. But when Jesus gets the message, he says to his disciples, “This illness doesn’t lead to death; rather it’s for God’s glory and the glory of the Son of God”. So even though he loves Mary and Martha and Lazarus, he stays where he is for two more days.

Then he has a strange conversation with his disciples. First he says, ‘Let’s go to Judea again’. They reply, ‘Lord, the Jewish leaders were trying to stone you there, and you’re talking about going back?’ Jesus says, ‘Aren’t there twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day don’t stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because they have no light’. Then he says, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m going to wake him up’. The disciples reply, ‘Lord, if he’s asleep, he’ll be all right’. But Jesus has been using ‘sleep’ in the figurative, Christian sense, and so he says plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I’m glad I wasn’t there, so that you may believe. Come, let’s go to him’. Then the gospel-writer says, ‘Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”’ (11:16).

Doubting Thomas indeed! He’s got the same questions as the other disciples – ‘Why on earth would you go back to a place where they were recently trying to kill you?’ – but he’s also quite clear about his commitment to Jesus. Jesus is their Master, and if their Master says they’re going to Judea, well, that means they’re going to Judea. If it means that Jesus dies and they die with him, so be it: Thomas has committed himself to following Jesus, and that’s what he’s going to do. So tell me, why do we call this man, ‘Doubting Thomas’ and not ‘Faithful Thomas’ or ‘Brave Thomas’ or ‘Committed Thomas’?

Let’s be clear: Thomas’ faithfulness doesn’t mean he has no doubts or questions. This is obvious in the second place he’s mentioned in John’s pospel, the upper room on the night before Jesus died. You can find the story in the first few verses of John chapter 14. Jesus has been talking with his disciples about his death, and he encourages them not to let their hearts be troubled, but to believe in God and also believe in Jesus. ‘My Father’s house has plenty of room’, he says, ‘and I’m going there to prepare a place for you. When I’m done, I’ll come back and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I’m going’.

At this point in time I can imagine all the other apostles nodding their heads very seriously - ‘Yes, Lord, we know the way. Of course we do; we’re spiritual and wise and you can count on us’ – while all the time, deep down inside, each of them is thinking, ‘What on earth is he talking about?’ But only one of them is honest about his ignorance, and that one is Thomas. ‘Know the way? What on earth are you talking about! We haven’t got the faintest idea where you’re going, so how can we know the way to get there?’ And thanks to Thomas, we have the famous reply from Jesus, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Some of you may have gotten the idea over the years that it’s somehow unspiritual to ask questions. And of course none of us likes to look stupid in front of other people. But one of the things I’ve learned is that if someone sitting in a group has a question they want to ask, there’s a good chance that other people in the group have the same question. If one person has noticed that the emperor has no clothes on, chances are that someone else has noticed it as well! So Thomas teaches us that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and ask our questions, even if they seem to us like stupid questions. People who ask their questions have a chance of getting them answered; people who pretend they don’t have any questions are doomed to stay in their confusion and ignorance forever.

And yet it’s all still in the context of Thomas’ stubborn faithfulness. Why does he ask Jesus where he’s going and how to get there? Because he wants to go there with him, of course! If Jesus is about to lead the twelve of them against a thousand Roman soldiers, Thomas plans to be there – he just needs the address where everyone’s going to meet up, thank you!

The last story about Thomas is probably one of the most famous in the gospels; you can read it in John chapter 20. On the evening of Easter Sunday, the followers of Jesus were meeting in the upper room where they had shared the last supper with Jesus, but for some reason Thomas was not with them. You know the story; Jesus suddenly appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you”, showed them his hands and side, and gave them the commission to go out into the world on his behalf, just as he had come into the world on his Father’s behalf.

The disciples of course were very excited about all this, and no doubt they told Thomas about it when he came back; “We’ve seen the Lord!” But Thomas, quite reasonably, wasn’t buying this idea of resurrection. Most Jews did believe in the resurrection of the dead, but only the resurrection of all the dead, at the end of the age, when the world would be judged and the kingdom of God would arrive. The idea of one person being raised from the dead in the middle of time made no sense to Jewish people at all; it wasn’t in their script! And so Thomas says, “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” (John 20:25).

A week later (this would be the following Sunday evening) the disciples are again gathered in the upper room and Thomas is with them. Jesus appears to them, gives them his greeting of peace, and goes straight to Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (v.27). And then Thomas gives one of the strongest professions of faith in the New Testament; he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus replies, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (vv.28-29).

That’s you and me, of course; we’re the ones who have not seen the risen Lord with our own eyes, but we have believed in him anyway. Thanks to Thomas the doubter who would not pretend to believe until he actually did, we can have some confidence that the risen Lord was really risen and really did appear to his followers. And we can also have some confidence that this story of Thomas is true. After all, if it wasn’t true, would Thomas have allowed a fiction like that to be included in the gospels?

Now I suspect that many of us are like Thomas. The Christian writer Madeleine L’Engle was once asked by one of her students, ‘Madeleine, do you really and truly believe without any doubts?’ and she replied, ‘I really and truly believe, with all kinds of doubts!’ This is a reality for most of us.

At our men’s Bible study a while back, I remember we were discussing the question of doubt, and which parts of the Christian faith we had most doubts about. I replied that, for me, ‘answered prayer’ is something I have difficulty with. I’ve heard so many stories of people who have prayed for things and not received them, and, truth be told, I haven’t received everything I’ve prayed for either. So I find it difficult to pray with faith; I’m afraid of being disappointed again. It’s much easier for me to pray a risk-free prayer like ‘Your will be done, Lord’, which doesn’t open me up to the possibility of failure.

So what am I to do with my doubt? Well, I’m not to pretend that it’s not there – that’s very clear from the story of Thomas. When he has questions he asks them, and when he has doubts he expresses them, and Jesus doesn’t rebuke him for doing so. In fact, Jesus is quite willing to give him the evidence he needs: ‘Go ahead – touch my hands and side, just as you asked’. So if I have questions that need answering, I’m encouraged to ask them; if I have doubts, I need to be honest about them.

But all of this takes place in the context of faithfulness. I may find that I have doubts about what the cross means, or whether the resurrection actually happened, or whether Jesus really is the Son of God, or some other doctrine of the Christian faith. I need to pray about my doubts and also talk about them with people who might be able to help me find the answers to them. But while I’m thinking and talking and praying, I need to keep on doing my best to put into practice the things that Jesus taught us to do.

You see, a lot of us have grown up with the idea that believing leads to action – in other words, you think your way into a new way of living. You believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and so you come to put his teaching into practice. But the fact is that it often happens the other way around; in fact, for those who grow up in the Christian faith, I expect that it usually happens the other way around: as we are growing up our parents teach us to practice the Christian faith, and then gradually we come to understand it and believe it for ourselves. In other words, we live our way into a new way of thinking.

So Thomas is the model for the faithful doubter – the person who struggles with unbelief, and yet continues to be loyal to Jesus through it all, even to the point of being willing to ‘go to Jerusalem and die with him’. So as we struggle with our own doubts, let’s pray that God will help us find answers to them, but while we’re searching, let’s also choose, with God’s help, to put into practice the things that Jesus taught us, so that through our practice we may come to a clearer and deeper belief.

1 comment:

Moose said...

Wow... there is a different view I have had of Thomas... a most excellent sermon to be sure... Rather than seeing Thomas as the failure... seeing Thomas as the human-normal of humanity... Bless you brother...