I know this is not the season but I was so busy for the past few weeks so I thought I might post a script of a sermon I preached this year. This is part of a sermon Script preached on Thomas’ Sunday.
Reading John 20:19-31
Today is Thomas’ Sunday. Many churches reflect today on events that happen the week after Jesus’ resurrection. It is this week that he shows himself to Thomas.
My intention in this talk is to question the often too familiar understanding of Thomas in our Christian tradition. His role in the resurrection story is traditionally seen in a negative light, the disciple who is immature, weak and one who needed special signs to believe – don’t be a Thomas, you doubting Thomas. However I do not want to be his apologist, my intention is rather to ask questions, in other words to ‘doubt’ the traditional understanding of Thomas and to suggest that we needed a disciple who embodies his role – one that questions the, often so called, conventional way of seeing things, for both our churches and our personal faith journeys.
The passage in John, which actually is not mentioned by other gospel writers, tells us that on the day of resurrection Jesus appears to his disciples while they were behind closed doors in Jerusalem, more probably in hiding. Jesus comes miraculously among them and imparts them peace, which they needed so desperately, as they were still badly shaken by events that happen during that Easter. Jesus does not just give them peace but breaths on them power through the Holy Spirit, to help them overcome their fears and empower them to face all those challenges resulting from the responsibility Jesus also gives them: To go in his name to proclaim and assure people of the forgiveness of sins. Thomas missed this encounter with Jesus, as he was elsewhere at that time. He also missed the benefits of this encounter with Jesus. As a result a week later when he meets with the rest of the disciples in the usual meeting place, again locked, from inside I suppose, he is told what he missed. But he is not moved by their story and does not believe their rattle. Could you fault him? Classical traditional readings often did.
If you were listening to me preaching on Thomas a number of years ago you would have heard me being very hard on him. And I could give some indications of my indignation with Thomas then:
- How could have he missed the encounter with the Lord on Easter Day? Where was he? Why did he miss the sweet fellowship and communion with the other disciples? Was he too busy with other things in life when he was supposed to focus on spiritual things and his own salvation? Was he too frightened for his life and cowardly left Jerusalem?
- Then, how could have he doubted the disciples, and the Lord’s resurrection? How could he show such little faith? Did he forget the words of Jesus? Did he not remember the prophecies of the Old Testament? This man was to be pitied, and those people who manifest same lack of faith today, are to be looked upon with shame and even disdain.
I wonder how many sermons being preached today might sound like me then?
But, well, today my message is different, I do not only have more time and understanding for Thomas, but I think Thomas is one of the giants of our Christian faith. I see him now as an inspiration rather than the prototype of a weak faith or a doubtful trouble maker.
Then I read the text now I see him as probably the person who was the closest to reality, a level headed disciple who probably understood better what was going on, than the other disciples. I am sure that I would not be wrong if I was to say that Thomas was more courageous and brave than the other disciples. He dared venture out, beyond the locked doors, after Jesus’ violent death. He was ready to face the reality of life, to engage with what the life was throwing at him. It is often easier to stay locked inside, closer to your support network rather than face the world. He was also grieving but he was dealing with his grief constructively.
But what happened to me that I have changed my view of Thomas so radically? How did I come to this? Early in my Christian life I felt the call to embark on a journey with God: a journey to discover Him, to understand Him more deeply, so that I would be able to better serve him and be acceptable to him. This faith pilgrimage took me through valleys and mountain picks, through high and lows. But this is not the point here, and I am not the subject of this sermon. However it is worth mentioning that this journey of discovering God and discovering things about myself, also changed me: some might probably say not all in good, (and I would have to agree), but I want to believe that God is still working on me.
-When I embarked on my quest I opened myself to challenges
– by journeying with Him to different geographical places, social locations and spiritual stations. It has often been very difficult: vulnerable
– there were Spiritual journeys, when dealing with different theological traditions, new forms of worship, believers from different backgrounds, different ways of reading the scripture texts – ufff! these were great challenges for a person coming from a very traditional conservative church background;
– there were also cultural challenges: often misunderstood by people, many times seen as acting strangely, sometimes marginalised because I stood out as a foreigner with a strange accent and peculiar habits.
I want to believe that consequently I came to understand Thomas better and now I see him from a different perspective, as a sincere person, one who dares to ask questions, who dares to stand up and ask clarifications, when necessary challenging the assumed belief and orthodoxy, and often questioning the discrepancy between belief and practice.
I believe that we can see Thomas’ spirit in many great people who throughout history have made a significant contribution to church and society. I see Martin Luther the reformer who dared doubt the orthodoxy of church’s doctrine and practice in his days. William Wilberforce, who with the help of many others, two centuries ago challenged the common practice of selling people and treating them as commodities, [since the Slave Trade was not just tolerated by the church and Christians in his time, but some churches and Christians were even part of it and benefited greatly from it (and now when it comes to seek apology they shy away)]. Then, Martin Luther King who questioned the racist attitudes of church and society in American; Bonhofer who challenged the church under the Reich and finally paid for it with his life. And I am also thinking of those courageous people today who are struggling to make sense of the resurrection in their personal life and in their social and political context.
We live in a very fast changing world where the pace of changes at all levels of life and society is frightening. As a result our personal faith and our common practising are continuously challenged not the least by our social norms which are continuously redefined.
We could be overcome by those challenges and lock the doors behind us in the cosiness of our fellowship and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, being full of his peace and filled by the spirit. Did not the disciples do the same in the second Sunday after resurrection? As a result we could remain in our comfort zone clinging to our orthodoxy (or right doctrines) and probably dogmatism (of which we are so sure). But often when churches find themselves in this position they risk becoming defensive, or oppressive and even frustrating the spirit of the resurrected Christ who breaths and brings life anew. As a result these churches could become anachronistic. At the personal level the individual believer could become a split personality – not being able to integrate personal belief with life in a secular society.
Or we could open ourselves to challenges, questioning the status quo: by asking if our belief or theology of resurrection fits in with the ‘peace’ and the mandate Jesus bestowed upon us? Jesus sends his disciples as He was sent by the Father – what does that mean? Go and serve, love and be like me. How do we measure that? Jesus’ showed his disciples – his hands and side and invited Thomas to put his finger in his hand, and his hand into his side. It is the wounds of Jesus in the world today, it his suffering with those that are in need of salvation from sin (in whatever form this is manifested today) and desperate to be free from its consequences. That is the measure for our faith and commitment as the church and people of faith.
In conclusion I suggest that we need Thomases today: At the community/church level we need people as Thomas to ask uncomfortable questions. At the personal level I suggest faith that is not shaped by doubt is not faith at all, but certitude./certainty. Doubt is not and does not mean rejection of faith, but doubt is an essential part of our growth in faith and maturity. In the bible reading Jesus does not admonish Thomas for doubting, but he encourages him and the rest of the disciples to ‘go on believing’, to go on living a life of commitment.