Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thomas: A Man For All Seasons

As the days of Easter progress, I’d like to take a moment, go back and recall an oft-maligned figure amongst the disciples: Thomas.  Thomas’ words are like an unexpected shower on the Easter Parade; the grumpy uncle whose cynicism spoils the birthday party; the malevolent aunt whose bitterness threatens a family reconciliation.  Can’t he get with the program? 

It may help to remember that Easter itself is a day of consternation, deep suspicion, fear, rushing to and fro and in the end unanticipated joy.  It is not, in the style of some Easter cards, “That happy Easter morning.”  We need to remember that it is in the face of fears, doubts, and common sense that some of Jesus’ closest followers experience the Risen Lord.  As the day unfolds Thomas is not with them, until at day’s end he comes, from where we are not told, to join the rest in their place of hiding.  Still bearing the weight of Jesus’ death, still in fear of what might lie ahead, he comes in out of the cold to be confronted with the joy and jubilation of the others.  His reaction is much as theirs had been earlier in the day.

“We’ve seen the Lord!”

“Oh you have, have you?”

“He is risen!”

“Risen indeed.  Dead is dead.  I won’t believe a word of it unless I see him with my own eyes, and touch the wounds to be sure it’s not some imposter!”  So Thomas goes on his way, and God lets him wait a whole week.  Finally, a week later, Thomas is with the disciples, and in a moment of time his world is changed.  Jesus appears, unannounced, in the midst of them.

Jesus, ever courteous, invites Thomas to touch the nail holes, and put his hand in the spear wound in his side.

“My Lord and my God!” he exclaims.

 “Do you believe because you have seen?  Blessed are they who do not see and yet believe.”  I imagine Jesus delivering that line with an arched eyebrow and just the hint of a smile.  From that moment on Thomas’ belief is stalwart.

Yet Thomas has been the victim of a bad press, and unkind Sunday school teachers, one of whom once fairly shouted at me, “Don’t be a Doubting Thomas!”  “He’s a real Doubting Thomas” is not a line normally delivered in an understanding or sympathetic tone of voice.  He’s been maligned as hardheaded, weak-spirited, disloyal - a person surely not to be emulated, and perhaps to be shunned.

An Apostle, remember, is one sent forth on behalf of the Risen Christ.  In the first years of the Church, the word “Apostle” was reserved for those who had known Jesus before and after the resurrection.  Peter, James, John all meet the standard, and so does Thomas, but some would hold his initial skepticism as grounds for disqualification.

However, I believe Thomas is a man for all seasons.  In fact, I see him as a prototypical Everyman/Everywoman, and possibly as an Apostle to our era.

Let’s look at ourselves honestly.  We can be very tolerant, but we don’t want to be taken in, cheated or fooled.  We look for fraud, and are fast to spot it, whether or not it’s really there.  In our day we might well respond to reports of the resurrection in an empathetic, possibly therapeutic style.

“Why those poor disciples.” we’d say,  “They’re deep in denial about Jesus’ death.  Well, we can’t let them influence anyone else.  If they want to fool themselves, we won’t burst their balloon, but we’ve got to set a standard, maybe give them a reality check.  Let’s tell them we find this whole business hard to believe, and unless we can see..... no, touch his wounds, we’ll have to stick to our own opinion.”

Do you hear echoes of Thomas?  Does it sound like us?

In the resurrection we are, after all, dealing with a collision of worlds: a world of space, time, energy and mass; and a world beyond those qualities, a spiritual reality that we could say provides the infrastructure upon which the world of our daily experience is built.  These worlds interpenetrate each other with surprising frequency, as our scriptures and indeed the beliefs of all the world’s religions attest. 

The Christian claim is that the very Author of all worlds entered our world for a time, was known to a circle of followers, was killed by the power brokers of this world, and triumphed over death to proclaim the start of a New Creation.  Small wonder that we, like Thomas, want to see it and touch it before declaring it!

Having said this, let’s look at several qualities in Thomas that make him an Apostle for all ages, including our own.

First, Thomas is unflinchingly honest.  He will not be taken in by rumor and wishful thinking, and that is a good personal quality.  He does not patronize his friends, but tells them his doubts and reservations.  He holds on to his own integrity, reasoning, perhaps, that if Christ was raised, he would at some point appear to him, but if Christ was not raised, honesty required him to accept the terrible truth.  We can learn from that.

Thomas stayed a part of the infant Christian fellowship in spite of his doubts.  During that week of doubt he must have held some choice opinions about the truthfulness, the stability, even the character of some of his fellow disciples. 

Peter?  That denying hypocrite! 

Mary Magdalene?  I always knew she had a crush on him! 

John?  He’s nothing but a kid.

That’s how we’d likely see it, and that seems to be how Thomas saw it.  But whatever his opinions may have been, Thomas stayed part of the community.  He didn’t let his doubts, and perhaps his judgments, be an excuse to abandon his friends, and walk away from them.  We can learn from that.

Third, when the proof he demanded came in the most dramatic form imaginable, Thomas’ honesty kept him from getting stuck in his pride.  He set a high standard, but when that standard was met he didn’t change it to stay ahead of the reality.  He didn’t require one more proof, then another, and another, never counting anything quite sufficient.  Setting a high bar of proof, he knew when enough was enough.  We can learn from that.

Last, once Thomas was convinced, his great honesty, strength and integrity were given wholeheartedly to the cause of Christ.  He went right to work, and by the most ancient traditions his ministry was prodigious.  When European explorers reached the southwest coast of India the missionaries among them were amazed to find indigenous Christian churches that dated their founding to the missionary work of this apostle who arrived some fifteen centuries earlier.  Thomas recognized that belief is not an end in itself, but must issue in service to the world in the name of Jesus. We can learn from that.

These are the qualities that make Thomas an apostle for all seasons: unflinching honesty, unwavering devotion to the Christian community, even when he thought them wrong, humility to recognize and acknowledge when he was wrong and, once convinced, the determination to carry the new faith to the ends of the known world.  A man for all seasons, all places and all eras.

Howard MacMullen
© May, 2012

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this one. Thomas is one of my favorites! Peter too, denied him three times! and Saul the persecutor turned propagator. and yet He loved them! It gives me hope that He loves me too! But, I haven't stayed with the community like Thomas. I wonder if the community betrayed him if we would still have the same story? I just pray he love me as screwed up as I am?