2004—Second Sunday of Easter—C
The story of "The Doubting Thomas." What are we to make of it? Many continue think of him as the sort of "weakest link" in the early apostolic community? I can hear that strangely curt TV announcer's voice now: "Thomas, you are the weakest link! Good Bye!" Remember her, and that voice?
When I was growing up, we were taught that poor Thomas doubted his faith and that this was, probably, his moment of greatest embarrassment. The only saving grace was that it did make him seem more like his friend Peter who seemed to mess things up so consistently. But "poor Thomas," went the refrain! He had to see something before he could believe. And so Jesus, rightly, and none too subtly, chastises him: "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."
Thus Thomas becomes the patron saint of skeptics, and persons of marginal faith, and the doubters of this world. This is the inevitable conclusion from a literal reading of the text. And then you may wonder: why is this story in there in the first place? Why tell a story of doubting faith? I've often wondered that, and have for a long time.
A very strange source offered the first answer to that question only a few months ago. It was Elaine Pagels in her latest book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. She is credited, I'm sure you know, with much of the renewed interest in Gnostic literature. Her first book several years ago was titled simply: The Gnostic Gospels. Since then, we've had books on the Gospel of Mary Magdalen, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the now infamous novel, The DaVinci Code, and even an ABC documentary on "Jesus and Paul" that aired just last week, borrowing heavily on gnostic sources. The consistent theme is that there has been a great conspiracy of silence about how the early church really came to appreciate Jesus and his life, death and rising.
Except for Dan Brown's novel, these are all recently discovered documents that portray a much more diverse, some would say troubling, picture of the early years of Christianity. There were, apparently, many competing interpretations of Jesus, his life, death, and message. Two of the more significant "camps" came to be known as the "Johannine Christians," and the "Thomas Christians." Whether John and Thomas were actually involved we will never know. But the followers of Thomas spoke of a much more interior Jesus, what we might today call a more spiritual and introverted Jesus, whose principal preaching was to "turn inward and find the Kingdom therein."
John's followers, bolstered by Paul's own theology, won the gnostic wars. And, as the saying goes, history is written by the winners. Hence it is John's theology we all know today as one of the official "canonical" gospels. But in those early days of competing theologies, and perhaps even competing personality cults among preachers, Thomas was a heavy-weight, just not much liked by John and company. According to Pagels, their antagonism accounts for today's gospel story. John deliberately portrays Thomas as "weakest link," and one chastised by the Lord himself.
I have no idea if this interpretation is true. But it is the best explanation of why the story is only in John's gospel to begin with. The Doubting Thomas story—told as if to insult him further. Fascinating, and certainly plausible.
But wait. There are many in today's world and church who think of Thomas as the hero here. I'm one of them. I need a patron saint for skeptics. I want a patron saint who is not afraid to doubt, to question, to even not believe on occasion.
Some of us in today's world and in today's church have been fed a steady diet of reasons for skepticism. Some put more credence in the infamous quip from the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno: "Faith which has no doubt is bad faith."
If John intended to insult Thomas further, it may be backfiring! It seems that some people will follow an uncertain trumpet blast. Some people of good faith actually prefer the uncertain trumpet when the alternative is a smug certainty that seems a trifle arrogant. Some people of faith may indeed feel "like exiles in Babylon" these days. But the real Babylon has as surely crept within the walls of our church as much as it flourishes outside in our culture.
There is much to doubt as modern men and women try to come to mature faith. There is much to doubt within, and there is much to doubt without. No person of mature or maturing faith need fear those doubts. And healthy doubt will never produce a "religious illiterate."
In the Book of Revelation, the one like the Son of man says to us all today: "Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the One who lives." Do not be afraid—even of your skepticism and doubt. For like all those multitudes in the Acts reading today, we all still wait even for someone's shadow to fall on us and bring us healing. But we, like they, sometimes doubt it will ever happen. Do not be afraid—even of that doubt. "I am the first and the last, the One who lives." And so will you.
So what, finally, do we say of the Doubting Thomas story and what do we say to Thomas? My suggestion: Thomas, you are the weakest link! Pray for us! And be with us this day in our church!