Today’s Gospel recounts the story of Thomas, known popularly, although not accurately, as Doubting Thomas. Whatever the origins of this story, it is both a challenging and hopeful story, one which asks some important questions and leaves the door chocked open by the naked doubt of Thomas.
Michael Palmer suggests, “The rise of Donald Trump in American politics speaks to the depth and influential nature of our national and international fear. We’re a people afraid, and that fear has trapped us. Like the disciples in those early moments after Jesus’ death, we’ve locked ourselves in an upper room, waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Like the disciples who locked themselves away in fear of reprisals and the unwanted knock on the door, western society is in the midst of a similar phenomenon. The daily reports of violent actions by extremists such as the bombing of the Easter festivities in a park in Pakistan or the recent bombings in Yemen, Istanbul and Brussels fill us full of fear. The reports of violence in suburbs just like ours here in Melbourne cause us to double lock doors and think twice about going certain places at certain times. As for the church, clergy are now questioning the practice of wearing clergy collars when they are just ducking down the street in case people respond inappropriately to them.
Fear of others and doubts about our place in the world is indeed trapping us and keeping us reticent and impotent. How do we react in a world gone mad (if it has indeed gone mad)? How do we live out our convictions and faith in a world that appears to be hostile and dismissive? Do we lock ourselves away and become a hidden sect, secretive but safe?
In some sense that is what the disciples were doing. They were going for safety first. Even the occasion of Jesus revealing himself as being alive and present didn’t reassure them. Yes, they had seen Jesus but he had (apparently) to walk though a locked door. When he left the door remained locked. There was no surge of confidence and hope to drive them out into the streets. They remained where they were, out of sight and out of danger.
Thomas on the other hand wasn’t in the room with them. He hadn’t gone for the safety in numbers or in hiding idea. We don’t know where he was, he may have been back home, thinking about what had happened and getting on with life. There is no suggestion he was less fearful or less conscious of the risks he faced, yet he got on with life.
When told about Jesus being ‘alive’ he responded in a pragmatic and logical manner. There had been many stories and rumours going around. They started on Easter morning when the women went to the tomb and found it empty. Then Peter and the other disciple had a look and the rumours abounded. Not too much the gossip afoot in the general populace. For Thomas, perhaps, there was just too much variation in the story, too much too be asked to believe with it any evidence.
It wasn’t doubt in the sense he dismissed it out of hand, but a doubt needing experience to substantiate and verify.
That’s understandable, isn’t it? People tell you how great abseiling, bungee jumping, the Grand Canyon, Alaska or Victoria Falls, Sea World, Dream World or Movie World is but you will always have doubts its quite as good as they say it is until you go. You have to experience it for yourself.
Thomas is no different. He wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared and there was just too much to believe without something to make it real. In any case, God came in the form of Jesus to experience life and all its challenges so that we could be understood and given the opportunity to experience what God is like.
Nancy Rockwell writes “Thomas is a Greek name, and it means twin, though his twin, if he had one, never appears, and some suggest we are, each of us, his twin.”
An interesting thought but one worth pondering in a number of ways:
How is what we believe influenced by our experience? We often speak as if we all believe the same thing and we all understand God and the Bible and faith in its purest and true form. Yet is it so? Or do we look at God and the Bible and our faith through the filter of our own personal experience? Are we not influenced by what we know, knowing by the experience we have lived though underpinned by our understanding?
People often say I don’t believe in God. I ask them to draw me a picture of the God they don’t believe in. Without question they draw a God I don’t believe in but when we start to discuss that drawing we uncover experiences that have given birth to such an understanding – Sunday School teaching, the disconnect between what a significant other has said they believed and what they did, treatment at the hands of religious people, violence in the world or the death of innocents – have all come together to give birth to the God they draw.
People of faith, you and I are no different. We say we believe in an unadulterated form and think we have it correct but what we know believe is the product of our life experiences as well as the religious teaching we have received in whatever form that comes. Like Thomas, there will be times when what we have experienced is forgotten and we get caught up in life and our lives, other things become more important. And that’s ok.
In the midst of life there will be moments bringing us back to the faith we affirm and evaluate it against our experience and begin to refine it so that it is real for us. This won’t be a faith separate from the community, for as Thomas found out, he shares the experience of Jesus with others, in his case the disciples, in our case, the church.
Thomas was no denier of the faith, simply one who had to experience it for him-self. In so doing he verified the truth of Jesus and went on to live out his faith in the world, although we know little about how he did that.
Today, we are asked to live with what we don’t know and what seems beyond us, our doubts and to reflect on experiences, allowing them to lead us deep into the mystery of faith. Amen.