Tuesday, 10 April 2012

No Doubting Thomas

In the old days, Thomas the Twin was seen as - if not a bad guy - a weak one. The one who didn't really believe.

Or so we're told. I was thinking about it the other day. And I reckon that if I had a penny for every time I'd heard a post-modern sermon explaining how in fact Thomas was the sensible one, the one who had absolutely no reason to believe - how we should all be, in fact, like Thomas - I'd have about 30p.

In fact I'm beginning to think that nobody every really called Thomas "Doubting Thomas". He has always really been "Sensible, Cynical Thomas who is Prepared to go with the Evidence" - and "Doubting" Thomas is the one whom we just claim people believed in, in the same way we claim the people of old thought the Earth was flat (they didn't, for the most part - people didn't laugh at Christopher Columbus and he wasn't any kind of threat to the Catholic Church) - or that the whole Christian church argued with Darwin's Theory of Evolution (it didn't. We didn't invent Fundamentalism for another 50 years after Origin of the Species).

So let's forget the stereotypes, wipe the slate clean, and start again. And you can argue about the historicity
 of the story, or the traditions that led to it, or the discrepancies with Matthew and what-not - but let's not. Let's just take the story as it is.

First thing in the morning, there is a kerfuffle. There is an empty tomb, Peter sees the unoccupied cave. John (assuming he is the Beloved Disciple) believes in the Resurrection. Mary goes one better and sees the Lord. Jesus gives her some instructions - "don't hold onto me" and then leaves her. She rushes off to tell the disciples.

So that evening, we've 10 disciples, some mates and presumably some women (including possibly Our Lady, Salome etc) holed up in a house. They're scared, they're confused and according to Mark only St Mary Mag has seen Our Lord, although John is convinced. And they're scared of the Jewish authorities so they're locked in. Jesus appears among them, pronounces a blessing, gifts them the Holy Spirit, and presumably, after a brief conversation of which John records just a brief summary, melts away in much the way he came.

Thomas turns up. Where's he been? Shopping? Drowning his sorrows? I favour the second answer, as it seems to fit in with his rather expansive remark. "I'll believe it when I can put my hand in his side." So it's not as if Thomas never believes his mates. On the evidence of John and Mary he's believed that Jesus had a spear put in his side - he's believed all the details of the crucifixion. But the details of the Resurrection - that's another matter. Is he being sarcastic? Setting a perfectly reasonable test of evidence? Or is it hyperbole - effectively saying that the Resurrection of Jesus is so unlikely that he'll put his hand in his side if it happens? It seems that Thomas is weighing the reliability of his mates against the unlikelihood of the event. Which is fair enough. If Hnaef tells me that it's raining outside, I'll get my brolly before I go out. If he tells me there's a unicorn in the garden, I'll have a look out before I start rooting around in the cupboard looking for the Unicorn Pellets. They make dreadful holes in your lettuces, do unicorns. But then they're mythical, so you don't automatically assume they're running amok in the garden.

So "Jesus stabbed in side with spear" - friends averagely reliable - Thomas believes.

"Jesus walking through doors, alive and well and breathing the Holy Spirit" - friends still averagely reliable, but dead-beat, frightened, probably seriously short of sleep (like all clergy by Easter Sunday evening) - Thomas doubts. Doesn't disbelieve - just doubts.

He then spends a week as his mates are all going round - "Isn't it great about Jesus being alive again"; "I wonder if he'll turn up again"; "For a day or two there, Jesus had me going." Thomas is in a strange kind of world - wanting to believe, but not quite able to. After all, his friends are going to be pretty consistent, albeit they're not getting any braver.

And so the next Sunday. There they all are. Thomas has not left John' s side for 7 days. That's why Thomas is "the twin". He's been going around hanging on to John, sticking to him like a shadow. He's not slipped out for a quick one this time. It's been a week, a whole week of annoyance and frustration, but he's stuck with it. And he's reckoning that, if ever, this is when Jesus is going to turn up.

Sees Jesus, sums up situation - "My Lord and my God". No bluster, no doubts. Just one of the most heretical things a devout Jew could say - in a perfectly sensible and adequate response to the evidence. Not the evidence of his flaky mates - the evidence of his own eyes. He sums up the evidence perfectly.

I do like Thomas. He's the brave one who says "well we may as well go to Jerusalem and die with him". I say "brave" - "desperate" might be another word; again, "cynical" might be another. But he can reckon up the probabilities of what may happen if they go to Jerusalem - calls it about right, let's face it - and still figure it's worth going with it - because if Jesus goes to Jerusalem without them, after all, what have they got left?

He's the one who effectively says "I'm not saying I don't believe you - I'm just saying give me the evidence". And he's the one who makes the leap that the others couldn't manage in a week. Imagine that week as he's thinking - "If I don't see Jesus, he's just a dead rabbi. If I do see Jesus - there's only one thing he can be. If I don't see Jesus, we just go back to normal. If I do see Jesus - I'm going to have to bow and worship. If I don't see Jesus, things are still what they seem. If I do see Jesus - there's something very different about the world, all of a sudden."

Thomas is our voice. His mates have shared their faith - he's said thank you, that's very interesting. But I need a bit more. He's the perfectly reasonable one who hangs on for a bit more evidence. Of course, he gets a lot more.

Wish we got that much more. We go on Thomas and the others, their lives and particularly their deaths, the conviction that Jesus' nature makes him the best human being there ever was and the wholly improbable way that the church grew, and suffered, and grew. To be honest, it would be a lot easier to believe if Jesus turned up in the Moot House one day and showed us his wounds.

Maybe that's why we're more blessed than Thomas?


  1. I recall one Easter talking to the children about Easter symbols... as they mentioned them, I produced a daffodil, egg, cross etc. Then we got to a lamb. "Do you think I've got a lamb here? Really? Hoenstly, if I said I had a lamb here, would you believe me?" The congregation dutifully shook their heads, all except one very small child who announced "Yes. You don't tell fibs. If you said it, it would be true." It couldn't have been better if I'd set it up (I hadn't) for the moment to bring a live lamb out of the vestry. Dear old Thomas.

  2. I think that someone without doubt, could be dangerous. We all have our 'conviction' moments, but at other times, it all feels to 'touchy feely' and just beyond belief.

    Thomas would be the disciple to trust. He has a touch of humanity about him, honest enough to admit the limitations of his imagination, but how wonderful when he had the evidence.

    His words, My Lord and My God have resonated down the generations, particularly when repeated devoutly at the moment of consecration of the elements at communion by many, who know and believe and at the moment are convinced.


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