Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
As many of us watched the Notre Dame Cathedral going up in smoke. As we watched the spire collapse, we find ourselves thinking where is God in all of this? Why did God let this happen? As we watch this national monument collapse into itself with all that it has meant for France we wonder where is God? We all can have a Thomas Moment. The ironic thing is that picture at the end of the fire show the cross shining through in the middle of the cathedral. So even our doubts on occasion sound hollow. But let us admit it to ourselves and others that life is full of Thomas Moments. Thomas’s struggles are our struggles.
Seven long days Thomas sat with his friends. Seven days ago, they had seen the risen Christ, or so they said. Thomas had only their word for it, not his own experience. Imagine how Thomas must have felt that day he appeared in the locked house which, when he left it, had been full of frightened, worried and deeply sad people. On his return it must have been as if the whole world inside that house had changed, and he must have been confused and frightened by what he saw and heard. Any of us might have thought our friends had gone crazy with grief and fear. How could someone he had seen pale in death, bleeding, buried, possibly be alive? Surely his friends could not be right.
The amazing thing here is that Thomas kept coming around. It would have made all the sense in the world for Thomas to leave the others to their delusions as he tried to find a way for life to go on in light of what had happened to Jesus. Did he stay because he worried for their sanity and thought someone still rooted in reality needed to take care of them? Did he stay because he feared they would now do something stupid that could get them all killed?
Or did he stay because he desperately wanted what they had said to be true? Did he stay because this was his community, his family, and he needed their love to sustain him even though he thought they were nuts? Perhaps it was like the old Woody Allen skit where he tells a psychiatrist he's worried about his brother who thinks he's a chicken. When the doctor asks Allen why he doesn't have his brother hospitalized or simply leave him, Allen replies, "Because I need the eggs." Thomas needed the eggs of the love of this faith community, even though he deeply doubted the very faith on which the community was based.
"A week later," John writes. Thomas stayed with the other disciples for a week in doubt. Then Jesus appears and erases Thomas' lingering doubts. Jesus then speaks to him, and the gospel writer speaks to us, "Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." Neither Jesus nor John meant to denigrate Thomas here, but to speak beyond him to all of us who will never see Jesus in the flesh and yet are called to a faith in him.
Then the gospel writer follows up with a couple of lines telling us how it is that those of us who have never seen might yet believe. The writer says the whole purpose of this book is to help us come to faith. This book is to tell the story to us the way the disciples told the story to Thomas, to tell the story so compellingly that he stayed with them long enough to experience the risen Christ and bring his faith to fullness.
The Christian community, the Church and the churches, now bears the same task the gospel writer delineated to the book. We are to be those who tell the story and help form the faith of those who have not experienced the risen Christ, and sometimes to those who have but have lost their faith in the midst of tragedy or grief or apathy.
So out of Thomas' story, we receive two gifts, indeed two calls. The first is to those who are seeking, who want in their hearts to believe God comes to them and, as the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith puts it, "shares our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world" to God. To the seekers who cannot quite come to believe all this, or to those who have had their faith tested in fiery waters, as did Thomas, the call is to hang in there. Stay with the community and let them love you for you will again know the presence of Christ in your life.
To the communities of faith who are the descendants of that first small group of disciples in the locked house, the message is that we are to take those in who are in doubt and fear and worry and tell them our stories of how the risen Christ has entered our lives and the life of the world. We need to open as many doors and windows as possible to allow them to see Christ in your midst. Stay strong and vibrant so that for every Thomas in the world, and there are many of them, there is a community of love ready to hold them through doubt into faith.
With this story of Thomas, and also with chapter 20 as a whole, what John set out to tell us in his gospel, from those unforgettable opening lines onwards, has been completed. The story has taken its time working this way and that. We have met many interesting characters and watched them interact with Jesus. Some have misunderstood him. Some have been downright hostile. Some (often to their own surprise) have come to believe in him. We now have another such character to add to John’s vivid collection of portraits. He, Thomas, brings the book round to where we started, with his breathtaking statement of new-found faith.
‘My master,’ he says, ‘and my God!’ He is the first person in this book to look at Jesus of Nazareth and address the word ‘God’ directly to him. Yet this is what John has been working round to from the beginning. ‘In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God.’ ‘Nobody has ever seen God. The only-begotten God, who is intimately close to the father—he has brought him to light.’ What does that mean? What does it look like when it’s actually happening? Well, says John, it looks like this … and off we go, through Galilee and Jerusalem, back and forth, moments of glory and doom woven together until they meet on the cross. Now, a week after Easter, it looks like this: a muddled, dogged disciple, determined not to be taken in, standing on his rights not to believe anything until he’s got solid evidence, confronted by a smiling Jesus who has just walked, as he did the previous week, through a locked door. This is what it looks like.
And of course it baffled Thomas just as it baffles us. What sort of a person—what sort of an object—are we dealing with here? The whole point of the story is that it’s the same Jesus. The marks of the nails in his hands. The wound in his side, big enough to get your hand into. This isn’t a ghost. Nor is it someone else pretending to be Jesus. This is him. This is the body that the grave-cloths couldn’t contain any longer.
But he has not only escaped death, the grave, the cloths and the spices. He comes and goes as though he belongs both in our world and in a different world, one which intersects with ours at various points but doesn’t use the same geography. If this is fiction, it is the oddest fiction ever written. And John certainly doesn’t intend it as fiction.
Thomas, bless him, acts as we would expect. (It is in this gospel that the rather flat characters in the other accounts come up in more three-dimensional reality.) The dour, dogged disciple who suggested they might as well go with Jesus, if only to die with him (11:16), who complained that Jesus hadn’t made things anything like clear enough (14:5), just happened to be the one who was somewhere else on the first Easter day. He sees the others excited, elated, unable to contain their joy. He’s not going to be taken in.
Fair enough. At the end, Jesus issues a gentle rebuke to Thomas for needing to see before he would believe; but we notice that the beloved disciple describes his own arrival at faith in the same way. ‘He saw, and believed’ (verse 8). This isn’t, then, so much a rebuke to Thomas; it’s more an encouragement to those who come later, to people of subsequent generations. We are all ‘blessed’ when, without having seen the risen Lord for ourselves, we nevertheless believe in him.
If the Word who was God has now made the invisible God visible, so, as in the Prologue, this chapter has described how he has brought life and light to the world. The resurrection is not an alien power breaking into God’s world; it is what happens when the creator himself comes to heal and restore his world and bring it to its appointed goal. The resurrection is not only new creation; it is new creation.
To grasp this is vital for the health of the Christian faith. Any sense that Jesus starts a movement which is somehow opposed to, or can leave behind, the world God made in the first place is excluded by this gospel from start to finish. The wheel has come full circle. The clock has returned to where it began. We have, as T. S. Eliot said, arrived at the place where we started, to discover that now we know it for the first time. (Wright, T. John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 [2004, London] p152–154)
So for clear thinking Thomas, the cross was only what he had expected. When Jesus had proposed going to Bethany, after the news of Lazarus’ illness had come, Thomas’ reaction had been: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’ (John 11:16). Thomas never lacked courage, but he was the natural pessimist. There can never be any doubt that he loved Jesus. He loved him enough to be willing to go to Jerusalem and die with him when the other disciples were hesitant and afraid. What he had expected had happened, and when it came, for all that he had expected it, he was broken-hearted, so broken-hearted that he could not meet the eyes of others but must be alone with his grief.
King George V used to say that one of his rules of life was: ‘If I have to suffer, let me be like a well-bred animal, and let me go and suffer alone.’ Thomas had to face his suffering and his sorrow alone. So, it happened that, when Jesus came back again, Thomas was not there; and the news that he had come back seemed to him far too good to be true, and he refused to believe it. Belligerent in his pessimism, he said that he would never believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he had seen and handled the print of the nails in his hands and thrust his hand into the wound the spear had made in Jesus’ side. (There is no mention of any wound-print in Jesus’ feet because in crucifixion the feet were usually not nailed, but only loosely bound to the cross.)
Another week elapsed and Jesus came back again; and this time Thomas was there. And Jesus knew Thomas’ heart. He repeated Thomas’ own words and invited him to make the test that he had demanded. And Thomas’ heart ran out in love and devotion, and all he could say was: ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him: ‘Thomas, you needed the eyes of sight to make you believe; but the days will come when people will see with the eye of faith and believe.’
The character of Thomas stands out clearly before us. He made one mistake. He withdrew from the Christian fellowship. He sought loneliness rather than togetherness. And because he was not there with his fellow Christians, he missed the first coming of Jesus. We miss a great deal when we separate ourselves from the Christian fellowship and try to be alone. Things can happen to us within the fellowship of Christ’s Church which will not happen when we are alone. When sorrow comes and sadness envelops us, we often tend to shut ourselves up and refuse to meet people. That is the very time when, in spite of our sorrow, we should seek the fellowship of Christ’s people, for it is there that we are likeliest of all to meet him face to face.
However, we overlook the fact that Thomas had two great virtues. He absolutely refused to say that he understood what he did not understand, or that he believed what he did not believe. There is an uncompromising honesty about him. He would never still his doubts by pretending that they did not exist. He was not the kind of man who would rattle off a creed without understanding what it was all about. Thomas had to be sure—and he was quite right. In In Memoriam, Tennyson wrote:
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
There is more ultimate faith in people who insist on being sure than in those who glibly repeat things which they have never thought out, and which they may not really believe. It is doubt like that which in the end arrives at certainty.
Thomas’ other great virtue was that when he was sure, he went the whole way. ‘My Lord and my God!’ said he. There was no half-way house about Thomas. He was not airing his doubts just for the sake of mental acrobatics; he doubted in order to become sure; and when he did, his surrender to certainty was complete. And when people fight their way through their doubts to the conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, they have attained to a certainty that those who unthinkingly accept things can never reach.
(Barclay, W. The Gospel of John Vol. 2 [2001, Louisville, KY] p321–325)
Thomas (both his Aramaic and his Greek names are given) appears only as a name in the Synoptics but is fleshed out a little in John. The rubric ‘doubting Thomas’ is not entirely fair: had he been present when the risen Christ first manifested himself to the disciples, doubtless he too would have believed. Why he was not present that first Easter day has not been told to us. Informed as to what his colleagues in the apostolic band have seen, Thomas remains unconvinced, and demands not only a palpable sign but the most personal and concrete evidence that the person whom he knew had been killed in a specific fashion had indeed been raised from the dead. The risen Jesus must have some sort of physical continuity with the Jesus who was crucified. Although it is possible to paint him in romantic shades, picturing him as a common-sense disciple all too aware of how imagination can play tricks, it is hard not to perceive in this attitude at least a little of what Jesus had earlier condemned.
This meeting, with Thomas present, again takes place behind locked doors, the natural inference being that the disciples are still frightened of the Jewish authorities. By taking up Thomas’ challenge in this way, Jesus simultaneously proves that he hears his disciples even when he is not physically present, and removes all possible grounds for unbelief, even the most unreasonable. The last clause, Stop doubting and believe (mē ginou apistos alla pistos), could be rendered several ways. If both apistos and pistos are taken adjectivally, and the verb ginou is understood at its simplest, the clause reads (lit.), ‘Do not be unbelieving but believing.’ Unfortunately, neither apistos nor pistos occur elsewhere in John, but elsewhere in the New Testament they often function substantively: ‘Do not be an unbeliever, but a believer.’ Since the verb often means ‘to show oneself [to be something]’ many have taken the clause in a softer way: ‘Stop being unbelieving, but show yourself a believer.’ That is possible, but perhaps too mild. Up to this point, Thomas has shown himself a loyal disciple of the Jesus who went to the cross, so far as he understood him; he has not been a believer in any distinctly Christian sense.
Whether Thomas actually took Jesus up on his challenge and touched the marks of the wounds in his ‘hands’ and side we are not told. The impression given is that the sight itself proved sufficient, that Thomas was so overcome with awe and reverence that he immediately uttered his confession.
Thomas, like most Jews, was doubtless familiar with Old Testament accounts of believers who conversed with what appeared to be men, only to learn, with terror, that they were heavenly visitors, possibly Yahweh himself. Moreover it is arguable that as Judaism developed after the Exile, the reaction against idolatry and the punishments it attracted generated a view of God that made him more and more transcendent, but correspondingly less personal; and into the vacuum left by this shift rushed a mounting number of intermediaries, angels and other ill-defined beings. This is not to suggest that Johannine Christology is indistinguishable from the angelology of Judaism. Christianity, by definition, is messianic. But it does suggest that Thomas was not devoid of categories to begin to make sense of the resurrection of Jesus.
(Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John [1991, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI] p656–660)
Doubt is a part of every life. We are often swimming in doubt about ourselves, our relationships and our faith. We often barely have time to surface before there is even more doubt.
How do we deal with every day doubt? How do we deal with the uncertainty of our life which spills into our lives? How do we escape being constantly mired in a Thomas Moment? Dealing with doubt is the center of our sermon this week. This has pastoral as well as theological meaning. Both need to be addressed.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Doubt–at one point or another, every entrepreneur has experienced the sinking feeling that his or her best work is just not good enough.
No matter how successful you feel you are, doubt has a way of seeping its way into your head. As your company matures, difficulties will change in shape and scope, but they will never stop coming. The key distinction between entrepreneurs who do succeed and those who don’t is their ability to train their minds to overcome the doubt that accompanies these challenges.
The first step is understanding the distinction between two types of doubt: Healthy doubt is constructive and destructive doubt is inhibitive. Entrepreneurs should always strive to cultivate and embrace healthy doubt, while minimizing the negative effects of destructive doubt. (https://www.fastcompany.com/3029012/when-you-should-actually-embrace-your-pangs-of-doubt)This is equally true in our spiritual life.
From the ultimate setback of death, Jesus came back to life and proved his victory over death. If you doubt the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection, consider some evidence: In ancient courts, a woman could not be a witness; only the testimony of a man was accepted. Yet the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women. If it were just a fanciful story, why would the Gospel writers have used women as witnesses? The resurrection cannot be a myth because it does not fit the characteristics of a myth. Myths are developed over time, but the story of Jesus’ resurrection was written within 20 years of its happening and was known orally many years before that. Also, Christians never venerated the site of Jesus’ death. Rather, they focused on the tomb where he had arisen. In addition, there were approximately 500 witnesses who saw Jesus after his resurrection. How could that many people all have the story wrong?
The reality is, Jesus was raised from the dead, and because of Jesus’ victory over death and sin you can experience forgiveness and eternal life. You can overcome any setback through the strength God gives. You can make any comeback with the power that is available through Jesus Christ. The setback of mistakes, failures and sins can be forgiven. The comeback of inner peace, purpose and meaning in life is now available. We can live our lives in a personal relationship with God, experience his plan for our lives and spend eternity in heaven with him after this life is over. Thanks to Jesus, life’s greatest comeback is available to you any time you choose. (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-greatest-comeback-of-all-time_b_2945725)
Eight days later, Jesus appears before His disciples again: "A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.' Thomas said to him, 'My Lord and my God!' Then Jesus told him, 'Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed' (John 20:26-29).
How truthful all this is. If Thomas hadn't been a doubter, this famous saying may not have been recorded in history. This particular saying has helped me many times in my life. When things have been going badly for me, when I have faced hardships and pain, this saying has given me hope.
Even though Thomas earned a negative label, he was not lacking in some very good qualities. He displayed great courage and loyalty. When the other disciples tried to keep Jesus from going to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead because of the danger from those in the area who had just earlier tried to stone Him (John 11:8), Thomas said to them, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him" (John 11:16). Thomas also asked Him one of the most famous questions. John 14:5-6 says, "Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?' Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"
I think I have behaved similar to Thomas at times. I have gone through stages in my life when I questioned God. When I was in college I remember wondering how religion and science could agree. I had many questions and doubts at this time and could have been called a "Doubting Thomas." Jesus didn't have to appear to me and show me His wound, however. But He has showed Himself to me in many other ways.
Jesus has answered many prayers for me, maybe not in any miraculous way, but He has made me very much aware that He does exist. I find Jesus in my every day walk through life. Sometimes I see His humility on a street corner in the shape of a homeless man. Sometimes I see Him walking with me in my garden, pointing out the first blossoms of spring or the pretty fall colors of a red maple. I see Jesus' love in the hug my grandson gives me and when he says, "Grandma, I love you." I see Jesus in the pink of a sunset and the beautiful colors of a stained glass window. Thank goodness I haven't been a "Doubting Thomas" for some time now. I stay close to God in my daily prayers, in my mission work, and in studying the Bible. Now days I walk with Jesus every day, that way I won't get lost and hopefully be a "Doubting Thomas" again. (https://www.allaboutjesuschrist.org/doubting-thomas-faq.htm)
As we were driving home from school the other day, my five-year-old son Ben said, out of the blue, "I wish Jesus was right here." Being a good theologian, I replied that of course Jesus was all around us in God's Spirit. But Ben, being a good five-year-old, replied, "No, Mom, I want to hug him!"
A story making the rounds of the Internet tells of a child who absolutely understood how Thomas felt about wanting to touch the risen Christ. A little girl woke in the night from a nightmare sobbing and crying for her mother. When the mother comforted the girl and she stopped crying, the mother reminded her daughter that God was all around her in her room, keeping her safe from bad dreams. The daughter replied that she knew that, but she added, "but Mom, I needed someone with skin!"
Gracie Allen once said, "Never put a period where God has placed a comma."
In the Evelyn Waugh novel, Brideshead Revisited, a group of upper-class young men in England in the early part of the last century revel in their cynicism and sophistication. Surely religion has no part of their lives. And yet one of the main characters, Sebastian, who drinks and plays harder than them all, still clings to his faith at a deep level. When he is asked why, he says that it is the story that holds him.
"The strength of the pack is the wolf; the strength of the wolf is the pack." Rudyard Kipling
"In life, the issue is not control, but dynamic connectedness." (Erich Jantsch, The Self Organizing Universe [Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1980], p. 196)
Many people, when telling of their faith journey, will mention a youth group or camp experience as pivotal in the formation of their faith. A gathered community consisting of both seekers and mature Christians can do wonders to build faith in those whose faith is young or weak or being tested.
The playwright and actor Spalding Gray once wrote about a trip he took high into the Himalayans where he stayed with a people called the Ladakhans. He was so impressed by their religious life, carried on with a great sense of community despite rugged conditions, which often kept people homebound in the winter. When he saw their altar set up in the home in which he stayed, he wrote, "I realized in a sad flash that they had something going on here I had never encountered before: a connected, working religion, complete and without doubt. No one worshipped in that room alone. They worshipped with all of the snowbound Ladakhans scattered in their mud abodes." (Spalding Gray, Impossible Vacation [New York: Knopf, 1992], p. 119) He says his realization was sad because of the lack of connection he finds in modern Americans.
One of the problems with many modern American churches is that people do not feel free to share their doubts. Perhaps we need to do some adult education classes where people simply raise up doctrines of the church with which they have trouble or questions. Perhaps the real fear is that no one cares enough about it to even ask.
Most Christian churches restrict the Communion Table to those who are baptized, or even only to those who are confirmed or have gone through a membership rite. John Wesley had a slightly different view of the sacrament. He believed it could be a "converting ordinance," a ritual whereby those in doubt could gain belief. It's a very different take on the Sacrament, and worth mulling over even for those whose traditions take a different view of the Table.
Many are skeptical of the need for the Church and are disillusioned by its flaws. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, called attention to the image of fire. One log by itself goes out. But many logs banked together burn brightly. The struggles of life wear us down. But the encouragement of other believers lifts us up.
I once drove over Vail Pass in Colorado in heavy snow. My wife had to open the passenger door and watch the white line on the right side to keep us on the road. But if we pulled up close behind another driver and found their lights, we felt more secure. Of course, we had to assume that person knew where they were going!
Just as the faith community upholds Thomas during his period of doubt, so does friendship and the community of the Fellowship of the Ring upholds each member during the terribly trying times chronicled in the last two films of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. At times it is Gandalf the White who sustains Aragorn when the warrior's hope starts to fade. Frodo would never have made it to the Mountain of Doom without the help of his best friend Sam-the Hobbit at times saves Frodo physically from death, and at other times it is his words that renew Frodo's hope when he is about to give in to despair. Likewise, Frodo speaks to Sam at times, curbing his friend's desire to do away with their treacherous guide Gollum, or renewing Sam's flagging faith in their mission to destroy the Ring of evil. As the two little Hobbits, separated from the rest of the Fellowship, make their way painfully toward their destination, the others, locked in combat against seemingly hopeless odds, take comfort in the thought that Frodo and Sam will be able to complete their quest. During one conversation the question is put to Gandalf, "Is there any hope for Frodo and Sam?" The wizard replies, "Only fools hope." From one perspective he is right: when one considers all the vast hordes of Orcs and the Ring Wraithes that stand between Frodo and Sam's quest to destroy the Ring, it does seem foolish to hope that two of the smallest creatures in the scheme of things could be successful-comparable in our time to that picture of a lone student standing boldly in front of a Chinese tank. Having faith in the tale of a beloved Master rising from the dead must have seen just as foolish to Thomas.
Although at Easter we tend to sing only the old favorites, such as "Christ the Lord is Risen Today!" and "The Day of Resurrection," Martin Luther has given us a fine Easter hymn, one that is especially appropriate when the Lord's Supper is a part of the service. In "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands" Luther recounts our Lord's victory over death and his resumption of his place "at God's right hand." "It was a strange and dreadful strife When life and death contended," from the second stanza, could very well be John the Baptist's words in the "Isenheim Crucifixion" as he points to the scarred figure hanging on the cross. It is the last (third) verse that could serve as the invitation to Communion:
Then let us feast this Easter day On the true bread of heaven;
The Word of grace hath purged away The old and wicked leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed; Christ is our meat and drink indeed;
Faith lives upon no other! Alleluia"
(Words in public domain)
Can we entirely blame Thomas for his lack of faith in what the other disciples told him? Indeed, Thomas had spent several years with Jesus as his disciple, and he had witnessed Jesus work many marvelous signs. Yet at that moment, when Thomas was confronted with the decision to believe or not, he realized that despite the progress he had made in his faith, he was still just scratching the surface. It's like our knowledge of what lies beneath our feet in this world that we live in. While some gold mines in South Africa may plunge as much as two miles beneath the surface of the earth, that does not even begin to give us firsthand knowledge of what lies at the core of our planet. The total distance from the surface to the center of the earth is 3,959 miles.
After the disciples believed that Jesus was truly risen from the dead, Jesus commissioned them to go forth into the world to bear witness to their faith. That kind of evangelistic work, however, is largely neglected in many churches these days. The truth is that we do not have too many good role models to emulate in that regard. In earlier times missionary efforts were lauded. The efforts of Dr. Livingstone in Africa were praised. Movies like The Inn of the Sixth Happiness in 1958 and The Keys of the Kingdom in 1944 likewise portrayed Christian evangelism in a positive light. In more recent times, though, films like Hawaii (1966), The Mission (1986), Black Robe (1991), and At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) all portrayed the darker side of Christian proclamation. In various ways those movies attempted to portray missionary efforts as misguided because, in effect, all religions are roughly equal in value.
Some churches in South Korea definitely are setting aside their doubts and proclaiming the news about Jesus. According to the Guiness Book of Records, the world's largest congregation is the Full Gospel Central Church in Seoul, which boasts more than a half million members. Although somewhat smaller in size, the Kwang Lim Methodist Church went from 150 members in 1971 to 85,000 members by the year 2000.
Why were the disciples afraid when they gathered in that room? Were some less fearful than others? Scientists have now located a specific gene that appears to play a role in determining whether a person has a predisposition to being afraid or not. It is the slc6a gene on chromosome 17q12. People who have a short version of that gene are more likely to have anxiety than people who have the long version.
Certain people find some things easier to believe than other people do. For instance, the Yankelovich polling organization interviewed 1,546 Americans in January 2000 for Life magazine. The study found that 43% of Americans believe UFOs are "real" as opposed to being "the product of people's imaginations." The poll also indicated that 30% of Americans think that intelligent beings from other planets have visited the earth. Six percent claim to have personally seen a UFO, and 13% say they know someone who has. Of those questioned, 7% reported having had an encounter with beings from another planet or else knew someone who had.
Thomas perhaps figured that you can't necessarily believe everything that people tell you. A case in point is people who believe that evil in the world is a result of reptile-like creatures who live beneath the surface of the earth. In A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, Michael Barkun tells about a segment of American society that firmly believes that those reptilians are the agents of Satan on earth. They point to the opening chapters of Genesis where a reptile-the serpent-played a central role in causing Adam and Eve to sin. From that point on, these people believe, reptile creatures have striven to strike down humankind. Those who hold this belief contend that there are certain locations on the earth that are portals where the creatures can emerge from and then return to their underground lair.
When Thomas heard the explanation that the other disciples offered about the resurrection, he was somewhat skeptical. Other people, however, are much more willing to accept almost anything that is told to them. For example, following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, many people were quite willing to believe Richard Hoagland's analysis of the events of that day. Hoagland attempted to assemble various bits of data in a way that seemed to suggest that the events of September 11 were fated to happen as they did. He pointed out that each World Trade Center tower had 110 floors-with 110 being a multiple of 11, the day in September when the attacks occurred. Furthermore, he noted that one of the airliners that struck the towers was Flight 11, which carried a crew of 11 members. Then Hoagland went on to draw a connection between the terrorist attacks and the Knights Templar, that ancient group that was formed during the Crusades and supposedly has played a role in the Holy Grail legend. Hoagland observed that the Knights Templar were first recognized by the Vatican in the year 1118. If you add up the digits in that year-1+1+1+8-again you get that same number, 11. In addition, there were 883 years between that year and the year when the terrorist attacks occurred, and if you add up the digits in 883, you get 19, which is the number of hijackers that there were. Of course, using that rather bizarre way of calculating things, you could come up with connections between virtually any two incidents. Yet many people readily accepted Hoagland's analysis and believed his conclusions.
Thomas struggled with how to determine whether the person standing in front of him truly was Jesus. For his part, Jesus attempted to establish that fact by showing Thomas his hands, feet, and side. Today one of the ways that identity is often verified is by using an eye scanner. A school in western England started using a retina scanning device early last year for students as they passed through the lunch line. The retina scan is able to instantly identify whether a child at the Venerable Bede School in Sunderland qualifies to eat for free. In the process, other students do not find out which of their fellow students qualify for the free-lunch program and thus it prevents the poorer students from being harassed. The retina scan is also being used in the school's library when students check out books. School officials assured parents that the device is safe, employing a low-intensity light to obtain the scan.
Although Thomas hesitated to believe, he had a community that surrounded him and supported him until he came to faith. A sense of community, though, is often absent from many people's lives today. Robert Putnam drove home that point in his book, Bowling Alone. The title referred to the fact that more people are bowling in the United States than ever before, yet at the same time membership in organized leagues is at its lowest point in decades. In other words, people are still having fun, but they are doing it individually or in small, informal groups. In A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, Lizabeth Cohen suggests that regional shopping centers have become the new "village green." But the typical mall certainly does not provide much of an atmosphere for extensive social interaction and bonding.
Back in the 1950s, television was a media that created a sense of community among virtually all segments of the population. Generally speaking, all the members of a family-regardless of age-would sit down together and watch the same show. For instance, Ed Sullivan's Really Big Show offered a span of acts that tried to cover the whole gamut: from rock stars to comedians to concert violinists. Nowadays, however, television creates no similar sense of community. Rather every segment of society has a particular network that is focused on its own particular likes and preferences. Lifetime is aimed at women; Spike is focused at men; ESPN for sports enthusiasts; CNN and Fox News for news junkies; and Nickelodeon for kids. The result is that in a typical household, each family member is now sitting in a different room of the house watching a different channel. That is one more way that we have lost a sense of community among us.
Having a supportive community not only yields benefits with regard to our faith, but also with regard to our health. In Everybody's Normal Till You Get To Know Them, John Ortberg cites a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, where 276 volunteers were infected with a virus that produces the common cold. The research indicated that people who have strong emotional ties to other people did four times better in fighting off illness than those people who were more socially isolated. Those who experienced a greater sense of community around them were less susceptible to cold symptoms, had less virus present in their bodies, and produced significantly less mucous than those who had less of a community around them.
People today are quite ready to disbelieve. According to a Gallup poll conducted in December 1999, nearly 40% of Americans say that there is much about their religion that they do not believe.
What is a resurrected person supposed to look like? Maybe Thomas doubted because he wasn't sure. In the early days of Christianity, Origen speculated that a resurrected body would be purely spiritual. Other early Christian writers argued that resurrected bodies would be naked, recreating the state that Adam and Eve were in at the time of their creation.
In A Brief History of Heaven, Alister McGrath tells about a persecution of Christians that took place in Lyons around the years 175-177. The pagan oppressors knew that the Christians held to a belief in resurrected bodies. Therefore, in an attempt to crush that belief, the pagans burned the bodies of the Christians whom they had martyred and threw the ashes in the Rhine River. To their way of thinking, that would prevent any possibility of resurrection because there was now no body to be raised. Christian theologians responded by contending that God is able to restore a body even if all of its parts have been lost or destroyed.
"A religious community that believes itself to be in possession of 'the Truth' is a community equipped with the most lethal weapon of any warfare: the sense of its own superiority and mandate to mastery." (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003], p. 5)
"All unbelief is the belief of a lie." (Horatius Bonar)
"One result of the unbelief of our day is the tragedy of trying to live a maximum life on a minimum faith." (Rufus Matthew Jones)
"If a man begins with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he begins with doubts, he shall end in certainties." (Francis Bacon)
"Doubt is not always a sign that a man is wrong; it may be a sign that he is thinking." (Oswald Chambers)
"Believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts; do not make the mistake of doubting your beliefs and believing your doubts." (Charles F. Deems)
By all accounts, the Apostle Thomas was a brave man. He was the only apostle who is straightforward enough to proclaim, "Let's go there," when Jesus told him that He would die in Jerusalem. So, when he announced he wouldn't believe in the resurrection until he saw the nail prints in Jesus' hands, it is a mistake to read his demand for proof as cowardice. Rather, like someone who is brave but not reckless, he is willing to risk his life for what is truly real. Thomas subsequently traveled to India, established a church that endures to this day and died there.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Mother me, O God. You know I need a friend to understand me. You know I need a God to hold me when I am scared.
You know my doubts are nearly as large as my faith.
Already today I have solved problems twice my size. I tried to make it look easy. I failed. Mother me, O God. People who look as strong and powerful as I do to my children need a cradle too. We need a place to rest in our doubt so that we may rise in our faith. Amen
Gloom we always have with us. It is the residue that doubt leaves in us. Joy requires tending. Tend in us joy - and let us tend it in others. Dispense the gloom easily and puff it away, then breathe in the joy. You promise joy. You even promised joy to Thomas, as he doubted you.
Fear blocks joy, doubt blocks joy. Forgive me in advance for all that I fear and doubt instead of thank and tend.
In the name of your Holy Loss that revealed so much gain, Amen.
Holy Spirit, You are a kind of dailiness? that makes the ordinary extraordinary. How do we solve a problem twice our size? Bite off a piece of it every day. Chew it. Enjoy it. Resolve it. Be done with it and move on. That's how. Show us how to live the way You live, one holy step at a time.
And dedicate this little bit of offering to the complete coming of your entire realm. Amen
Savior and Friend, You know how much I was hurt by something this week. You know how sad I am. You also know that disappointment and regret grow in me as a fertile field for doubt the size of Thomas'. You also know that the best revenge is not to become like the one who hurt you. Let me rise above hurt and into grace. Let me not become the monster I want to destroy in those who hurt me. And let me find the support I need to live elsewhere. Let me let the church carry me when I can't carry myself. Soon let me become one who carries others as well. Restore me to strength. Increase my faith. Allow me the honesty to know how much I ache. Let me not be afraid of my pain.
Use this community of faith as a shelter for all who are lost and alone, furious and fretful, manic and maniacal. Let us be your body in this world, here and now.
Touch the wounds in our sides, O God, as we touch yours in Jesus. And turn all the trouble into triumph, the way your cross became crown, one short week ago.
In the name of the Risen Christ whom we doubt and dare and then believe again and again. Amen.