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The Politics of ‘Doubting Thomas’—John 20:19-31 (Fritz Wendt)

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The Zen teacher Shoun was still a student when his father passed away, leaving him to care for his old mother. Since she accompanied him everywhere, he could not live with the monks when he visited monasteries; so he would build a little house and care for her there. He would copy sutras from the Buddhist scriptures and sell them, and in this manner earn money for food.

When Shoun bought fish for his mother, the people would scoff at him, for a monk is not supposed to eat fish. But Shoun did not mind.

Shoun was fond of music and was a master of the harp, which his mother also played. On full-moon nights they used to play together.

One night a young woman passed by their house and heard music. She invited Shoun to visit her the next evening and he accepted the invitation. A few days later he met her on the street and thanked her for her hospitality. Others said, “A fine monk you are. You’ve visited a prostitute.”

One day Shoun returned from traveling, only to find his mother dead. His friends had not known where to reach him, and the funeral had just begun. Shoun walked up and hit the coffin with his staff. “Mother, your son has returned,” he said. “I am glad to see you have returned, son,” he answered for his mother. “Yes, I am glad too,” Shoun responded. Then he announced to the people about him: “The funeral ceremony is over.”

Even though Shoun was a monk recognized to be holy, he broke every law to which he had committed, in favor of a greater law: love for his mother, responsibility to others, kindness and compassion. He was a vegetarian yet he ate fish because it was good for his elderly mother. He was a monk yet he didn’t live in the monastery because he could not leave his mother alone. He was celibate, yet he went to the house of a prostitute to play his music. He missed his own mother’s death, and managed to dismiss all customary funeral rituals.

The holy man Shoun was an outsider in so many ways. Today’s gospel tells us about another outsider, one named Thomas the Twin, one who wasn’t afraid to confront Jesus.

During that tender moment when Jesus was explaining eternal life (“When I go and prepare a place for you, I will take you to myself … And you know the way where I am going”), Thomas rushes in, “Master, we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:3). Thomas’ brave inquiry elicits a response we all know well: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, (Thomas,). If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him” (John 14:6).

Today’s gospel text states: The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews … (verse 19). It is Sunday night. After the terrible trauma of Jesus’ death and three days of terrified waiting, the disciples are in lock-down mode.

Some women have told stories of Jesus being alive, but Scripture doesn’t suggest that the disciples expect any kind of resurrection; their fear has poisoned their faith. Jesus, who they think is dead, suddenly ‘comes and stands’ among them, and disrupts all the gloom and doom. The ensuing hysteria comes to a stop when he says: “Peace be with you.”

Jesus shows them his wounds. This is the same Jesus they knew as their Master, the same whose crucifixion they had witnessed. They are still mixed up and dumbfounded as he gives them marching orders, which actually reach right into the Pentecost story: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (verses 21-22).

When Thomas later learns of Jesus’ visit, he will not believe that Jesus rose from death. Jesus had told them about false messiahs going around claiming to be the real thing: “Unless I see … I will not believe” (verse 25). Generations of Christians have called him “Doubting Thomas” ever since, but Scripture doesn’t support our judgment: A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. … Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (verses 26-28).

Rather than a doubter to be cast aside, Thomas was a bulwark of faith. Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (verse 29). By being an outsider who didn’t follow the crowd, by searching and struggling for himself, he became an insider; by daring to be different, he became a man of great faith. He took the leap of faith.

When Jesus talks about those who have not seen and yet believe, that is not a condemnation of Thomas, but a description of us; we are those that have not him seen him yet have believed. We declare the following every Sunday: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again.”

Although we hear nothing else about Thomas in the Bible, several other writings talk of Thomas as the Apostle to India, where he is said to have preached and taught and built seven congregations. There is also the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus’ words excluded from our Bible due to its disregard of church authority and hierarchies, which may be as old as the oldest of our four gospels. At some point in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus asks Peter, Matthew, and Thomas to whom they would compare him. Thomas, the searcher and struggler, is the only one who has no ready-made stock answer; he senses that Jesus is beyond comparison.

What I learn from Thomas is that searching and struggling are good for my faith, that to take the leap of faith is far better than sticking to standard answers. The alternative to the standard answers is to engage in the struggle like Thomas, to acquire your own faith with fear and trembling.

Some religious people, overwhelmed by fear and complacency, stop seeking altogether, and become like those disciples gathered inside, with the doors and windows closed. Theirs may be religion, but it is not faith.

Martin Luther says this much better than I ever could:

The victory given to you is signified by Christ entering through closed doors, and standing in the midst … For this standing denotes nothing else than that he is standing in our hearts; there he is in the midst of us, so that he is ours, as he stands there and they have him among them. And when he thus stands within our hearts, we at once hear his loving voice saying to the troubled consciences: Peace … It is not sufficient simply to believe Christ rose from the dead, for this produces neither peace nor joy, neither power nor authority; but you must believe that he rose for your sake, for your benefit. [From Martin Luther’s sermon for Quasimodogeniti Sunday]

Real faith—when you stubbornly hold on to the fact that Christ rose for you—is always in motion. Real faith knows and embraces doubt and skepticism. Searching and struggling are good for your faith. Don’t get bogged down by your fears like those disciples who locked themselves in. Be curious like Thomas. The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is fear, and it is time to shed your fears.

The Lord is risen from the dead, and it does not serve us to think small. We have been promised life everlasting, so let’s get on with the journey. The world around us needs our witness, our joy, our love, our compassion, our action.

He is risen! Let’s take the good news of Easter to the world around us. Let’s get moving. Amen.


Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.

(2) Comments

  1. Having worked in Southern India where it is believed that Thomas established the first Christian missions I was particularly touched by this homily. On return, stopping over in Dubai, I purchased “The Letters of Mother Teresa” in which she reflected in much the same way but in “reverse”—her doubt so to speak was in the later part of her life whereas the first part had been filled with “visitations.” A long and very “dark night of the soul” remained with her to the end. but even in that dark night, often haunted by those sanguine memories of earlier times, she never had fear.

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