The Doubts of St. Thomas
By Charles Rush
April 15, 2012
John 20: 1-19
(mp3, 7.0Mb) ]
r text this morning starts off in fear. The disciples are huddled behind closed doors for fear. They are afraid of dying for having followed the crucified one and they have returned to a place of safety. Maybe they went back to the upper room, where they had celebrated the last supper, the place where they had known such intimacy, fellowship, communion. It would make sense. Maybe being there would make something happen. It is a primordial response.
When I was a
child, we would occasionally be at a family reunion back on the ancestral farms
of our people, the suburban kids riding horses with the cousins. I would last a
mile or two before my horse got spooked, threw me on the ground, and bolted. I
was always surprised that no one much looked back in concern about a horse
running free, but we’d always find her back in her stall where she felt safe,
and no little kids could send confusing signals.
like that too. My grandparents were married 61 years when my grandmother died.
In the months after her death, my grandfather’s neighbors said he was doing
real well, keeping to his schedule, and waving at the children in the
I told him
about their comments and asked him how he was really doing. He smiled a winsome
smile and said, “I guess time kind of stopped when your grandmother died. It
seems like it has been the same long day that never ended.”
Several days have gone by and the
disciples are still in that room, almost as though nothing has changed. Going
through the routine is just our way of staying in control in a world that had
gone out of control. The disciples must have been going through that kind of
grief. It’s like wading through swamp mud waist deep for miles.
abandoned produces a fear in us so deep, so primordial,
we do things we didn’t know we could do, stuff that has its roots all the way
back in infancy. It is a visceral reaction. We build our life around people.
They are our piers in the midst of a changing tide. They are our joy too. They
hold us in the night, make us laugh. They make us want to be better people. And
when they die our whole reason for living dies too. Most of the time, we don’t
even realize it until they die that most of our meaning and purpose is gone. We
literally do not know what to do. It is just numb. So we go through the routine
until our heart can catch up with our head.
One of the
most marvelous promises of the gospel happens right here. Jesus comes and meets
them where they are. The scripture says ‘Jesus came and stood among them. They
are deathly afraid, confused, frightened, numb. Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’.
It is a
profound hope that God will meet us where we are and bring us peace. Martin Luther
used to say that this is the point of the gospel. It is not simply objective,
out there. God comes for you personally. God is not only for us. God is with
us. The disciples are afraid that they have been abandoned. But they are not
alone. Behind wood and stone, locked doors and barred, Jesus appears among
them. How does that happen? We have no idea and our text never bothers to even
raise such a question. The point is simply this, that there is no place that is
inaccessible to God. No physical barrier stands in the way; no amount of fear
or faithlessness. The initiative is with God, not with us. This is the good
news. God comes to us and says peace. True peace quiets the restless heart. It
comes to us in the midst of adversity, when outwardly there is nothing but
So far, so good. But then comes
poor Thomas. He is not at the first meeting. They were much nicer to people who
missed meetings back then. Today, if Thomas missed a meeting, we would elect
him chair or put him on the fund-raising sub-committee.
I have a lot
of sympathy for Thomas. Here is a guy that appears to me to be asking for some
basic information. All of the other disciples have had some experience of a
truly extraordinary character. They are noticeably changed and quite excited
about it. Is it that Thomas wants to have the same experience that they had? (Bultman)
Is he asking for even more by asking to touch and feel Jesus’ wounds? (Ray
Brown) Or, is he just talking in hyperbole to make a point? We need to be
perfectly clear here. I suspect that this text has been misused and abused as
much as any in the Bible. The positive point that is made at the end reads as
follows “Blessed are those that have not seen and believed”. That is you and
me. That is right, as far as it goes. We didn’t have a direct experience of
Jesus. We have to rely on the authority of those who did, that they were
telling the truth or at least they weren’t outright lying about things.
But to take it
farther than that poses more problems for me than it solves. To suggest that
somehow the more you believe with less evidence makes you more faithful is a
huge mistake. To suggest that people who ask critical questions about matters
holy and orthodox are somehow less than faithful is a huge mistake.
Of course you
hear it over and over listening to radio preaching in the heartland of our
beloved country. I love listening to radio preaching, like certain kinds of
country music, but most of it is the most bone-headed, idiotic, mind-bending,
spiritually crippling, history-defying, science denying, logic skewering,
financially manipulating, guilt multiplying garbage imaginable. And these evangelists always have this blank
looking silly grin on their face. And after they have bled the last few drops
of reason from their argument, they turn to the audience and say ‘Praise
remark: One of them said ‘The safest place to be in the world is out on a limb
with God in obedience.’ Now that may be true if you are thinking of Mahatma
Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, Albert
Schweitzer. But that is not what they mean. They are usually raising money for
a Christian Theme park or a hospital for faith healing or some debt burning
scheme because God wants us all to be rich- like Jesus only different.
I have to ask
myself ‘Why would God want us out on this limb? The farther out on a limb you
are in a harebrained scheme, the more faith you need.
It is only one
step from this basic disposition that uses faith in the place of imaginative planning
to the idea that questioning religious authority on any front for any reason
verges on blasphemy.
We do not
suffer from anxiety over blasphemy at Christ Church, I recognize that.
Authoritarian leaders have played on this for centuries, trying to flatten
faith into unquestioning obedience. I used to keep a quote pasted to my
computer. It read “Meine Ehre
heisst Treue”- “My honor
consists in my unwavering obedience”. That is not a quote from one of the Apostles
or St. Augustine. It is Heinrich Himmler in a speech that he made to Adolf
Hitler. “My honor consists in my uncritical obedience.” Uncritical obedience
may be necessary in battle and it might even be virtuous for a dog but it is
hardly befitting for humans. It is a dangerous invitation to trade the ambiguity
of our freedom for the certainty of slavery. And simple conviction is not yet
faith. We all know this.
Even dogs know
it. Remember, little dog Toto in the Wizard of Oz? Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion, and the
Scarecrow are standing before the Mighty Oz. Oz is spewing out steam in a
booming, magnified voice. Oz is makes ridiculous, arbitrary demands. Every time
one of them objects, Oz booms out ‘Silence’. They are all quaking, shivering
with fear. Finally little Toto goes over to a curtain and begins to pull it
back. Behind the curtain is a middle aged, rotund man, pulling levers, looking
exasperated, trying to hide from the dog. Oz says ‘Never mind that man behind
Even little Toto could unmask an
ordinary man hiding behind some great machinery, controlling the naïve through
pretense. Even little Toto could question. And what a lovely man he turned out
to be once he became human and we found out that he was just a ‘man struggling
among men’, lacking any sure answers, lacking any certain authority, mutually
seeking like the rest of us.
I wish our radio preachers didn’t feel
like they had to make God into Oz. I wish our radio preachers didn’t feel that
honest inquiry was simply faithless doubt. I wish our evangelists didn’t
confuse programmed responses with faith. The mighty Oz turns out to be a mayor
of a small town in Kansas,
looking for a way home with the rest of us.
I love the way
he gives Scarecrow what he needs. ‘Brains, you want brains. Why, my friend,
back where I come from there are men who don’t have any more brains than you
have but they have one thing that you don’t have… a diploma. So, by the power
vested in me, confer upon you the Doctor of Letters, E plurbus
unum and cogito ergo sum’. And the scarecrow begins
rattling off math formulas.
No, the church
has never had anything to fear from honest intellectual inquiry, despite the
fact that a number of scholars have nearly undone the faithful in their
generation. I take it as axiomatic that if we follow the truth to the end, God
will be there. And wherever God is, the ground will be sanctified. So we do not
need to worry about an honest, critical inquiry, even when it is brutal. In
fact, critical inquiry can be a virtue.
Our church has
a stained glass window dedicated to St.
Thomas. That somehow seems appropriate to our crowd.
It is the last window back on the right. I invite you to have a gander at it
after worship. In that window you will find 4 men who represent the virtue of
critical inquiry and a healthy skepticism.
The first is St. Paul. And when you
think about it, the first theologian of the church was abundantly skeptical,
critical, and open. From what we know of him, he was educated in the finest
rabbinical tradition, the Harvard
of his day. But he had a profound conversion experience and then he had the
guts to think through all of his Jewish tradition from a completely new
perspective. What an incredibly original thinker and heterodox as could be to
the Orthodox Rabbi’s of his day. Thank God Paul was open to a new idea.
And in the
opposite corner is another Saint, a secular saint, you might say, Albert
Einstein. It was Einstein’s early formulations that first led us to understand
that the universe is expanding and from that our whole world view changed
dramatically. With Einstein we completed a migration of thought that led us
away from a view of the universe that was more or less static, more or less
eternal, with the earth and humans at the center, the product of a creation by
fiat. After Einstein, the galaxies are understood as fundamentally in motion,
relating time and space. The question’s posed about the origin or the creation
of the universe, are not about fiat exactly. Although interestingly, with the
understanding of the Big Bang and the notion that there was a beginning to the
universe, we have now come back to the question of God the creator, in a very
different way. And this God, the force that pulls the universe, is a much more
profound deity, frankly a much bigger God. And our place in the universe is
much smaller. Thank God, Professor Einstein kept doing the math.
secular saint is Darwin.
Now Darwin, it
must be admitted, was not much of a theist but every seminary needs an atheist
or two. And he started down a path that he could not complete by himself. Until
thought we were desperately concerned to underscore the uniqueness of humanity
by the measure that they stood apart from the animal kingdom. We had the image
of God. Furthermore, the theologians and the faithful of the day, took the
whole understanding of the evolution of the species as a direct threat to the
authority of the Bible. He helped us enormously.
At about the
same time as Darwin,
our biblical scholars began to understand that the Bible is not a history book
and certainly the first 11 chapters of Genesis are not history in the
scientific sense of history. In the religion departments, we began to
appreciate the meaning of saga and the use of myth in the communication of
thinking through the implications of an evolving universe, we came to a much
richer understanding of God as well. Pierre Teilhard
de Chardin showed us that there is a direction to the
course of evolution, viewed on a grand scheme. We move from the organic to the
conscious to the self-conscious. At each level, there is a corresponding
increase in sophistication and self-direction. It is an increased concentration
of spirit. At each level there is an increased ability to alter the course of
generation, we stand at an important crossroads in the history of psychic
development. This is the first generation that will begin to understand our
genetic make up. We are the first generation that will be able to directly
alter the course of human evolution through gene therapy. Once again, the
divine image comes to us from quite a different perspective. We have the
potential to do an enormous good but there is clearly a Promethean temptation
to a secular self-direction that could become tragically evil.
Here as in so
many places in the twentieth century, our technological capability has far
outstripped our moral imagination. We have the power to do these things, but
our moral and spiritual framework has not been able to develop fast enough so
that we can say with any certainty to what ends these new found powers ought to
This is why we
have to critical inquiry alive. I loved the old Apple computers. They have
pictures of Einstein, Gandhi, Edison, the Dali Lama, and a host of original
thinkers. And they conclude with a simple message. ‘Think different’. And that
is the challenge. St. Thomas
was right in one regard, he wanted to touch and see, he wanted religious claims
to bear themselves out in experience. I agree with
him. The bible tells us about many spiritual values: love, forgiveness,
reconciliation, salvation, redemption, mercy, compassion, justice. I believe in
them, not just because the Bible tells me about them, but because they make
more sense of my life than Atman, for example. They have a self-authenticating
quality to them.
But a critical
spirit of inquiry must be matched with imagination, and that is another sermon.
We never have a full slate of evidence. We are like a jury with only parts of
the story and the evidence is never unambiguous. And we have to make a
commitment and develop convictions in the midst of the partial and the
ambiguous. That is why faith is so important. It is not a leap into the unknown,
an uninformed trust. It is a spirit-filled imagination that fills in the blanks
and is able to chart a course in the midst of a fragmentary world.
Brothers and sisters
do not be afraid to question authority. Do not be afraid to think different. Amen.