Monday, April 13, 2015

Courageous Thomas

I had old friends who loved adventure travel, and saved up for a long trip to the Galapagos Islands in September 2001. On September 11, they were snorkeling and birdwatching 600 miles from the nearest newspaper, TV, or phone. It took days before they heard what had happened here, and they missed the trauma of it all. They had no unending replays on TV, no personal fear of attack, and when they got home, they said they were absolutely baffled, because the world had changed, and they intellectually knew why, but they hadn’t changed in the same way as every other person they knew. The resurrection was just as important a moment for those who encountered the risen Jesus as September 11 was for us. And in his own way, Thomas has missed the experience of resurrection rather like my friends missed 9/11.

And his name has been punished throughout history for it. “Doubting Thomas,” he is called, known more for his doubts than his faith, and unfairly cast as a symbol of faithlessness. After all, the other apostles all saw Jesus in the flesh before they came to belief; and the reason they are all hiding in an upper room the night of the resurrection is that they didn’t fully believe Mary Magdalene’s proclamation that she had seen the risen Jesus and so were still afraid. Thomas gets a bad rap.

And so does doubt. The Greek word translated “doubt” in today’s gospel, is apistis, which really means “without faith.” At least in English, there is a lot of difference between having doubts and being without faith. I have faith. And I have doubts. Faithful people have doubts, and if they don’t, then they aren’t faithful. Faith is specifically a belief in something that is unsee-able and unproveable. If you have doubts about your faith—you are welcome here. If you have no doubts at all, this may not be the church for you. People who do not have doubts about their faith can turn into people like the Westboro Baptist “church” who picket soldiers funerals and –this weekend—Virginia theological Seminary for caring about all of God’s children and not just those that the Westboro folks consider pure.

Thomas does come to faith on a different timeline than his fellow apostles. We worry so much about missing out. About letting opportunity pass us by. But God doesn’t worry about those things. Jesus comes back the next week and gives Thomas what he needs to believe. We can pass up opportunity after opportunity to meet God, and there will always be another opportunity. God is far more patient than we are.

When we baptize babies, it’s always an opportunity to think about what we—their parents and godparents, their family friends, and their church community—desire for their life of faith. We are all taking vows today to support Charlie Urquhart and Charlie Davis in their life of faith. What of today’s gospel story do we want them to have? It’s pretty obvious, but I would be so pleased if both of them turned out to have a faith like Thomas.

This is the third of three times that Thomas speaks up in the Gospel of John; in chapter 11, he is the one who says to the disciples that they should go with Jesus to Bethany, where Lazarus has died, even if it means that they will die with him. He seems to have faith then. And courage. He recognizes that following Jesus and being a disciple is costly, and he is ready to lead others on that path.

In John 14, When Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house, and tells the disciples that they know the way to the place where he is going, it is Thomas who asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas is asking a question that is probably on the minds of all the disciples. He wants to believe—he wants to understand. And he has the courage to ask the question. He’s not “doubting Thomas.” He’s “Courageous Thomas.” How many times in our lives have we hesitated to ask a question out of a fear that it will show our ignorance… and have regretted it? Thomas asks, rather than regrets.

And then we get to today’s passage, and Thomas’s proclamation of “My Lord, and my God.” Thomas comes to faith late, but he was still sent, led by the Holy Spirit, and he went farther than any of the other apostles. The myth of Thomas is that he went to India; I always thought that was just a myth until I went to India. There’s good evidence that Thomas actually made it there; or at least someone did in the first century, because there have been Christians in India since then. Some forms of Christianity in India are the type we might normally think of; colonizing Europeans bringing the Gospel to the “natives”. But other churches are indigenous. Thomas may very well have arrived, as the legends say, in 52 AD, when all of my ancestors in Germany and England were still worshipping trees. Thomas founded a church that lasted as a witness to the resurrection, to his claim of “My Lord and my God.”

So that would be a good faith for the Charlies. But there is a lifetime ahead of them to discover it. Thomas’s call to us is one of patience. We may not be on the same timeline as those around us in our faith. Sometimes we lead; sometimes we follow. Sometimes we demand proof, and sometimes we realize that we didn’t need it. But always praying with our collect today: “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.” Our lives display our faith. Thomas’s faith was on display in his life. May our lives proclaim that same faith.

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