Becoming Thomas (John 20:19-29)

This is the text from my sermon this week. It was delivered within the context of joint worship at Camas Friends Church who invited Friends from Multnomah Meeting and Bridge City Meeting to join us in worship (we will be visiting their meeting house May 23rd).

Isaac and Mary Penington_
Some of the earliest Quakers to join the movement were Isaac and Mary Penington. They were the most “highly placed individuals to join the Quaker movement during its first and most revolutionary decade” (Gwyn 265). Isaac was born in 1616 and Mary in 1625, both came from families of high position in society. Isaac’s father, also Isaac Penington, was a business man and heavily involved in politics during the English civil war of the 17th century. Mr. Penington was involved in an independent church (which at that time meant he was a part of one of the dissenting religious movements) and “a friend of John Milton.”

Isaac went to Cambridge for school and while we don’t know much about his academic credentials, William Penn wrote that he was “the most educated of the first generation Friends.” Of course, this is always something nice to say about your father-in-law. It turns out William Penn married a certain Gulielma Maria Posthuma Springett, Isaac’s adopted daughter. Before becoming a Friend, Isaac was a voracious author, writing about his various spiritual journies as a seeker of an authentic and real faith.

Mary was herself from a well to do family in Kent. She lost both of her parents when she was just three years old and was raised by a family she described as “loose protestants” until she turned 12 when she went to live with a family more devout (Gwyn 282). She was herself a deep spiritual seeker and found comfort in writing her own prayers as a young person. She was later married to William Springett who was a committed to his Puritan ways, and was an officer in the Cromwellian army until he “died in camp of a fever in 1644” (Abbott 215).

The two met in 1654 and later, after becoming Quakers, suffered greatly because of their high position in society. “Their struggle to center their lives on living out God’s will let to a total transformation of their lifestyle.” And by adopting the testimony of plainness, in speech, in their dress, and in their refusal to take oaths they forfeited not only most of what they owned (Isaac was himself imprisoned 6 times for his Quaker preaching and teaching).

And what really draws me to their story this morning was in something I read in Doug Gywn’s book “Seekers Found.” Listen closely because I want to see what you see happening here. Gwyn writes:

In 1656, while Mary and Isaac were walking in the park, a young Quaker passed by, denouncing them for their pride in wearing “gay vain apparel.” Mary was offended, but Isaac engage the young man in conversation and invited him to their home. The Quaker realized he was no match for Isaac’s “fleshly wisdom” and promised to return the next day with a Friend to answer all his questions and objections. This was meant to be George Fox himself, who was in the area. But some circumstance prevent Fox from coming, and two other Friends came instead.

During that conversation in the Penington home, Thomas Curtis of Reading paraphrased a verse of Scripture that struck home immediately with Mary: “He that will know my doctrines must do my commands” (Jn 7:17). This addressed the doctrinal impasse she had experienced for some time. The only way to know the truth would be to do it.The plainness of these Friends communicated to her that to understand their teaching she would have to adopt some version of their way of life…(Gwyn 284).

What do you see happening here?

Convers(at)ion_
A couple thoughts from this: I and M learned that truth is relational. What we see happening in their convincement story is that conversion comes through conversation, that there is an intrinsic link between conversation and change that might look something like this convers(at)ion. While Mary was offended, as I certainly would have been, Isaac was willing to engage in conversation. He was a seeker, he deeply longed to find truth and therefore he had a deep seated curiosity that drove him. So even when someone came along and said something to him that was offensive, ridiculous, even downright mean he was able to keep a posture that was both open and curious. This curiosity led to engaging the young Quaker in conversation which is ultimately a relational move. In other words, it had a personal, face-to-face, flair to it.

[Anyways, the idea here is that not only did they engage him in a conversation, which I think is saying a lot about the level of curiosity these two had, but they invited him over for tea and biscuits! Are you kidding me? The first thing that comes to my mind the last time someone flicked me off and slammed on their horn while I was riding my bike up 6th street here in Camas, I can tell you was not, “when can I have them over for tea and biscuits?!”]

And, what I think is so beautiful about the ending of this passage is that Gwyn reports that Mary heard these words “He that will know my doctrines must do my commands” (Jn 7:17) and was changed. “The only way to know the truth would be to do it.” I take this to mean something like, truth is active, it is relational, it happens in conversation. To put it in other terms “truth is storied,” it has a context, a face, a back story.

Samir Selmanovic a leader in the emerging church wrote on his blog recently:

“There is a hill on which we are willing to die, and it is called conversation. We don’t think of conversation as a method of communication. Or as an agent of change, or even as a virtue. We see conversation as the teaching, the truth, the doctrine. We confess it. Conversation is deeply biblical, rooted in Christian history and theology, and, importantly, in the life and teachings of Jesus. Conversation involves incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, both God’s and ours. If you think of faith as something that can be lived outside of a continual experience of living and dying through conversation with the divine and human other, we…maintain that you are wrong, terribly wrong.”

We have this happening in the whole story of Isaac and Mary Penington which culminates in this conversation with the young Quaker, and his Friends.

Truth is Flesh and Blood_
Now, I think we can take this to the Gospel text this morning and see that this is exactly what’s happening on Easter morning. John repeats the new creation theme that we discussed last week again:

“When 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” (John 20:19)

The doors are locked, the disciples are afraid and then the physical body of Jesus shows up, and as his very first words proclaim the basis of the new world order “peace be with you!” Then he invites his friends to take a look at him, to touch him, to ask him questions, and to see with their own eyes that he has been, as NT Wright puts it, re-embodied. In other words, Jesus invited them to see that “truth has a material form.” Truth is not simply ideas, facts, data, evidence. Truth becomes real when truth is flesh and blood, when it is like Jesus and is re-embodied.

It is significant that moments after Jesus’ resurrection, he doesn’t retire to the mountains, tucked away in a monastery, where he can finally pen his magnum opus, a 10 part systematic theology using post-colonial theory with the latest postmodern hermeneutics (though that would have been cool). He didn’t spend his days prior to ascension dreaming up a list of dogma people have to agree to in order to be considered his followers. Now we’ve wasted a lot of time doing this, but not Christ. No, he enters a room of his disciples, blesses them in shalom, and bids them to touch and see.

If you want to know the truth, then touch it.1 // What if the church really practiced this kind of truth?

Mission Stations and People Movements_
In the 19th century missionaries set out to build a compound – The general theology behind this approach was you go into a culture, set yourself apart from that culture and then try and pull people into the compound and educate them with a language foreign to them, a “message” that was also foreign. If you could remove the indigenous people form their culture, and enculturate them into a Christian belief system, then you were doing missions work. Mission station approaches are based on a come mentality, you come to us so you can learn from us. Thus the emphasis is on getting people into the compound.

By the early part of the 20th century some missionaries (such as Everett Cattell) began arguing for a People Movement approach which was meant to be more indigenousness and relational. A truth that spreads is not propositional but rather relational. Therefore if you remove people from their cultural setting and their social support groups you undercut the real chance to help spread the good news. In other words, if the mission station approach betrays this basic Christian idea and separates out the bible from people’s real life stories, situations, context, etc, then the people movement approach goes to the people and joins them in their daily activities and learns from their culture. Here the assumption is that God is already at work in the world, and we can learn from cultures and people and find natural intersections for living the gospel in that place. Conversations…etc.

So I see something like a people movement happening in John 20. I think Jesus realizes that if there will be any movement to follow his resurrection it has to move along relational lines, it will involve the senses, it has to have the grit of material flesh and bones, it has to have a face, a story, it has to invite conversation and remain open.

And this is where Thomas comes in.

The Curiosity of Thomas_
Now typically Thomas gets a bad rap. When someone calls you a “doubting Thomas” it’s not usually a compliment. The painting here from Caravaggio is titled “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” But taking the old reading of this passage just isn’t good enough for me, and so I’d rather try and turn this story around a little, give it a little postmodern teeth so to speak, and question how we might learn from Thomas and how we might become a little more like him.

The church too often fears the doubters, and if everything we do is based on truth as facts, as evidence, as decontextualized statements, then this would make sense. But the church has a clear narrative of a famous doubter inscribed in our sacred text. And so I wonder how can we be more like Thomas (or what we can at least learn from him)? Now I take Thomas not so much as a doubter, but as one who was curious, similar to Isaac and Mary Penington. And I think all of us in the church could use a strong dose of divine curiosity. When we lose that curiosity, we stop learning, we stop thinking for ourselves and begin to take other people’s words for things. Or maybe we are no longer curious because we think we have nothing to learn from the other people, maybe it is because of their theology or politics, maybe it’s because they dress like a certain way or don’t have as much education, maybe it is because of the house they live in or the car they drive, it could be because they are from that family, that school, from that part of town or maybe it is because they are one of those Quakers, but whatever the case may be, when we find ourselves with no inquisitiveness we have begun to atrophy inside.

[ILL. Think about the curiosity of Children, L has recently begun asking why, for pretty much everything. She is hungry to know, she wants to learn, to see and to grow. “Lily don’t eat the purple marker, Mae can’t eat desert, it’s time for bed…”] Curiosity motivates openness, and openness will lead to learning and growth.

And so I take Thomas as curious. He refused to take his friends words for it, “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.” (John 20:25) In essence the scene looks like this:

“Beneath Thomas’ apparent doubt is a profound desire to know the resurrection in flesh, to know its incarnate reality. Such desire can be a model for us all. We too will bring peace and new life by accompanying one another, physically and spiritually, through fear, isolation, and all forms of death.” (Do Not Doubt by Michaela Bruzzese)

And he’s the kicker, Thomas does doubt, but he doesn’t remain there, because he earnestly wants to know and because of this he goes on to make the most grandiose confession found in the Gospel of John. I don’t believe that Thomas is in the Gospel of John because he was a doubter, but because of the confession he made about Jesus. He says: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Thomas made the most beautiful, succinct, and profound confession he could of all because he discovered for himself the life and power of the risen Lord. His curiosity, and his willingness to remain open, led him to actually experience the truth relationally. And the outcome? He was a fervent witness to God’s kingdom.

It seems to me this is the same progression of things as the early friends, that they like Isaac and Mary Penington were a lot like Thomas. They wanted the same thing, they hungered for a real authentic faith experience of the Divine, and wouldn’t take other people’s words for it, nor would they rest until they had it. And so this meant that a early Quakers engaged in constant conversations (even ones with offensive people) in hopes of learning the truth.

Doug Gwyn writes at the end of Seekers Found:

We act faithfully toward one another as we enter honest conversation with one another. We “seek the truth” in a manner proper to that end as we love one another enough to listen deeply to their own accounts of truth. Like the Peningtons, some of us are tangled up in “doctrines,” in propositions about truth, while others are awash in meditational techniques aimed at experience of the truth. But, as Thomas Curtis advised the Peningtons, “[they]that will know my doctrines must do my commands (see John 7:17)…

In our seeking, we have sought mainly ourselves. We have gathered unto ourselves, then gone off to be alone with our God, or with the few that have collected similar bouquets of truth. The call today is to lay down our lives, to be befriend those unlike ourselves, to lay out to them truth as we have found it, and to allow them opportunity to do the same. In the process of this renewed conversation, we may begin to integrate the far-flung horizons that our divergent seeking have opened in recent decades.

Open Worship / Closing Prayer_
May God grant you divine curiosity, and give you a life that lives into questions. May you become more like Thomas and doubt, wonder, probe, and inquire. May that curiosity lead you to touch and see the resurrected Lord, may you also embody the truth through relational means. May you help to create spaces where conversations can take place and may we grow together as a community guided by the Light of the risen Christ.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

5 thoughts on “Becoming Thomas (John 20:19-29)”

  1. Wes, Thank you for this post/sermon, which is an excellent mix of history, quaker theology and Bible. Could I have your permission to circulate and/or copy it for my Seekers Group at Hopewell Centre MM?
    Blessings,
    Linda Wilk

  2. John 7.17 & context in the New English Bible (My caps): “The teaching that I give is not my teaching; it is the will of Him who sent me.

    “Whoever has the will to do the will of God shall know whether my teaching comes from Him or is merely my own.

    “Anyone whose teaching is merely his own, aims at honor for himself. But if a man aims at the honor of Him who sent him he is sincere, and there is nothing false in him.”

    I read this through the following lens: The greatest obstacle to intelligence is a strong reluctance to know some inconvenient truth. And so much of the S.o.F is bemused and held in mental bondage by unwillingness to recognize the condition of the world, the crying need and peril of the world, the extent to which they themselves are unconscious beneficiaries and accomplices in evils they truly are powerless to overcome, but which they would strive mightily against if they only knew. And so (overall) we fail to know the truth theologically as well as politically/economically/socially.

    This is less a matter of slavishly following some specific “commands” than of “staying awake” so as to know the continual presence of God and thus the demands of each moment…

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