This was my prepared message for worship last Sunday. It is the second in a series looking at what it means to be the church in relationship to the final resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
_profiles of Thomas the Seeker
I dont know about you but Thomas has the potential to be one of my all-time favorite characters in the Bible. I think its partly because he typically gets a pretty bad wrap and I am partial to the underdog, but I think its partly because he is not afraid to ask the difficult questions.I think theres a lot we can learn from Thomas. He is not so much a doubter as he is a seeker. He is not afraid to get it wrong, because he wants to know for himself.
Now a little bit of background – typically in modern culture Doubt is a dirty word. Consider this many believe that the beginning of the so-called Enlightenment period began with the philosopher Decartes dictum I think, therefore I am, (how many of you have heard this before?). Which was basically his way of trying to strip everything down to the basic core of existence. I know I am a thinking thing, and therefore I must also be a living thing as well. Now on first glance it seems like he may have had it backwards (why thinking before being) but further, what would happen if you introduced doubt into that system?
I think, well – maybe, actually I am not sure what it is I am doing, therefore, do I really exist at all, partially? What am I exactly anyways? Doubt in the Enlightenment proved to be a rather destructive force.
And Doubt is often taboo (sometimes for this very reason) in the church. Asking too many questions can often get you kicked out. In a recent book, Quaker pastor and author Philip Gulley has a chapter titled If the church were Christian inviting questions would be valued more than supplying answers. And this chapter title gets at what for most of us is a well-known truth, often in the church, we are told what to think rather than how to think. This is why a Doubting Thomas may be even more difficult for that kind of church today than he was 2000 years ago.
But Thomas wasnt so much a doubter as he was a seeker. Doubt isnt actually a problem at all in our story. Thomas is never condemned or kicked out of the early church for raising these questions. Partially, it must be, because when Thomas voices his own uncertainties, he was voicing not just for himself but for others.
And isnt it the case that Thomas voices our own doubts as well?
And arent we glad that someone, whether we think of him as a doubter, or more positively as a seeker, exists not just in the biblical story, but at the very formation of the early church?
And then the story tells us how the community began having business meetings to read Thomas out of the meeting because of all of his questions. (For those of you who dont know, getting read out of meeting is the Quaker equivalent of having an umpire throw a player out of game. It typically is pretty drastic, and doesnt tend to go over well with the fans.) Anyways, Thomas gets read out of meeting for his probing questions, and the early church brushed their hands off and said that was that.
No, of course this doesnt happen. Something even more interesting takes place instead.
Mary and the disciples see the body of the resurrected Jesus but Thomas is not with them. So they repeat the same message to Thomas once they find him We have seen the Lord. Now were not told why Thomas isnt with them, but talk about a time in which you really didnt want to show up late something. And then he in effect says, I dont believe your message, I dont believe that the resurrection has taken place. The only way I will believe it is if I see him and touch him for myself. Its actually slightly more forceful than this:
He says, unless I thrust my finger into his nailprints, and throw my hands onto his side I will never believe.
So lets consider the possible scenarios that might follow from Thomas response:
Um…okay…well Thomas, were not sure where Jesus went, and he didnt leave a calling card, so were not sure what to tell you. But were offended because you wont believe us, so until you get it figured out youre not going to be able to stay with us.
Or they pull out their books and bibles open them all up and commence in trying to answer ever question he has, responding back well it says here in the bible…
Or maybe it went like this: Thomas, we understand, this is exactly how we responded when we heard Marys story too. None of us believed until Jesus revealed himself to us. But you need to hang with us, youre safer here and Jesus will surely be present here again and we dont want you to miss it. (Now who can guess which one I think happened?)
And then guess what happened, 8 days later Jesus shows up again. And who is with the disciples? Thomas. I find it absolutely brilliant that the church, in its earliest stages provides a safe space for those who do not yet believe, or know what they believe.
_Mary and Thomas
So the crux of this story is that the early resurrection community is a diverse community with people along many different points of belief. In short the early church is the church of both Mary and Thomas, both the finders and the seekers. Those who are early to the tomb and those who show up late in the game. The Andy Griffiths and the Barney Fifes. The Wilmas and the Shaggys and Scooby-Doos. (should i keep going?). In other words, theres a tension developed and maintained in the early church and it seems to be an important part of what it means to be a community together.
If you remember from a couple weeks back Mary, was the first finder, the first to see and believe who Jesus was. Thomas, on the other hand, was no where to be found, and when he showed up he did not believe his friends. He had his questions, maybe they were fueled by disappointment, hurt, anger, but wherever they came from he wanted to get them out in the open.
Actually, theres a really interesting pattern that emerges in this whole chapter:
- Peter and the Beloved disciple run to the tomb, see that the tomb is empty but do not believe that the resurrection has occurred (they believe Marys initial account).
- Mary initially does not believe either, or rather she believes that the body is stolen, but then Jesus reveals himself to her and it says she turned twice. When he finally calls her name, she knows that it is Jesus.
- Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the Lord but as far as we can tell they do not believe her.
- This means that Jesus has to reveal himself to all the disciples but Thomas is nowhere to be found.
- The disciples tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord but he does not believe.
- Jesus reveals himself to Thomas and tells him, and perhaps in the company of all the other disciples as well, a beatitude that sums up all these interactions happy are those who do not see and believe.
What emerges from this pattern is the point that you both finders and seekers in the early res. community. Some believe, some continue to question. And slowly Jesus reveals himself to each in their own way.
So then what might we learn from this kind of Finder, Seeker community today?
_building a res. community
1. Safe-Space — One thing that is apparent is that the early church welcomes in Thomas and allows him to stay among them even though he and Mary surely didnt see eye-to-eye on the resurrection. My guess is they were committed to him as a friend and as someone who was a seeker. They knew that if he was going to run into Jesus, hanging out with them was as good a place as any. There is an appreciation of Thomas and where he is at in his journey, but there is also an invitation to come and be a part of this res. community anyways. In other words, a safe space was created for Thomas to come be a part of the group, asks the questions, and see what happens. Some environments do better at encouraging questions and speculation than others and allowing a space where we can together seek the truth.
For us then, we are a community that seeks to hold this tension. We would like to have both the Marys and Thomas be a part of our community, and I think we do have both (and maybe others?). My conviction is that this is a healthy way to build a community, that it always contains within it an appreciation for one another and where we are at, and that it seeks to provide a safe-space to learn and seek together.
ILL — Your family and friends who are antagonistic. Create a space-space (that peaceful, non-anxious presence where they can unbelieve if needed).
2. Dialogue — To press into this a little though, in order to have a safe-space to come together we have to build trust, and that trust comes through dialogue. I can imagine the nights over shared meals during that week when Thomas had yet to see Jesus, where Mary and the others talked about all the events that had just happened. They remember the stories that Jesus told, the teachings, Thomas interjected his own memories, maybe even spouted off See I told you, when Jesus wanted to go back to save Lazarus life, I told you he would die. And now look at the mess were in! This early Res. community is a community of dialogue. They build trust by engaging one another and talking about the things that matter to them. This aspect of dialogue moves beyond the niceties and gets personal in a safe environment.
Consider this: To have a community where Mary and Thomas both co-exist, there is the need for both of them to remain open to one another. When those times come, when Mary has questions, or if she is like the rest of us, and begins to be unsure of where God is for her, or goes through a period of life where everything she once believed no longer makes sense, shes going to want someone like Thomas.
In other words, throughout the course of like finders will have times of seeking, just as seekers need to find. A perpetual state of either is no good. And Thomas for his part needs to be willing to commit, to actually find something. And as the story goes he does find, because if we are truly open, there is something to be found.
So again, how as a community can we continue to build dialogue, where we are each pushed and moved ahead. I believe that this kind of diverse dialogue is an anecdote to apathy & complacency.
3. Revelation — Finally, in this safe-space, where dialogue occurs, Jesus is revealed to Thomas, in his own time and in his own way. We see that Thomas was open to Jesus, because the text never mentions him having to thrust or throw his hands on Jesus to believe. The point here is that Jesus is the one who reveals himself not just to Thomas, but first to Mary, and then the disciples, and then Thomas, and he has continued on revealing himself in all manner of ways ever since. No amount of argumentation, apologetics, or chick-tracts are going to do the trick.
In fact, Do not doubt but believe is a poor translation. I like the more literal, if a little stilted version better: Do not become faithless but faithful. Here is Jesus invitation to Thomas. Step off the road of unbelief and [move] toward faith (WHB 461).
It is an invitation to grow in faithfulness.
I opened up our whole Lenten series in the Gospel of John in John 1, and pointed out that the focus of the incarnation, of God becoming flesh, is that God brings God to humanity. People can provide the space, we can share our stories, we can invite others to participate, we can follow the motion of love, but ultimately, God brings God and we have to trust that. Whether we wait 8 days as the disciples do here, or much much longer. Jesus is the one who reveals himself to Thomas in his how time and in his own way.
And so this is what we have faith in. Jesus who is revealed to us. We have seen the Lord. Our faith is to rests in that alone. So we are as a res. community, a people who are to hold the tension of both the finders and the seekers, the Marys and the Thomass and were to create a safe-space where we together can seek truth, enter into dialoque and wait upon Jesus who we trust reveals himself in his own way and time.