Feast of St. Thomas, Aspostle
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Psalm 136:1-4, 23-26
It may seem like a strange choice to break from our usual pattern to celebrate the Feast Day of an apostle.
For many Lutherans feast days, martyrs, and saints are all relics of the old Roman Catholic church, those people we “left behind” when the Reformers made their attempts to correct abuses in the church. That there are no such things as “saints”, and that people should have nothing to do with them. Yet even the Reformers themselves stated in the Augsburg Confession that “our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as an example.” (Article XXI)
Keeping Time: The Church’s Years, a supplement volume to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, has a handy calendar of the major feast and festival days that we Lutherans are encouraged to remember and be familiar with. You’ll find one of these excerpts in your bulletin this morning.
In addition, we’re in that long, long, long season after Pentecost, 20+ green Sundays in a row, and it’s good to break things up once in a while. So today, as we gather this morning to worship God, we also remember the Apostle Thomas the Twin.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: of all the apostles to remember, of all those people who traveled with Jesus and participated in his ministry, why on earth would we remember “Doubting Thomas”? Isn’t there someone better, more worthy, more qualified than Thomas?
There’s a few reasons why we’re remembering Thomas today. One of them is that today, July 3, is actually the feast day of Thomas, Apostle. In fact, as I looked ahead at the calendar for the rest of the season after Pentecost, Thomas’s feast day is the only one that actually falls on a Sunday. So it was an easy choice to celebrate his feast day today.
But if you’ve heard me preach on any part of his story before, you might remember that Thomas is one of my favorite apostles, right up there with the disciple Jesus loved (both of whom are in the Gospel according to John). I don’t think he deserves the bad reputation he’s been given.
Thomas’s story is certainly an interesting one. As one of the twelve disciples, his name appears in all four Gospels as well as the Acts of the Apostles. But only in John’s gospel does he have a speaking role, and he speaks in three stories.
In the first story, Jesus and his disciples have just received the news that Lazarus is sick and dying, and after being certain that Lazarus is dead, Jesus announces that he and his disciples are going to go back to Judea, where Lazarus’s family is. The disciples are more than a little apprehensive about this; the reason they aren’t in Judea at the time is because the Judeans tried to stone Jesus the last time he was there. Afraid that the same thing might happen if they go back, the disciples try to convince Jesus to stay out. Jesus will have none of it, however, and sticks to his guns: he’s going back to Judea to see his friend’s body. And one disciple finds his courage. Thomas stands up and says to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” or in other words, “If he’s so determined to go, and if this is really where he’ll meet his end, then we who follow him are going to go as well.
The second story in which Thomas speaks is the story from our gospel reading this morning. Jesus is giving what is known as his “farewell discourse”, a very long speech he gives to his disciples before his arrest, trial, execution, and resurrection. In it he comforts them, promises that the Holy Spirit will come after him, tells them how much he loves them and that they should therefore love one another, prays for them, and expresses his confidence in them to continue in God’s mission once he’s gone. During the speech, he tells the disciples that they have come so far in their faith that they already know the way to where he is going. But Thomas, perhaps channeling the uncertainty of the other disciples, speaks up and asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
The last story in which Thomas speaks is the story most people know, the story of “doubting” Thomas. In it, Thomas is not present when Jesus appears to the other ten disciples, shows them his wounded hands and side, blesses them, and gives them peace. Thomas is upset by this, and declares that he won’t believe the other disciples’ story unless he too gets to see Jesus’s wounded hands and side (like they did). And so the following week, when all eleven disciples are gathered, Jesus appears again and offers to show Thomas his wounds, and Thomas gives what is perhaps the shortest and yet most powerful confession of faith found in any of the Gospels: “My Lord, and my God.”
That’s the end of Thomas’s story in the Bible, but church tradition has a number of stories about Thomas. In one of them, he is the only one present when the body of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is taken up into heaven after her death and burial. As her body is being taken up, she drops her girdle, which Thomas brings back to the rest of the disciples. In an ironic twist, it is now the rest of the disciples who don’t believe Thomas’s story.
Tradition also says that during the time that Paul was writing his letters to his churches and friends, Thomas was sailing to India to spread the good news of Jesus Christ there. He is still very highly regarded as the patron saint of India. While there he founded seven churches and performed miracles, which the people remembered and passed down. It was quite a shock to the European missionaries when they arrived in India only to find an ancient community of Christians already there.
Eventually, we are told, he was martyred, killed in India by being stabbed with a lance, and his relics are kept in many places around the world.
This is Thomas, the man we so often disparagingly call Doubting Thomas. And you know, looking at the biblical stories about him, doubt does play a central role, but not in the way we might think.
In the first, it is the other disciples who doubt, and it is Thomas who declares his intent to follow Jesus to his death. In the second, the doubt that Thomas harbors leads directly to asking tough questions, to engaging with Jesus, to wrestling with faith. And in the third, the man who is often called the doubter is the only one who declares that Jesus is Lord and God.
So even if we continue to call Thomas “Doubter,” perhaps we need to reevaluate what that means. In her book Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the Rules, Jacqueline Bussie challenges the “rule” of faith that says “Don’t doubt. Doubt is faith’s opposite, and is therefore sinful.” Talking about doubting Thomas, she says this:
“Thomas, in other words, is the only person who remembers Jesus’s whole story–all the hurt, and the hope too. Thomas believes redemption is more than just an erasure of pain. For him, redemption involves the way people live on in spite of the fact that they still carry scars on their skin. Thomas expects scars. If the guy in front of him doesn’t have scars, Thomas will know he can’t be the Jesus he knew–because the real Jesus suffered something awful. Thomas is the only one in the room brave enough to remember that a friend’s painful wounds still remain without having to be shown them first…”
“It’s so sad that we label Thomas ‘doubting Thomas,’ but ignore the fact that he is also ‘willing-to-die-with-Jesus Thomas.’ What is the ironic point of the story? Could it be that scar-sharing is the solid foundation for any authentic friendship? That no one really knows who we are until we are brave enough to show our scars to them? That the people who have put their fingers and eyes on our scars and still stick with us anyway are the people who understand best how to love us? Thomas’s story teaches us all of these lessons and more. Those people in your life who accept and name suffering for the wounding thing it actually is are the only friends who can ever override the fear of walking with you down all life’s paths of pain. Only people who believe your wounds are real in the first place can ever imagine placing their wounds next to yours.” (pp. 59-60)
Thomas was one of Jesus’s disciples, one of his closest companions. And even he, at times, doubts. But out of that doubt comes some of the most profound statements of faith and belief. Thomas has been through the best and the worst with Jesus. He’s asked the tough questions, made the tough choices.
Doubt, then, is not a weakness. It drives us to faith, it drives us to question, it begs for answers, it motivates and draws us closer to God. It exposes our wounds to a God who doesn’t think less of us for them, but instead invites us to see and touch God’s own wounds. For how can anyone who has not been wounded understand our own hurts, our own fears, our own doubts?
This is the strength of Thomas–that in the doubts around him and in the doubts within him, he finds what he was looking for all along: courage, trust, and love. Don’t be afraid of your pain. Don’t be afraid of your doubts. May we, like Thomas, embrace our doubts, embrace our questions, embrace our fears and our hurts, so that like Thomas, our faith will shine through and we too may proclaim: “My Lord, and my God.”