On the Sunday of Thomas

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 22, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ is Risen!

Thomas' encounter with the risen Lord took place eight days after the Lord appeared to the disciples who were cowering behind closed doors from fear the authorities would come after them as they had come after Jesus.  The number eight is significant because it is the day after seven, the perfect day, the new day, the day of the Kingdom.  This little detail could be just a reporting of facts, but John is prone to theologizing, so the use of the number eight could well mean much more. I suggest that John wants us to know by use of the number that something very important is about to occur. In this case, a true theophany.

Before we go on, ask yourself this question.  How many disciples in the New Testament did not doubt the Lord’s resurrection?  Jesus appeared to a number of them in the first part of today’s Gospel and felt it necessary, it seems, to show them the wounds in his hands and side.  Just like he does for Thomas. I think many, if not most, of them were filled with confusion and doubt, not just Thomas, who, for some reason, was not there cowering with the others.  Maybe he was one of the few among them who were not afraid! Maybe he was out with the women disciples who showed exemplary courage gallivanting from Empty Tomb to Upper Room witnessing to the Resurrection.  Perhaps Thomas was like them. We don’t know.

But Thomas was unique In two ways at least. One:  he was honest and open about his doubt. And second:  he wanted proof not only by sight, but by touch. Not just to see, but to touch which is daring because it is so intimate.  It reminds me of the great communion hymn sung during the Presanctified Liturgy, “O Taste and See that the Lord is good.”  To taste and see. To see and touch. This implies a deeper kind of faith, the desire for a deeper kind of intimacy.

Tasting and seeing also means changing and growing.  We must have a faith that grows. We must not have a faith that remains at a third grade level.  Must our faith remain as it was when we first learned about God in Sunday School?  Must we be afraid to ask questions, afraid to incorporate new knowledge, afraid to change when evidence mounts that it no longer makes sense not to.

Galileo was tried because he challenged the dogma of Rome that the sun revolved around the earth.  In the same way, are there really dragons in the Jordan?  Is mental illness really the result of demons? Was there a six-twenty-four-hour-day creation?  Is there really a three-tiered universe with earth in the middle, heaven above, and hell below?  Can a loving God really condemn to hell those who impugn his majesty? Even on my worst days I can restrain myself better than that!  Is it really a Christian virtue to deliberately ignore the findings of science, the revelations of psychology, and the creative genius of the accumulated wisdom of the world’s religions?  Just because we are Christians doesn’t mean we have to be stupid.

Alan Watts…oh yeah, I know he was a Buddhist, but so what…had an interesting take on what faith is.  He said that faith is the willingness to embrace whatever the truth turns out to be. This is the stuff of mature faith. It is reached by asking hard questions, respecting the doubts that rise, and not being afraid to embrace whatever comes from a sincere search.  I suppose atheists are the supreme doubters and I respect them as I do Thomas. But a good question to ask an atheist is, which God do you not believe in? Usually, when defined, I discover that the God they do not believe in is also the one I do not believe in: most often a third grade god right out of the Bronze Age or the fevered mind of a tormented parent.

Thomas was not afraid to voice his doubts, to be honest about them no matter what his fellow disciples might say.  And he voices them most passionately. Bravo, Thomas!  He admitted his doubts and confusion, he did not hide them or deny them. He embraced them.  Therefore, he took a major step towards a mature faith and a theophany.  Jesus honored Thomas’ doubt and answered his prayer. He allowed Thomas to touch his wounds and instead of chastising him the Lord blessed him. The comment, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” is not a criticism of Thomas at all, but a moment of truth.  In this singular moment Thomas was key. His confession, "You are my Lord amd my God," rings throughout the centuries! Jesus is speaking not only to Thomas, but to the whole gathered congregation who also did not believe before they had seen.

Let’s bring this down to a more practical level.  When we doubt, what must we do?  What is it exactly we are doubting?  Perhaps it is not God, per se, but our ideas of God we are doubting.  Maybe our doubts are the inevitable result of a faith that is growing as it should.  God cannot be boxed or contained in concepts, words, dogmas, or anything, but we try so hard to contain him.  Perhaps then, the containers we build are the things we come to doubt. If we confuse the containers with God, then we have a problem. All containers fail at some point if it is really God we are seeking. It is often not God we doubt, but our own understanding that has grown inadequate to the Truth.

 I say we must respect the doubt. Instead of denying it, acknowledge it. Doubt that leads to inquiry is a gift.  Instead of pretending the doubt is not there, bring it to light and examine its roots.  Doubt in the light of day becomes filled with light. Doubt hidden and buried in the soul festers and poisons the heart. 

It is also true that doubt may be a cover for something else. It may be a cover for our own inner confusion not about God, but about ourselves.  Low self-esteem and self-loathing are hallmarks of our civilization. We project our hidden insecurities on to the world around us, our relationships with others and also with God.   And since we fear the suffering that lies hidden, we dare not turn our attention within, but rather blame what is outside us for the chaos that is inside us. And what could be easier or safer than to blame a fantasy god in a mythical heaven that doesn’t really exist at all?

In other words, it may be that we have grown so afraid of our own inner chaos that we remain forever floating on the surface of faith without ever exploring its depths. 

But if we are to grow we must explore all our questions about God, including those things we have come to believe and why we have come to believe them.  If they connect to our internal chaos in some way we will see the truth of what Evagrius of Pontus taught, “If you want to know God you must first come to know yourself.”

 In doing this spiritual and psychological work, metaphorically, we end up doing exactly the same as Thomas. In touching our own wounds, we end up also touching the wounds of Christ for he has taken them all upon himself and his wounds are also ours and ours are his.  And we will see our faith change and grow as we discover the hidden truths that await those who seek.