Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Reformer Martin Luther was inspired by remembering the saints, and so he wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Today, we remember the life of St. Thomas-Apostle to India and Martyr.
It is perhaps an “urban legend,” but there is a delightful story of a thrifty and cost conscious business executive whose office had a burned-out, seven-foot fluorescent light bulb. Rather than pay the exorbitant price of having the maintenance department replace the bulb, the executive decided to secretly replace the bulb himself. So he snuck into his office early one morning with a new seven-foot, fluorescent bulb and replaced the old one. He then planned to leave the office late, take the burned-out bulb with him on the subway, and dispose of it at a construction site near his home.
When he entered the subway car, he held the old seven-foot, fluorescent bulb upright and waited for his stop. Then a strange thing happened. Other people entered the subway and they, too, began to hold onto the seven-foot bulb as if it were a standing column. By the time the subway arrived at the executive’s stop, five different people were holding onto the seven-foot bulb. What was the thrifty business executive to do? He simply walked off the subway and left them holding the bulb. St. Thomas is a bit like one of those innocent bystanders left clinging to an unstable bulb.
Thomas has never been treated fairly by the church. After all, he truly was a devoted disciple of Jesus, and among the chosen twelve. But for one moment of doubt, for one momentary indiscretion of faith, he has been forever banished by the church to the eternal pulpit of the least attended worship Sundays of the church year, the First Sunday after Easter, known as Low Sunday, as in low attendance, and the 3rd of July, a Sunday, where at least in Minnesota, good Christians, without regret, blissfully head off to the Lake. On these Sundays, the poor pastor merely hopes that when he or she ascends the steps into the pulpit to tell the story of Thomas, that there will be someone on the other side in the pew listening. Truthfully, Thomas’ previous historical feast day of December 21st wasn’t much better. Who wants to celebrate faithful doubt in the face of the wonder of Christmas? And so, poor Thomas has been forever relegated to the land of minor saints and missionaries.
Thomas is by no means an unimportant character in the witness of the church. He is a saint we should remember- perhaps especially in the doubt filled, questioning, soul searching moments in life. That is what I would like to share with you today.
Few details of the life of St. Thomas are actually recorded in the New Testament. Nevertheless thanks to the Evangelist St. John, we know more about Thomas and his personality than that of any other of the twelve who were closest to Jesus- except perhaps for Peter. Thomas is the ardent follower, the grand inquisitor, and the redeemed and welcomed lost soul.
For three years Thomas had trusted the words which his friend Jesus had spoken. He had, however, also witnessed the angry disputes that occurred when Jesus preached- especially in Jerusalem. The crowds threw stones to drive Jesus and his disciples out of the city which forced Jesus and the twelve to taken refuge in the desert. While they were there, they received word from Mary and Martha, that their brother Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, was ill. Now, the village of Bethany was only a short distance from Jerusalem, so the disciples were relieved when Jesus said they would wait another day or two. But then to their surprise, Jesus announced, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples were all reluctantly shocked. Only Thomas dared to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And that moment, there was certainly no doubt that Thomas loved Jesus, and that he was willing to follow him- even in the face of death.
Again, it was Thomas raised his voice during the disciples’ last meal together with Jesus. After Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, announced his imminent betrayal, and then warned them, that he was going to prepare a place for them, saying, “And you know the way to the place where you are going.” Only Thomas was confident enough in his relationship that he could the question that all the other disciples were wondering. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
It’s one of the most honest and human confessions in all scripture. And Thomas says it for us. There are times when we simply don’t know or understand what God is doing. We may have the security of words of holy scripture, the presence of the promised Holy Spirit and even the mystery of the church in this world, but we still wonder what God is doing and where we are going. Thomas captures all our insecurities and anxieties and dares to ask, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus simply reassures him with, “You will know, since you have a relationship with me.”
And finally, we have the story from St. John’s gospel which earned the apostle Thomas the title Doubting. He questioned the good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. “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.” He loved Jesus so much that he refused to believe.
Unfortunately, that’s how many men and women fall from the Christian faith and the life of the church. At some crucial moment in their faith journey, they found themselves standing in the wrong place, and ever since then it has been difficult to return and to believe. Perhaps, you have known some one, or you have experienced such a moment of doubt yourself. That’s why the story of Thomas is so important, even today.
Throughout my ministry, I have known men and women who like Thomas have been equally defiant and troubled in their faith. They held high expectations for faith, but along the way they were met with disappointment. They became skeptical and agnostic: and yet all were good people struggling with the nature of God and his purpose. They are what you might call the faithful doubters, or perhaps the doubting faithful.
These modern day Thomases often allow no middle ground between searching for tradition and truth. When the scientific facts don’t jive with their belief system, the story is disregarded as having little real power to guide one’s life. Yes, if Noah’s Ark, or changing water into wine makes one uncomfortable, the modern day Thomas throws it out. They have never been taught that the various books of the Bible are to be interpreted in different ways.
These modern day Thomases have often been offended by the messengers of God’s truth or his or her personal life. More often than not I hear stories of men and women who have been treated poorly by their priest or pastor and then refuse to return to the church. Religious practice and tradition were used to assault and criticize them.
The modern day Thomases almost always struggle with the issue of suffering. How can a just and loving God allow human suffering and tragedy? For every doubting disciple I have known, suffering and injustice in the world has been a major stumbling block. They often turn away from the Church and the Christian faith when the teaching is too simplistic and offers uncomplicated answers, or when the Church denies the reality of suffering.
But the more I have grown to know the modern day Doubting Thomases, the more I have grown to understand that faith and doubt are often closely linked. Doubt doesn’t need to destroy faith. After all, doubt did not destroy Thomas’ faith. But rather doubt inspired, encouraged and drove Thomas to seek that faith in Jesus which would transform his life.
It was that recognition that set Thomas back in the place where he could meet Jesus anew. Thomas had come to the realization that the place to search for the answers to doubt was not within himself, but rather within the company of other believers. So eight days later when Jesus returned again, Thomas was there. And Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” It was an invitation to see and believe, for our Lord affirms as well, that seeing is believing. My friends, if you have doubts, you needn’t give up or given in. Christ will meet you in your moments of searching. Martin Luther himself wrote, “When the believer feels himself doubting, let him practice faith, fight against doubt, and labor to capture certainty.”
According to tradition, St. Thomas sailed to India in AD 52 to spread the Christian faith. He began on the western coast of India preaching first among the minority Jewish community who had settled in India there 6 centuries earlier. From there he journeyed south to Kerala and preached to the Tamil people. He reputedly preached to all classes and had about 17,000 converts, including members of the four principal castes. Later, stone crosses were erected at the places where churches were founded, and they became pilgrimage centers. In accordance with apostolic custom, Thomas ordained teachers and elders, who established the church that still bears his name Mar Thoma- 15 hundred years before the arrival of the first European missionaries. He died a martyr in India on December 21, 72 AD. There was no doubt about his faith in Jesus- even to die with him.
My friends, in the midnight hour of the soul, when you are wrestling with doubt, when everything you have been holding onto seems to have fallen away, turn again like Thomas to the places where your faith can be nurtured, and where Christ promises he will meet you- in the mystery of God’s word and sacrament. Yes, these in simple means of grace, Jesus invites you “to place your fingers into the nail prints” and to “place your hand into his side.” For seeing is believing. Amen.