It’s funny, what images certain gospel passages conjure up. The story of “doubting Thomas” (as he is often called) is one of many in the Bible that seem to be easily visualized. There is artwork depicting this scene that dates back to the sixth century. The Italian baroque painting, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” by Caravaggio is probably the most famous. For me, though, Gen-Xer that I am, whenever I hear today’s passage from John, I think of the song “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. It’s hard to believe that song came out thirty-two years ago. That was right at the height of MTV and VH1’s popularity, when music videos were playing in everyone’s living room. And this one made quite an impression on my young mind. The video for “Losing My Religion” gained critical acclaim. It even won a couple of Grammys. Despite the fact that the song actually has nothing to do with God or religion—claims lead singer Michael Stipe—the video is full of religious imagery, including one particularly striking and melodramatic depiction of this gospel scene. I vividly remember an oversized wound on the Jesus figure’s side, with a skeptical Thomas probing and scrutinizing with a pointed finger, furrowed brow and all, looking for undeniable evidence that this was indeed no illusion, but the resurrected Christ in the flesh. So, yeah, for me John 20:19-31 has an R.E.M. soundtrack—a real early nineties vibe. I wonder what it conjures up for you?
I’ve asked this question in prayer groups and Bible studies when the “doubting Thomas” passage has been used as a reading, and there tends to be universal admiration expressed for Thomas, and strong personal identification with the probing and scrutinizing bit (maybe not so much with an R.E.M. soundtrack overlay). For many, I think, Thomas is a biblical figure that’s easy to relate to, for better or worse, and it’s a kind of relief to have him included in the canon. I mean, if Thomas, one of Jesus’ own disciples, can have a hard time with belief, then maybe I’m not so bad off, right? Thomas is a skeptic, and in this modern, scientifically-minded world, where empirical proof is prized over all other kinds, there is nothing wrong with a little healthy skepticism in the way we approach the unfamiliar.
At the same time, it is easy to read this passage as an admonishment for religious uncertainty in general. The moniker “doubting Thomas” hasn’t helped over the centuries either. The word “doubt” seems to imply a deficiency or a weakness here. After all, Jesus does praise “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” A little guilt has crept in the mix, perhaps, and it’s hard to walk away from this passage without wondering—or worrying—about our own faith, or lack thereof. Suddenly we’re questioning all of it. “Do I really believe in the resurrection of the body? Do I really believe in the virgin birth? What about the doctrine of the trinity?” Our modern, skeptical minds can develop an allergy for doctrine and creeds, and before we know it were losing our religion, so to speak.
I want to propose another way to hear this passage, and it involves taking a closer look at its context rather than ours. Just three days ago the disciples’ beloved teacher and friend had been killed before their eyes, certainly a traumatic event for all involved. And now, those who killed Jesus were out for the disciples too—guilt by association—and so they hid in a house and locked the doors. Then, amazingly, Jesus appears before them, shows him his wounds from the crucifixion, and “the disciples rejoice when they see the Lord.” Thomas, though, was not there, and he refuses to take his friends’ word for it when they relay the news. “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.” So, a week later Jesus appears again to the disciples, Thomas included this time, and he invites Thomas to no longer doubt but believe.
Now, remember, at this point in the Christian story there was no Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. There was no Christian doctrine to speak of. They hadn’t been through inquirer’s classes, and they weren’t expected turn to the back of the Book of Common prayer to consult the catechism. Jesus wasn’t talking about the need to believe in a set of theological bullet points here. This amazing man the disciples loved and faithfully followed had died and was now miraculously standing before them, resurrected, asking for their belief in one thing only: the good news.
And what is the good news? It’s the most powerful and radical message you will ever hear, and Jesus’ resurrection proves this good news to be true. You are loved by God no matter what. No matter what you look like, where you’re from, what you have or what you don’t, what you’ve thought or done, how faithful you’ve been, or how much you’ve faltered. Nothing can separate you from God’s love, not even death. Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate triumph of the good news. No matter what the world throws at you and me, no matter how much it tries to define our value, our worth, or our purpose, our true identity will always be God’s beloved. And knowing this—believing this—shapes everything about us. We will never be the same. When we learn to see ourselves and others as God does, we, like Jesus, will be freed from whatever tombs we inhabit, and the world will be transformed. Love begets love. So, when Jesus says “do not doubt but believe,” he’s inviting Thomas—he’s inviting us—to put our trust in the good news. What the Church has professed in the creeds throughout the centuries supports this one ultimate belief. The Christian story is the story of God’s unfailing love for us.
Get as curious as you want. Probe and scrutinize. Satisfy your desire for empirical evidence. Just like Thomas, we don’t have to look far, for proof of the resurrection is all around us. I’ve seen it lately in the wake of the tornados that recently hit our state. In addition to the sights and sounds of neighbors working to remove debris and sift through rubble, tens of thousands of dollars has been contributed to the Bishop’s Fund for disaster relief, and tens of thousands of dollars has been distributed directly to those in need. I received a text from a recipient of the funds earlier this week that reads, “I woke up this morning and for the first time I felt I was in a dream and not a nightmare. I just want to tell you again how grateful I am for your help and support.” When we know that God loves us, we will, in turn, love others, becoming participants in the resurrection—disciples of the good news.
So, I ask again. What does this passage conjure up for you—other than maybe a hit song from the early nineties? Is it a story about a disciple who doubts, or one about a disciple who believes? Is it a story admonishing you for your own lack of faith in the various tenets of the Christian tradition, or one that serves as reminder of the powerful simplicity of its message? You are loved by God. Do not doubt, but believe. This good news will transform the world.
Easter 2, Year A