St. Thomas gets a bad rap. We don’t think of him as someone who was faithful for years, following Jesus, asking good questions. His nickname isn’t Thomas the Eastern Missionary, though it is widely held that he was the disciple who went east and took the gospel to India. We call him Doubting Thomas. Likely we have all heard this phrase used pejoratively. For two thousand years, this is his enduring legacy. Unfair!
What a perfectly rational thing to doubt the veracity of his fellow disciples’ claims! Even if he had seen Lazarus come to life (and who knows who else?), I cannot blame him for wanting proof. I suppose “Empirical Thomas” is less catchy.
Recently, our church staff studied demographics of our church membership vs our local area. Particularly, we were struck by the high proportion of young adults in our area who don’t belong to a faith tradition. This isn’t really news to anyone, but in our city, its easy to think of everyone as belonging to a church. Groups easily become blind to those who aren’t in. Our busy-ness tends to make us insular in focus. Any group will have a measure of uniformity that makes all of this harder to get over. No judgment; this is normal human social behavior.
Yet outsiders have something wonderful to offer. Their questions and critiques are just, (that Christians are judgmental and hypocritical). Truly, all churches are missing many voices. The questions of someone like St. Thomas may not always be welcome.
So, with that in mind, read John 20:24-29:
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘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.’ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
A key detail for us here is “a week later… Thomas was with them.” The disciples did not run him out. He was not made to feel unwelcome or that his doubts made him wrong. He still belonged to the community. He wasn’t seen as a weirdo, or worse, as a betrayer.
And now, a passage from The Sin of Certainty by Pete Enns, (currently, my favorite Biblical scholar/teacher). This wonderful book centers around the evergreen truth that Enns puts on the cover: “God desires our trust more than our ‘correct’ beliefs.” We church people may make a mistake when we make the core of our faith about deepening our knowledge of God and whatever orthodoxy we decide is right. I cannot recommend Enns work enough!
From page 158: “We might be accustomed to thinking of our faith as a castle- where we go to be safe and protected. … Doubt tears down the castle walls we have built, with the false security and permanence they give, and forces us outside to walk a lonely, trying, yet cleansing road. In those times, it definitely feels like God is against us, far away, or absent altogether. But what if the darkness is actually a moment of God’s presence that seems like absence, a gift of God to help us grow up out of our little ideas of God?”
That sure sounds like prevenient grace to me. Where can we go to be away from God? Do we honestly think he ever abandons us? Or do we claim that he is ahead of us? Walking with us? Perhaps, as Enns asserts, it is God himself who draws us out of the castle walls. Dare we judge those outside? Why? Because they cannot get on board with the church’s ideas about God? What if faith is always foreign to some people? Can we trust God’s work in people and be there to walk with them? Without judgment? Constantly ignoring the urge to correct them? Do we look for ways to give them a picture of what else there might be?
Let us make space at the table for those unlike ourselves. If they view spirituality and religion in ways that are uncomfortable to us, can we not still honor them, their presence, and whatever in them is seeking the Divine? Outsiders hold in themselves the image of God just as much as insiders do.
Human communities will always have boundary-making and uniformity as part of their identity. The truth is, though, that we get to decide how the boundaries function, and we can repent of our unconscious desire for uniformity.
The voice of these outsiders is missing from our conversations. Their ideas about healing the world are as powerful as ours. For some, their calling and giftedness await a mere connection with us. It is like the Body of Christ is missing a finger, or an organ. We are incomplete. Are we looking beyond what we know is familiar and comfortable? Are we open and receptive to the outsider? To those whose beliefs or practice aren’t perfectly aligned with ours?
I like St. Thomas. I identify with him. I would have been right there (behind him). Consider me a content skeptic. We needn’t demand everything be perfectly figured out. There is beauty in the wrestling, in the questions, and yes, in the doubts.