Faithful Thomas

(Sermon for April 11, 2010 || Easter 2, Year C, RCL || John 20:19-31)

I’ve always had a special affinity for Thomas. Perhaps, because we share a name, I feel fraternally responsible for defending him against those who label him with one of the most enduring epithets of all time: Doubting Thomas. (Curiously enough, I’ve never felt much like defending Adam for his stupidity in the garden, but that’s another tale.) So, we have this fellow uncharitably nicknamed Doubting Thomas. We remember him for exactly one reason: he doesn’t trust the words of his fellow disciples when they tell him that they have seen the Risen Lord. Their witness is not enough for Thomas. He needs to see and touch Jesus, just as the other disciples had done when Jesus came to them the first time in that fearful room behind a locked door. Thomas needs the visual and tactile proof of the resurrection for himself. And for this one, simple reason, Thomas has been stricken with his unfortunate nickname, much maligned for his obstinacy, and readily dismissed for his doubt.

But this caricature misses the subtle interplay between doubt and faith that we are going to explore the next few minutes. Notice that Thomas never actually follows through with his stubborn ultimatum. He tells the other disciples, “Unless…I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The next weekend, Thomas is with the other disciples when Jesus comes to them again. And when Jesus invites Thomas to fulfill his requirement for belief, Thomas no longer needs to. Rather than reaching out his hand to touch Jesus’ side, Thomas lets loose from his lips the highest affirmation of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas is a man of deep faith.

This is the same Thomas who, when Jesus decides to travel near Jerusalem to raise Lazarus, says to the other disciples, “Let us go with him, that we might die with him.” Thomas is a man of deep conviction. This is the same Thomas who, when Jesus tells the disciples he goes to prepare a place for them, asks of his Lord, “How will we know the way?” Thomas is a man of deep questions.

When you add faith, conviction, and questions together, oftentimes doubt results, at least for a time. Faith gives you the reason to ask questions, and conviction gives you the perseverance to allow doubt to temper faith into a stronger whole. Too frequently, trouble happens when we mistake doubt for the opposite of faith, and therefore as something to be avoided at all costs.

One of the reasons for the persistent mistake of thinking that doubt is the opposite of faith comes from this very Gospel text (and indeed, this particular English translation of the Gospel text). When Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, Jesus says, “Do not doubt but believe.” This sets up a dichotomy between doubt and belief and puts the two in opposition to one another. You can either doubt or believe, but you can’t do both. However, “Do not doubt but believe” is not actually what Jesus says. I don’t say this very often, but the English translation we read in church gets this sentence horribly wrong.

Because the New Revised Standard Version messes this verse up so badly, we need to have a short lesson in ancient Greek, the language in which the Gospel was written. I promise that I won’t make a habit of giving these lessons from the pulpit. But I also promise that you already know more Greek than you realize.

You're probably wondering why this picture makes sense in this context. I promise it does. Go watch the recently cancelled Dollhouse to find out why.

In Greek, to turn a word into its opposite, you add an alpha, which is really just an  “a,” to the front of the word. We do the same thing for English words that come from Greek. Try this one: Bios is a Greek word that means “life.” We get the English words “biology” and “biotic” from it. “Biotic” means “relating to living things.” If we add an “a” to the front, we get “abiotic,” which mean “relating to non-living things.” Or how about this one: Theos is the Greek word for “God.” In English, “theism” is the generic word for belief in God. So, add the “a” prefix and we get “atheism,” which is the belief that there is no God. We could come up with a dozen more examples, but I think you get the point.

Now let’s go back to our verse, which, if you recall, this morning’s reading translates as “Do not doubt but believe.” The Greek word translated “believe” comes from the word pistis, which means “faith.” The word that is translated as “doubt” is simply the word pistis with the “a” prefix – apistis. Therefore, the word should really just mean “unfaith” or “unbelief,” rather than “doubt.” With this new translation, the verse becomes, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”

“Do not be unbelieving but believing.” This is a far cry from “Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus never tells Thomas not to doubt. Rather, Jesus tells Thomas not to jettison his belief all in one go. There is a huge difference between the two. This supposed “Doubting Thomas” is still incredibly faithful, even in the midst of his doubts. Remember, Thomas is a man of deep faith and conviction, who has the nerve to ask tough questions. Doubt arises in such a chemical makeup. But having doubts does not signal the loss of belief. Having doubts does not signal the abandonment of faith.

Doubt happens when you have enough conviction about your faith to question it. Thus, doubt gives you a reason to reexamine your faith and to sign up with Jesus Christ over and over again. Of course, too much doubt can lead to unbelief, just as, conversely, too much certainty can lead to stagnant faith.

Okay, now that we’ve established that doubt is not something to be avoided at all costs, let’s use our Easter celebration to bring the power of the resurrection into this discussion. Our faith finds its home in Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus triumphed over death in order to keep his promise that he would be with us always, despite the end of our physical existence. Resurrection happens with eternally vaster scope than death ever could. Because of this, death exists within the power of the resurrection. The resurrection subsumes death into itself, making death a piece of the reality of eternal life. In the same way, belief is so much more expansive than doubt; belief subsumes doubt into itself, making doubt a part of the pathway of faith.

Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” And Thomas responds with such grand words to express his belief: “My Lord and my God!” Rather than dismissing Thomas as that good-for-nothing doubter, embrace Thomas as a faithful, thoughtful, courageous follower of Christ whose doubts ultimately lead him to a wondrous confession of faith.

God knows that we, too, have our doubts. We wouldn’t be human without them. But belief in God gives our doubts purpose, shape, and context. Do not be ashamed of your doubts. Shame only works to erode faith. Rather, see doubt as a sign of your conviction, as a sign of the fact that you care enough to ask tough questions. Then use that conviction, that perseverance to push through the doubt to the deeper faith beyond. And with those five glorious words of Faithful Thomas, praise the Risen One who is the beginning and end of our belief: “My Lord and My God.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s