Sermon, April 23, 2017
Today we are reading about the disciple known as Thomas. Thomas really gets a bad rap. He is best known by the label, ‘doubting Thomas’ – or perhaps, as was brought up in Bible Study this week, as an admonishment from our mothers, religious teachers or pastors – ‘Don’t be a doubting Thomas’.
But was he really a doubter? Does he deserve this nickname?
Thomas the disciple speaks three times in the book of John. The first time was in the scripture we read just a few weeks ago; the raising of Lazarus. When word reaches Jesus that Lazarus is gravely ill, and at long last Jesus decides to return to Jerusalem, the disciples know that Jesus is walking into danger. Jesus has already become problematic in the city, and this return will hasten his end. According to the scripture, one of them says, ‘Rabbi, they were just trying to stone you and now you want to return?’ When Jesus answers in the affirmative, it is Thomas who takes the lead without any hesitation, calling to the other disciples, “Let us go die with him.” Let us go, and die with him. That’s some pretty strong commitment. Ardent Thomas. Loyal Thomas.
And a few verses later, when Jesus is giving cryptic instructions about where he will be going, and how the disciples will be there too, it is Thomas who presses him for details. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Now, you could read this as a teenager might say it to an annoying parent, right before rolling their eyes. “If I don’t know where you are going, how can I meet you there?”
But I don’t think that’s quite right. I mean, Thomas calls Jesus, ‘Lord.’ And, I’m not sure they actually had sarcasm back then. No, rather, this seems to me to be an honest question, the kind of question no one else has the guts to ask. “Actually, Lord, I have no idea what you are talking about.” Honest Thomas. Earnest Thomas. Plain talk Thomas.
And then we come to today’s scripture, and Thomas’ proclamation of ‘doubt’. But is it, really? The text tells us that Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appears to the disciples the first time. The text doesn’t say where he was, just that he wasn’t there. We don’t know where his friends find him, but they tell him the news. And how does Thomas react? Is he overjoyed and comforted? No. He reacts just as the disciples do when Mary tells them the same thing – with disbelief. With confusion. With questions. His declaration that he wants to touch the wounds of Jesus may seem extreme to us, but really it still shows the same character he’s displayed all along. Thomas has the courage to ask the tough questions. He wants the same opportunity as the others had – he wants to see it for himself.
I think Thomas has been mislabeled.
Thomas is a straight shooter, a nuts and bolds type of guy. He may not have much imagination, but he does have an enquiring mind. Thomas asks the tough questions that others may be scared or embarrassed to ask. Thomas is a no-nonsense guy.
We all know these types of people. People who don’t get carried away with flowery poetry or romantic notions. People who are thinking on the regular, concerned with logistics. How are we going to get there? What’s going to happen when we get there? How do we need to prepare? Show me, prove it. Practical Thomas. Demanding Thomas.
What if your mother said to you, ‘don’t be a Practical Thomas’… would that really be a bad thing to be?
After centuries of telling the story of Thomas, he has gotten quite a reputation. Did you know that Thomas is considered the Patron Saint of Science? Because of his doubt, and his demand for proof, he is often heralded as the progenitor of the scientific method, where doubt is elevated as an important value.
Yesterday, on Earth Day while I was learning about growing microgreens and environmentally safe cleaning products at Central Community College, thousands of people embarked on a ‘March for Science’ in cities like Boston, Chicago, and DC. And that got me thinking about Galileo, the scientist perhaps most famous in history for being at odds with religious thought.
In the year 1623, a scientist by the name of Galileo Galilei published writings on whether the Sun rotated around the Earth or the Earth rotated around the Sun. The writings were a response in an ongoing, public debate on the subject with a Jesuit Priest, and they were greeted with wide acclaim, particularly by the new pope Urban the Eighth, to whom they had been dedicated. 10 years later, that same Pope would preside over the religious institution known as the Inquisition that demanded Galileo recant and placed him under house arrest until he died in 1642.
This public debate began as a dispute over the nature of comets, but by the time Galileo had published his last article, titled The Assayer in 1623, it had become a much widercontroversy over the very nature of science itself. Because that article contained so many of Galileo's ideas on how science should be practiced, it has been referred to as his scientific manifesto.
Surprisingly, Galileo was originally intent on going into the Priesthood. His father insisted he study medicine, which was a more lucrative career choice. However, somewhere in his studies he became sidetracked by Mathematics and Geometry – by asking tough questions, and entertaining doubt. In all his life, Galileo still remained a strongly devout man, so much so that he dedicated his research to the head of the Catholic church. And when he was being tried by the Inquisition, and asked to deny the very things that came from his own mind, he promised he had, but the Inquisition didn’t believe him.
Last week, Hastings College professor Dan Deffenbaugh offered an excellent lecture on the Islamic faith, in preparation for the Muslim speaker, Dr. Abla Hasan, who will be speaking at Hastings College on Friday. I was already familiar with some parts of Islam – that the main thrust of Islam is submission to the will of Allah, the Arabic word for God, and that the word Islam derives from a root word “salam” that means peace. But there was much in Deffenbaugh’s lecture that surprised me. Some of the basic tenets of Islam mirror our own Enlightenment values. The theology underlying Islam says that God can be known only through reason, and that ignorance prevents humans from truly knowing God, or Allah. Muslims believe the revelations in the Qu’ran are how ignorance about God is dispelled.
Depiction of the Islamic Golden Age in Spain
I found this interesting because it’s so very different from what we hear about Islam today. We hear about the Taliban, or ISIS, women in burkas, and violent jihad as the epitome of Islam. But that is not the Islam of history, or the Islam of millions today. As we covered in one of the classes about Israel, from the 8th century there was an Islamic Golden Age, centered in Spain. During that time, Islamic scholars in their quest for knowledge came up with the size of the earth, latitude and longitude, pharmacy, ophthalmology and cataract surgery, and the concept of zero. Islamic civilization continued to be the height of literary and scientific development in the world until the savage Christian Crusades brought it to an end in the 13thCentury. It was their ideas, brought back to the Christian West after the Crusades, that paved the way for our Enlightenment and scientists like Galileo to map out the stars.
And yet, Galileo was forced to recant and condemned by religious officials. And a backward form of Islam has risen to such prominence in the modern day – at least in the media - that we sometimes have trouble seeing through it to the founding principles that lie underneath, and those things we have in common. The truth is, proclamations of faith and demands for faith can do wonderful and terrible things, depending on who is in charge. Luckily for Thomas, God was in charge.
We like to shame Thomas for needing proof. But the truth is, most of us can see ourselves in Thomas’ shoes – perhaps wish we had his courage and his opportunity to ask the tough questions. Jesus knows who Thomas is – after all, Jesus called him. Jesus knew his character, and knew his strengths – and needs. Jesus knows Thomas is loyal, ardent, earnest, courageous, plain-spoken and practical. And he knows what Thomas needs to believe.
And, once he has seen, he proclaims, “My Lord and My God.”
Like the other disciples, Thomas doesn’t come to the fullest faith until he has his own experience. I say fullest faith, because he already has faith, but to accept these strange and incredible happenings is to move it to the next level. I think that Jesus offered it without judgment, as a lesson for those of us who need to read this story. Not so that we will feel shame in our doubt, but so that we can see ourselves in the story. Because God makes us all – some of us whimsical, some of us grounded; some of us imaginative, some of us practical; some of us shy and others outspoken; some of us visionaries and some of us detail-oriented.
God knows our strengths and our needs, our gifts and our inquiries. God provides for us, as we need, when we look for it. That’s why the invitation from the gospel of John is to Come and See. Come, look. Touch. Reach. Use all your senses to know and understand that some things cannot be explained. Look, and be moved to the next level, to the fullest faith. That is the power, the majesty, and the love of God – approaching us all in different ways, but available, inviting, and accepting, no matter who we are.