April 15, 2012/Second Sunday in Eastertide
In the last few days I’ve discovered a blog site called PostSecret. It was created by a man named Frank Warren. In 2004 Warren decided to do what seemed to be a crazy experiment. He walked around Washington, DC and handed people blank, self-addressed, stamped postcards. He asked the people who took them to share a secret. It could be any secret they chose. Just write it down on the postcard and send it to him.
In the weeks to come he began to receive postcards, some bought, even more homemade, from people all over the world sharing their secrets. But the curious thing is that Frank Warren doesn’t just collect these secrets. He posts them on PostSecret. In a video I watched of him giving a brief talk and introduction about PostSecret he showed a variety of the postcards that people have sent to him since he first began this project.
Some are funny. Someone created a postcard out of part of a Starbucks cup with the secret, “I give decaf to people who are rude to me.”
Some are poignant. A picture of a sleeping baby with the words, “Dear Birthmother, I have good parents. I’ve found love. I’m happy.”
Or the secret that was written on the back of a sealed envelope, “Inside this envelope are the ripped up pieces of a suicide note I wrote but didn’t use. I can’t believe how happy I am. (now).”
Some secrets are salacious. Some are scandalous. A memorable one is a compilation of faces of male celebrities. The secret? “One of these men is the father of my son. He pays me a lot of money to keep this a secret.”
And some are ominous and disturbing. One postcard shows a drawing of the twin towers burning. The secret teller writes, “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.”
It seems that telling secrets to a complete stranger is a cathartic experience. Our secrets express our frailties, our fears and the commonalities of our human experience. Commonalities that are too easily forgotten if we don’t look beneath the surface to the secrets.
The reason I speak of secrets this morning is because I think this story about Thomas expresses a secret many of us of the Christian faith have but are too scared to admit. What’s our secret? We have doubts.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe none of you have any doubts about your faith. Or if you do, maybe you’re perfectly willing to admit that. But I know in my own experience that it can be distressing, to say the least, to admit to ourselves that our faith isn’t just lacking in strength but can feel almost non-existent, much less share that with anyone else. I suspect that doubt about our faith is one of our biggest secrets as Christians; at least it’s one that may bother us the most.
The traditional interpretation of this passage from John’s gospel has served to reinforce the shame of that secret. Thomas, aka “Doubting Thomas,” seems to be rebuked by Jesus for lack of faith, for doubting the resurrection, for doubting everything that Jesus had told them.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the mark of the nails and my hand on his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas was absent when Jesus made his appearance to the disciples. They were gathered together behind locked doors out of fear, when suddenly Jesus was there, standing among them.
The first words he spoke to them were a greeting of peace. “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side. And they rejoiced at seeing the Lord. Then again Jesus greets them with his words of peace, and he proceeds to commission them for ministry.
“As my father has sent me, so I send you.” As he says this, he breathes on them, covering them with the Holy Spirit. He also gives them authority to forgive or retain sins. They are commissioned and empowered to spread the word.
But Thomas was not there to witness this dramatic event. Thomas the Twin, or Doubting Thomas.
Doubting Thomas – this name probably sums up the way most of us have heard this story over the years. When I was a child, the last thing any of us wanted to be told in our Sunday School classes was that we were acting or sounding like a Doubting Thomas. It wasn’t good to be like Thomas. Thomas doubted. He was skeptical and demanded tangible, physical proof that Jesus was really resurrected before he would believe it. Doubting Thomas was not a flattering or complimentary nickname to be given. Hence, why I think it becomes a shameful secret for so many of us to admit our doubts.
But what about the others? Jesus also appeared to them and showed them his hands and his side. Mary Magdalene announced to them, quite forcefully, that she had seen the Lord. But the disciples didn’t trust her word any more than Thomas trusted theirs. The disciples were staying in a locked room for fear of the Jews. The Jews in this context are the powers and the authorities that conspired to put Jesus to death.
The sudden presence of Jesus among them surely must have shocked and frightened them. Mary Magdalene’s report of seeing the Lord, speaking with the Lord, and even trying to embrace him had not lessened the disciples’ fear at his crucifixion. It had not lessened their lack of belief.
It is only when Jesus appears to them and shows his hands and his side that they believe and rejoice. They too needed proof that Jesus was really alive. Just like Thomas.
But Thomas put into words what he required for faith. As one commentator said, he set out the conditions for his faith. He needed to see the marks of the nails on Jesus’ hands. He needed to touch them and to touch the place where the sword pierced Jesus’ side.
So a week later Jesus comes again to the disciples, to Thomas. He gives Thomas what he asked for. He gives Thomas permission to go ahead, touch him, place his hands on the marks left by the nails, touch him. See firsthand the proof of the resurrection. Thomas says, “Show me.” And Jesus says, “Here I am.” Jesus offers himself completely to Thomas.
And it is here that the misconceptions about Thomas happen. Doubting Thomas. Whenever I’ve heard this story read and interpreted, it’s most often seen as a story about doubt, about cynicism. Thomas is the cynical, skeptical doubter. Yet it seems to me that this text is not so much about doubt as it is about faith. It’s not about cynicism and skepticism as it is about believing.
Most of the translations of the Bible we have at our disposal, including the NRSV, the one I use, translate Jesus as saying, “doubt.” Do not doubt. But the Greek word for doubt is not used in this story at all. The more literal translation for the verb apistos is “unbelieving.” Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
Do not be unbelieving, but believing.
Now maybe to make a distinction between doubt and unbelieving is like talking about two sides of the same coin, but making that distinction takes us in very different directions.
Do not be unbelieving, but believing. Go from being without faith to having faith. Not having faith isn’t the same as being cynical about faith, is it? It’s not quite the same thing as doubt.
Jesus offered to Thomas exactly what he asked for. He told him to touch the marks of the nails on his hands and to put his hand on Jesus side. Jesus offered himself as motivation, as a sign for Thomas to believe, to have faith, to go from unbelieving to believing.
The text doesn’t say specifically that Thomas took Jesus up on his offer, but we do know that when Jesus offers himself as proof and motivation for faith, Thomas utters one of the most profound confessions of faith in the gospel. “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is not exclaiming here. He is confessing. He is confessing his faith. My Lord and my God.
When we examine the interaction between Jesus and Thomas in this light, then the next words of Jesus sound different as well. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.”
Is Jesus trying to shame or scold Thomas? That’s what many of us have had drummed into us. That’s why expressing our doubts or our unbelief has become such a shameful secret. Or was Jesus confirming what had just happened? And in his confirmation, he opened the door to faith for generations of believers yet to come.
I don’t believe that Jesus was scolding Thomas for wanting to see Jesus with his own two eyes, for wanting proof of the resurrection. Instead Jesus offered hope to Thomas and to a whole world of others through Thomas. What this passage promises all of us is that our faith is not disadvantaged because we were not firsthand witnesses to Jesus and his ministry, his life, his death and his resurrection. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Jesus gave Thomas and the other disciples a sign. A sign that points beyond itself to the full glory of God achieved through Jesus.
So what are our signs? We could certainly point to the sign of God’s grace that we receive in the sacraments. Sharing in the Lord’s Supper today is one sort of sign. But it’s been my own experience that I see signs of God’s love in past events. Whenever I’m doubting, whenever I’m convinced that I don’t have the strength of belief to take one more step, I look back over my life. I review the different ways that God has upheld me. I remember how God has been present in my life, even when – especially when – I was least aware of that presence. My doubts, my fears, my unbelief may seem overwhelming in this moment, but when I can step back and see this moment in light of all those other moments, I find some reassurance of God. Reassurance of God. I trust God in memory. Isn’t that what scripture is for us? Trusting God in memory? The scripture narrative is the collective memory of all the saints. We trust God in memory.
Jesus told the disciples to remember him in the bread and the cup. And when they remember, they find the strength and the courage and the faith to continue on. So may we do the same. May we continue on, knowing that sometimes we doubt, we falter and lose our way. But we trust God in memory, believing, in spite of our doubts, that if we can see God’s handprint on the past, surely that handprint marks our future as well. No doubt. Amen.