"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."
Poor, doubting Thomas. He simply refused to believe the words of his fellow followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Oh, sure, they had hopeful news and good news to tell him when he had returned from his errand. "We have seen the Lord!" But Thomas needed more than that. He wants to see for himself. He wants firsthand, right-before-your-eyes proof and is not about to believe some hearsay or wishful thinking or sentimental tale.
"Unless I see for myself. Unless I touch for myself. Unless I experience this myself, I will not believe."
Poor, doubting Thomas.
I, for one, think that he has received a terrible amount of unjustifiably bad press over the years. After all, he had been through the wringer. He had trusted Jesus of Nazareth. He had placed his hopes on his teacher, friend, and companion Jesus. He had seen him die, crucified as a common criminal, and, now, now, there is some half-baked story about having seen him. Good grief! The world of Thomas' time produced all sorts of stories about celestial phantoms appearing like a puff of smoke and then disappearing just as quickly.
This was not what Thomas needed, and he knew darn well this was not what he needed. You see, Thomas loved his teacher, friend, and companion Jesus. He stuck with him through thick and thin. John's gospel tells that story and tells something else. Thomas always wanted to know more. He was always full of questions, wanting to learn more about Jesus and his gospel, questions because he wanted to get to the bottom of things. He always wanted to discover the real meaning of Jesus' life, teaching, and message.
Thomas just had to see the wounds. Not out of some idle curiosity, not because he was a cussed, stubborn, disbelieving fool but because he loved Jesus, and he had to make sure that this being who appeared to his friends and fellow disciples was the same Jesus he loved, the same Jesus who died on the cross and not some fly-by-night ghost. Only the crucified Christ could be the risen Lord of Life for Thomas. Only the one who carried the darkest marks of human disgrace and vulnerability could even hope to be the savior who would bring liberation and redemption to the world for Thomas.
"Unless I see with my own eyes. Unless I touch with my own hands, I will not believe."
He was tired of pretty fiction, tired of delusions, plain worn out with hoaxes about the world and about himself. Yes, he doubted, because he needed the truth. Yes, he doubted because he wanted to believe, to trust, to hope, to live.
Now, let me ask you. Is Thomas so different from you or me? Especially when we are hurt or unsure or frightened? Is Thomas so different from the rest of us when we have had our hopes shattered or have entered a period of trauma or dis-equilibrium? I don't think so. Yes, he was unsure. Yes, he doubted. That's not to be condemned. If anything, it makes him the patron saint of our day and age, of the post-modern world where we need to discover our believing rather than taking it all at face value, a time in which certainties of another age give way to seeking and searching, with the hope of discovering something and someone that gives meaning, trust, and hope to life. Thomas is not unlike us. He needed to figure out both what and why he believed, seeking and searching for meaning in the midst of his life.
One of the most brilliant theological minds of the 20th century-a German man named JÃ¼rgen Moltmann-tells of a similar experience and search in a book with a chapter aptly entitled, "Why Am I a Christian?" The answer to this question came for him in a very particular way and maybe even in a surprising way, since it was not in his deep theological study, or in one of the moments of recognition as a great theological leader that have occurred so frequently in his life. No, he discovered the answer to the question, "Why am I a Christian?" during a troubling and traumatic moment in his life. He discovered it as a German soldier sitting in an Allied prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. As you can well imagine, at this point in his life, he doubted virtually everything. He witnessed the self-destruction of German civilization, the collapse of law and humanity, the discovery that the government under which he fought was murdering innocent people by the millions. He doubted so much; he even doubted himself. But he writes that it was in the very midst of that doubt that he discovered hope and faith, even though he had scoffed at Christianity before. It was in the doubt and wounds of life that he discovered the risen Christ.
"Why am I a Christian?" Moltmann writes. "I am a Christian for Christ's sake. I found my desolation in him and found God in my desolation. In him I found the power of hope which I can believe, live, and die with." What he had found-no, the question is better---Whom had he found? The risen Lord. The resurrected God. His experience was like the experience of the disciple Thomas.
Why am I a Christian? For Thomas, the answer came not only in seeing the bodily Jesus or putting his fingers in the wounds. That's only the first part of the answer. The most important part of the answer is this: Out of his doubt, Thomas discovered faith. Out of his despair, he discovered hope. Out of his fear, he discovered life.
What a probing question it is. Why am I a Christian?
I certainly have needed to answer that in my own life, and I have been with so many people who have had to answer that in their lives too.
* University students, during my days as a campus chaplain, who were asking that question as they entered adulthood and needed to discover the meaning of things for themselves.
* Children, during my days in Episcopal school ministry, who so often had a vibrant and vital faith and were seeking ways to express it and grow in it.
* Women and men in congregations I have served, who have struggled with meaning and faith in a rapidly changing world and in their lives.
* Christian leaders in the seminary I now serve, who seek to learn more about their identity and the possibilities for mission in the present day.
Oh, yes! It is a probing question and a question that leaps from the stories of scripture and of our human lives on this doubting Thomas Sunday of Eastertide.
Why am I a Christian? Because of conventionality and habit? Because my parents were and I grew up in the church? Because I am comfortable with certain people or architecture or styles of song and prayer? The answer to this important question is reflected in these realities but goes so much deeper than that. The answer at its deepest level depends on discovering the same thing that doubting Thomas and despairing JÃ¼rgen Moltmann discovered-that God's love has triumphed, that God's love has triumphed and is for us, that through faith we can see and experience the risen Christ in the joyful and hopeful times in our lives and in the darkest and most doubting corners of our lives.
Why am I a Christian? Because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and I have been given faith, hope, and love by God through his resurrection.
Why am I a Christian? Because I have experienced the love of God given to me by the risen Christ in my life through my experience in the love of many human beings and in my heart.
Why am I a Christian? Because I have discovered that I can trust God to be my companion and strength in the seeking and searching that mark the journey of my life.
Thomas, the disciple, discovers the same thing in his life. He touches the wounds, the hands, and the side. He sees his teacher, friend, and companion. He even hears the voice of Jesus say to him, "Do not doubt but believe." God's grace and love are at work in him, so much so that he exclaims, "My Lord and my God!" And in that one expression, doubting Thomas becomes believing Thomas if you will.
Now this is not to say that he will never be challenged again nor is it to say that he will never doubt again nor is it to say that he has all of the answers on everything in his life or in the lives of the people whom he will meet. Rather, he now realizes that he has met the risen Christ, and, indeed, that the Jesus who died on the cross is the risen, continuing Lord and God of life. Thomas realizes that he is a Christian because of the gift of faith and because he can depend on the risen Christ and count on him for a love that will never fail and a life that will never end. He knows that life lives and that he has life as a gift from God.
All of this, all of this is encapsulated in his expression, "My Lord and my God!" It is a courageous statement, considering that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans for claiming to be the Lord and by the temple religious officials for claiming to be God. What Thomas does in this one statement is to declare what was meaningful and ultimate in his life, stating so clearly that Jesus is the ultimate and meaningful one.
Why is Thomas a Christian? Because he has discovered the ultimate and the meaningful for his life.
Jesus, who appeared to Thomas, invites all of us to resurrection faith, to the same discovery and realization which Thomas experienced. The risen one says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." And in that statement, he is talking about you and me. We're the ones who have not touched the wounds or seen the bodily Christ risen from the grave. We are the ones who still live lives of challenge and doubt and change. But we can believe, and we can hope and trust in the God who loves us.
Here we are. Human beings who doubt and who believe, who despair and who hope. Here we are-human beings who are on a journey seeking and searching as we go into our future. The Risen Christ is our companion along the way.
Why am I a Christian?
Because Jesus is risen.
Because God loves me.
Because the Risen One journeys with me.
I don't have to answer every question. I don't have to do everything right. I don't have to make my own salvation. God's love and grace are the foundation for my living. God's gift of love and life will never end.
Why are YOU a Christian?
Let us pray.
O God, whose blessed son Jesus Christ appeared and made himself known to his disciples, open the eyes of our faith that we may behold him in all his redeeming work and believe in him with our hearts. The same Christ who with you lives and reigns one God in the unity of the Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.