The Gospel of John’s story of Thomas’ demand to see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and put his hand inside the hole in Jesus’ side before he will “believe” is always the gospel reading for the Sunday after Easter. It’s as though there were this one Sunday for doubting–we’re allowed at least this day– when actually, any faith worth its salt is riddled with doubt. Those who disparage Thomas as merely “Doubting Thomas” do their faith no favors, and don’t know Thomas.
The great 20th c. theologian Paul Tillich claimed “that doubt is in fact an inescapable and essential part of faith,” since “faith,” he said, “is what happens when a finite being is ‘grasped by and turned to the infinite.’” [Dynamics of Faith, cited by Shawnthea Monroe in Christian Century, 3/16/16]. Almost by definition, there’s more to the infinite than we as finite creatures will ever be able to understand, so of course there will be things we don’t understand, much that we will doubt. That’s why “faith” is so much more than understanding, more than “belief,” even; much more like “trust.”
Thomas is sometimes referred to as Didymus, or “the twin,” but actually toma’s is simply the word “twin” in Aramaic. He may have had a biologically similar sibling, but it could be argued that Thomas is all of our twins, since we all “doubt.” And who can blame Thomas for doubting that Jesus had been resurrected, as Mary Magdalen had told them, and that he had appeared to the others huddled in fear behind locked doors? If they all believed he had been resurrected, what were they doing hiding out behind locked doors?
I don’t know about you, but Thomas sounds like my twin. If I really believe that Jesus was resurrected and that that is promised to all of us, why do I have any fear? “Where, o death, is now thy sting?” I’ll tell you where it is–in the ache and pain and longing I feel for loved ones gone, in the agony of seeing pictures of the bodies of children washed up on beaches as their families flee war and violence or the mangled remains of bodies after suicide bombers have detonated their vests in amusement parks or airport waiting areas. I’m with Thomas, I’d like to see them all put back together, all returned to their loved ones, even with wounds on their bodies, I’d like to know for sure that all the horrible things you read about or see or experience are not all there is. That we will not pollute and heat and bomb ourselves into oblivion, taking most of the planet with us. Call me Thomas’ twin sister.
The poet Denise Levertov converted from agnosticism to Christianity when she was 60 years old. She felt a particular affinity with Thomas, and in fact wrote a whole mass to Thomas Didymus. In one poem, she imagines that Thomas feels much more kinship with the father in Mark’s gospel who begged Jesus to heal his possessed son–”Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.” When Jesus asked the father, “Do you believe?” he answered with those gut-wrenching words, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” Here’s Levertov’s poem, written in Thomas’ voice–
In the hot street at noon I saw him
a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
and thought him my brother.
I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
Lord, I believe, help thou
and knew him
a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?
The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.
After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.
So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
help thou mine unbelief.
blood to tell me the truth,
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life
But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
all things quicken to color, to form,
not answered but given
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun. (From The Stream and the Sapphire, cited by Dan Clendenin in JourneywithJesus, 3/27/16]
Thomas’ doubts and questions are not shameful, and they are not answered, but they are gathered into a much larger whole. They find a place within a bigger picture. So the knot that had bound him begins to unravel, the world takes on color and air and light. He is given new life himself.
Thomas is said to be not only the patron saint of doubters, but also of architects, because he built so many churches. Tradition says that after Pentecost, he traveled east, beyond the confines of the Roman Empire and made it all the way to southern India, where to this day, there are Christians who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas.” This week, Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid, died. Her buildings were known for their sinuous fluidity, for their seeming defiance of gravity. She was called by some “the architect of the future.” When asked why she thought people thought that of her, she said, “Maybe because of the surprise?” I imagine Thomas, patron saint of architects, even now receiving Zaha and enlisting her in designing what yet is to come.
“Maybe Thomas succeeded as an evangelist,” one writer suggests, “because he started as a doubter. Someone who has asked the hard questions, risked receiving answers, and learned to live with uncertainty can be a powerful witness to Jesus Christ, who is not dead, but is living.” [Monroe, op cit.]
It is that Living One who invites us to this table, to take him into our bodies, our minds and hearts, so that we too might have new life. Who knows what designs will yet unfold in our or our world’s future, but we know Who will continue to walk beside us into that future. It is His body, His blood that we would become. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark