St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Beth Christanson
Thomas the Pragmatist
Thomas gets a bad rap in the church, and I don’t think he deserves it. Imagine being stuck for two millennia with the moniker “Doubting Thomas!” i would like to suggest a name change for our poor friend. I wish to advocate for the name “Pragmatic Thomas.”
We don ‘t actually hear a great deal from Thomas in the Gospels; in fact, John is the only Gospel writer to give Thomas a voice. He speaks two other times in John, and I think those occasions bear up my argument that pragmatism, more than doubt, defines Thomas’ character.
The first time we hear from Thomas is in John chapter 11, when Lazarus has died, and Jesus proposes that they return to Judea to see him. At first the disciples don’t know that Lazarus is dead; they‘ve only heard that he is sick. And the last time they were in Judea, the Jews there tried to stone Jesus. Starting in verse 8, the Gospel says. “The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”
Imagine if i suggested to you that we cross Albert Street at rush hour mid-block, and you very practically pointed out to me that there’s a good chance we could be hit by a car doing that, and I said “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song,” I think you would be justified in throwing something at my head. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ very practical question has this tone at first glance. Of course, Jesus was not simply spouting random proverbs — he never did that — but as usual, his answer went deeper than the question, and therefore right over the disciples heads. He meant that, just as days and nights have set, knowable lengths, so the time of danger for Jesus had a set time, which had not yet come. Therefore, the disciples continued to walk with Jesus, “the Light of the World,” and need not fear their enemies.
The passage continues: “After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but i am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake l am glad i was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
The disciples hadn’t understood that they were not walking foolishly into danger by going to Lazarus in Judea. But in spite of their misgivings, they saw that Jesus was intent on going. Now, if Thomas truly were a doubter, what would be the appropriate response at this juncture? You go ahead, then. Knock yourself out. (Or, you know, let the people with the rocks knock you out.) l think l’Il stay here though, thanks.
￼lnstead Thomas, pragmatic, but also believing, says to the other disciples, well, if Jesus is going to walk into danger, we need to walk into it with him. Why? Because he is the truth we’ve been looking for. Dying for your belief is preferable to living safely with your doubt.
The next time we hear from Thomas, he is asking Jesus to clarify something he’s said. Again. In John chapter 14, we find Jesus and his disciples in the upper room, having eaten their Passover meal, and just after Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet. In the other three gospels, they talk for a bit and then head out to Gethsemane. But in John‘s gospel, there are five chapters of Jesus teaching them, and praying for them. Chapter 14 begins with Jesus saying,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
These have been words of comfort and inspiration to generations of Christians. Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you. Where I am, there you may be also. I am the way, the truth and the life. Any number of homes have these words cross-stitched and hung on the walls. It’s a beautiful, poetic passage.
But imagine how ominous these words must have sounded to the disciples. By this time they must have felt that something bad was bearing down on them. I imagine a feeling like when your vehicle starts to skid out on an icy highway. The future is bearing down on you, it looks bad, and there’s nothing you can do about it. They are back in Jerusalem, the site of so much hostility from the Jewish authorities, and Jesus is talking about leaving them! Worse, he says that they will be able to go to him, that they know the way to get there, but they have no idea what he’s talking about! Have you ever tried to follow someone in a car when you have no clear idea where you’re going? Then they run a yellow light and leave you behind? I imagine the disciples felt something like this, that unpleasant cocktail of stress and adrenaline that is your rat brain telling you you need to do something, but you have no idea what.
Practical Thomas voices the concern they’re all feeling at this point. But Lord, we don ’t know where you’re going. How can we know how to get there if we don’t know where “there” is? And Jesus responds, once again, with cryptic words that only made sense to his followers when they were hashing things out after the fact: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
So outside of today’s gospel, these are the only words we hear from Thomas: “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” and “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
I submit to you that these two stories, taken together with today’s story of Thomas’ desire to see and hear and touch Jesus’ resurrected body himself, paint a picture of a man whose character and faith both are deeply pragmatic, not a flaky doubter.
￼In fact, I am going to go so far as to say that characterizing Thomas’ behaviour in this passage as a cautionary tale, an example of what not to do, is deeply hypocritical. I have two arguments for why I think this is so.
First of all, there are four words we need to put at the centre of this discussion: Faith, Belief, Knowing, and Truth. As human beings, what are the ways we know? As Pilate said, What is Truth? These are the questions that make up the study of epistemology, and whether or not we ever ask these questions out loud, they are at the centre of who we are.
Just for fun, yesterday I asked Google, “How do we know something is true?” The results were about what you’d expect. The top hits were for websites with names like realclearscience.com, perspectivedigest.org, philosophynow.org, and, probably the strongest commentary on our contemporary western culture, quickanddirtytips.com. I’ll save you a bit of time and tell you now that the answers were pretty much what you’d expect of throwing a question like that out to the internet. It was not an edifying experience.
The question, however, remains valid, even essential. How do we know something is true? Fake news is actually not a recent phenomenon at all. Humans have been lying since Adam and Eve in the Garden. They only thing that’s new, I’d say, is the speed with which take news can spread now, and how far it can reach. So do we stand with Rene Descartes and say that I only know I exist because I’m thinking about existing? Do we believe only what we have experienced ourselves, with our five senses? Do we believe what can be proven via the scientific method, through experimentation? What about historical records of past events? What about your child’s explanation of how the lamp got broken? What about the Bible, when we read Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” You see? It’s pretty important to know where you stand on these questions!
So when Thomas, who had just shared the traumatic experience with the other disciples of watching Jesus, whom they thought was the Messiah, die on a Roman cross, comes back to their gathering place to hear them shouting about this physically impossible thing, that they have seen Jesus, talked to him, is it unreasonable for Thomas to wonder if maybe the stress is
getting to them? That perhaps someone has played an elaborate hoax on them? Maybe it was a vision, or a dream. Put yourself in his shoes. Is it unreasonable for him to say, I need to see it for myself? I need to touch him, to know that it’s true. I don’t think that was unreasonable. I don’t think it’s fair to say he ought to have taken their word for it. Because in fact, none of the others had believed Jesus was alive until they physically encountered him. Mary Magdalene had to hear him speak her name. The other ten disciples didn’t really believe her story until Jesus stood among them. Why do we hold Thomas to a different standard? I think it is not inappropriate at all to characterize Thomas as pragmatic, not doubting. The text says that Jesus offered to let Thomas touch the holes in his hands, and put his hand into his side, but it doesn’t actually say that Thomas did so. It says, “Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Maybe he did touch him, maybe not. I think the point is that Thomas was not then backward about declaring what this all meant. Jesus standing there among them meant that he was indeed God, and Thomas was happy to say so.
Secondly, let us consider the Gospel writer’s purpose in including this story. How does the chapter end? “Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” ￼
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
And as well today in John’s first letter to the church, we read, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
John’s purpose in writing his Gospel was so that those who were not there, (which is everyone on earth except for a handful of people!) could come to have faith that what the eyewitnesses were testifying to was true. Our faith, what we know, what we believe to be true, is based not on what we ourselves witnessed. When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he did not mean that Thomas’ faith was less valid because Jesus was there for him to touch. He meant that we are blessed when we believe, when we have not seen him, heard him, touched him.
Thomas was blessed because he walked with and talked to and listened to Jesus, both before and after his resurrection. But Jesus declared that we also are blessed, for our faith in what we cannot see.
My small foray into the epistemological arguments on the internet showed me that there are about as many ideas of what is true and what can be known as there are humans to think about it. In the midst of all of that, it seems incredible to me that we are even capable of anchoring ourselves to something like the Gospel story, and this man Jesus who is also God. That all of this, our selves, our community, our church, the world, the universe, has come about because God is, and is Love.
Malcolm Guite’s sonnet about Thomas and his pragmatic approach to faith just beautifully encapsulates all of this:
“We do not know… how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.
Because He loved your awkward counter-point
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
Oh place my hands with yours. help me divine ￼
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.
In about 30 seconds, we are all going to stand, and speak together the words of the creed. I believe, I believe, I believe. As we stand and speak together, let us also give thanks that we have this capacity for faith, and that we are blessed, who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Amen.