“Most Wonderful Doubt!” – Sermon for Thomas Sunday: Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Holy Apostle Thomas: “Most Wonderful Doubt!” (The Second Sunday of Pascha – “Thomas Sunday”)

The Gospel of John 20:19-31

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them: “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him: “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.”

Eight days later, His disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said: “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” 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 believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.

20:24-29   The doubt of Thomas is described in the Church hymns as “blessed,” for it was not a doubt of resistance to truth, but one that desperately desired a truthful answer—a “doubt which gave birth to faith” when the answer was revealed. In hymns of the Church, Christ says to Thomas, “Your doubt will teach My Passion and Resurrection to all,” and we affirm that his doubt “brought the hearts of believers to knowledge.” The conversion of Thomas’ doubt into faith led him to the clearest confession of Christ’s divinity, addressing Jesus as my Lord and my God (v. 28).

Nelson, Thomas (2008-06-17). The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World . Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition

Thomas Sunday

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

“A Doubting Thomas”…! How common this phrase has become in everyday speech. Maybe we have even used it ourselves about someone who seems to be always skeptical, unwilling to believe anything, or who will not commit to anything before being presented with so-called “empirical proof”. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the expression “doubting Thomas” as “one who is habitually doubtful,” saying, parenthetically, that the term’s origin is “[After Saint Thomas, who doubted Jesus’s resurrection until he had proof of it]”. Interestingly, perhaps, the use of this exact phrase seems to only date back, as far as I could find reference to a recorded first use, to 1883! Could it be that our modern attribution of doubt to the Holy Apostle Thomas (and to all those we might brand as “doubting Thomases”) is actually missing the very point of this story in Saint John’s Gospel…?

We may well wish to identify ourselves in this story with “the Ten,” those disciples who not only had the experience of being in the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus when he came into their midst unexpectedly, unannounced, and through “closed doors”, but who also, after this, did not find themselves in Saint Thomas’s position, asking to see the Lord’s body, feel it, and know beyond the shadow of a doubt (pun intended) that what was unbelievable was, in fact, true.

If we take a step back, though, and imagine what this sudden showing forth (or, epiphany) of the Resurrection must have been like for the one who was not there, maybe we will find that we might, in fact, have been much more likely to follow Thomas’ reasoning. Who among us has ever seen one dead come back from that seemingly final end? And who could do otherwise than disbelieve the possibility of such a thing, on a purely human level? Maybe we may see that we, ourselves, so often stand in the position of Saint Thomas, but, perhaps, we may also see that this is not a position of defeat, of despair, of that kind of soul-killing doubt which has no hope. As the Paschal Season unfolds, and the bright, over-brimming joy of the Lord’s resurrection reaches even into the dark corners of our souls and our psyches, where doubt seems often to gnaw away, and our fears, failures, hurts, and disappointments seem to mock our best intentions, may Saint Thomas’ story be to us as the very thing which the Gospel of John says that it is meant to be: “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The songs of the Church suggest to us that Thomas’ doubt was, in fact, a blessed thing, a “doubt which gives birth to faith”. The hymns of Vespers include this interesting reflection on the Gospel story:

Thomas, called the Twin, was not with the Disciples, O Christ,

when You came to them through closed doors.

Therefore he doubted their word.

You did not reject him for his faithlessness.

When he saw Your side and the wounds in Your hands and feet,

his faith was made certain.

Having touched and seen,

he confessed You to be truly God, not only man,

crying: “My Lord and my God, glory to You!

From the crisis of the doubt he felt as the left-out one, the “odd man out” who had not seen the Risen Christ, and who had missed out on receiving The Gift of the Holy Spirit in the breath of Jesus a week before, Thomas became the first to shout forth the testimony of the very reality, incomprehensible as it may be to our human minds, which is the foundation of the Orthodox Christian Faith: Jesus Christ Is God and Man, Transcendent and human, Unknowable yet Personal, Beyond Our Conception but Closer than Our Next Breath. Lord, human master, and Creator, at one-and-the-same time. Another of the Vespers hymns calls out,

Most wonderful doubt of Thomas!

It brought the hearts of the faithful to knowledge.

And with fear he cried: “My Lord and my God, glory to Thee!”

How wonderful is the doubt which Thomas felt! It was not a doubt which simply gave up because of the impossibility of that which was too good to be true. Even though he had been absent from their assembly when that first, most overwhelming experience of the appearance of the Risen Christ came upon his friends, Saint Thomas was still in their midst when it mattered, when “his time came,” despite what must have been a series of days of confusion, mingling hope with the feeling that what he wanted to believe was true could not possibly be. He stuck by his friends, and by the hope in the community of Jesus, even when he must have felt that the very reason for their band of brothers and sisters was for nothing.

– [But,] What was he doing there on that second Lord’s Day if not being present out of the most faithful, if “doubting,” hopefulness? And the Lord Jesus met him “where he was,” coming to him where he needed to be met, fulfilling his wildest hopes and hopes-beyond-hopes, even if he seemed to have been “faithless” by comparison with the fortunate Ten.

I would guess that we all know what it feels like to wish that we could have more hope, more faithfulness, to “do more,” to be better, to be more like our brothers and sisters. So often we may feel like everyone around us has been given a full portion of grace, of that gift of hope, to have been breathed upon by the Christ when we were, for whatever reason, absent. Not there. Doing something else. (… and who knows, by the way, what Thomas was doing on that first Pascha Sunday? The gospel account simply does not say).

In his series of books The Chronicles of Narnia, Christian author C.S. Lewis tells the story of the life and hope in Jesus in a series of stories “for children,” which may be as applicable for “grown-ups” as for young readers. When the Great Lion, Aslan, a rather clear allegorical figure for Christ, meets the young people from “our world” on their second trip to the magical world of Narnia, everything is different from their first visit to this special place… which, in many ways, is not so different from ours, often ruled by tyrants and the cruel, sundered by wars and illusions and disparity. No one else can see the Lion but the youngest person, Lucy, at first, on this second visit. When, after the passage of time, and perseverance in following Lucy’s insistence that Aslan is guiding them – in fact, is right in front of them, showing the way – all the adventurers finally are able to see the Great Lion. When Lucy’s older sister, who we may think of as the doubter who so much wants to believe, finally can see (and thus comes face-to-face) with Aslan, the story tells us:

“…after an awful pause, the deep voice said, ‘Susan.’ Susan made no answer but the others thought she was crying. ‘You have listened to fears, child,’ said Aslan. ‘Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?’

‘A little, Aslan,’ said Susan.”

          “… A Little, Aslan…” ! If we could only keep in mind to say to Christ, “My Lord and My God! Give me just a little bit of bravery after my fears, which I listen to all too often. Breathe on me, if you will, when you will, and I will be brave a little, if only a very little, but maybe just as brave as I should be. Maybe not as brave as the other Ten, maybe not so brave as to never doubt or fear, but brave enough to forget my fear, the fear that This Couldn’t Possibly Be True, and little by little, I will begin to be transformed by your resurrection, to begin to start a new life.”

Brothers and Sisters, this is what Jesus offered to Thomas, and offers to each and every one of us, in all of our “Thomasness,” on this and on each and every new-dawning day. Be open to the Most Wonderful Doubt. Receive the breath when you and Christ are in the same place together – don’t be surprised if it happens in the company of your brothers and sisters, although you may have been absent, before, and be brave. Forget fear. And cry out,

“My Lord and My God!”

Christ Is Risen! Indeed He Is Risen!