A sermon preached at St. John’s Anglican Church, Port Elgin, ON.
RCL Texts: Acts 2.14a, 22-33; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
Jesus said to Thomas “Do not doubt but believe. Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (Jn. 20.27b-28)
Poor Thomas. Other than Judas, Thomas is the disciple that will forever have a cloud hanging over his reputation. Even Peter, who denied Jesus three times and whom Jesus himself once referred to as Satan, will never have as negative reputation as ‘Doubting Thomas’. References to ‘Doubting Thomas’ are meant as a cautionary tale: don’t be like Doubting Thomas! Have faith! However, there is something unsettling about this simplistic injunction to our postmodern ears. This is precisely why in the past few decades, St. Thomas has received renewed attention. Now, he is valorized as a saint precisely because of his doubt: Saint Doubting Thomas.
However, these understandings of St. Thomas are problematic. They are directly shaped by particular worldviews and fail to take into careful consideration both the text of Scripture and the enduring impact of St. Thomas’ faith. Indeed, in the early church, Thomas was lauded for his missionary work and more than likely died a martyr’s death, which is to say he died because of his professed faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, more people know about ‘Doubting Thomas’ than of St. Thomas the missionary.
In order to unpack the nature of Christian faith, its relationship to doubt, and how this relates to the Church’s mission, we need to consider how St. Thomas evolved from a missionary into a harbinger of the intellectual virtues of the Enlightenment into a the patron saint of postmodernism: St. Doubting Thomas.
Along with Rene Descartes – the French philosopher who coined the phrase: “I think therefore I am” – Thomas is the patron saint of the modern age. You see, Thomas is not easily duped into religious superstition. Like his Enlightenment-era descendants, Thomas demands proof. More specifically, he demands quantifiable, measureable, physical proof. After all, the Scientific Method is the most sure and certain way of knowing anything in our world; it is rigorous, replicable, and universally applicable. Knowledge is born of careful and rational consideration of all the facts – the raw data – as they present themselves and are organized into a coherent hypothesis. In other words, faith is only valid insofar as it corresponds to verifiable knowledge. Consider the following:
Fact #1 – the tomb is empty. Without adequate evidence, there is no way to conclude what happened.
Fact #2 – some of the women claim that an angel – and even Jesus Himself – visited them and told them that Jesus is alive. However, this is hearsay; anecdotes cannot be considered hard evidence.
Fact #3 – 1o of the disciples claim that Jesus appeared to them. Again, this is hearsay and cannot be considered hard evidence.
Conclusion: without any physical evidence, any claims regarding Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead are inconclusive at best and superstitious hysteria at worst. Knowledge is solely based on rational acceptance of quantifiable facts. Thomas is a saint because of his demand for and acceptance of facts.
At this point, some of you are thinking – ‘wait a minute! Jesus didn’t extol Thomas for his calculating demand for evidence; if anything, Jesus scolds him for this!’
To be clear, there are those who, in response to the scientific claims of the Enlightenment, respond that Thomas is wrong precisely because of his demands for proof. Faith, they reply, is the complete opposite of doubt. Regardless of what scientific evidence might say about the age of the world or evolutionary biology, the Bible says that God created the world in 7 days, so I have to take that to be the truth on faith. To doubt that this is true is to be no better than Thomas. This view is known as fideism. In this view, faith is independent of and even hostile to reason; faith is accepting certain intellectual propositions as inherently true without debate or scrutiny. In the end, faith is the superior and only true way of knowing.
I think we would all agree that there is something theologically and existentially unsatisfying about this understanding of faith. The claim that faith is at odds with and is superior to reason is problematic for a number of reasons, including theological ones. Throughout the history of the Church, theologians have insisted that there is a close and mutually enriching and overlapping relationship between faith and reason. Indeed, as Pope Benedict XVI once remarked, the Christian tradition “has always rejected the so-called principle of ‘fideism’, that is, the will to believe against reason”.
This is where St. Doubting Thomas comes in. Whereas the Enlightenment-era St. Thomas was extolled for his demand for physical evidence, postmodern St. Doubting Thomas is celebrated for his doubt, for his refusal to simply accept what others were telling him as truth. St. Thomas needs to find his own truth according to his values that fit with his understanding of the world. In the postmodern view, doubt and skepticism are considered theological and intellectual virtues because it opens the way to self-authentication; I don’t need anyone else to tell me what to believe because I am the only one who can do that for myself! Moreover, faith elicits a form of certainty that is unwelcome because our culture views certainty as oppressive and non-inclusive of others’ viewpoints. Therefore, doubt is to be embraced. Indeed, doubt is a postmodern expression of faith; the only thing I know is that I don’t know. While this initially sounds like a very humble statement, it is in fact nothing but an inverse form of fideism. It is nothing more than preaching to the choirs of our culture, telling them what they want to hear.
To be clear, there is a central place in Christian faith for wrestling with difficult questions. Indeed, the history of theology is but one long conversation wrestling with difficult questions: who is God? How can a good God allow suffering? How does Jesus’ death and resurrection change anything? However, this kind of faithful wrestling is qualitatively different than embracing doubt and skepticism and rejecting authority as a matter of principle; these are contemporary phenomena. Moreover, the postmodern embrace of doubt is exegetically and missionally problematic. Genuine faith is both more infinitely complex and elegantly straightforward than fideism in its modern and postmodern forms would have us believe. We have St. Thomas to thank for making this clear.
Thomas does not remain in doubt; he offers what is one of the most succinct summaries of the Christian faith: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20.28). This simple declaration is the true focal point of the story. While some translations phrase Jesus’ response to Thomas’ declaration as a question: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” It is also equally plausible to translate Jesus’ response as a statement: “you have believed because you have seen me”. Interpreting Jesus’ response as a question assumes that Jesus is chastising Thomas. However, interpreting Jesus’ response as a statement affirms Thomas’ demand for proof; Thomas wants direct access to Jesus in the flesh. In the end, neither interpretation clouds detracts from Thomas’ declaration. Thomas makes his profession of faith “because he recognizes the wounds on the glorified body of Jesus as a sign, a disclosure of his divinity through his glorified humanity”. Thomas has “arrived at full Easter faith because of the proof that has been given to him” (344). The crucified and risen Lord in the flesh is both the response to Thomas’ demand for proof and the source of Thomas’ clear declaration of faith.
But this straightforward declaration is not the end of the story; indeed it is but the beginning of Thomas’ mission. This is where the nature of faith becomes complex. Thomas is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ into Asia, hence his identity as the patron saint of India. This was not doubt at work; this was faith at work. Doubt is incapacitating; it leaves one waffling, sitting on the fence. Doubt leads to inaction. While Thomas’ demand for physical proof of the resurrection could be understood as doubt, it is hardly fair to continue calling him Doubting Thomas when one considers the profound impact of Thomas’ ministry. Thomas is faithful to Jesus and the mission on which Jesus sent the apostles, which is why he is properly remembered as saint.
The story of Thomas is instructive in many ways for those who follow Jesus today. In this story we see both the simplicity and complexity of faith on display. Faith is more than intellectual assent to facts and it is more than personal experience, though, to be clear, assent and experience are part of faith. Faith is fundamentally commitment and devotion to the crucified and risen one, the one who calls us to new life in Him. This allegiance is not passive and it is not hanging on the coattails of others; rather, this allegiance involves a summons to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Therefore, faith is allegiance to Jesus, an allegiance that is embodied as we participate in the mission for which Christ sends us into the world. Our faith – our allegiance to Christ – pushes us into action.
As the Father sent Jesus and as Jesus sent the apostles, so too he sends us – those who claim Him as our Lord and our God – into the world to proclaim the good news of Easter: that because Christ is risen, sin and death no longer have dominion, that because Christ is risen, the invitation to new life is extended to all who pledge their allegiance to Him in faith.
Therefore, let us follow the faithful example of St. Thomas: let us seek earnestly after the risen Lord, discerning Him in the sacraments and hearing Him in the Scriptures. Let us proclaim our allegiance to Him. And let us recognize Him in those to whom we are called to proclaim the good news.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John, 344.