The story of Thomas, as we find it in the New Testament, has always been one of my favorites. Today is the feast day for Thomas, so I bumped again into the story. If you are not familiar with the story, let me share it. We find it in John’s Gospel. The time frame for it comes after the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrected Jesus was in Jerusalem on Sunday evening appearing to some of the gathered disciples. As it turns out, Thomas was not with them. When Thomas comes, the disciples told him they had seen the resurrected Jesus.
Thomas’ reply is classic. He says, “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.” (20:25) With these words Thomas expresses what so many of us surely would have exclaimed. I can certainly sympathize with Thomas. After all, Jesus had been his friend. His friend had been horribly crucified only three days earlier by the detestable Roman soldiers. I would be confident Thomas would already have been in his grief period. There is no way we could expect a person, like Thomas, to lose a close friend and be sitting around waiting for a resurrection.
To come into a room with your other friends, the disciples, and have them tell you they had seen the Lord would test the limits of credibility. It could have seemed like some kind of cruel joke. Why would they be kidding him at this poignant moment? I can imagine responding much like Thomas. Perhaps that is why he is my hero. I can imagine him saying, “Sure! If I see it for myself, I will believe. If I can put my hands in his wounded side, then I will find your words credible. Seeing is believing. And I have not seen.” So I imagine Thomas telling his disciple friends.
The story continues a week later. We are told the disciples had gathered again in a house. This time Thomas was present. Then comes the famous passage that tells us Jesus came into the room, even though the doors were closed. This is neither the time nor the place to talk about the historical probability of this account. Rather the key issue is Jesus somehow appeared in their midst. This time Thomas was in on the deal.
Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (20:27) Interestingly, we are not told whether Thomas did this! All we are told is Thomas came to believe. He said, “My Lord and my God! (20:28) How do we make sense of this?
In a simple sense the doubting Thomas story is a story of coming to faith---coming to believe. It is not really a story about putting hands into the wounded sides of a crucified guy. It truly is a story about “seeing is believing.” The trick is what “seeing” means. It seems clear to me the “seeing” has little or nothing to do with the literal level---with actually having some kind of material contact with the crucified Jesus. I am confident the “seeing” has to do with the figurative or metaphorical level. It is more like the person who finally solves the problem and says, “Oh, I see.” In effect, this kind of “seeing” is closer to “understanding.”
Thinking about it this way enables me to double back to the doubting Thomas. Perhaps he was doubting Thomas because he did not have the cognitive capacity to grasp the deeper truth of faith. His doubting makes perfect sense on one level. Doubt has a role to play where credibility---ability to have faith---is not present. However, when Jesus comes into their midst (however we are to understand this), the ground for credibility is set. Now Thomas can move from doubt to faith. Being dubious stymies us from moving on. When we are able to come to have faith, we are ready for a journey of faith. That is surely the journey Jesus traveled. His call to the disciples and to all of us is to find our own faith and begin our own journey.
I have found Thomas to be my hero on many occasions. Doubting is a normal part of the human experience. Doubting seems to be a given. The real question is whether we can come to faith---can we believe and begin the faith journey? For me Thomas is a man of hope. He is a paradigm of the possible.
I wonder if our role is not much like Thomas. One we have moved from doubt to faith, our role is to become beacons of hope for all the other folks in the world who are still stymied by doubt. Serious doubt can be debilitating. Faith is rehabilitating. My role as a disciple is to be present in the world as a living testament to the Divine Presence. Sometimes I am humbled by the realization that I might be the living presence of this Divine Presence.
By my word and deed I may help someone make their own move from being a “doubting Thomas” to a woman or man of faith. May we all prove to be useful instruments of God’s revealing work.