Sunday, March 30, 2008

CSI Thomas

Second Sunday of Easter – Year A
Acts 2:14a,22-32; Psalm 118:19-24; I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
Sunday, March 30, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

One of my favorite television shows is CSI – the original one set in Las Vegas, not the spin-offs set in New York or Miami. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, it is about the CSIs, or Crime Scene Investigators, who investigate crimes, usually murders, to obtain the clues that will be needed to identify, apprehend, and ultimately convict, the perpetrator. In a lot of the cases, before the perpetrator can even be identified, the CSIs must use the clues gathered to first identify the victim. In almost every episode, there is some sort of twist. Things are not quite what they appear. Either the CSIs see something and take it at face value, sometimes providing false leads or erroneous assumption, or one of the CSIs may get emotionally wrapped up in the case, becoming blinded to what is being seen. In all such incidents, Gil Grissom, the CSI supervisor, invariably cautions, “trust the evidence.” In Grissom’s eyes, only the physical evidence, that which can be seen, touched, smelled, or heard, can be trusted. All else is extraneous. Anything else could potentially get in the way of the investigation, cloud judgment, and ultimately lead to erroneous conclusions, thereby jeopardizing the case. You’ve got to look at the evidence to get to the truth.

I think Thomas, as portrayed in today’s Gospel lesson, would have made a pretty good CSI. When the other disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas responds, “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.” Now, we generally come down pretty hard on Thomas because of this statement. We often attach the adjective “doubting” to him, so that he has become known as “Doubting Thomas,” as if that is his given name. And the appellation is not viewed positively. When we talk about poor old “Doubting Thomas,” there is almost a tone of condemnation. In fact, calling someone a “Doubting Thomas” has even become a sort of put-down or accusation in contemporary parlance. I think it’s about time we redeem poor Thomas and restore his honor as an ever-faithful disciple.

When you think about it, Thomas was just exercising due diligence. Yes, he heard his friends proclaim that they had seen the risen Lord. And when Christ appeared to him directly, he could see that there were wounds in his hands and side. But that really didn’t prove anything, at least, not with absolute certainty. After all, before he died, Jesus told his disciples to beware of false messiahs. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus tells them, “False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert” (Mk 13:22-23, Mt 24:24). Luke has Jesus putting his warning a little differently: “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in My name and say, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not go after them” (Lk 21:8). How did Thomas know that the person appearing before him, even though he had what appeared to be the requisite marks of the crucifixion, was not just such an imposter? He needed to be sure before he could embrace and swear allegiance to this person.

That shouldn’t be too hard for us to understand. After all, we do live in a society that has been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment – by the advent of scientific method. In virtually anyone else, we would consider such skepticism as healthy, even necessary. Many professionals rely on skepticism, discovering the truth, and having proof, in the course of their work – scientists, police, attorneys, journalists, educators, just to name a few. So why do we condemn poor old Thomas for having a trait that many of us exercise on a regular basis, even rely upon?

I think part of it is that we tend to compare Thomas with his peers – with the other disciples. After all, they believed in the resurrected Lord, didn’t they? Why should Thomas have been so quick not to believe? Well, the historical record probably needs to be set straight on that perception, as well. In the Markan and Lukan accounts of the resurrection, the disciples did not believe that Christ has been resurrected when Mary Magdalene first told them. They had to see and experience Christ for themselves before they would believe. And even in today’s Gospel lesson, the implication is that the disciples were a bit apprehensive. As John tells us, Jesus appeared to the disciples (sans Thomas) and spoke to them. They did not seem to realize who he was, so Jesus showed them his hands and his side. “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” What is not specifically stated but strongly implied, is that the other disciples needed proof before they were willing to accept that the person standing before them was indeed their Lord. Yet, we don’t question their faith. Why question Thomas’?

Now in all fairness, it is our translation of Scripture that is at fault. What we translate in verse 27 as “do not doubt but believe” uses the Greek words apistos and pistos. We translate apistos as “doubt” and pistos as “believe.” But in actuality, apistos is the opposite of belief, which is not necessarily doubt. The verse in question should actually be translated as “do not be unbelieving (apistos) but believing (pistos)” (O’Day, 850). Now it may be splitting hairs on the meaning. But I am always reminded of The Very Rev. Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, who frequently quotes a nameless English monk who once said “the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.” Certainty is rigid, unyielding. Faith, on the other hand, is flexible, open to reinterpretation as new evidence is revealed. Thomas was not unyielding in his approach. He was open to a change in perspective. He just needed something to go on. He needed a little more information.

In actuality, when Thomas makes the statement “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,” he is actually saying to the other disciples “To believe as you believe, I need to have the same experience of the risen Jesus you had. I need to have the Spirit breathed into me. I need to see what you saw.” (Wesley, 23). “So Thomas was not asking for anything that was not a basis for the other disciples’ claims” of seeing or belief in the risen Lord (Wesley, 24). And, in fact, as the Gospel story progresses, we find that Thomas does indeed experience and see what the disciples experienced and saw. The following week, Jesus returns, specifically to see Thomas. Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Presumably, Thomas does as he said he would do, and as Jesus asked. Presumably he touched the nail marks on his hands and the wound in his side.

In his words, in offering himself to Thomas, Jesus is not attempting to shame Thomas as is so often thought, but rather to give him what he needs for faith. Just as the other disciples needed to see Jesus for themselves to believe, so too, Thomas needed some proof. He was open to the possibilities, but just needed a little more to go on. That is not to be condemned but admired, because Thomas allowed himself to be vulnerable enough to ask for help in understanding. Jesus allowed himself to be vulnerable to being touched. Both Thomas and Jesus gave of themselves in this tender moment.

Upon accepting Jesus’ tender offer of breath and touch, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’ confession “My Lord and my God” is the most powerful and complete in the Fourth Gospel, and affirms what Jesus had previously said: “If you know me, you will know my Father also” (Jn 14:7), as well as affirms the central truth of the Gospel, as stated in it’s prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). In that moment, “Thomas sees God fully revealed in Jesus” (O’Day, 850). But it is important to note that “It is not touching Jesus that leads Thomas to this confession of faith, but Jesus’ gracious offer of himself” (O’Day, 850). Thomas did not believe in the resurrected Christ because he saw him and touched him. He believed because Jesus, the resurrected One, offered himself to Thomas – offered to help him believe, offered to give him new life through his death and resurrection; and offered to be present to him following the resurrection.

The important thing is not whether Thomas initially believed in the resurrected Lord or not. The important thing is not on what grounds Thomas came to his belief – be it through the word of others, seeing Jesus, or feeling his wounds. The most important thing is that he came to belief. The end result is that he ultimately had faith. This tells us that “It is not physical sight and signs that are decisive for faith, but the truth they reveal” (O’Day, 852). The truth that is revealed through the resurrection is Jesus’ identity and relationship with God. The truth that is revealed is that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. He lived among us. He died for our salvation and the forgiveness of our sins. He was resurrected to give us new and eternal life. It was this truth, this promise, that Jesus offered to Thomas.

Christ makes the same offer to us. He offered his life for ours. He offers us salvation and new life, eternal life, through his death and resurrection. He offers to be present with us, if we would only accept. To this end, what follows next in the Gospel lesson is not so much spoken to Thomas as it is spoken to us. After Thomas makes his confession of belief, Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus’ final statement “is John’s way of praising those who have different (distant) experiences of the risen Christ and yet still have faith beyond the time of seeing Jesus in any literal fashion” (Wesley, 24). Jesus’ words reach across time to speak directly to us, to encourage us, to praise us for our willingness to accept him on faith without benefit of a physical sighting, without benefit of physically touching him. His statement points to Jesus’ continued presence and care for his flock following the resurrection, and giving us the Holy Spirit to sustain is in the mission we are charged with.

This is not a story of judgment against Thomas or anyone who is not quick to believe. It is not a reprimand. Rather, it is a story of hope and promise. It is a message to us that Christ is waiting to offer himself to us. Some, like Mary Magdalene, will accept that offer on pure faith, based only on a word. Others, like Thomas, and like the other disciples, will require a little more evidence before being willing to make a final decision on the matter. Regardless of where we are, Jesus will to be patient with us. He is willing to be vulnerable and open to us “so that [we] may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may [all] have life in his name.” Like Thomas, we just need to trust the evidence.

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

Allen, O. Wesley, Jr., et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2008, Easter to Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant!!! I wish I thought of preaching it like that. But... "parlance?" Who says parlance anymore? ;)