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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Folks Like Us: Thomas

John 20:19-31

Folks Like Us: Thomas

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The sermons for the month of April are all about the Bible characters in the Easter Story. Each week, we're looking at one of the people from the story and seeing what they can teach us. The idea is that these people were people before they were saints; in other words, they were folks like us. This week we're talking about the Apostle Thomas.

The Lectionary of scriptures always gives us Thomas in the week after Easter. Every year, we get Thomas. Doubting Thomas. In the Gospel According to John, which is the only gospel that tells this story, you go from Mary Magdalene's Easter proclamation of world-shaking faith, “I have seen the Lord!” to Thomas's, “Wellllllll... I don't know.” Mary says she's seen the Lord, now ten other disciples say they've seen the Lord (all at the same time, in a locked house), but Thomas, he's just not so sure about all this.

I like Thomas. He's probably my favorite disciple. Jesus nicknamed him, “The Twin.” We guess this is because he had a twin brother, but the Bible never says that. What would his brother's nickname have been? “The Other Twin?” That might have worked for their mom when she was mad and didn't care which one she was yelling at, but if Jesus nicknamed Thomas in order to remember which one was which, he could have picked something more distinguishing. Like, “The One With More Freckles.” I wonder if Jesus nicknamed him, “The Twin,” for another reason. Not because he looks like someone else, but because he thinks like someone else. Someone like, me. Someone like, you. Someones like pretty much everyone around us when we try to think about miracles the size and scope of Easter. If that's the case, then Thomas is, “The Twin,” and all of us are, “The Other Twin.” Thomas is folk like us.

I started growing up in the 1960's. I say, “started,” because I'm not finished. I hope I've still got some growing left to do. I hope I'm smarter, and better, and more faithful ten years from now. Do you hope that, too? For yourself, I mean. If you think like that, you're modern. You're modern. Tell that to your kids. Modern people – people of this modern era - believe in progress. Modern people use science to make progress. Modern people believe that we have the right to test reality, for ourselves, and to learn what's true, for ourselves, and by this scientific process of testing and learning we can become smarter and better when we grow up.

By that definition, Thomas was the world's first “modern” disciple. Think about Thomas, and what he wanted. “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.” That's modern thinking. It's the scientific method: you test the hypothesis in order to learn and when you learn you make progress. Thomas wasn't content to rely on someone else's knowledge. That's pre-modern thinking. Thomas wanted to see, for himself. He wanted to prove the facts, for himself. He wanted to use science to test what other people were telling him, so then he could learn and grow and create his own progress. Which is pretty much how we all think, even today. We expect progress. We rely on modern, scientific thinking. Thomas is still The Twin, our twin.

But we know Thomas better by his other nickname, “Doubting” Thomas. And we say it like doubt's a bad thing. But if you look at the history of this modern age, doubt is an incredibly powerful force. The power of doubt drives us to test reality, to engage in scientific experimentation, to discover the truth. Doubt – and the science it produces - have given us so much. Anybody remember Polio scares, when your parents didn't let you out of the house? Most kids today have never even heard of Polio. All the things we take for granted - medicine, microwave popcorn, electric light, cars, cell phones with personal ringtones – all of this modern world is the product of minds like Thomas' – doubting - testing, thinking together, working together to prove the truth and improve life. At least, that was the modern ideal.

Remember when we used to look ahead at the distant future and think, “Man, the year 2000 is gonna be so... far out.” We used to say, “The year 2000,” with wondrous anticipation, as if we'd all have flying cars like George Jetson, and robot maids, and a boy named Elroy. We just knew that by the year 2000, the miracle of progress would eliminate world hunger, wipe out disease, and give us some kind of Star Trek-ian utopia. You remember the movie, “2001, A Space Odyssey,” with moon colonies and space stations, and HAL, the psychotic computer? That was how the year 2000 would be. Well, at least we didn't get the psychotic computers; instead we got computers that make us psychotic. That's progress for you. And that's the problem.

For all the benefits of the power of doubt, after all our modern proof and progress, is life really qualitatively better? We talk about progress – you know, how am I going to improve myself this year? - but the majority of the world couldn't care less about improving themselves by next year; they care about being alive next year. Or next month. Or tomorrow. Existence is the primary concern of most of the people on earth. Progress has failed them, or at least passed them by. And what about us? Well, yeah, we have genetically engineered boneless chicken breasts grown on boneless chicken farms. But we also have to think about Bird Flu. And Salmonella. And what all that modified chicken DNA is doing to our DNA and if our great-grandchildren will look like boneless chickens. And then you've got Al Gore making movies.

Progress was supposed to make our lives better, but I don't talk to many people who feel “better” than they did ten years ago. I don't know many people who feel more peaceful, more relaxed, or less worried than twenty years ago. Then again, I don't live in Boca Raton. Maybe the people who retire there and play golf every day and drive their little carts to yoga class would argue with me. If modernity works for you, great. And for most of us, the modern world is great. But I also think most of us know enough to worry, like no generation has worried before, that the gifts our doubt has brought us could go up in smoke in a nanosecond. Instead of a space odyssey, 2001 brought us a terrorist nightmare – remote controlled on modern satellite phones by a pre-modern man standing in a primitive country.

Modernism looked great in the brochures, and of course we have more conveniences than the people of Jesus' time. We sure have longer life expectancies than the people of Jesus' time. But are our long, convenient lives really better than theirs? Is our world in better shape than theirs? Are we really happier, less stressed, and more faithful than they were? I hate to sound so skeptical, but if you think life is so much better and the world's in such great shape, you're going to have to prove it to me. I'm going to want to see some pretty sound, historical evidence before I believe you.

Holy smokes. I am Thomas's twin. I'm so embedded in the power of doubt, I don't even know any other way. What about you?

This is why I think we always get Thomas one week after Easter. It just so happens that we read about Thomas while sitting in the greatest, most advanced nation on earth. Maybe the Christians in Ethiopia get something else out of the story. But here we are: modern Christians reading about a modern-thinking disciple, dealing with the news that the modern, George Jetson dream hasn't exactly come true. Here we are, the week after Easter, still driven by doubt, just like Thomas. Here we are, in the 21st Century, waking up to the knowledge that the dream of the future makes us more anxious about the future than any previous generation. In spite of all our progress, we're not peaceful. Despite the power of doubt, we feel powerless. Our souls are increasingly restless. What do we do? And by that, I don't mean, “What's the world going to do?” That's for world leaders and scientists and people way smarter than I am to figure out. I mean, what are WE going to do? What are you and I going to do to use the gift of doubt to help us find peace?

You might think it's weird to hear a minister saying doubt's a gift. We usually think of it as the opposite of faith. Gift or not, doubt's a reality. It's part of us, part of the DNA we share with Thomas, our twin brother. It appears to be part of our God-given humanity. We either use our doubt as a tool to motivate us, or it uses us. Doubt isn't necessarily bad. I mean, look at what it got Thomas – a live, personal appearance by Jesus himself. That's pretty good. What could you discover by using your gift of doubt?

We get Thomas in the week after Easter. Was Easter really just last week? Did Easter really happen? Did Jesus really rise from the tomb and did the world really change because of this? Did you change because of Easter? God says yes, yes, yes and yes. If you doubt anything about Easter, if you doubt anything about how Easter has changed you, use your doubt to test this reality. Don't settle for my answers, or the church's answers, go find your own answers in the faith of your own heart. Take your doubts and your questions to God. Challenge God like your twin did. You're not going to hurt God. Your doubt can't hurt Jesus. He's already died. And risen. Doubt doesn't have any power over him anymore. So reach out your skeptical hand. Probe the scars your God keeps. It's OK.

The apostles were hiding in a house of anxiety. And Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, 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. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Doubt isn't the opposite of belief. Doubt can actually be a part of belief if it makes you want to reach out and touch the hand of Christ. Can you believe that Jesus has so much faith in you, so much love for you, that he'd let you touch his scars? Maybe you doubt that. But that's what he offered Thomas, your twin. Jesus looked Thomas' doubt in the eye, and Thomas “got it.” “My Lord and my God!” he cried out. He saw the power greater than any doubt. He saw the hope greater than any imagined future.

Here, a week after Easter, when Jesus offers you his hand, what are you going to do?