who is thomas? it’s complicated #sermon #identity

Thomas is at the centre of things this morning.

His name is there in the text – plainly in black and white.

But who is this Thomas? Who is this one whose name appears so starkly in the text?

thomas

Perhaps he is not so clearly defined as we might like him to be. Even if we have his name in black and white, perhaps Thomas cannot be pinned down as THIS or THAT.

In general we like to pin people down. We like to define them. We like to be able to say it clearly and simply: he is THIS or she is THAT. So is it any surprise that we try to do the same with Thomas. Defining him clearly and precisely.

This need to define people – to have clear and firm sense of who the other is – this need to define people is perhaps rooted in our need for assurance. If we don’t know who people are – if we can’t define them in the clearest of terms – then after all who is this other person? Do I even know him? Do I even know her? How do I speak with someone, relate to him or her if I cannot say with any degree of certainty who she is or who he is? How can I trust them, know them, love them, live with them.

But – we are all a mix of experiences and characteristics and memories and attitudes. In some moments we are THIS. In other moments we are THAT. We are not so easily defined. Thomas is not so easily defined. No human person is easily pinned down.

mix - white

Yes, our name defines us. But in many ways, the person behind the name may be elusive. Others cannot capture us, and we often cannot capture ourselves – cannot say exactly who we are – who the other is.

For some individuals there is a lurching from one identity to another – I thought he was this, but now he is that. How did that happen? For others, there is a seeming continuity and solidity of character and personality over the long haul. But in either case it remains true to say that we are not so easily defined.

We are our name.

But we are so much more than simply our name.

Who is Thomas?

We think of him as doubter. We define him as the doubter. But we cannot make Thomas THIS or THAT.

Something we can say about Thomas is that he is Called.

called

We read in Luke 6:12    Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot.

Thomas is called – he is called out to follow Jesus, as one of the twelve. From that moment he is defined as one who is called – he is defined as one who finds his life in this company of friends. These disciples, these apostles, are a mass and mess of humanity – a betrayer, proud social-climbers, deniers, followers, leaders. Thomas fits right in among the twelve. They are complicated. He is complicated. We are all complicated.

Thomas is many things according to both his physical makeup and his socialization – but besides all of that, and in addition to all of that, and before all of that, and after all of that. He is called. Called to follow this Jesus. Called to listen to this Jesus. Called to learn of this Jesus and his way. Called to embody Jesus’ wisdom and love and strength.

You can be many things. You can even wonder who you are. You can wonder where you have come from. You can wonder where you are going. But when you are called – well there is something decisive about that. Now the call defines you – and you, Thomas, will only become who you are in relation to the one who has called you. We are who we are, only in relation to the one who has called us. We may be a mess of humanity – but we are called.

Thomas is called – and Thomas is courageous.

courageous

We read in John 11:16  Jesus said to them: “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas has spent a good deal of time in company with the one who called him – and through their time together, Thomas has obviously developed a profound attachment to Jesus. He is convinced that there is something very real about this Jesus. Is it the healings? Is it the teachings? Is it the way Jesus relates to people? Is it the resistance from the establishment to Jesus? No doubt it is a mix of things that draws Thomas so close to Jesus. No doubt there is in Tomas, at this point in the narrative, some conviction that God is doing something decisive in this Jesus.

In the text, Jesus says it is time to go to Lazarus – and Jesus means that he will now go to the town of Bathany to raise his friend. But Thomas thinks that Jesus is going to Lazarus in the sense that he is going to go to the realm of the dead where Lazarus is. Thomas thinks Jesus is about to confront the authorities – and that this will bring about a violent response and his death. Thomas responds: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

In Thomas there is a mix of misunderstanding, ignorance, faith, and courage. Many would scoff at Thomas – many would no doubt mock the naïveté of this religious simpleton. He’s ready to die when no one is asking him to die. He doesn’t even understand Jesus, but is ready to give his life.

Nevertheless, the courage of Thomas stands out for us. When most of us run from death – when most of us cover over death with every possible euphemism – when most of us desperately avoid its reality – Thomas walks headlong toward it. He doesn’t need the details – wherever Jesus is going, it’s good enough for him. If it means death, so be it. It is no small thing to be ready to give your life alongside a friend, teacher, master.

Thomas is called. He is courageous.

Now this will sound odd, perhaps, against the backdrop of what we’ve just said, but Thomas is a questioner.

questioner

We read in John 14:1-5    Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know were you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

There is a bit of a contradiction, here. When Jesus said he wanted to go to Lazarus, Thomas unquestioningly said: “Let us go die with him also.” No questions. He’s ready to act.

This time around, however, Thomas stops and asks the question. Maybe he has learned his lesson. “I ended up looking like an idiot last time – this time I’m going to ask what he means.”

Jesus says: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas says: “Actually, Jesus, no we don’t. We don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know how to get there?”

There is a directness in Thomas, here – a willingness to stand out. When he is doesn’t understand, he asks the questions. When it doesn’t make sense to him, he says so.

No doubt in the background to his willingness to ask questions is some assurance that Jesus won’t be offended or angry at his questioning. Jesus isn’t the kind of teacher who shuts his followers up. Jesus doesn’t shut them down or shut them up when they have questions or when things don’t make sense to them. So Thomas is free to ask: “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know how to get there?”

It is this kind of openness to questions that we want to foster in the company of those who follow Jesus. We aren’t afraid of questions. We welcome questions, seeking answers on the way with Christ – living in the openness of Jesus, who respects our questions and answers them.

Indeed, when we ask questions, when we feel driven to ask questions, when we have this burning desire to know and understand – it reflects our engagement with the things of faith – an engagement that can only be rewarded. To ask questions is to refuse to let our faith be held only loosely and at a distance.

The reward for Thomas’ question, if you will, is one of the most remarkable sentences we have in the New Testament. Jesus answers the question of Thomas with these words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The way to God is through Jesus – following him, trusting him, believing him, receiving from him.

How do we define Thomas. He is called. He is courageous. He is a questioner.

He is a doubter.

doubter

We read in the text: But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, 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 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.”

Is Thomas more of a doubter than any of the other disciples? Would any of them, in his shoes, have responded any differently? What about Batholomew? What about James? What about Peter? What about Andrew? Would they have been any quicker to believe had they been in the shoes of Thomas – absent when Jesus was present?

What Thomas asks for is only to see what the others have had the privilege of experiencing. Can we really label him the doubter?

In Living Faith, a confessional document of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, we read these words about doubt:

We are not always certain that God is with us.
At times God calls us
to live in this world
without experiencing the divine presence,
often discerning God’s nearness
only as we look back…

The church includes many who struggle with doubt.
Jesus accepted the man who prayed:
“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

We should not attach the label ‘doubter’ to Thomas, as if to say, THIS is what he is. And even when we acknowledge that he doubted the word of his fellow disciples, that expression of doubt in no way excludes him from the company of the twelve. It does not exclude him from relation to the God who comes near in Jesus.

In fact, Thomas moves rather dramatically from this moment of doubt to a moment of confession. He is not a doubter, in fact – Thomas is more appropriately called a confessor.

confessor

We read also in our text for today: “A week later his disciples were again in the house, 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.” Thomas answered him: “My Lord and my God.”

The confession of Thomas is direct and clear and decisive. My Lord and my God. It is the only confession like it – a direct statement of Jesus’ status as his master and leader – a direct confession of Jesus identity as God with us. There is no other confession like it in the New Testament. Thomas is the confessor – he confesses a deep faith.

Is Thomas the naïve follower?

Is Thomas the courageous simpleton?

Is he the confident questioner?

Is he the honest doubter?

Is he a faithful confessor?

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 9.19.42 AM

He is all of that, and more. We cannot pin him down as THIS or THAT. We can pin him down no more than we can define each other, or even ourselves, as THIS or THAT.  Whoever we are, in the complexity of our humanity – there is a name that defines us. There is one who calls us. There is one who comes among us. There is one who walks with us. His name is Jesus. Whoever we are, we are his. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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