April 23, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
Names are a funning thing. Many of us have nicknames, some that come from our own name or what someone called us. Other nicknames, though, are ones that you earn. In college, I had a roommate who for years went by the name “Dirty Dylan” because he was a pretty unclean fellow. He didn’t have a reputation for taking many showers.
Today’s story includes a fellow who has been stuck with a nickname for centuries. “Doubting Thomas.” Now, in truth, Thomas’s story is much more complex. He isn’t some extreme sceptic who refuses to believe anything or anyone until it is completely proven to him. No, in fact he is one of Jesus’ most zealous followers. He repeated claims that he would follow Jesus anywhere, even if it leads to his own death. Thomas is devoted to Jesus wholehearted, and so, when Jesus is put to death, Thomas’s heart is wholly broken. After the crucifixion, all the disciples are confused and scared, but Jesus’ death seems to have hit Thomas harder than the others. So, when our story begins, Thomas is in a dark place, a place of defeat overshadowed by death. His master, teacher, mentor and friend has been executed and now nothing makes sense any more. In grief he has isolated himself so that he isn’t with the other disciples that night.
So, this story isn’t about Jesus coming to prove himself to some radical skeptic but rather. No, it is a story of Jesus gathering in the brokenhearted, the one who needs to experience healing and have his hope and trust rekindled with an experience everyone else has had but which he has been left out of. Notice what Thomas asks to see, Jesus’ hands and side, the marks of his death and suffering. I the paragraph before, we are told that Jesus shows his hand and his side to the other disciples. So Thomas, the heartbroken devoted follower is only asking to have the same experience that they have had. He is asking to be included. He is asking to encounter Jesus himself. He is seeking a real, authentic, genuine faith—not to just go through the motions because everyone else says something is true. This isn’t some silly, stubborn, antagonism against other people who’s faith is different than his own. This is faith seeking understanding.
Thomas is much more than a doubter, but the ways that we talk about him and his doubt also reveal something about the depth and maturity of our own faith.
This mixture of real faith and real doubt is deep and real. And it reminds me of one of my favorite episodes of the Andy Griffith show. The young boy, Opie tells his father Andy and his friend Barney about someone that he met in the woods that day named Mr. McBeavy. Opie says that Mr. McBeavy walks around the tree tops, wears a big shiny silver hat, has twelve extra hands, can make smoke come out of his ears, and jingles when he walks as if he had “rings on his fingers and bells on his toes.” Now, his father Andy is convinced that Opie has imagined this Mr. McBeavy fellow. As the show continues, Andy becomes worried that Opie isn’t just imagining things, but that he is “stretching the truth all out of shape” by lying to his father and blaming things on this Mr. McBeavy. Opie starts showing up with things that don’t belong to him, which he says are gifts from Mr. McBeavy, but Andy knows that Opie must be stealing things. It’s time for a hard talk about lying and telling the truth.
In the crucial scene of the show, Andy goes upstairs with the intention of “whipping” Opie for lying, but then a few minutes later he comes back downstairs having decided not to punish his son. Barney says, “Andy, do you mean that you believe there is a Mr. McBeavy?” Andy responds, “No, but I do believe in Opie.” No, but I do believe in Opie. He trusts in the relationship with his son, even as he doesn’t understand what is going on with facts that just don’t add up. The distance and discord between these two truths is hard to reconcile. In the next scene Andy goes out into the woods, in frustration and conflicted emotions. In an act of frustration he calls out, “Mr. McBeavy,” and he then he hears someone from above call down to him saying hello. As it turns out, Mr. McBeavy was really a man who works on telephone lines “up in the tree tops” and his “extra hands” are the tools that he carried on his belt. Andy shakes his hand and tells him he’s never been so excited to see some in his life…sounds a bit like Thomas, doesn’t it.
Andy’s trust in his son was so strong that it led him, with his doubts to go out and encounter the truth. He seeks understanding, even amidst his faith and doubt.
Back to our story from the gospel: when the next Sunday arrives Thomas is in the room when Jesus appears again. This time Jesus has come for him in particular. To gather him in, to welcome the one who as left out. To welcome him with his doubts, his normal, natural, mature doubts, and then to transform them and him into something new. In light of the resurrection, everything is new, nothing is the same, and Thomas too experiences a profound transformation. Viewing his friend and teacher alive again before his very eyes, Thomas, “Doubting Thomas” exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” My Lord and my God. This is the first time in the gospel that anyone calls Jesus “God.” This is the first time that the full divinity of Christ is proclaimed. “Doubting Thomas” turns out to be the best theologian in the whole group of disciples. The first one to understand and name what’s really going on. Being truthful, being honest, being mature and authentic with our faith, not running from our doubt, but travelling through it, to the other side (however long that journey may take) is something that Thomas shows us how to do. Thomas is much more than a doubter, but the ways that we talk about him and his doubt also reveal something about the depth and maturity of our own faith.
Ok, here’s a little test. When I say a word I want you to say the opposite. Ready?
Light- Dark. Hot- Cold. Big- Small. Sun-Moon.
What? Are you sure? The sun and the moon, are they really opposites? Well, in our common speech, in simplistic terms, we treat them like they are opposites — the same way that we treat faith and doubt as opposites. But in truth, in reality, the sun and the moon are not opposite at all. The sun is a massive giant gaseous star producing light and heat which gives us energy and light. The moon is a much small ball of rock that spins around us. To primitive people who’s only sense of reality was their own experience, the sun and the moon seemed like opposites, but in truth, with a real understanding of our solar system we know this isn’t the case.
How do we seek the moon at night? Does it shine it’s own light? No, it can’t. It can only reflect the light of the sun. At those moments when we think we cannot see the sun, when we in our rotations have turned our back on it. But of course, the sun is still there, and it is still shining, and we still see it though reflected light.
In the same way in our moments and seasons of doubt, when our sense of God seems cold and weak, when all we can perceive is our lunar doubt, could it be that even our doubts are a reflection of God’s constant presence and love? Could it be that when our backs are turned and we are in the dark God’s light is still shining, and we are still seeing it even when it doesn’t seem to be the case? Could it be that, like Thomas in our story, being honest about our doubts and questions, engaging them authentically and maturely rather than running from them with childish fear may lead us to an encounter with our crucified and risen Lord?
For Christ is the light that shines, even in the darkness, no matter how deep the darkness. Christ is the light that could not be extinguished or overcome, even by the powers of death. Christ is the light that came back for Thomas with all his doubts, who did not abandon him to the darkness of his sorrow. And Christ is the light that comes back for each and every one of us as well, to welcome us in and shine his light on all our places of darkness.
To God alone be the glory.