Boy, people can be skeptical! Some may think we are not skeptical or doubtful enough and that not being so has gotten us into trouble. As a native New Yorker, I am inclined to skepticism. I doubt first then accept something as solid after much hard evidence. You might say I am a little like Thomas in today’s scripture. Most every late winter I get a serious belief that Spring and Summer will never come again. It makes no sense, because in fact they inevitably do come. Then, when the warm weather turns into Summer heat, people can be heard exclaiming “whew! It’s too hot!” Magically, it happens every year.
Today’s Gospel speaks to our human tendency to doubt and the featured character is Thomas, whom many of us grew up knowing as “Doubting Thomas.” Thomas is one of those disciples who is an interesting and welcome Bible figure. There is a Gospel of Thomas, which is not part of the Biblical Canon but found in the Apocrypha. Thomas’ writings are a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus such as this one;
(3) But the Kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you. When you know yourselves, then shall you be known, and you shall know that you are the (children) of the living Father. But, if ye do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.
Thomas picked-up on this to mean that the kingdom of God is literally right here, right now inside of us. Thomas thought that what we need to do is to get in touch with that and express it out into the world so that we can all live in a better place which he called the kingdom of God.
What else do we know about Thomas? He was more precisely known as Didymus (the twin) Judas Thomas and is really only fleshed out as a person in the Gospel of John, though mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Several Bible scholars peg him as a dark natured, brooding kind of person who nevertheless had a fervent, abiding love of God and was deeply devoted to Jesus. According to other scholars, he was Gnostic, considered by some a very early form of the Christian faith, yet thought by other Christians as heretical.
“Thomas (is) a long-forgotten, long-suppressed, major figure in one of the many forms of early Christianity. (He) emerges as the special confidant and closest companion of Jesus, recorder of his master's words, and, in some sense, his twin. (To Thomas) Jesus appears as an inspired sage imparting spiritual truths to his hearers, not as the Messiah, part of the godhead, presented in Paul's writings and the canonical gospels. Thomas the Knower, (taught) in the context of the Gnostic movement. Gnostics (or "Knowers") regarded the True God as pure spirit and thought humankind's goal should be reunion with that Oneness, escaping the material prison in which the inferior creator-god has placed it."
This background, gives us a context in which to hold Thomas’ doubt about the resurrection to which Jesus attests. In defense of his doubt and skepticism, Thomas was not present with the other Disciples when Jesus first showed himself to be back from the dead. Consequently, Jesus has to get physical with Thomas so he might believe.
Prior to that shocking interaction with Thomas, Jesus says an interesting thing to the other disciples; “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What that means is, we are gifted the ability to forgive people for the doubts they have or the awful ways they might behave. When we forgive, people are absolved of their negative ways, which separate them from the love of God. However, if you hold onto your resentments and critiques of others, those things do not only stick to those people, you become stuck with them as well. Let the grudges go!
It’s like Thomas when he comes back to the other disciples who tell him they have seen the Lord. He says in effect “oh please, I don’t buy that story. I will only believe it if I get to stick my fingers in the wounds that he got at the crucifixion.” Ew! Why would he even say that? Jesus appears a week later and guess what? He knows what Thomas said and he insists that Thomas do just that! Jesus said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Can you imagine the look on Thomas’ face when Jesus walked through that door? Have you ever said something behind someone’s back and then, poof they appear and know exactly what you had said? Oy! All Thomas can say is “My Lord and my God!” All of a sudden, he gets a huge swift kick in the butt of his faith. He gets a dose of “straighten up and fly right” as my Navy disciplined father used to say when we kids screwed up. When you let go of doubt or grudges there may be a gaping hole in your soul from whence they came. We don’t want to walk around with gaping holes and so we must fill the holes with something good!
Today’s reading suggests that something else is faith. We are called to replace fear, doubt, skepticism and resentment for faith. You know, we are creatures of habit and even addiction. We have a tendency toward it and science has found that the best way to help people get free of habits or addictions is to replace it with something else, hopefully, something beneficial to your health and wellbeing. So, say you have an addiction to carbohydrates and sugar. When you go to Weight Watchers (or any food limiting diet) you are trained to replace harmful foods with nutritious foods like unlimited vegetables and fruits and to increase your consumption of water. If you are addicted to alcohol or drugs of some kind,12-Step Meetings encourage you to get off those and gradually over time replace the substances with a focus on the 12-Steps and your commitment to yourself and the others in the group. It Is Brain Science. You are teaching your brain to cope with the stresses and difficulties of life by trading in the negative behaviors for positive ones and if you do it long and diligently enough, it works!
You may have to be more than a little uncomfortable for a bit while your brain and body adjust to a new way of thinking and living and that’s not easy. It is also not impossible it just takes strong intention, full attention and not a small amount of prayer. Think if Jesus decided all his effort to bring people to faith was just too much trouble. Can you imagine him saying, “oh, forget it!” Yes, it is simpler to be filled with doubt, which may be built into our genes, but it’s worth the effort to push ourselves just a little to open up to possibility, which is just another name for faith.
I read an article the other day interviewing the amazing Michael J. Fox. You remember him as the Conservative child of hippies in the TV show “Family Ties” and from the astoundingly successful “Back To the Future.” He has done many more things since, in spite of his dire Parkinson’s Disease. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s giving him 10 years to live but, he has been with us producing work for over 26 years now and has no intention of slowing down. He has been nominated for 18 Emmys, continues to act and oversees a Parkinson Foundation which has contributed over $700 million targeted to end the Disease. What keeps him going? Faith.
I am not even talking about religious faith. His is an abiding faith in the value of life and in the power of connection with other people who have faith. As the resurrection teaches us, life is bigger than death. Michael J. Fox has found ways to laugh at the physical jerks that happen with Parkinson’s. In spite of all the impediments the disease has thrown his way, Fox is an activist for the rights of others who depend on medical benefits to stay alive. His faith in life doesn’t come easily, it takes effort and action. I admire Fox’s formula for a vibrant life of faith: 1. EXERCISE! No matter where you are or who you are, move your body, keep it strong and burn some calories. You’ll feel more alive. 2. PACING – if you find your body will not let you stay still, get up and walk around. 3. ACCEPTANCE- Fox says, “My happiness goes in direct proportion to my acceptance and in inverse proportion to my expectation.” Nobody’s life is a breeze, so take it as it comes, warts and all, and make something of it. 4. HONESTY- once he went public with his disability he immediately felt better. Drop the burden of hiding who you are, it’s exhausting. 5. OPTIMISM – If Jesus could come back from the dead after three days of being buried you can try to be happy. If you cannot, please seek professional help. And, finally 6. HUMOR – develop the ability to laugh at yourself. No one is perfect and we all have quirky aspects to our looks and our personalities. Get over it. Have faith that life is basically good. As Psalm 16 today reminds us, You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.