The Gospel of Thomas

I gave this sermon at Brookwood Baptist Church  in Birmingham, Alabama shortly before I graduated from Samford University. I had been going to Brookwood since my freshman year at Samford. The congregation became a new ecclesial home for me, and I became a member there about halfway through my stay in Birmingham. I am so thankful for the opportunity to preach at my home congregation’s church. This sermon is dedicated to them.

I apologize to anyone who was taken too much by surprise/shock by the first line, which does not have the same effect appearing in quotation marks on the Internet as it did in the sanctuary a week after Easter. 

But one of the Twelve, Thomas, called Didymus, was not there when Jesus came to them. So then, the other disciples said to him, “We’ve seen the Master!”

But he said to them, “If I don’t see in his hands those nail wounds, if I can’t put my finger in them, and if I can’t put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And after a week, again the disciples gathered together and Thomas was with them. The doors being shut, Jesus came and stood in the middle of them. He said, “Peace be with you!”

Then he said to Thomas, “Bring your finger here and see my hands. Place your hand in my side. Don’t disbelieve — believe!”

Thomas answered him, “Oh my Master and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you believe. Blessed are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

John 20:24-29

“I don’t believe in the resurrection. I know. I’ve been around here for a while, and it’s just kind of the expectation for people like me. I know, I know. It’s been a week. I know everyone was celebrating last week, there were songs, there may have been some dancing somewhere, I know everyone was happy. I know everyone was happy, but I didn’t see it. I don’t have that kind of hope, you know. I can’t just believe. I know you’ve got your arguments. I know they’re there, and I think they’re pretty convincing sometimes, but it’s just not enough. It’s just that after everything I’ve seen in my life, since I was born, all the war, all the hunger, all the suffering … It’s just — how can you look at all that suffering, all that pain, all that misery and say he got up? I just can’t believe it. What makes you think that we’re so special, that we know the Messiah, the Savior? What makes you think somebody from Nazareth of all places was so special? Didn’t Nathaniel say it right? ‘What good can come out of Nazareth?’ What makes you think some carpenter’s son who could pull off some neat tricks is the Savior of the world — that he got back up. They killed him, guys. They killed him. If he could save himself, surely he would have done it beforehand. I just can’t believe this story, it’s too much.  Peter, I know what you say you saw. Mary, I know what you think you saw. John, I know there wasn’t anything there — but there are so many kinds of explanations! I don’t have that kind of hope. Don’t get me wrong, I think what he said was right, I think what he asked us to do was right, I think building this Kingdom is still our job … at least I still think that most days. But some days I don’t have that kind of faith. Not today, not now. Not after what we saw last week — they killed him. I just don’t have that kind of faith. If I don’t see in his hands those nail wounds … if I can’t put my finger in them … and if I can’t put my hand in his side … I will not believe.”

Thomas’ point of view doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it? When I put it like that, when I live it like that, it doesn’t seem so hard to believe. I understand Thomas. On this side of things, it’s a lot easier to believe in the resurrection than for him. With 2,000 years of saints at your back, it’s easier to profess Jesus as Lord than just over ten. When you’ve only got a few dozen men and women at best, it’s hard to make that kind of claim. Yet, even still, our modern faith has a lot in common with the faith of Thomas, I think. Our faith is wounded like Thomas. We’ve seen horrifying things — if not first-hand, we read about them in the newspaper, see them on television, hear about them from our neighbors. Our faith struggles, and rightly so. Our faith doubts in the face of great evil and what seems to be infinite separation.

And some people have the audacity to get up and say that it’s wrong. Some people are bold enough to say that your doubts and my fears are not valid expressions of faith. People beat up on Thomas, but I think there’s something profoundly and deeply wrong with that. We need Thomas. We need Thomas both right where he is and here in our churches today. Why? “Blessed are those who don’t see and yet believe,” yes, but also, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will inherit the kingdom of heaven.” You see, people can beat up on Thomas, but we need Christians like Thomas, too.

We need humble Christians. We need Christians who don’t automatically assume that they know what God is up to in the world. My greatest problem with the Christian theologies with which I disagree has less to do with their positions on specific social issues or individual theological questions, but their approach. Liberals and conservatives alike often come to the table with the certainty of zealotry. They know that their way is right and they will not suffer a fool. They know that either (1) they’re right and everyone else is a bigot or (2) they’re right and everyone else denies the authority of Scripture. Those are vast generalizations that suffer without nuance, but I think you get my point. Everyone on the theological, political, and social spectrum is guilty of assuming too much — myself included. While I was at a preaching conference this year, in my sermon I identified some false Gospels, some false narratives that subvert the point of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. One of them I called the Gospel according to the Gnostics.

This Gospel claims that all we need to do is know something. The good news is this: all we have to do is believe x, y, and z (and say so! or pray so!) and we get into heaven. If we can say a certain prayer, recite a certain creed, believe in a certain way about God and Jesus, we are on good terms with God again. This Gospel has no room for doubt and ambiguity, only certainty and zealotry. It makes and idol out of knowledge and theology, presuming to know the mind of God.

We cannot presume to know the mind of God. We need to be like Thomas and admit that we don’t know the full extent of God’s actions in the world.

We need to be open to God acting in ways that we do not expect. Let me give you a few examples. When I was a young man, I thought that hymns were bogus. I thought hymns were stuffy and old, that they had nothing to do with my faith experience. I hated traditional worship — I didn’t think that God could work in that. I thought that until I stepped into the richness of the Anglican liturgy, and I watched God move in and around the words spoken and sung, their richness in meaning flowing all around us. I saw the Spirit move in careful construction of worship and articulation of the Gospel. But I hadn’t quite learned my lesson yet, because as I became immersed in highly liturgical environments, I began to despise the world from which I came. I belittled the writing of groups like Hillsong and writers Chris Tomlin because of the unsophisticated theology and emotional charge in the worship. I thought surely God can’t use my feelings! God works in words, in reason, and in logic — not experience! In truth, I coordinate a worship service with a great group of students each week at Samford that incorporates both of these forms of worship, and I see the Spirit move in them both. God is not confined to my preferences. God is not something that I can define and contain in my hands. The God I can hold in my hands is the God that I made, not the God that made me. “In the beginning,” as Teresa of Avila said, “I was ignorant of one thing: I did not know that God was in all things.” Thomas, you see, didn’t think God was acting in this way, but he asked God to keep acting that way. Thomas’ statement is perhaps not so much a demand but maybe an invocation mingled in the midst of his own suffering and pain. It was, in the end, a bold expression of faith.

Thomas’ doubt an expression of his faith … how can you say that? It brings me to my next point. We need Christians who believe in more than just the Resurrection. There’s something unstated explicitly in the story that I think goes naturally unnoticed. Did you see how Thomas admitted his unbelief in the resurrection … and then a week passed. Thomas kept showing up. Even though he didn’t have a risen Jesus, Thomas so believed in the Kingdom Jesus was talking about, he so ardently believed in this community, in this mission, in what Jesus taught, that he kept showing up. To make this point perhaps a little clearer, let me tell you a story. In our preministerial small group this semester, we’re reading a book of parables and stories by a theologian named Peter Rollins. One of them on this subject goes like this,

LATE THAT EVENING A GROUP OF UNKNOWN DISCIPLES PACKED THEIR FEW BELONGINGS AND LEFT FOR A DISTANT SHORE, for they could not bear to stay another moment in the place where their Messiah had just been crucified. Weighed down with sorrow, they left that place, never to return. Instead they traveled a great distance in search of a land that they could call home. After months of difficult travel, they finally happened upon an isolated area that was ideal for setting up a new community. Here they found fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material needed to build shelter. So they settled there, founding a community far from Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as he had taught them.

The members of this community lived in great solitude for over a hundred years, spending their days reflecting on the life of Jesus and attempting to remain faithful to his ways. And they did all this despite the overwhelming sorrow in their heart.

But their isolation was eventually broken when, early one morning, a small band of missionaries reached the settlement. These missionaries were amazed at the community they found.

What was most startling to them was that these people had no knowledge of the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, for they had left Jerusalem before his return from the dead on the third day. Without hesitation, the missionaries gathered together all the community members and recounted what had occurred after the imprisonment and bloody crucifixion of their Lord.

That evening there was a great festival in the camp as people celebrated the news of the missionaries. Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young man, so he set out to look for this respected elder. Eventually he found the community’s leader crouched low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping.

“Why are you in such sorrow?” asked the missionary in amazement. “Today is a time for great celebration.”

“It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,” replied the elder, who remained crouched on the floor. “Since the founding of this community we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ. We pursued his ways faithfully even though it cost us dearly, and we remained resolute despite the belief that death had defeated him and would one day defeat us also.”

The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the missionary compassionately in the eyes.

“Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judged him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now, following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow him, not because of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because his sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life.”

With this the elder turned and left the hut, making his way to the celebrations that could be heard dimly in the distance, leaving the missionary crouched on the floor.

[[Quoted from The Orthodox Heretic by Peter Rollins (published by Paraclete Press)]]

I think that Thomas kept showing up because he understood that what Jesus was talking about had an appeal beyond his death. Thomas believed in the Kingdom of God. We need Christians like Thomas, because we need Christians who believe in the Resurrection as more than some cheap trick. You see, the Resurrection is not simply a magician’s greatest illusion, the Resurrection is not some magic trick, and the Resurrection is not Jesus’ triumphal laugh at the people who tried to kill him. They actually killed him and Jesus’ Resurrection is a promise and a foreshadowing of the Kingdom. It is the promise that all things will be made new, that God is coming back to God’s people, that one day it will be as John of Patmos tells us in his Revelation:

See, the home of God is among mortals.

[God] will dwell with them;

They will be [God’s] peoples,

and God … will be with them;

[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

Mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

For the first things have passed away.

In his showing up, Thomas tells me that he believes in this Kingdom, and he believes in it all the more when he sees the resurrected Jesus. So much so that tradition tells us he founded the Church in Egypt and even as far as India. Why? Because Thomas believe in making all things new. Peter Rollins was once asked if he denied the Resurrection. His response was that he denied the Resurrection every single day when he did not build this Kingdom. “I deny the resurrection of Christ,” he said, “every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.” We need Christians like Thomas who choose to affirm the Resurrection by showing up, by pledging their allegiance to Christ’s Kingdom.

So we need humble Christians and we need Christians with bold commitment to the Kingdom. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem to make sense. We need Christians who are humble and bold. We need Christians who are willing and trying to live in tensions like that. We need Christians who acknowledge that we live in a world of tension. The Kingdom is already but not yet. Christ is risen, but yet ascended. God is close and far away. God is intimate and unknowable. We are called to power by giving power away. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. We are to approach the throne of God with confidence and our faith with fear and trembling. The world, especially the world of faith, is more complicated than we first imagined. It only becomes more complicated. In its daunting complexity, the Gospel of Thomas is not arrogant or presumptuous. The Gospel of Thomas is faithful and sincere in the face of it all — in doubt and certainty, in humility and boldness.

You see, I think Thomas was absent for all our sakes. Thomas missed a meeting when Jesus showed up, but now we have an example of faith.  Thomas tells us that our doubts are OK, that our doubts are an acceptable expression of faith. Thomas is never condemned by the other disciples for his doubt, and lest we forget: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Thomas tells us that we have to believe in more than just the Resurrection — we believe in the Kingdom. Thomas tells us that even when we’re struggling, we still need to show up. If we keep showing up, the community ought to lift us up in the midst of our impoverished spirits. The community ought to show us Jesus, and then in the midst of our doubt, even when the doors are closed, Jesus can appear in the midst of us. Thomas tells us that our refrain is not just “I believe, I believe, I believe!” but the refrain of a father in the Gospel of Mark, “I believe, I believe, help my unbelief.” Thomas tells us that it’s OK to say, “I need to see those wounds” and “My Master and my God!” Faith is both/and not either/or. Faith is messy, but now even Thomas can say with confidence the words of Paul: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Someday, we’ll look back on our lives and tell those of who are poor in spirit the very same.


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