The text is John 20:19-31.
There is a phrase attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire that goes something like this: “God created man in his own image, and then man returned the favor.”
What Voltaire meant by this is that people tend to conceive of God in ways that match their view of themselves and the world. To liberals, God is a liberal. To Tea Partiers, God is a Tea Partier. To chauvinists, God is masculine. To feminists, God is feminine. To self-haters, God is judgmental. To narcissists, God is all about them.
As finite human beings, we inevitably have to use limited human language to describe our infinite God. We rely on images like “Shepherd” and “Parent” to understand the relationship between God and creation. These metaphors can be helpful, because they take what is ultimately unknowable and present it in terms that are familiar to us.
The problem comes when we hold onto these images and ideas too tightly. We try to squeeze the infinite mystery of God into finite boxes of our own making. We try to force God to relate to us on our own terms.
Psychologists call this kind of behavior “delusional”. The biblical authors called it “idolatry”. People would rather bow down to visible and tangible gods of their own making than stand in awe of an invisible and eternal mystery that moves outside the realm of their understanding.
When people in our society think of “idolatry”, they imagine ancient polytheists offering various sacrifices before stone statues. But the truth is that idolatry is not limited to one kind of religious practice. Even Christians fall prey to idolatry. They do it every time they try to squeeze God into the walls of a church or the pages of the Bible. Don’t get me wrong: churches and Bibles are wonderful tools that can guide us in our relationship with God. They can show us how to find God in our daily lives, but they are only a means to an end. When Christians do the opposite, when they treat the means as an end in itself, and they stop looking for the divine presence in the world around them, then they are guilty of the sin idolatry. By limiting God’s sphere of operation to a book or a building, they force God to meet them on their own terms (so they think). This is exactly the sort of thing that we can see going on in today’s gospel reading.
The apostle Thomas, who is often called “Doubting Thomas”, gets an undeserved reputation from this passage. There are some who chastise him as the one apostle who was unwilling to believe the truth of the resurrection. Others praise Thomas as the father of all skeptics who demands facts before faith. Doubt is the sentiment most closely associated with Thomas. But I don’t think he deserves that distinction.
After all, wouldn’t you or I do the same if we heard that one of our loved ones had suddenly returned from the grave? We would want to see it for ourselves, wouldn’t we? Any of us would ask a lot of hard questions before we accepted the reality of a dead man walking.
Also, in his questioning of the other apostles, Thomas was only following one of Jesus’ own commandments! In Luke 21:8, Jesus said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” How can we blame Thomas for doing his job as a faithful disciple of Jesus? So, from both rational and religious perspectives, one can understand Thomas’ reticence to accept these rumors of resurrection.
Doubt is not Thomas’ problem. Doubt is the sign of a clear head and an honest heart. If Thomas has a problem it has to do with one word: “Unless”. He says, “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.” With this one word (“Unless”), Thomas is demanding that Christ meets him on Thomas’ own terms. In the arrogance of his ignorance, Thomas is convinced that he, more than all the other disciples, has what it takes to establish the criteria for true faith.
As it was with Thomas, so it is with us. You and I live in a society that is becoming increasingly polarized in more ways than one. People on all sides of the religious and political spectra have stopped listening to one another and started insisting on certain ideological criteria that must be met before we validate the intelligence and good faith of those who disagree with us. Even though much of this debate takes place in the name of Christ, I fear that too little of it takes place in the spirit of Christ. People on all sides are quick to squeeze God into boxes with labels like “biblical truth” or “human rights” and demand that Christ meets them on their own terms (whatever those terms may be).
So then, what are we to say? Is there any hope for us “Thomases” out there? Does this passage offer any relief from this impasse? I think so. John’s gospel continues the story on the next Sunday, when Thomas and the other disciples were once again gathered together. It says at verse 26: “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”
In spite of Thomas’ roadblocks to faith, in spite of the “shut doors” that surrounded this motley crew of disciples, Jesus is present. No barrier is sufficient to keep the risen Christ at bay. Jesus encounters Thomas in the midst of his struggle. He doesn’t wait until Thomas has resolved his issues. He even offers to meet Thomas’ criteria for belief. Jesus says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
I find it most interesting that John’s gospel doesn’t tell us whether Thomas actually did reach out and touch Christ’s wounds. That much is left up to the reader to decide. Whether he did or didn’t, the emphasis of the story is on Christ’s offer and Thomas’ response, “My Lord and my God!” When faced with the real presence of the crucified and risen Christ, Thomas’ issues seem to just melt away. In the words of the philosopher John Hick, Thomas moves from “self-centeredness” into “reality-centeredness”. All of a sudden, his agenda, his criteria, his arrogance, and his terms just don’t seem to matter as much as they used to. This new openness paves the way for Thomas to rejoin the fellowship of disciples and believe the truth of the resurrection, even if he wasn’t quite clear on the facts.
This gives me hope for all of us as well. It gives me confidence that the infinite God who dwells in our midst will continue to come bursting out of our finite little boxes. The presence of the risen Christ speaking peace to struggling unbelievers in a room full of shut doors gives me fuller assurance that the “shut doors” in my own arrogant, ignorant, and unbelieving heart cannot and will not keep the peace of Christ away from me. This is true for you as well. It is true for all of us. This week, as you go back out into the cacophony and conflict in your work, home, church, and society, I invite you to meditate on this Easter truth.
The apostle Paul puts it so well in Romans 8:38-39:
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.