Texts: John 20:19-28 & I John 1:1-7a
Imagine this. Imagine that you are out digging in your yard, or planting your vegetable garden, or doing your long overdue weeding one spring day. Imagine that as you turn your first shovel of dirt you notice something-a container buried just beneath the surface. Laying your trowel aside, you begin gently brushing away the dirt with your hands to see what possible hidden treasure you have just unearthed. To your amazement, you realize that you have just discovered a container holding the sacred writings from centuries long past. Hard to imagine? Maybe not, for that is exactly what happened to two farmers living in Upper Egypt one December morning in 1945. Among the writings containing sayings, rituals, and dialogues attributed to Jesus and his disciples, found by these two farmers a little more than a half century ago, was the Gospel of Thomas. Listen now, as I read to you one of Thomas’ teachings. “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.'” I am wondering this morning how this teaching from Thomas stands along side John’s words when he quotes Jesus as saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Implied in John’s teachings is the notion that belief is blind-that somehow needing to see, to touch, to feel, to hear lessens one’s faith and belief. But Thomas comes along and offers a different perspective. It seems to me that the strength of Thomas’ words is that they do not tell us what to believe or how to believe or even that we must believe. But rather Thomas’ teachings challenge us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves. “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.'”
To fully engage in a dialogue between these two teachings, it is important to know a little of history about the Gospel of John. So allow me to give just a bit of background. Probably written at the end of the first century in the heat of controversy, John’s gospel emerges from an intense debate over who Jesus was-or is. Throughout John’s gospel, he makes it clear-very clear-that he is writing for one purpose: “that you may believe, and believing, may have life in Jesus.” For John, belief trumps all else-seeing, touching, feeling, and experiencing. For John those are lesser qualities of faith and all you need for faith is to believe in Jesus. And so it is, that at the core of what John opposed, includes what the Gospel of Thomas teaches-that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone. If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. Unlike John’s gospel, Thomas’s gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus as to seek to know God through one’s own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God. Of these two gospels, Elaine Pagels writes, “For Christians in later generations, the Gospel of John helped provide a foundation for a unified church, which Thomas, with its emphasis on each person’s search for God, did not.” So you see, as one begins to get a picture of the debate happening in the first century over who Jesus was and what his teachings meant and what they meant for the survival of the church, one begins to get a clearer picture of why we have the story in John’s gospel of doubting Thomas rather than believing Thomas. When Thomas asked to see, to touch, to feel the wounds of Jesus so that he might move toward belief, his request flew in the face of everything John emphasized. It was a debate of personal experience vs. common belief.
So this morning, if we dare to set aside the old Thomas, doubting Thomas, for a new Thomas, believing Thomas, what difference might it make in our own faith and belief and life? What might we learn from the believing Thomas about bringing forth what is within us that might just save us? I want to suggest that there are at least two things we can learn from the believing Thomas. One is how to ask for what we need in matters of faith and life; and two that our doubt is often our passage into honest and authentic belief.
Need and doubt: there may not be two words in the English language that can make us more uncomfortable than these two. Our world has taught us that to need someone or something is a sure sign of weakness. We are taught from an early age to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. “I need” often gets translated as “being needy” and who wants to be needy. And if we don’t carry that belief within us we carry another one just as harmful. The one that tells us we can’t ask for what we need; that it’s not okay to ask for what we need. Have you ever wondered why you don’t ask for what you need? Is it that the answer might be no, thus leaving you feeling rejected. Or is it because somewhere inside you don’t feel that you deserve to get what you need? Both are legitimate fears. And yet, what are we left with when we don’t ask for what we need? Emptiness, fear, and loneliness; disconnected from God and each other; and unfulfilled. Did Thomas know this truth?
And what about doubt? Well, doubt taps into our insatiable human desire to know, and our deepest fear of not knowing. Think about how you have been conditioned to think about doubt. What happens inside you when you doubt something-someone’s love for you or God’s love for you or what you believe or all that you’ve been taught? When we encounter these kinds of doubts, we are often left with an unsettled feeling or cynical feelings or again those feelings of emptiness, fear, and loneliness. No, we usually don’t think of doubt as an open door or passage to truth-to that which lies within us that might save us. But Thomas, he comes along and shows us and teaches us that doubt is/can be a passageway into knowing and believing and trusting. And with his doubt he gives us hope and he leads us into the way of seeking God and seeking what is within us that is God. Thank God for Thomas-for having the courage to say what he needed, for engaging his doubt, and trusting that belief would come!
First John begins with these words: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-life revealed…”
Sometimes, what we need is to see with our own eyes. Sometimes, we need to touch with our own hands. Sometimes we need to hear with our own ears before belief can come. Yes, before we can bring forth what is within us that might save us, we need to learn to ask for what we need, while living into our questions and our doubts and our fears. It is possible that only then can we begin to know what is within us that might save us.
The part of Thomas’ story that I love the most is that he trusted that Jesus would understand his need and his doubt. When I think of what it takes for me to feel safe enough to ask for what I need or to feel safe enough to name my doubts, what I know is that I must feel loved and accepted by the one to whom I am asking to hold both my needs and doubts. Believing Thomas reminds me that with God I can ask for what I need and I can live into any doubt that I might have about my faith. The life of faith really isn’t about belief. It is about seeking a God who lies within each of us. And it is about seeking to know God through one’s own divinely given capacity. We learn from the believing Thomas that entering our locked rooms and working through our needs and our doubts opens up a passageway for us to walk through that transforms both us and our world. Indeed, the wounds of the risen Christ are not a prison: they are a passage. Thomas’ hand in Christ’s side is not some bizarre, morbid probe: it is a union, and a reminder that in taking flesh, Christ wed himself to us. So go forth not afraid to ask to touch, to see, and to feel-God understands. And live into your life knowing that with your doubts if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. It is the good news of gospel according to Thomas!