These aren’t easy times to be a Christian. Of course, they’re hardly the worst of times, in this country at least. Unlike earlier generations of British Christians, we don’t face the risk of being imprisoned, tortured, even burned at the stake for our faith. Nonetheless, even in this relatively safe country, we do face risks. Plenty of people have paid the price for their Christian faith in the workplace, their social lives, even their family relationships.
The pressure on Christians comes from two angles: firstly from outside. It seems that one of the few things that unites the secular establishment with some of the diverse micro-communities that make up modern Britain is their shared antipathy to Christianity.
But for most Christians in our culture, the most disturbing attacks on our faith are those that come from the inside: the doubts, the questions, the uncertainties; the cumulative effect of pronouncements by scientists, philosophers, theologians, historians (sometimes even those within the church); attacks that are not always content with questioning the existence of a supreme being, and all too often challenge the intelligence or moral fibre of those who continue to believe.
What makes matters infinitely worse is the tendency of some churches to treat honest questions and doubts as a sign of weakness – something you should be embarrassed about, keep to yourself, or at best keep on a one-to-one basis with a trusted spiritual adviser. And the upshot? Large numbers of people are left with a burden of guilt, each asking themselves why everybody else seems to have so much more faith. I spent many years in an environment like that.
Good reason, then, to give thanks for the Apostle Thomas – an important figure in the early church to whom popular history has been rather unkind. Calling somebody a ‘doubting Thomas’ has come to have quite negative connotations – overtones that Thomas himself does not deserve. For few if any of us will ever be called to follow directly in the footsteps of Peter, or Paul, or John, or Stephen. But we could all do worse than follow the example of Thomas.
And the first thing we learn about Thomas from this story is that he thinks in a surprisingly modern way. Remember, he wasn’t around when the risen Jesus first showed himself to the astonished disciples. And when he hears accounts of the resurrection, he reacts in a very modern way. Coming back from the dead simply isn’t consistent with his world-view. It’s easier for him to believe that the other disciples are deluded or perhaps even lying than to rethink his understanding of the universe so drastically. And just as scientific modernism has conditioned us to do, he demands first hand experience as the price of belief.
The second thing we learn about Thomas is his courage and honesty. He doesn’t go along with the crowd. It would have been so easy to cover up his doubts for the sake of solidarity or for fear of rejection. But his integrity is such that he’d rather be disrespected, even ostracised, than live a lie. We’re not told if the others do in fact hold this against him, but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that when Jesus appears again, he gives Thomas the evidence he’s demanded.
And the third and most important thing we learn about Thomas is his obedience and willingness to change when confronted by the truth. There’s strong historical evidence that he spread the Gospel as far eastwards as India, where a community of people known as St. Thomas Christians still survives to this day. There are differing accounts of his death, but the most plausible versions have him being martyred around the year 72AD – a faithful disciple to the end.
However, a question may be going through some people’s minds. Was Jesus happy with Thomas’ demand for evidence? Or when the Lord says, “Because you’ve seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” is it some kind of rebuke?
The commentaries I’ve consulted are pretty much unanimous. There’s no criticism of Thomas here. In fact he’s no weaker than his colleagues, all of whom owe their belief to an earlier encounter with the risen Jesus. And it seems that for serious students of Greek, which I’m not, the emphasis is clearly positive: Something that we could paraphrase as ”Now you’ve seen me you’ve become believers, and that’s great in itself, so think how much more blessed all the future generations will be when they believe without the physical evidence you’ve had.”
God certainly wants us to be assured in our faith; that’s why he sends the Holy Spirit. And for all I know, there may be people here who are hardly ever troubled with doubts and questions. But for the rest of us, as long as we’re sensitive in our choice of words, we can be open about our struggles without undermining the faith of others. In fact in my experience, honesty is the first step in receiving assurance; it will often help others be open about questions they are already struggling with, and that can be an important step forward.
Secondly, when we get a fresh insight into the truth as Thomas did, it’s up to us to respond as he did. We must be prepared to change our minds and our life goals. Of course we’re not going to see Jesus in the flesh – at least, not until we get to Heaven – and the kind of evidence we can expect to receive in this life will be persuasive rather than conclusive. All the same, God is amazingly generous in showing us his love and power, and it’s impossible to explain away the evidence that accumulates year after year in the life of even the most cautious believer.
And here’s the crunch. If we have the right to be honest about our doubts, we equally have a duty to be forthright about our certainties. Whatever lingering questions we may have, when the cumulative evidence stacks up to the point where we are convinced of some great Christian truth, we mustn’t let the doubts of others reduce us to silence. The response of Thomas to overwhelming evidence was “My Lord and my God”, and his obedience to the risen Lord drove him eastwards into adventures that the written records only hint at.
Jesus response to him was “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. His response to us might well be, “Blessed are you who now believe – go out and make disciples.