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What do we know about Thomas, the Apostle? He was named as one of the 12 disciples in Mark, so Luke and Matthew included him in their lists. He made several appearances in John’s Gospel. John calls him “the twin” and some have suggested he was Jesus’ twin brother. When Jesus decided to return to Judea, hostile territory for them, Thomas declares his willingness to follow Jesus. “Let us also go that we may die with him.” (John 11:16
During Jesus’ long Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel, Thomas is confused by Jesus’ promises (as I think many of us are!) He says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going! How can we know the way?” (John 14:5), which introduces Jesus’ response, “I am the way, the truth the life.”
In John’s Gospel, Thomas does not understand the oneness of Jesus with God. Some have suggested that the Gospel of John was written to counter the Gospel of Thomas.
The Gospel of Thomas, which we just finished in Bible Study, was written in the 1st Century perhaps as early as 50 CE. It is not a story of the life of Jesus but rather a collection of 114 sayings. It portrays Jesus as teaching a very mystical form of Christianity that was rejected in the 4th Century when the canon was formed.
Thomas may have gone to India to preach the good news. If he did, he must certainly have resonated with the deep spirituality of that place. Indeed, every church in India claims Thomas as their founder. We have no evidence except their stories.
We know that John’s Gospel is unique. It contains many characters, stories and images found in no other gospel:
The turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
The visit with Nicodemus by night.
The raising of Lazarus.
The foot washing at the last supper.
Jesus makes long speeches instead of speaking in pithy parables.
Thomas is more than just a name in a list!
So much is different about this gospel that it too was almost rejected when the Canon was formed, as the Gospel of Thomas was rejected.
For centuries we knew that his gospel existed only because other writers mentioned it, but in 1946, a copy was finally found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Thomas was vilified for his lack of faith but being a doubting Thomas may be a gift. I invite us to walk a mile in Thomas’s shoes!
According to the story he wasn’t there with his companions when Jesus first appeared to them. Putting aside the illogic of Jesus appearance in a locked room yet being visceral, and able to show his and touch his wounds. The disciples received the Holy Spirit not in the rush of a wind as we find in the Book of Acts, but by his very breath. And they are told they now have the power to forgive and retain the sins of others. What does that mean?
John’s community was being persecuted. They had been thrown out of the synagogues. The Jews who had been their brothers and sisters were now their enemies. (Like Shia and Sunni Muslims today.) Us/them fears and theology were already seeping into the Jesus movement!
Thomas wasn’t willing to go along with the group. He wasn’t there when they first experienced Jesus’ resurrection. He wanted proof. He wanted to see and to touch this resurrected Jesus! He thought for himself and refuseed blind faith. Most of us can relate to that!
When Jesus returned a second time a week later to their still locked room, still full of folks hiding from the “Jews,” Jesus offered Thomas Peace and invited him to see and to touch. He asked him not to doubt but to believe. And immediately Thomas said what John’s Gospel had hoped everyone who heard these stories will would eventually say: “My Lord and My God!”
The whole point of the story for John is to speak to us, to people years later who no longer can demand to see Jesus resurrected in our midst, that we might believe without evidence. John set belief against doubt, just as he set Jews against followers of the way. (The term Christian wasn’t yet in use. It was a Roman pejorative). But healthy and honest doubt allows us to grow in our faith.
And faith is not a blind believing in literal words on a page in a book we call the Bible. That’s actually a Heresy according to John Shelby Spong, because it implies we worship a book rather than the living Spirit of a loving God who invites us into a dynamic relationship always growing and changing. (God is still speaking!)
Faith and believing are better understood as Trust. We grow in our trust of the God who is with us by practicing our faith, reaching out and asking for help, turning our lives over to the care of God and growing in our understanding of who that God is. The Gospel of Thomas can expand our understanding.
As I said before, The Gospel of Thomas is very different from the other Gospels. There is no story line, only pithy sayings. Many of them are found in the Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke; and many of them are mystical and difficult to understand.
Saying 24: “Show us the place where you are,” his disciples said, “because we need to look for it.”
“Anyone who has ears to hear should hear.” Jesus told them. “Light exists within people of light, and they light up the whole world. If they don’t shine, there’s darkness.” Familiar language, yes. And it challenges us to let our light shine.
Many sayings speak of the essential oneness of God and our oneness with God:
Saying 49: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who are One – those who are chosen, because you’ll find Ultimate Reality (or the Reign of God). You’ve come from there and will return there.’”
Thomas seems to understand human psychology in a brilliant way:
Saying 70: “Jesus said, ‘If you give birth to what’s within you, what you have within you will save you. If you don’t have that within you, what you don’t have within you will kill you.’” When we deny that we are sacred beings, children of God, by whatever name we might call it, our essence is brutalized, wounded, and ultimately destroys us. When we give birth to all that we are created to be, it continually transforms and saves us!
If you are blessed with an easy faith or even a hard won but solid trust in God, walk a mile in Thomas’ doubting shoes. You might discover a need to expand your understanding of the sacred so that it allows for the mystery beyond words and beyond stories. You may be able to see the value in other faiths and other ways of understanding the holy. You might discover a patience and mercy in your ability to love that allows you to honor the many different rivers that lead to the ocean of God’s universal oneness.
The Christian tradition as we are discovering it today is a faith in practice that asks us to stand with the oppressed, serve those in need, understand and care for those who have less than we do. Our religion is very focused on real world challenges and problems. It asks us to do more, be more, to show God’s love. But there is also the mystical mystery of our faith. The Thomas in John’s gospel was very practical, but he was also courageous enough to admit his doubts. And the Thomas who wrote the Gospel of Thomas focuses on the mystery and oneness of God and our sacred relationship that makes us one with the divine.My favorite teacher, Richard Rohr, founded the Center for Action and Contemplation, because he knew we needed both. May you give birth to the mystery within you through contemplation. May you live out your faith in honest, if sometimes doubting, action.