In recent history the men and women who sought justice and equality for all men and women had such an experience when Martin Luther King told of his dream and led the fight for civil rights. The people of Israel had such an experience when Moses led them through the Red Sea from slavery to freedom. And Thomas had that experience when Jesus proclaimed a kingdom of peace, justice and righteousness in a land of foreign oppression.
A fisherman from the region of Galilee, we know little of Thomas other than that he was a twin, an apostle, and a doubter. Living under the strong and heavy arm of the Roman Empire, Thomas would have longed for the long-promised Messiah and the freedom he would bring. For centuries the land of Israel had been ruled by foreign powers– Babylon, Greece, Rome. It is no wonder the Jewish people desired autonomy in the land promised them by God. Ruled by a puppet government appointed by the Roman authorities, corruption everywhere and justice existed in name only. Finally after centuries of waiting, a man appears who seems to be the fulfillment of the dream and Thomas becomes one of his closest followers.
In Jesus, Thomas, along with the other disciples, saw the hope of a promise fulfilled. In the gospel he is made out to be a bit slow to understand Jesus’ meaning. At the Last Supper when Jesus tells the apostles they know where he is going Thomas protests that they don’t know and Jesus must go into a detailed and difficult explanation of his relationship with the Father (John 14:5). But no one can deny his bravery. In an earlier passage it is related that after the death of Lazarus, the disciples resisted Jesus’ decision to return to Judea, where the Jews had previously tried to stone Jesus. Thomas, revealing his heart of courage, rallies the disciples to go with Jesus despite the danger (John 11:16).
But it is in today’s gospel that we encounter the Thomas with whom we are most familiar: The Doubter. Not present with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them on the evening of the Resurrection day, Thomas refused to believe their story saying to them: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25).
It comes as no surprise that Thomas doubted that the disciples had seen the risen Lord. All his hopes had been dashed. The man he had counted on to make things right, to overthrow the Roman oppression and usher in an era of freedom and peace had been crucified like a common criminal. He was hurt and confused. Hadn’t he given himself to this man and his vision? Hadn’t he gone with this Jesus about the countryside listening to him preach good news? Hadn’t he seen him cast out demons and cure the sick? Thomas believed in Jesus and his mission whole-heartedly. And for what? To see it all end?
Like so many of Jesus followers Thomas didn’t quite understand the message. Caught up in his own hopes and dreams, Thomas heard the good news filtered through his own hopes and dreams, his own concept of who and what the Messiah should be. And it was to this, his own ideal, that Thomas gave his heart.
A week after the Resurrection Jesus again appeared to the disciples. This time Thomas was with them. Imagine the storm of emotions that coursed through Thomas. How can this be? Jesus is dead. They crucified him. I must be crazy. Yet here he is. And then Jesus said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe" (John 20:27). Tentatively Thomas reached out his hand and probed the marks in Jesus’ hands and side, whispering in awe and doubting no more, "My Lord and my God!" In that brief moment, Thomas once again, but in a completely new way, gave his heart to Jesus. And although he didn’t understand everything that had happened or would happen, life made sense once again.
To believe is not to assent to a set of doctrines or teaching. Both the Greek and Latin origins of the word mean to give one’s heart to. Rather, to believe in Jesus means to give one’s heart to him, indeed one’s whole self to him, at the deepest level.
Too often in the discussion of belief we focus on teaching and doctrine rather than our relationship with Jesus. We spend too much time arguing about what’s true and what isn’t, what’s orthodox and what’s heresy. We love to use the labels liberal and conservative to mark who is a "true" follower of Jesus. The scandal of Christianity is found in its divisions.
In our own spiritual lives we would do well to focus on our relationship with Jesus rather than on the strength of our faith or doubt. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that "Doubt is not the opposite of faith but an element of faith." It keeps our faith alive and real. Doubt troubles our conscience, confuses our assumptions, disturbs our expectations and just generally keeps us from becoming predictable, complacent and plodding. Without doubt, our faith becomes stagnant and dies.
The example Thomas gives us is not to give assent to a creed or statement of belief, but rather to give ourselves to Jesus at the deepest level. There will be doubts. There will be questions. Our assumptions will be shattered. That which we hold as absolute truth may be destroyed. At times we will want to run away. But the bond generated by our self-gift to Jesus and his to us is and will be the solid and unshakable rock on which we stand.