Tomorrow is the festival of St Thomas the Apostle. Thomas always reminds me of the little boy in “The Emperor’s new clothes”. In this story, two swindlers persuade the Emperor (and the whole court) that the magnificent royal cloth they have woven cannot be seen by people who are foolish or inferior. The whole of the kingdom lines the streets to admire the Emperor as he displays his dazzling new robes. While everyone else is dutifully cheering, only one little boy pipes up and states the obvious: “The Emperor is wearing no clothes!”
On the few occasions that Thomas appears in the gospels, we can see that he is an honest, authentic person, willing to say what is on his mind in a way that no-one else is.
One of these times is when Jesus is attempting to prepare his little tribe of friends for his forthcoming departure – his going to die. He promised to prepare a place for his friends so that they could join him. “You know the way to the place where I am going”, Jesus said.
Was there at this point a bit of an embarrassed silence?
And Thomas said: “Actually, Lord, we have no idea where you are going, so how on earth can we know the way there?” Of all the disciples, only Thomas was honest enough to say “I do not know what you are talking about”, even though all the disciples must have been thinking it.
And Jesus replied: “I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life”.
Then, following his resurrection, Jesus appears to his friends, and they rejoice and understand that he has risen after three days as he promised he would. But Thomas was not there at the time, and when he is told about this later, he’s just not having it. He saw Jesus dead, and he knows perfectly well that people don’t come alive again. No way.
Thomas doesn’t pretend. He doesn’t let on that he believes things that just don’t make sense to him. He doesn’t act as if he understands things that he doesn’t understand.
This honesty and sensible frankness are a great gift to us, in the church. We are accustomed to hearing Thomas called “doubting Thomas” in a disparaging way, as if he really should have known better. Yet doubt is not sin. Expressing doubt is being honest and real, and repressing doubt does not make it go away, doubt needs to be brought into the light. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, because both doubt and faith are dealing with the unseen – two sides of the same coin. The opposite of faith is, in fact, certainty.
Thomas knew what he needed and he expressed it clearly – another gift to those around him. “I need to see him and touch his wounds for myself, before I will believe”. And Jesus showed up, again, in the locked room, and invited Thomas to bring him his doubt. Jesus took Thomas’s doubt, and transformed it into faith. And Thomas spoke out his newly-minted faith in joyful spontaneous recognition: “My Lord and my God!”
The word Thomas uses here for God is unambiguous – the Greek “O Theos” means God in the absolute sense, not just Master or Teacher. Thomas is the first person to explicitly acknowledge the divinity of Jesus, and he goes on to bring the gospel into the East, where he is martyred in Madras. He is honoured as the patron saint of India and loved and revered by Christians all over the world. Mar Thoma. St Thomas.
And what about us, here in 21st-century Europe? We are not able to touch the wounds of Jesus. But we are able to be honest before God with our doubts and our fears. In faith, we are invited to bring our doubts to Jesus. And Jesus has promised that he will especially honour us – we who have never seen him in the flesh – when we recognise him as our Lord and our God, our way, our truth, our life.
Lord, we believe. Help thou our unbelief.