I grew up in Pultneyville, New York, just a few miles down the road from where we currently live. The town of Williamson, of which Pultneyville is a part, is a major Apple Farming area. Every spring, the town of Williamson celebrates the Apple Blossom festival, a celebration of spring and the new blossoms on the apple trees and the anticipation of the new growing season.
When I was in High School, though, what my friends and I most looked forward to was the carnival that rolled into town each year for Apple Blossom weekend. Rides that threw you into speeds that threatened to break the sound barrier, food so deep-fried you could feel your arteries tightening, and games to win everything from stuffed animals to little trinkets that would be lost by the time you got home.
In the spring of my sophomore year of high school, my group of friends and I found ourselves at the goldfish game, a game which has hundreds of variations for the hundreds of places it’s played. In the game you throw a ping pong ball into a bowl with a small top, filled with water; each bowl contains a goldfish. If you got the ball into the bowl, you won the goldfish. I decided this was the game for me! So, I stepped right up, ordered a few ping pong balls, and started the throwing. I managed to get two out of ten into a bowl. Two goldfish. Not too bad, considering. Now the problem with success, even limited success, especially at a carnival game, is that it can go to your head… So, twenty dollars and ten fish later, I had twelve goldfish in my possession; and before you can say anything, yes, I realize I could have gotten twice that amount of goldfish for less than half of what I spent at a local pet shop; but good luck trying to convince a guy on a winning streak of logic!
As I looked over my winnings, I realized I could not possibly keep twelve goldfish. I was barely ready for the responsibility of parenthood with one fish, let alone twelve! So, I gave them away to my friends, keeping two for myself. Slowly over the course of the next week, I received death notices and obituaries that the siblings of my fish were passing away. Within two weeks, my own pair had gone the way of the big flush. So it was remarkable when, a month later, Gertrude, who had gone to my best friend Rebecca, was still swimming happily around in her bowl on Rebecca’s desk at home. Perhaps Rebecca was simply a better parent than the rest of us, or maybe Gertrude was a scientific oddity of carnival goldfish, but Gertrude actually lived through our sophomore year of college. Four years! I’ve known hamsters that haven’t lasted that long!
And then came Christmas break. Rebecca called me up one morning during this break, to inform me that the saddest thing had happened. She had woken up that morning to find that Gertrude, having finally had enough of this cruel world, in the night had leaped from her bowl to her death on the carpet. Rebecca found her in the morning when she half-stepped on poor Gertrude. It was sad, but really a miracle that she had lasted so long. So Rebecca placed Gertrude on a piece of paper towel in the kitchen to wait until her mother got home so they could have a proper burial. A fish that lives that long doesn’t go down the toilet, but has a proper place in the backyard.
That night, I got another phone call. A miracle had happened. When her Mom had gotten home, she and Rebecca took Gertrude out to the yard and dug a hole. They peeled Gertrude off the paper towel, taking half of her dried fin off in the process, laid her down in her final resting place… and she flopped. In a chaotic scene of panic and screaming, Rebecca grabbed up Gertrude and ran inside, immediately placing her in a glass of water. Friends, I tell you, Gertrude lived another month. After being out of the water, dead, for a full day on a piece of paper towel, that goldfish came back to life.
Now, when I heard this story, I was extremely doubtful. I thought for sure that Rebecca was pulling my leg and that she was just making the whole thing up. “Yeah right,” I said. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” The next day I went over to her house, and sure enough… there was Gertrude. Still swimming, albeit rather lopsidedly. I could tell she was the same fish, but she had very obviously been through a lot. I mean, half her right fin was missing! My doubts were washed away. What I had needed was evidence, and that little fish swimming lopsided around that bowl was the evidence I got.
Thomas. Here’s a guy that needs evidence. If Peter is the impulsive disciple, John the beloved, then Thomas is the scientist of the group. He needs evidence to back up the outrageous claims his friends are making that Jesus was there.
The first question that always comes to my mind when I read this story, is where was Thomas that first time Christ appears? A traditional reading of the story would have us think that Thomas was off on his own, despairing, depressed, and just ready to give up. That’s plausible. If we were living in the days just following Christ’s death, we would all be feeling probably a little hopeless. I’ll admit though, that even from a very young age, that answer just hasn’t felt right. I have always pictured Thomas as the guy who was out buying groceries for the rest of them. He’s the guy that wrote down all eleven of their lunch orders and went out to get them. It was just his bad luck that he wasn’t present when Jesus came through the locked doors to give them the Holy Spirit.
Or maybe, maybe Thomas wasn’t despairing. What if it was the other ten who were despairing? Let’s place these events in context- the timeline in John at this point is important. On Friday, Jesus is crucified and placed in the tomb. Then on Sunday, he rises. John’s account shares that after he appears to Mary Magdalene, she turns right around to go tell the disciples what has happened.
This morning’s passage picks up that very night- Easter night! Christ hasn’t been raised 24 hours yet, so when the ten are gathered, without Thomas, they’re still trying to absorb what’s going on. Thomas though… I think he gets it in a certain sense. Jesus is alive! The rabbi is alive! And if he’s alive, then he’s got to be out there somewhere! I think Thomas was out looking for Jesus. He heard that Mary saw him, so he’s got to be around! How can we sit around hiding in a locked room when Jesus is alive and out there?!
Thomas has a scientist’s mind, and he is always looking for solid, hard truths. He is constantly trying to get his mind around what is going on. In the 11th chapter of John, Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus has died in Bethany. When Jesus tells the disciples he is going to Bethany, a place he had been forced to leave under threat of being stoned, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He figured, if we’re going back to Betheny, it is to die. Thomas’ understanding is very concrete and physical. He doesn’t yet see the larger plan in play, but he is willing to follow Jesus to certain death.
Then in chapter 14, after Jesus has washed their feet and foretold his betrayal by Judas, as well as Peter’s denial, he comforts his friends who he knows he will be leaving soon. Christ says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” He goes on to say, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Then Thomas, in his roadmap style of thinking says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas is the “show me” disciple. He wants to know! He wants to go! But he needs to know how to get there. In a sense, Thomas’ statements and questions provide an opening for Jesus to more clearly show us the path to remarkable works. It is Thomas’ steadfast loyalty to Jesus that convinces him and the rest to follow Jesus to Bethany, where he is convinced they will die. It is his question “how can we know the way,” that prompts Jesus to tell them that he is the way to God. It is then Thomas’ refusal to believe what the others are telling him that brings Jesus back to show himself to Thomas which in turn induces Thomas to say, “My Lord, and my God!” the first acknowledgment of who Christ is, as well as the remarkable first confession of the Christian faith.
I wonder why we are so quick to dismiss Thomas. The phrase “doubting Thomas,” often refers to someone who has trouble believing in something that is so plain and simple, that it’s silly to not believe. “Doubt” is a negative term that reveals uncertainty or insecurity which are uncomfortable places to be. We like to be sure, positive, certain. That’s comfortable; that’s a nice place. That’s why we reject Thomas- he dares to bring doubt into our lives.
Our lives of faith depend partly on our acknowledgment of doubt. Faith is defined as “belief in, devotion to, or trust in somebody or something, especially without logical proof.” As human beings, we have logical minds that demand proof to believe.
For example: imagine your brother or sister, husband or wife is in a car accident. They call to tell you they are just fine, but the doctors at the hospital want to keep them for a couple of hours to monitor them. No matter how many reassurances they give you, I strongly doubt any of us would be anything less than worried or anxious, and in fact, that most of us here would be out the door and at the hospital to see that family member in a heartbeat. We need to see for ourselves that our loved one is okay. The visible proof that our loved one is breathing and smiling is the evidence we need to set our minds at ease. It isn’t because we don’t trust what we have been told, but we need that guarantee to sooth our worry.
For me, the remarkable part of this story is not that Thomas is converted into a believer. He has always been a believer. He’s just a believer who needed discernible proof. And this leads us to two observations that tie the story together and offers a model for looking at our own lives of faith.
First, Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas. Instead, he meets his demands. Jesus makes the effort to meet Thomas where he is and in his context. This is a Jesus who understands each and every one of us and our specific needs. This is the ministry that Jesus calls us to. It is a ministry that does not ask people to come to us, but rather, one in which we go to those in need. We are called out to the streets and to the homes of the people of God to share with them the “proof” of our faith in Jesus Christ as we have experienced it. As we were witnessed to, we must be a witness.
Consider your own story of faith for a moment. Some of us sitting here this morning have grown up in the church, hearing the stories and singing the hymns since we were small children. Others of us are brand new to this journey of faith, just starting off in discovering this Jesus guy. Wherever we happen to find ourselves on the path, we no doubt have had times of questioning. “Why should I believe what is written here?” “Was Jesus really the Son of God?” “Is there a God?” These are questions that are central to our faith, and Christ expects that we will wrestle with them. They do not have easy answers, but then again, the answers from Christ rarely are.
The second point is at the conclusion of the Thomas episode. Jesus tells Thomas not to doubt, but to believe. Then Jesus questions Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Traditionally, we read this as a reaction against Thomas’ doubt. However, this concluding statement of Jesus does not depreciate Thomas’s experience of seeing and believing but pronounces a blessing on those who believe without the confirming experience that Thomas has had. In this statement, Jesus is anticipating all of the generations that will follow these disciples who will not have the benefit of “seeing” in the same way that Thomas has seen. It is in the written word, as the gospel writer concludes this morning, that is a testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here we are, centuries removed from those disciples who saw Christ resurrected, and we still believe in this Son of God who lived, died, and rose again. It is a leap of faith for us because we cannot see this Jesus physically before us. We believe because of the testimony of those who have come before us. We believe because of the stories handed down to us through the generations and in scripture. We believe because something inside of us tells us that this is the truth. The evidence is there, though it is not the visible, physical, hold in your hand, evidence we are used to. It is the evidence of the lives of the saints that have gone before us, and the life of action we are called to live each and every day.
Friends, this morning I invite you to listen for Thomas’s profound confession of faith: “My Lord, and my God!” I’ll readily admit that I have doubts. I am a visual person and tend to like to have visible proof to believe something. I still wouldn’t believe in a goldfish resurrection if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But that’s where faith comes in. That’s where we need to be open to the witness of others. To be open to be a witness to others. And then, maybe, we can let our doubts be washed away. Amen.