Front and Off Center

John 20:19-31 – First Sunday after Easter – for April 7, 2013

“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them . . .” (John 20:26)

This is from the Gospel of Mark’s (3:13…) list of Jesus’ disciples:

Andrew
Bartholomew
James
James (son of Alphaeus)
John
Judas
Matthew
Peter (or Simon)
Philip
Simon (the Cananaean)
Thaddaeus
Thomas

For completely manipulative reasons, I put Mark’s list in alphabetical order. I’ll explain my manipulation later.

But, whether alphabetical or as written by any of the Gospels, name for name, Matthew (4:23…) agrees with Mark’s list. Luke (6:12…) apparently swaps Thaddaeus for Judas, son of James. The Gospel of John has no list.

Caravaggio's "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" (1601-02)
Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1601-02)

Of the above listed disciples, whom would you prefer to write an essay about?

Maybe Peter? He’s probably the best known. Judas, infamous, will forever intrigue people within or outside the Christian faith. If I wanted an essay to be blessedly brief, I’d finger Thaddaeus. Who? As noted, Luke’s list doesn’t include him. The only place Thaddaeus received recognition occurred in Mark and Matthew where he landed on their top twelve roll calls. Unless I concocted juicy stuff about Thaddaeus, my essay could be completed in a terse paragraph.

And then there’s Thomas. If only Mark, Matthew, and Luke were read, Thomas would be as familiar as Thaddaeus. Who?

But John’s Gospel puts Thomas front and center. Or maybe, it’s more correct to say John’s Gospel puts Thomas front and off center.

During many Easter seasons, in the Sunday after the resurrection is celebrated, when the lilies have wilted and the sanctuary’s less crowded, Thomas (from John 20:19-31) makes one of his pivotal appearances. And he does seem off center, for he alone—according to John—had not yet seen the risen Christ. Thomas will claim that unless he sees “the mark of the nail” in Jesus’ hands, he won’t believe.

The doubter. Doubting Thomas.

However Jesus arrived and offered to let Thomas see and touch the wounds. The Doubter quickly joined with the other disciples, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.” Whew, all is well.

But I’m so thankful Thomas was off center. I’m thankful he wasn’t like Thaddaeus and little more than a name on a list. I’m thankful that, at least according to John, he doubted.

Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And Frederick Buechner, who I always quote too much, wondrously said, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.”

And, in my quest for doubt-full quotes, I was surprised to learn the famous Rene Descartes quote—“I think, therefore I am”—was actually preceded by “I doubt, therefore I think.” And so reads:

I doubt, therefore I think.

I think, therefore I am.

In that off center moment, because first century Thomas brashly demanded proof, my twenty-first century faith has room to move.

I have BIG doubts. If God is loving and forgiving, why is there so much evil in the world? I have tried to explain the “why” of evil to folks I’ve served as pastor. My explanations are always inadequate. I have read world-renowned theologians who grapple with God and evil (or, using fancy language, theodicy) and still come away unsatisfied. The rampant presence of evil feeds my doubts.

I have small doubts. Anytime I preach, instruct or write—such as these very words right now—I think it’s foolish to presume anything I might express would enliven another’s faith. If I were really a smart fellow, I’d keep my dangerous or dull ideas to myself.

And yet the doubts that jumpstart my thinking and believing are precious to me. Though it’s an artificial creation, I like that Thomas’ name is last on the alphabetized summary of the disciples’ names. Sometimes the last is first. Before the leap of faith, let there be doubt. Before a deeper faith, doubt may visit again. Doubt does feel like Buechner’s “ants in the pants.” Doubt is when you’re clinging to your own name and your own history and the Holy still calls to say it’s worth taking the next uncharted step.

Doubt helps me listen and learn from people of other faith traditions.

Doubt causes me to write a second and third and sometimes a tenth twentieth draft of words I’m trying to express.

Doubt challenges me when I read scripture and am convinced of its meaning and message . . . and then another persnickety person comes along with a different view.

Doubt is a gift. I come to the end of the disciples’ alphabet of names and Thomas is there to remind me to be careful with my listening, writing, speaking, reading, and more. To be careful with all that helps form and grow my faith.

(Image from here.)

This is a revised reflection from 2010. Hey, I’m recovering from surgery . . . so I have a darn good excuse to use reruns!

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2 Comments

  1. “Perplext in Faith, but pure in deeds,
    At last he beat his music out.
    There lives more faith in honest doubt,
    Believe me, than in half the creeds”
    In Memoriam (96)

    Tennyson

    1. Thanks for the Tennyson, Mickey!

      The hale and hearty Lord Tennyson thoughtfully wrote in a handful of verses what I stumbled over in a thousand words. Brevity triumphs!

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