Saturday, December 22, 2007

Saint Thomas

The name of this blog is the Wayward Episcopalian, and I specifically mention Christianity in its description. Yet almost all of my recent posts have been political in nature – I’ve made four posts about presidential candidates in the last week, and am planning on at least three more. I do promise you that I intend to make this as much a Christian and social justice blog it is a political one once the early primaries are held next month. To try and prove it, here is a post about St. Thomas.

(Before launching into my own missive, I should probably direct you to the words of a more learned blogger than I for his groovy take on Saint Thomas. I'm an undergrad, he's a priest.)

Yesterday was Saint Thomas’ feast day. I don’t have nearly the scholastic knowledge of saints that one of my Idaho priests has, but I do know enough to be confident of these two things: one, that the word I just used, “scholastic,” comes from the name of a saint (thank you, Fr. Jack), and two, Thomas is one of my favorites. The most famous story about Thomas comes from John 20:24-29, and is where he gets that awful nickname, “Doubting Thomas.”

"But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’"

We tend to look down upon Thomas for being a doubter, but I think there are two important things to remember. One, we all pattern ourselves after Thomas in one way or another, and two, Thomas was so much more than this passage’s one moment in time reveals.

It is easy to chide people for being doubters, yet at the same time we scorn “blind faith.” The best path lies, as it so often does, somewhere in between. We have to have some measure of doubt if we want to avoid the crazies, but too much and we’ll miss the real deal. If we believe every man who comes along claiming to be a prophet or the Messiah returned, we will fall for the false prophets the New Testament warns us about (coughpatrobertsoncough). Take it too far and you wind up giving money to every corrupt televangelist healing someone’s hiccups, or refusing to associate with Samaritans. But we can also go too far in the other direction: if we refuse to entertain what might otherwise seem like a fantastical thought, we will fail to hear the real messengers, and might even miss the real return. Become too much of a skeptic and you’ll wind up rude and bitter, mocking all those with any shred of belief, like those militant atheists the New York Times bestsellers list loves oh so very very much. To put it in a more secular, political way: If we blindly accept whatever the environmentalists tell us, our nation may unnecessarily wind up spending more than our economy can bear. But if we completely ignore their warnings, it won’t be long before we’re seeing ten Hurricane Katrinas a year and New Guinea is underwater.

All of us want physical proof that spring is coming – we need to see that robin in the yard before we plant one seed. We want to have our Christmas bonus in our hot little hand before we’re secure enough to spend it. Is there anything wrong with that? It’s how our minds were made. And why should faith be any different? There are millions of left-brained folks who demand physical proof that God exists. I clearly don’t join them, but can you really blame them? When you boil it down, is “This book says Jesus is God’s son so believe it or else!!!” really that compelling a message to someone who hasn’t grown up with it?

But you can ask for too much proof, or demand that the proof be too physical. It is in this latter category that Thomas falls. Proof does not exist just in the hands or in the mind, but also in the heart. Logic has a place in this world, and it is an important place, but we can only be as logical as our minds will let us, and this universe is so much bigger than our tiny minds. We need to ask serious questions, critical questions, but we also need to learn to trust our hearts. We were given emotions for a reason. Love, hope, and the stillness within will tell us just as much as logic and tangible, physical evidence. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” To believe in God based on absolutely nothing is silly, but to accept Him for the non-tangible evidence is blessed. That is the definition of faith, and for at least one week, Thomas lacked it.

But while Thomas may have demanded more proof than he should have, once he got it, he did more with it than most of us can ever hope to achieve. The global church continues to exist today in large part because of Thomas and his evangelism. It’s important to note, I think, that when a college kid screams, “Zap a tree with lightning right now, God, or I won’t believe in you!” God just rolls his eyes and says, “What kind of leverage is that? You think you’re in charge now? Do you really think I’m so small that *I* have to meet *your* demands?” And yet when Thomas asked for that lightning bolt, Jesus gave it to him. Thomas was special. Remember, for all his doubt, Thomas still did something worthy of becoming a Saint. Joseph of Arimathea wrote that he was the only person to witness the Assumption of Mary. Quite an honor, but quite a man. It was Thomas who, whether by converting Hindus or immigrant Jews, started the church in India, and perhaps Syria and Persia as well. Wikipedia (I know, I know) informs us, “While exploring the Malabar coast of Kerala, South India after Vasco Da Gama's arrival in Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese encountered Christians in South Western India, who traced their foundations to Thomas.” Father Lane Denson at Out of Nowhere tells the story far better than I can:

"We call him Doubting Thomas. Braveheart Thomas might be more fitting for his enterprise.

While the rest of the disciples were cowering full of resentment and fear that they’d bet their lives and whatever fortunes they had on a loser and that the Romans were breathing down their necks, Thomas was out pounding the pavement, risking arrest, renewing old contacts, checking the want-ads, and looking for work. He didn’t believe the talk about Jesus, and he wanted better evidence than the closeted behavior of his former colleagues.

But then, when he got what he wanted, he signed on for good or ill. There’s a line in a translation of Psalm 146 that fits him to a T, “Praise (God) for what you can fathom; for what you can’t fathom, praise him.”* He accepted his commission as an apostle, wrote a gospel, and, some say, started a new church over in India. “Brother Thomas’s Sawdust Trail.” Sounds like an evangelist to me."

Jesus isn’t going to give us the same proof he gave Thomas. But we don’t need it. We can learn from Thomas’ mistakes and listen to our hearts. We can also learn from his example, and follow them once they speak. Fr. Lane continues,

"Faith is risk, and risk wouldn’t be risk without doubt. And faith that comes only after evidence is no faith at all. It is trust, yes, but not faith. Faith is that act of the will, that daring commitment that climbs out on life’s limbs and leaps. And that is all the evidence we get. Faith creates trust….

The disciples in the upper room would probably never have convinced Thomas until he experienced the vision of the risen Lord, himself. Nor if fear is keeping us in the closet will we ever convince those who pass by. Not until we show the world by the way we love one another — one of the greatest risks of all — can our witness ever become a winsome and compelling evangel of and for the Lord."

(Picture Credits: 1, 2, 3.)


Annie said...

My friend, I beg to differ on one small but significant point! You write, "It’s important to note, I think, that when a college kid screams, “Zap a tree with lightning right now, God, or I won’t believe in you!” God just rolls his eyes and says, “What kind of leverage is that? You think you’re in charge now? Do you really think I’m so small that *I* have to meet *your* demands?” And yet when Thomas asked for that lightning bolt, Jesus gave it to him. Thomas was special. Remember, for all his doubt, Thomas still did something worthy of becoming a Saint."

DID something worthy? Did something WORTHY? What is a saint but a "mere Christian", a holy one, humbly aware that holy simply means "set apart, dedicated" to the Lord? To this wayward evangelical, Thomas' Sainthood is a shout-out, not a station, and his virtue was not deeds so righteous they attracted the narrow eye of God, but such an earnest desire to overcome his doubt that the heart of the Son melted with love, and doubt was graced with undeserved assurance. I believe that Thomas' piety is the same as that of the centurion who groaned "Lord, I believe! Only help my unbelief!" That is the prayer of righteousness, the prayer of holiness, and the prayer of true faith. Faith is not blind but it is not a glory either. St. Peter and St. Paul declare it is a gift of God. Not even our stumblings of trust are to our merit. But through Christ, even the tiniest mustard seed of faith becomes a jewel in our heavenly crown. I love Thomas, not because he doubted, but because he admitted it before peers who were fortunate enough not to have to expose their own weaknessrd in this area - Christ having given them assurance first. To be the first to confess is always a risk and an embarrassment - but there is no sin that Thomas or anyone else can confess, which every other man and woman has not committed as well. Thomas is a saint for his humility, in my view. And "the Lord casts down the proud, but exalts the humble in heart."

Nathan Empsall said...

An excellent point, Annie. There are different definitions of the word saint, and the definition I was using is the one that has led him to be routinely called St. Thomas rather than just Thomas, and keeps you from being routinely known as St. Annie. That is, special recognition and canonization by the Catholic, Orthodox, and/or Anglican churches. The sainthood of all believes may be the same word, saint, but it is a different concept. I do not believe canonized saints are on any different and special plane of existence; it's more like winning the Nobel Peace Prize times ten, an honor not all members of the body of Christ can claim. I like what you called it, a "shout-out." Thomas did something worthy of that honor, but that's not to say his other form of sainthood is an effort of doing or of worthy. Lowercase saint verses uppercase Saint, perhaps. And then, of course, there are the New Orleans Saints, but that's a whole 'nother category all together. ;)

You might be right about the source of Thomas' actions, but it is speculative, not scriptural or historical. I don't know of anything from between 30 and 300 AD that says he evangelized in order to confess or make up for the doubt. It certainly would make sense, though, and that kind of logic can be built into valuable theology.

Thank you also for the valuable insights on piety and confession! :D