‘Doubting’ Thomas is so much more – A more generous response to the infamous apostle

The early church in Jerusalem sharing money and food, by Laura Williams © rootsforchurches.com.
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TODAY, as part of my training as a Methodist local preacher, I shared the following reflection at a church in south Liverpool, on the second Sunday of Easter.

The inspiration came from two of the recommended readings for the day:

  • Acts 4:32-35, an account of the generosity of the early Christian community,
  • John 20:19-31, the story of ‘doubting’ Thomas the apostle asking for proof that Jesus was alive.

and resources from ROOTS, a partnership of Christian organisations which publishes worship resources online and in print.

Every one of them had everything they needed.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes life in the early Christian community. No-one claimed exclusive ownership of their possessions or wealth; everything was held in common. Property and land were sold to make sure no-one was in need. Supported by this, the apostles were able to preach powerfully the message of the risen Christ.

Helping those in need was a fundamental part of Judaism in the time of Jesus. There was no pension or benefit system as we know it today. However, giving was often done in a way that focused more on the generosity of the giver – as Jesus pointed out on a few occasions. Perhaps the most well-known is in Matthew’s gospel:

‘But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.’

Matthew 6:3

In Acts, we see that what marked out that early Christian community was a generous lifestyle. They encouraged one another, shared with one another, prayed together, learnt together, and supported those in need. Of course, they weren’t perfect, but they realised they were meant to be a community that was open to others.

This description of the early church in Jerusalem is both attractive and challenging. Our context is different, but we can still recapture something of this vibrant generosity in our church and in its outreach. At a time when so many suffer from insecurity, economic anxiety, and loneliness, we need to show that ours is a welcoming and generous faith, one that listens, cares, acts, and engages with people where they are.

The leaders of this group were called ‘apostles’ – which means ‘someone who is sent off’ – not as a punishment for breaking the rules, like in football! The apostles were sent off into the world to tell everyone about Jesus.

But how did the apostles get to this place of being ‘sent off’ into the world to tell others about the risen Jesus?

The incredulity of Thomas by Caravaggio,1601
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The Gospel of John tells of the first disciples meeting behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jews’. They were Jews, and they weren’t afraid of all the Jews. They were afraid of the Jewish authorities, fearful of being arrested and suffering the same fate as Jesus. They still did not believe Mary’s story that Jesus was alive.

The word ‘disciple’ means learner. They had learned from Jesus when he was with them, but they still had much to learn. Jesus called the twelve closest disciples ‘apostles’ before his arrest. But now they were not ready to be sent out to proclaim the good news of his promise of new life.

Thomas is not with them when the risen Jesus greets his fearful followers and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas misses out on the climactic moment of Jesus’ relationship with his chosen disciples. Perhaps there is something defensive about his response to their good news, ‘We have seen the Lord’. ‘Unless I see,’ he says, ‘I will not believe.’ But his companions do not criticise or exclude him, and Thomas is with them when they meet again a week later. The Spirit is at work in a community showing the generosity and graciousness of Jesus himself when he says to Thomas, ‘Reach out your hand’.

Doubting Thomas cartoon by Joshua Harris, 2010.
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It is an ungenerous attitude that attaches to Thomas the nickname ‘doubting’. Many of his fellow disciples also were slow to accept the resurrection and doubted the testimony of the women. As this cartoon by Joshua Harris shows, we don’t call Peter ‘denying Peter‘ or Mark ‘ran away naked Mark‘!

Faith is more than a leap in the dark. Thomas believes evidence needs to be tested and testimony of witnesses verified. When Jesus first appears to Thomas, he makes one of the most profound professions of faith found in the Gospels:

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

John 20:28

Thomas is just one example of how questioning and doubt can be healthy parts of a life of faith.

The author C.S. Lewis, best known for his Chronicles of Narnia,  started off as a convinced atheist until he was famously ‘surprised by joy’ and became one of the greatest 20th-century advocates for Christianity.

The investigative journalist Lee Strobel researched and wrote a book seeking evidence to disprove the Christian faith. Also an atheist, Strobel felt certain his findings would conclusively disprove Christianity’s claims about Jesus. In doing so, he found historical evidence of the life and death of Jesus, and consulted expert testimony from science, psychiatry, literature, and religion. He traced his journey from skepticism to faith in his book The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.

And there is more to Thomas the apostle than this story of his doubt. The Gospel of Thomas, which didn’t make the final four in the New Testament, is attributed to him. Early church tradition also tells us that he was one of the first apostles to go beyond the Roman Empire to bring Christianity to the Middle East and southern Asia, including what is now India and Sri Lanka. But we rarely hear about that.

Choirstall woodcarving of Pentecost detail, 1508-1519, Notre-Dame d’Amiens, France.
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The story of Thomas the apostle is an invitation and challenge to us to be generous in listening to questions and scepticism. How do we cope with challenges to faith – our own and other people’s?

These two stories hint at the transforming power of the gifts of the Spirit that would come to the apostles and other disciples at Pentecost.

John’s gospel shows them fearful and doubting. Acts shows us what the apostles’ fellowship means in practice, and grounds this common life in the example of Jesus, the outpouring of the Spirit and our relationship with God.

Just before the account of community life in the early church, Peter and John are threatened by the Jewish authorities and told ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus’ (Acts 4:18). Then their community prays that they may speak with boldness while ‘signs and wonders are performed’ in the name of Jesus. They were again ‘filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:30-31). This second outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in response to prayer, encourages us to think of Pentecost not only as a past event but also a present experience for a people of prayer.

The first outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost recorded in Acts chapter 2 is particularly associated with spreading the good news of Christ and adding to the number of those who believe (Acts 2:41,47). This second outpouring of the Spirit is associated with the generous sharing in community that immediately follows. There is a strong connection here between evangelism (spreading the good news), speaking with boldness, healing, and performing signs and wonders. This is not surprising given the poverty in which so many people lived. Then as now, poverty and disability, pollution and sickness, social exclusion and malnutrition, unemployment and mental distress are often interlinked.

This is the important social context of the wondrous signs of the healing power of God. They are securely rooted in the common life of the apostolic community. The preaching of God’s word is accompanied by the embodiment of God’s generosity. The apostles were ordinary people called to be extraordinary witnesses for Jesus, who were released to do this by the generosity of the Christian community. They no longer had to be fishermen, carpenters, or tax collectors.

In the same way, the Methodist Church teaches that we are a ‘priesthood of all believers’, equal partners in community and ministry, and with the support of the community, some ordinary people are called to be extraordinary witnesses for Christ as ministers in the church.

The example of the early Christian community is a challenge to us today. We need to get to know one another, to love and care for one another, within and beyond our church community, as well as to continue in the apostles’ example of prayer and teaching. So, isolation gives way to time together, hunger is satisfied by shared meals, and basic needs are met by the distribution of possessions.

But it’s important to remember that generosity isn’t just about money, and hospitality isn’t just about food. It is love in action, in any and every way required. What might this mean in practice, and in this place, for us?

Nativity Tancred by Elizabeth Gray-King, 1999-2022. Click on the image to open in a new window.

One example might be the story behind this painting, which was the centrepiece of an exhibition at Liverpool Parish Church earlier this year, by United Reformed Church minister, theologian and artist Elizabeth Gray-King.

The painting is called Nativity. It’s not a traditional image of the Christmas story, but it does remind us that the Nativity reveals Jesus, the presence of God in humanity, who grew to an adult (not stuck in the ‘sweet’ Nativity narrative) and who as he grew, welcomed all to the eternal place of God.

The full title of the painting is Nativity Tancred, named after the person whose story inspired it. As Elizabeth’s son helped her stretch canvas over an old oak window frame, he told her a story of tragedy and joy about his friend Tancred.

Tancred passed a road accident on the way to school one day and later learned that his mother had died in it. His family fell apart, and he became homeless. The local church gathered around, found him a home, helped him furnish it, and cared practically with no demand to confess a faith.

For Elizabeth, who was minister at that church, this became a practical example of new birth, a nativity of a vulnerable one born into a web of care, of life emerging from life, light shocking the darkness, and of fire which does not destroy.

Elizabeth writes that from this insight emerged the face of Jesus, with the penetrating stare of an intensely alive person, seeing through all and still deepening friendship with those caught in that sight. The painting shows Jesus on the cross, yet still living, his body the temple of God, with people of all hues and types streaming, welcome, into that locus of Love. There are none stuck on the outside of this temple.

So, what does this radical hospitality mean for us?

Do we need to make changes to ensure our church is more than just a weekly spiritual ‘filling station’ – a genuine home where strangers, questioners and doubters are welcomed, and members experience a sense of family even if they live alone?

  • In what practical ways does our church community show God’s love and generosity to others?
  • How might we foster generosity in our attitudes and behaviour within and beyond our fellowship?
  • What needs could our church help to meet in the local community?

Permanent link to this article: https://abravefaith.com/2024/04/07/doubting-thomas-is-so-much-more-a-more-generous-response-to-the-infamous-apostle/

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