Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Thomas the Skeptic"

Text: John 20:19-29

Acts 1:1-5

            My mother, by her very nature, tended to be skeptical. This worldview was perhaps shaped in part by her growing up on the lower North Side of Pittsburgh, a hard-scrabbled part of the city. She and her family lived among laboring class folk for whom there were no guarantees in life beyond hard work and little chance of advancement .

During the depression era of her youth, her parents, friends, and neighbors struggled daily just to keep food on the table. As the eldest child, my mother dropped out of school in her teenage years to go to work at BG’s Restaurant in downtown to help support her family. I think her skepticism was further fueled as she waited tables for the wealthy, in her words “uppity types,” who lived and worked in the city, and had little regard for the working poor. I think that the upshot of these early experiences was that throughout her life, she would carry a basic dislike and distrust of those whom she considered to be of a higher-class: wealthier, better-educated, attired in a nicer wardrobe, driving a nicer car, living in a nicer house in a nicer neighborhood. She often questioned the motives and doubted the integrity of the well-to-do. Yet to my mother’s credit, she would give her last slice of baloney and last scrap of bread to anyone she perceived having less than her. In fact, in a day when it was not vogue for white and black folk to “pal around” together,my mother had great affinity for her African-American neighbors on North Avenue, even having to hide from her parents the fact that she had several black friends.

            I have no doubt my mother’s skepticism was shared by many in that era when the lines between rich and poor were every bit as clear as they are today. While such skepticism can be understood in context, I don’t think it was a healthy or helpful skepticism, but rather a skepticism which rushed to judgment. The irony is that skepticism, by its very definition, suspends judgment until all the facts are in. Skepticism was actually an ancient Greek philosophy popular in the centuries before and during the life of Jesus. A dude by the name of Pyrrho who lived in the 2nd century B.C. was one of skepticism’s earliest proponents, his goal being to keep each human’s life in a state of perpetual inquiry. The teachings of the ancient skeptics exercised a deep influence on people then, and continues to this day.

            If I was to ask which disciple you consider to be the greatest skeptic found in the gospel accounts, who would it be? Thomas of course. “Doubting Thomas” we’ve learned to call him. He’s earned this moniker thanks to the very account we’ve read from John this morning. The other disciples had been blessed to have received a visit by the risen Christ on the evening of the first Easter. When Thomas later joined them, they joyfully exclaimed, “We have seen the Lord.” The words of Thomas’s response ring down through the centuries and forever seal his reputation: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

            Poor Thomas. We really know so little about Him. Unlike Simon Peter, he’s given little gospel exposure. Almost all we do know of Thomas we learn from John’s account. Something you may not know of Thomas is that he is credited with a gospel of his own. In 1945 at a place in Egypt called Nag Hammadi, an ancient papyrus was discovered upon which was written a collection of Jesus’ sayings and parables, many of which are found recorded in Mark and Matthew. Thomas was the author. It is believed that Mark and especially Matthew used this so called “Gospel of Thomas” as a source for their own gospels which are in our Bibles today. I hope that gives us adifferent angle on this much-maligned apostle.

            Actually though, we sophisticated folks living in the 21st century probably find Thomas more believable than we would someone who did not doubt, but simply pronounced “My Lord and my God!” In our enlightened minds, we tend to think being cautious, even skeptical, is just amatter of being wise. True skeptics of the ancient Greek variety were not people who simply demanded to see the evidence. They were people who tried to make equally persuasive arguments on both sides of any given issue. We could call them the earliest pragmatists. They tried to suspend judgment ; to make no assertions on any topic, but only to acknowledge how things “seem.” Skepticism was thought to lead to happy life, free of the anxiety that plagues those whomake commitments to theories of one sort or another, then spend the rest of their lives defending themselves against those who take a different position.

            There’s no evidence that Thomas was formally schooled in the philosophy of Greek skepticism. He was probably a blue-collar guy who may have grown up on the hard-scrabbled side of town, living among laboring class folks for whom there were no guarantees in life beyond hard work and little chance of advancement. Perhaps his skepticism grew out of his life experience. One of the elements of a skeptic’s way of thinking was and is to avoid commitments. For that week between Jesus’ resurrection and His appearance to Thomas, Tom was truly a skeptic, unwilling to commit to the belief that Jesus had risen. “Show me the evidence!” he cried out, as many of us cry out today. “Unless (we can fill in our own blanks) I will not believe.” But Thomas could not have remained a skeptic for long, for it is impossible to be a Christian skeptic because being a Christian is fundamentally about commitment.

            So where does that leave us, some twenty centuries on this side of the empty tomb? The Greek skeptics were trying to avoid potentially troublesome commitments to things they could not know for sure. Aren’t many of us like that? We were not eyewitnesses to Jesus. We did not see Jesus turn water into wine. We were not there when Jesus gave sight to the blind. We were not in attendance at the party celebrating Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. We did not stand at the foot of the cross. We did not put our fingers in the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands, or put our hands in his side. How then can we make a commitment to belief in the resurrection of someone we have not seen? How can we help but be skeptics?

            For us, commitment to the unseen Jesus Christ – crucified and risen – has two sources. First, we receive the witness of other Christians. When Jesus appeared to the gathered disciples that “first day of the week,” He greeted them, showed them His hands and His side, and said a second time, “Peace be with you.” Then added: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Sent for what? Sent for the purpose of turning skeptics into believers through their testimony. John the evangelist states that purpose well when he editorializes as recorded in verse 31 of this same chapter: “…these (things) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” We hear about the signs Jesus had done in the presence of His followers throughout the centuries, and we choose to believe based on that evidence….. or not.

            This is where the second source of our commitment becomes so fundamentally vital. That source is the very Spirit of Almighty God who both convinces and quickens. After Jesus commissioned His disciples, John tells us that Jesus empowered them. “….he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” That Spirit would overcome real and legitimate doubts, not by providing fleshly evidence like nail marks and spear punctures, but rather by providing spiritual evidence which transcends anything the eye can see, the ear can hear, or the hand can touch, transcending time itself. We understand that this one same Spirit is given through holy baptism when God claims us as God’s children, and as members of Christ’s covenant community, the church which is called to turn skeptics into disciples who can claim for themselves: “My Lord and my God.” We do not have to somehow bend our brains or take leave of our senses to overcome our skepticism. God reaches into us through the mystery and power of the Spirit and gives birth to belief and commitment, in spite of the evidence we’re apt to demand. Jesus concludes: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are we, for that is us. And blessed is Thomas the Skeptic, for he has shown the rest of us skeptics the way.