No really Thomas…it is a true story!
April 23, 2017
Scripture: John 20:19-31
Despite the fact that both Peter and John had gone running to the tomb early that morning and found it empty…despite the fact that the arrangement of the cloths that had been used to wrap Jesus for burial hinted that indeed something extraordinary had happened…despite the fact that Mary had returned breathlessly from the tomb after Peter and John had left telling them that she had had an encounter with the risen Lord…despite the fact that back at the house she had done her best to convince the disciples that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead and had asked for them all to meet him in Galilee…despite all this…they still did not believe. They did not accept what their eyes told them at the tomb, they did not believe what Jesus had plainly told them would take place before he was arrested, and they did not accept the testimony of one of Jesus’s beloved disciples when she told them that she had indeed ‘seen the risen Lord’.
And as a result they had remained hidden within the house in which they were staying, refusing to go out into the open for fear of being discovered and arrested by those seeking after the followers of Jesus. They had the windows shuttered and the doors locked securely in order to prevent anyone from coming in or seeing them there hidden from sight. Suddenly, in spite of all their precautions, Jesus appeared there in the midst of them. Shocked at his appearance the disciples did not know how to react and were afraid. Noting their fear, Jesus looked at them and said, ‘Peace be with you’. After he had said this he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side, inviting them to believe that it truly was him who was standing there before them and not some ghostly apparition.
Once they were sure that it was their Lord and that indeed Jesus had come back from the dead as the women had tried so hard to convince them, the disciples rejoiced exceedingly. Again Jesus said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Jesus’ disciple Thomas however was not with them when Jesus appeared to them. When he returned later on, the others excitedly recounted to him how they had seen the Lord. They told him how Jesus had appeared among them even though the doors and windows had been secured and had demonstrated to them that indeed it was he. Thomas however was not convinced. He was not willing to accept the word of his fellow disciples and said, ‘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.’
About a week later the disciples were again gathered together in the house and this time Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked and secured as before, Jesus again came and stood amongst them and said, ‘Peace be with you’. Then he looked at Thomas and, calling him over to himself said, ‘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.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written down in this book. But these have been written down so that you may come to believe that Jesus is truly the Messiah, the Son of God. For in believing you will have life in his name.
…this is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.
How often do we accept something as ‘true’ at first blush? And especially in matters of extreme importance to us, how often do we seek to verify before putting our trust in what someone else has told us? Do we not often side with Thomas, wanting to see for ourselves before accepting the testimony of others…even of those close to us? And even so, is that necessarily a bad thing? Isn’t it perhaps good on occasion to be sure that the source of our information is true and accurate before putting our whole trust in it? And especially in matters as important as what we truly believe? And furthermore, has it not always been this way. Have we not always doubted first and then after further evidence is presented then somewhat cautiously believed? I know I have…
In John Chapter 18 we find the account of Jesus’ questioning by Pilate. At one point, in verse 36 Jesus responds to Pilate’s query by answering, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world – to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
How often do we also ask the question, ‘What is truth?’ And I ask this now because it seems to me at least, that ‘truth’ in and of itself has been greatly challenged of late. Not necessarily certain truths that we hold close within our hearts or as a part of our belief, but rather ‘truth’ as a part of our social awareness, as a part of our social construct, as the content of our social conversation. It seems that now more than ever before the ‘Age of Thomas’ has, or really needs to come into its own. We are offered all sorts of information across the whole spectrum of public life that has it seems, as many calling it truth as there are those who label that exact same information false.
Information is more and more being given out and interpreted within a construct of ‘purported’ truthfulness that may or may not in fact be accurate and verifiable. More and more people are accepting whatever they hear from their own chosen interpreters as ‘gospel’, without asking as did Thomas, to truly see for themselves, without asking to place their own understanding into the scars and wounds of allegations before accepting someone else’s interpretation. More and more it would seem, ‘truth’ has become simply a means of putting out a particular message without regard to whether or not it is actually or factually accurate. The struggle has now been fully engaged regarding wholly new concepts, such as ‘living within information bubbles’ and ‘fake news’.
Discerning what is actually going on as regards critically important information to our society and our nation as a whole is increasingly difficult to ascertain. In fact I wonder if there is anything remaining we are willing to accept at face value based on another’s say so. Somehow the whole concept of socially agreed upon truth…universally accepted facts that everyone accepts as in fact ‘truth’, has come under serious attack in the last couple of years.
Which makes one to wonder if there really is ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’ anymore, or if truth has now become simply a set of facts or assertions that a majority of individuals within a segment of society agree upon at a given time? In other words, are there forces at work which shape or curate a social message specifically to fit the needs of particular people and the particular times it is intended to serve? Has ‘truth’ in reality become a very subjective process through which one group can disburse information by which that group’s adherents can structure their lives in conformity with those ‘truths’ in order to function cohesively together? Perhaps so…at least in the world of today. But what about the underlying reality? What about what is really the truth? What if in fact the accepted body of truth is not reflective of what is actually going on? What if socially accepted ‘truth’ as such can be empirically shown to be false?
I honestly hope that I am wrong in this regard…or if I am close to the truth, that we may find a way to reverse this trend in the near future and begin again to trust one another and share only that which is indeed the truth. But if not…if this is the new reality we must learn to deal with…if much of what we hear is in fact slanted to make a particular point, or to control social understanding, what then are we to do?
I started thinking about ‘truth’ and ‘true stories’ after reading the passage for today. And not really because of Thomas’ need for personal eyewitness proof for him to accept the fact of the resurrection, although that factors prominently into today’s circumstances, but more so by the claim at the end of the passage where John in effect tells us that ‘this is a true story’. That there is ‘much more that would prove it further, but indeed if you believe what you have just been told and in fact try to live in it and follow it, then indeed you will find you are living a life of fullness in Jesus’ name’. In other words, John finishes today’s passage with a call to believe, even in the absence of your own moment with Jesus in the upper room of that house.
And in reflecting on that I thought back to other instances in life where we are asked to believe…and in which we do so without question quite often. And that is when we are told in advance that something we are about to hear or see is in fact a ‘true story’. When we hear that something we are being told is ‘based on a true story’ it lends a certain expectation, a certain sense that what we are about to hear is somehow intrinsically valid…when we begin to watch a movie and see printed across the screen at the beginning, “Based on true events”, does that not give us a certain anticipation and a particular lens through which to view what we see? And as a result, is there not a greater acceptance in some sense that sometimes things or events that on the surface may seem fantastic or unreal are in fact possibly the truth? Today’s scripture makes that same assertion towards the end of the passage much as it did last week in the account of the events surrounding the resurrection…as if it was important to emphasize the truth of these outrageous claims in order to inspire belief. And so it would seem that the author of today’s passage had the right idea…if it is important to get something across, than assert up front that it is based on true events, at least then it may get the benefit of a doubt.
When in the course of everyday life we are confronted with conflicting accounts…when we are not sure and feel compelled to ask, “What is truth”, we are actually asking a much deeper question…one which lies at the heart of our willingness to A) Place a fullness of trust in our faith assertions – believing that the stories or at least the underlying messages of our faith are in fact ‘true stories’ and B) Learn to listen to and to trust one another when it comes to matters that are important in the context of how well we live together as a people and as a loving community. In essence, we need to insist that we hear stories based on truth…stories based on true events.
And so, when it comes to trying to discern truth regarding how we should think or act or how we should speak or engage some particular social or communal issue, it seems that we might need to posit an absolute, a standard of truth against which we can judge and measure all other claims. And I would suggest that the only standard of truth that addresses all of these needs is the assertion that God is love…period. That…is the truth…that is the one truth we can trust and rely upon with our whole heart.
There are multiple scriptural assertions in both the Old Testament and the New which boldly claim that the nature of our Trinitarian God is love…and in fact it could be argued that the whole of the four gospel accounts along with much of the balance of the New Testament argues that God is indeed the source of and the essence of love.
And if this is accepted as a standard, even if only conditionally for argument’s sake, then all of human social interaction can be held up against it in order to determine ‘truth’…in order to determine if what we hear, say, think, or do is in fact loving and therefore consonant with the nature of our God.
When we look at another person, do we always see the image of our God or at least potentially the image of our God? Or not? When we think about another, can we do so in such a way as to find our underlying premise, our starting point to be that this person, as a child of God, is worthy of God’s love and therefore worthy of our own as well? Or not? When we make any decision to ‘accessorize our lives’ with what we wear, what we eat, what we drive, or where we live, can we do so with a conscience that is free of guilt or complicity in the possible abuse of, or oppression of those whose labor was required to produce those things we decide to gather unto ourselves? Or if we are unsure of that, are we willing to look deeper in order to determine if in fact we are being as loving as possible? In short are we loving, Godlike, and truthful in all we do and in all we say? Is the living of our lives itself consonant with the nature of the God we follow?
In closing then, is there ‘truth’ remaining in this day? And if there is, do we have the courage to adhere to it? Or are we instead willing to allow the possibility that the ‘truth’ we accept is simply a means of social control, the workings and structure of which are out of our hands? Nowadays, when it seems as if there is no answer that you should trust outright from another, be sure to maintain a healthy skepticism regarding the truthfulness of anything which seems off, but claims to be true. Like Thomas, and especially in this time, we too need to insist on a relationship with a God who is willing to reveal Godself to us personally…we should never be entirely content with what someone else says is true about God…unless it is undeniably and demonstrably loving…
For God is always faithful to answer the deepest needs and requests of a seeking heart. God always shows up when we are open enough to see and to hear the whisperings and signs of the Spirit at work among us…every time we wonder about what is really true…
So, ‘doubt’, in and of itself is not a bad thing…especially in this age that some might call facetiously, ‘post-truth’, as long as that doubt causes us to test that which we are being told. As long as we are willing to submit any claim of truth to the test of love to see if whatever is being claimed measures up as being truly loving. For if what you hear conforms to the truth and nature of our loving, merciful, and compassionate God then it surely is true. Anything that does not on the other hand has quite possibly been presented to you sol
ely to tell the teller’s side of the story…
Never be afraid to be a ‘Doubting Thomas’…and always insist on the ‘true story’!