How are we to follow Jesus?

Commemoration of St. Thomas

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ — John 14:1-7 (NRSV)

Jesus was trying to prepare his followers for what was to happen but, I’m pretty sure, it was like many of the things he said to them; they just didn’t quite get it. A much-loved elderly person talks to us about death but we aren’t ready and don’t want to hear it. We fob them off with, “Oh, don’t say that. You’ll be with us for a good long time yet,” even if deep down we know that probably sooner rather than later they will be gone. The disciples weren’t ready to hear about Jesus leaving them, After all, he was an adult still in the prime of life. How could he talk about leaving?

When we get ready to go on a trip, we visit AAA or Mapquest or program our Garmin or cell phone app to show us how to get where it is we want or need to be. Jesus gave them the equivalent, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Believing in God was something they could and did do, and, in a way, they did believe in Jesus. They’d seen miracles happen, they’d heard his teaching, they’d eaten with him, drunk wine with him, traveled with him by boat and by foot yet they still really didn’t totally get the picture. Good old Thomas, sometimes willing to blurt out what everybody was thinking but for one reason or another never said aloud, “Where are you going and how are we supposed to follow you?” Sounds like what we’ve been asking for the past two millennia.

Thomas has gotten the name of “Doubting Thomas” from the episode after the crucifixion and resurrection when the other disciples declared Jesus had appeared to them but Thomas wasn’t convinced (John 20:25). Earlier, however, at the death of Lazarus, the other disciples had tried to persuade Jesus not to go to Lazarus’ bedside because it would put Jesus in a dangerous position, Thomas spoke in defense of going back to Judea with the words, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Funny, that statement gets a lot less press than “I won’t believe until. . . .” We read but don’t seem to connect with other incidents where other disciples had moments of doubt such as when Peter was walking on the water and all of a sudden had a flash of doubt and started to sink. We don’t call him “Doubting Peter” or even “Peter the Denier” for the three times he denied knowing Jesus as he stood outside by the fire as Jesus was beaten, taunted and judged, yet we label Thomas “Doubting Thomas” on the basis of one statement. Perhaps the doubting part of Thomas is the part that strikes a responsive chord in each of us.

Thomas is said to have left the Middle East after the ascension and taken the message of Jesus eastward, ending up in India. India is the home of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, believed to be founded by and named for Thomas about 52 CE. Today Mar Thoma has spread throughout the world, definitely reaching sheep not of Jesus’ immediate fold. It seems that Thomas the Doubter found the way and showed it to others, which is precisely what Jesus told his disciples to do. While he did not die with Jesus, as he offered to do in Judea, he died in Jesus’ service. That’s not a bad way to go, even if it is at the point of a spear, the reported instrument of his death.

Thomas’ question to Jesus about how they were to follow him when they didn’t know his agenda or his itinerary is one that is easy for us to relate to. We like to be in control of where we go, when and how, but sometimes we just can’t do that. We have to trust someone else to get us where we need or want to go and that is hard. So many times this passage has been taught as Jesus is the only way to get to heaven to be with God after you die. Yet there is another passage where Jesus proclaims “I have other sheep, not of this fold. . . “(John 10:16). We aren’t precisely sure about whom Jesus is speaking, whether it was other tribes of Israel, groups such as Pharisees, Gentiles or even aliens on other planets. Perhaps it is up to us to use the broadest possible interpretation of that proclamation.

God has many names and many sheep. God knows them all; that’s God’s job. Ours is to be open to the possibility that we aren’t the sole judges of who is and who isn’t. As Christians, it’s our job to keep on our own journey to God as part of one particular fold and to do the best we can for other sheep that God will recognize but we won’t.

Perhaps the lesson of Thomas is not to immediately label someone as something that may not be totally accurate, like “Doubter” or “Not of God’s fold.” And, perhaps, instead of trying to find our own way, it might not hurt to stop and ask for directions, whether on the way to the next town or on the way to God.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

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