The modern apostle

By Marshall Scott

I’ve always had a certain affection for Thomas.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a research-oriented household. My father has a Ph.D, and during my formative years he was completing it. He worked in a research setting, and that certainly affected our family’s social circle. In my household we discussed hard topics at the dinner table, and a child was allowed an opinion, but it had to be backed up with facts and reasons.

Perhaps it’s because I spend so much of my time in an environment shaped by research. Virtually everything that happens in a hospital is shaped by research, whether by clinical trials or by patient satisfaction surveys. Even chaplains are concerned that we are providing “evidence-based practice.”

Perhaps it’s because I live in the Show Me State. I’m don’t really think my neighbors and I are more rationalistic than the larger society (much less more rational!). At the same time, among my neighbors (in the widest sense) the call to “Show me!” comes up again and again.

Whatever the reason, I have always had a certain affection for Thomas. Tradition has labeled him “the Doubter,” the one whose faith wasn’t quite sufficient, wasn’t quite right. Some in the tradition have labeled doubt as a problem in and of itself, and have suggested that if we experience doubt, something is wrong with our faith, too.

I prefer to think that Thomas was the first modern apostle. He is such a powerful and troubling model for us because he is one with whom we might so readily identify. He seems again and again, and especially at Easter, to think as we might have thought.

That is, in its way, a blessing and a concern in the Easter story. Thomas isn’t present the evening of that first Easter Sunday. So, when he does speak with those who were present, and they tell him the Jesus was there, he’s skeptical.

Indeed, in any other circumstances we would call it a healthy skepticism. I think we do a disservice to our spiritual ancestors if we assume that they didn’t understand what we mean by “a fact.” This is not to argue for the historicity of everything in Scripture. Rather, it’s to argue for the reasonable intelligence and common humanity that they share with us. In both Torah and in Roman law there were standards of evidence, standards that were based on the idea that two or more people in the same situation would see basically the same event – which is the basic understanding we have of “a fact.”

They also had a pretty well developed concept, I think, of what we would call, “wishful thinking.” After all, prophet after prophet had called Israel to rethink and repent. Prophet after prophet said, “You think your ritual observance is enough to please God; but God wants from you something different, something more.” Thomas had often heard Jesus say just the same thing. He would certainly have understood what we would call “wishful thinking.”

Therefore, Thomas and those around him would certainly understand that death is a fact. They were much closer to death than we are today. Deaths and wakes and funerals took place in family living rooms. We have, by and large, removed them to clean, controlled, and altogether separate circumstances. Too, the miracles of modern medicine, not to mention how those miracles get portrayed in the media, have given us the opportunity for the false impression that death can be overcome. The fact is – the fact is – that until the Kingdom comes, the mortality rate is 100%. Thomas and those around him would have understood that death, and the finality of death, were facts. They would have understood the wishful thinking, the desire that the facts were different, that was and is part of grief. That wouldn’t have changed what they knew about the fact of death.

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone, and especially to us, that Thomas, that first modern Apostle, reacted pretty much as we would. A report that fantastic, that Jesus was not dead but alive, that Jesus was not gone but present, would require proof, and perhaps a higher than usual standard of proof. “Unless I can touch him myself; unless I can put my fingers to the nail holes, my hand to the spear wound;” isn’t that just what we 21st Century Christians would have said ourselves?

That makes it all the more important, and especially important for us, that Thomas was there the next week and had the opportunity for his experiment. Thomas was there, and Jesus was there. “Here, Thomas,” Jesus said. “Here are the holes: touch them. Here is the wound: feel it. Believe.”

Did he reach, did he actually touch? We don’t know. But, we do know he believed. “My Lord!” he said; “My God.” And Jesus answered, in words we have cherished ever since: “Now you believe, now because you’ve seen? Blessed are those who have believed without seeing.”

And we think, “That’s us! Those words are about us!” Because, of course, we weren’t there. We weren’t in that room that second Sunday of Easter, any more than Thomas was there on the first. We are among those who “have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

I think, though, that this is one of those moments where, if we are to live in good faith, we have to consider who we would be in this story. This is not unlike that moment in the Passion narrative when we have to confront ourselves, realizing that, as much as we would hate to admit it, we would have been in that angry, ugly, shouting crowd. So, in this case, we have, I think, to admit that we, bathed as we are in our “Show me!” culture, would have been like Thomas: skeptical, and feeling justified in our skepticism.

And we face a world that is skeptical. You could almost sustain a “Book of the Month Club” devoted just to books questioning the contents or the underpinnings of the Christian faith.

In that light, Thomas’ skepticism and his experiment are critical for us. We trust in the witness of John and the other Gospels just because of moments like this: bread broken at a dinner table; a breakfast of grilled fish; and those words, “Here I am. Touch and believe.” We are able to believe without seeing in no small part because of those who did, those who were not different from us, not smarter or holier or more worthy. We are able to believe through our own skepticism precisely because Thomas couldn’t believe through his. And because we understand why he would have to have this experience, we can trust in it. He did just what we would; and so we can trust his report of what he saw.

And so we give thanks for Thomas, the modern Apostle. He took his skepticism, and our skepticism with it, to Jesus. On our behalf he had the opportunity to test, to see, to touch. And in our place he heard those words, “Now you believe, now because you’ve seen? Blessed are those who have believed without seeing.” We do cherish those words, because we know they apply to us. But, they wouldn’t be ours if it weren’t for the familiar human skepticism, that doubt that we don’t have to face precisely because Thomas did.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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