Sermon notes: Doubting Thomas, journalist

Preached April 11, 2010, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, St. Louis

The patron saint of journalists, according to the lists maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, is Francis de Sales, a bishop during the Counter-Reformation of the early 17th century. He got the nod as patron of journalists for his zeal in handing out copies of his sermons to potential converts. Maybe we should narrow his job description to “Patron saint of opinion page writers.”

While it never hurts to have a patron saint, and while we journalists certainly need all the help we can get, I think the Church passed over its most logical candidate. If journalism has a basic defining principle, it’s the old editor’s advice to the rookie reporter: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Take nothing for granted; double-check every fact; and if you possibly can, go and see for yourself.

Clearly, the saint who best exemplifies that axiom is Thomas the Apostle.

Thomas has been served up as a bad example for nearly two millennia. He didn’t believe the other disciples when they came to him with the story that Jesus had appeared to them in the solid flesh and spoken with them. He’s been saddled with the name of “Doubting Thomas” for wanting to see the evidence with his own eyes, instead of taking the others’ word concerning a frankly dubious-sounding tale.

That seems unfair; after all, the other disciples didn’t believe Mary Magdalene’s account of finding the empty tomb and meeting Jesus in the garden until they saw him again for themselves. But it’s Thomas who got stuck with the unfortunate nickname.

“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.” So says Thomas. He sounds like a lot of the people with whom I work in the Post-Dispatch’s newsroom.

Thomas’s other reportorial qualities include a certain element of cynicism, tenacity, and a tendency to question more closely than an interviewee might like. Jesus announces that he wants to return to Galilee to see Mary and Martha and their ailing brother Lazarus. The other disciples point out that this might be a bad idea, because some of his opponents there had recently tried to kill him. Thomas says, “Let’s go too, and die with him.”

Later, when Jesus talks about going to prepare a place for his followers, and that they know the way, Thomas is the one who says, “We don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” His literal-minded approach to the whole issue of alleged sightings of the Risen Lord should not come as a surprise.

But Jesus appears again the next time the disciples gather. This time Thomas is there, and Jesus challenges him to check him out. “Put your finger here; put your hand in my side.” The gospel records Thomas only as saying, “My Lord and my God!” and doesn’t mention any anatomical exploration. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually did it. After all, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Jesus responds with a journalist would call the “money quote” from this particular gospel reading: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”

He’s right: Faith is a blessing. But Thomas was one of Jesus’s most faithful followers. He declared his willingness to go and die with his teacher when the other disciples wanted him to keep a low profile; he was there at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

One of the earliest and best-substantiated traditions of the Church says that after the Ascension Thomas traveled east to bring the gospel to India. The “Thomas Christians” are still there today. If he could see all that he saw during Jesus’s public ministry on Earth and still question what the others told him, then we may surely be forgiven our own doubts now.

The historian and author Diarmaid MacCulloch writes, in his just-published book “Christianity: The First 3,000 Years,” “Doubt is fundamental to religion. One human being sees holiness in someone, something, somewhere: where is the proof for others?”

Doubt may be fundamental, and doubts may be inevitable, but doubts by themselves do not close the door to faith. Jesus may not appear to each of us in the flesh, but the offer to deeply probe his wounds, acquired on our behalf, is open in other ways. We have the truths – literal and otherwise – of the gospels, and the gift of the Holy Spirit’s help in receiving and understanding those truths, if we will only ask.

Jesus’s response to Thomas is sometimes read as a smackdown: Oh, you only believe because you see for yourself. I think it’s the opposite: Christ offers himself to us in love, acknowledges our doubts, and meets us on our own ground. We have his promise, and it has been experienced and given witness by numberless Christians over the centuries.

And Thomas’s response to Jesus’s words in the upper room may be the best, most succinct testimony in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my God!”

Lord, help us through our own doubts to see you and know your love for ourselves through the eyes of faith. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

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