Dare to Be a Disciple: Doubting Thomas
John 14:1-7; John 20:24-29
In the church we talk a lot about discipleship. We talk about how we are called to be disciples and to make disciples of others. But what does it mean to be a disciple? How do we know if we are one? And if we suspect we aren’t one, how do we become one? This morning we begin a new sermon series called “Dare to Be a Disciple,” and over the next few weeks we are going to explore discipleship through the lives of several of the original disciples, those ordinary persons that Jesus called to follow him, learn from him, and live like him. Today we look at Thomas, commonly called Doubting Thomas.
The Gospels give us some insight into the calling of several of the disciples – particularly Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew – but the remaining seven, including Thomas, are simply named a little later in the story. John tells us that Thomas’ was called in Greek by the name Didymus, which means twin, but other than that we know nothing of his family, his occupation, or his age. However, Thomas does have significant interaction with Jesus on several occasions that are recorded and give us insight into his role as one of Christ’s original disciples.
First, when it comes to being a disciple, when Jesus called, Thomas followed. Matthew 22:14 tells us that many are called, but few are chosen. What does this mean? It basically means that many are invited by Jesus to follow him, but few accept the invitation with its conditions. Think about the calling of those first disciples. There was something about Jesus that when he approached them and invited them to give up everything to follow him, that compelled a response. It certainly wasn’t Jesus’ wealth and Isaiah tells us that Jesus was an ordinary man, nothing extraordinary in appearance. So, what was it? It’s not that the Twelve didn’t have their later doubts and questions about who he was and his mission on earth, because the Gospels are full of their misunderstandings and human shortcomings. But when Jesus called, they gave up their families and friends, their jobs, their homes, their own desires for life – and followed.
It might surprise you to learn that Jesus had, from time to time during his ministry, more than twelve disciples. We don’t know how many, but only the Twelve remained with him for the full three years. In John 6, Jesus is with an unknown number of disciples. In that chapter alone, he feeds the 5,000 and walks on water. Then he begins to teach them about eternal life and what it means to believe in him and do God’s will. His words were difficult for them to understand, just as they can be difficult for us today. But many, instead of staying with Jesus to learn further, simply found the teaching too hard to understand or accept. And, so, John tells us in v. 66 that many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. Thomas was one who not only followed when first called, but stayed a follower even when he didn’t understand and when others walked away. Jesus calls all who believe in him to be a disciple, but most followers of Jesus are not disciples. They stop short. The first step of being a disciple means making the decision to follow Jesus and then continuing to follow even when we don’t understand what Jesus is trying to tell us or what he wants us to do. And we have an incredible advantage over Thomas and those other first disciples – while they had the advantage of walking and talking with Jesus, we have the truth of the resurrection. They struggled with understanding how anyone – even the Son of God – could be raised from the dead. It was only much later that they saw the truth of the resurrection and began to understand how Jesus’ resurrection would give reality to their resurrection.
The second lesson we can learn from Thomas is to follow even when its uncomfortable or even dangerous. We don’t live in a time or a place when our faith places us in danger of losing our lives. Thomas did. Our dangers are different, but still challenging. Become too committed a follower of Jesus and friends, and perhaps even family, are going to let you know you’ve gone too far. Many well-meaning people will tell you it’s fine to believe and even attend church, at least now and then, but don’t let it affect your life too much. You don’t want to turn into some kind of religious wacko. Bishop Tom Bickerton was preaching at an ordination service a few years ago and he told the story of two guys who were lost at sea on a small boat. Things didn’t look too hot for them, so this one guy freaked out and began to pray in a loud voice: “O Lord, I’ve broken most of your commandments, I’ve got some pretty bad habits, I drink a lot, I cuss most of the time, I steal from work, I treat people like dirt. But, O Lord, if my life is spared right now, I promise you that I’ll change, I’ll never again curse, I’ll never again steal, I’ll go to church, I’ll…” All of a sudden, his shipmate quickly spoke up and said, “Hold on Jack, wait a second, don’t go too far, I think I see a ship!” Don’t go too far, don’t go too far with this faith thing, just do what you need to do to get by. In John 11, Jesus and the disciples are in a safe place outside of Judea when word comes to Jesus that his friend Lazarus is ill. Jesus delays for a time he responding, but finally tells his disciples that the time has come for them to return to Judea, to the village of Bethany which was just a couple of miles from Jerusalem. The disciples express some concern about going. Jerusalem, you see, is the home of those in power who, by now, are determined to kill Jesus and presumably the disciples with him. It’s dangerous to go there and it seems like a poor decision. It is Thomas who, in v. 16, speaks up and says that if Jesus is going to go, they should all go with him, even if it means their death. Discipleship comes at a cost. There is a quote from Billy Graham that is in this morning’s bulletin: “Salvation is free, but discipleship costs everything.” We can’t fully share in the glory, unless we share also in the cross. Thomas was willing to do that.
The third lesson from Thomas comes from John 14. Discipleship is a life of asking questions and learning; discipleship doesn’t just happen. In John 14, Jesus is in the middle of his version of a sermon or a Bible study and he’s on a roll. It’s his last week on earth, days before his crucifixion, and he’s told them about Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, and given them the commandment to love one another. He’s nearing the end of his sermon, encouraging his disciples to believe in him no matter what happens, and believe that he will return for them. Then he says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” This is a statement, not a question, and any of us at this point, even if we didn’t understand, wouldn’t dare say so. We’d maybe kind of look at one another and shrug or shake our head slightly or look off in the distance like when you were in school and avoided eye contact because you didn’t want the teacher to call on you. But not Thomas. Thomas interrupts Jesus and says, “No we don’t. We don’t know where you’re going. How can we know?” I can just imagine all the other disciples breathing a sigh of relief. Thomas said what they were all thinking. We don’t understand, we don’t know what you’re saying, and we’d like an explanation. It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t get mad, Jesus stops and answers Thomas’ question. Being a disciple means asking and studying and growing in understanding.
The final lesson from Thomas comes from John 20, vv. 24-29. But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So, the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “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.” It’s from these verses that Thomas gets the nickname “Doubting Thomas,” but if you really look at what happens here, this is not a negative. If you go back a few verses, on Monday evening after his resurrection Jesus came to a house where the disciples had locked themselves in for fear of the Jews. Jesus appeared to them, told them not to be afraid, and showed them his hands and his side. Thomas was not with them at the time. Think about that for a minute. The other ten disciples, Judas now being gone, are locked in a house for their own protection because they fear being seen and arrested. We don’t know what Thomas is doing, but he’s not locked in that house with the others. He’s out somewhere taking a risk that the others are unwilling to take. The others tell Thomas later that Jesus appeared to them, and he is skeptical. Should that surprise us? Jesus has been crucified and buried, and has been in a tomb for three days. Thomas wants to see what the others saw and perhaps even a little more because he says he wants to touch Jesus as well. A week passes and the disciples are together again, and this time Thomas is with them. Jesus appears again and offers Thomas exactly what Thomas said he wanted in order to believe. “Go ahead and touch my hands and my side,” Jesus says. “Do not doubt, but believe.” Many of us, when we first read these verses, jump to the conclusion that Thomas went through with it and touched Jesus. But that’s not what Scripture says. Jesus made the offer and in v. 28 Thomas answers: “My Lord and my God!” Jesus then says, “Have you believed because you have seen (seen, not touched) me?” The lesson for us, from John 20, is that the path to discipleship may include skepticism and doubt, but is always accompanied by deep faith and love.
We don’t know exactly what happened to Thomas after this exchange. Church tradition says that when the disciples divided up the known world to start their mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, he was given India. Today there is a population of Christians along the western coast of India who lay claim to conversion by Thomas. They claim that he built seven churches and was martyred when killed with a spear as he was praying on a hill (now called St. Thomas Mount) near Madras, India.
Thomas gives us several lessons in the life of a disciple. He followed Jesus when called. He continued to follow Jesus even in dangerous times. He sought the truth, even when it would have been easier to remain silent. He asked questions and demanded answers, even of Jesus. But most of all, he never walked away and he never expected faith to be easy. How he felt about his call to follow Jesus is summed up in his response, “My Lord and my God.” He wanted to be more than a follower; he was willing to commit to being a disciple.