Must I Be Thomas?

Gene Thiemann serves as a Lutheran World Relief Consultant with the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India and he tells this story in "Tsunamolies". Gene was visiting Fr. Raj, who is the parish priest at a massive and beautiful white church located near the beach in Chennai (Madras). Near the end of the visit, Gene asked to have his card. Fr Raj replied with a smile, "I have two to give you: an earthly one and a heavenly one."

Gene, Of course, was interested to see what the heavenly one looked like! It was laminated, and looked like a Visa card. On the Visa icon were the letters: SCBC. It stood for Santhome Cathedral Basilica Chennai, the St. Thomas Cathedral, which along with St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, are the only two churches in the world believed to be built above the tomb of an apostle.

The back of the card says: "Traditionally it is believed that St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ came to India in 52 A.D. to proclaim God’s message of love and forgiveness. He died as a martyr for the sake of Jesus Christ and was buried at Santhome, Chennai, India." So the "credit card" number on the front begins with these digits: "0052 0072"—signifying the year of his arrival in India and the year of his death.

There is little or no doubt among Indian Christians that this is so. References to the historical accuracy of this claim date back to about the third century. A large orthodox church based in the southwestern state of Kerala (where Thomas is thought to have done much mission work) is named "Mar Thoma," or Holy Thomas.

There are legends that have surrounded the life of St. Thomas. One is that a log jammed a flooded river, a log stuck so tightly between the river’s banks that even a local king’s royal elephant could not remove it. Thomas, so the story goes, removed his "girdle," gave it to a bystander to attach to the log, and with little effort, the log was yanked away. The grateful and astonished king gave that log to Thomas to build a church near the ocean’s shores.

From that log came a pole, which it is popularly believed, Thomas thrust into the ground, saying the waters of the ocean would not reach the church. When the tsunami struck, the waves came close according to some published reports, but did not reach the church! That same published report quoted Fr. Raj as saying "We believe the miraculous post of St Thomas prevented the sea waters from entering the church." I asked him about this legend, and he replied to me that it was just "fertile imagination." But the post still stands about 30 feet tall at the rear of the Basilica, overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Again, doubt is associated with the name "Thomas!"

The Day of St. Thomas, observed on December 21, is also the day of the winter solstice, the year's longest night and shortest day. It is said that St. Thomas is commemorated on this day because he was the last of the apostles to become convinced of Jesus' resurrection--he was the one who for the longest time remained in the "night of unbelief and doubt."

But, about those five words printed on the front of the "credit card." The words are not words of doubt! They do not begin with the words: "Unless I touch…." These are the words: "My Lord and my God!" A heavenly card, with five words of conviction! "My Lord and my God!"

Doubt and belief.

If it hadn't been for Thomas this story would not have been recorded in the Gospel of John. This episode is written down for the many faithful who will not see, will never see Jesus Christ in the flesh, and yet must believe. We are all admonished not to be like Thomas, not to doubt, but instead to trust. That's how tradition has always had it. This story has been held up before Sunday School children since the beginning of time as an example. The point seems to be that faith was good. Doubt was bad. And so, even though we don’t get to see Jesus as Thomas did, we must believe anyway. If not, then our doubt would call into question our eternal life. So we would boldly proclaim our faith and absence of doubt, but the real shame is that we are not only secret doubters, but liars.

In truth, most people in the world today, especially those in our part of the world, are people like Thomas. Our culture is steeped in his terminology. "You have to see it to believe it." There are quite a few books out today that attempt to convince people there is evidence that supports their faith. They miss the point of faith. The point being that faith itself requires some trust in the first place, even before any evidence can be considered. Case in point -a multi-millionaire some years ago offered a large sum of money to anyone who could prove to him that the Nazis killed so many Jews during the 30s and 40s. Several people came forward with eyewitness accounts, with photos and other evidence. The man simply dismissed it all. The eyewitnesses were hearsay, the photos were fakes. Not one bit of evidence was acceptable. The ability to accept any proof of something, anything, required an impartiality that this man did not possess.

The truth is we don't possess it either. We live in a day and age when we feel we can't even trust things that we see. Computerized images, camera tricks, air brushing. It might be better to say that we see only those things that we want to see. Everything else is in question. And in our world, we have learned that political and business leaders, along with Corporations, even within our own families, the truth is sometimes nothing like the words we hear or the things we see. If we do not have a strong streak of skepticism, we are betrayed by our political leaders, misled in our investments, confused about our children's problems and blame the teachers for failing grades. Doubt is after all, not bad.

Doubt and faith are not opposites. Some say that the opposite of faith in God is not doubt, but faith in someone or something else. Doubt is often a catalyst to deeper faith. Walt Wangerin Jr. calls faith a verb, or faithing, and doubt is a part of the faithing process. There are times in my own life that I have come to know God in a deeper and more meaningful way, often because of periods of questioning what I thought I already knew. This in turn opens up whole new dimensions to my relationship with God. Rather than pushing away doubt, it is a welcome companion for me.

Can we accept doubt as a gift from God and consider that God allows doubt and faith to coexist within us as part of the same faith process? It reminds me a bit of the yin yang symbol. Belief and doubt is the yin-yang of many a Christian’s life. You may have heard of Yin Yang, sometimes called the Tai-Chi symbol. It represents the ancient Chinese understanding of how things work. The outer circle represents "everything", while the black and white shapes within the circle represent the interaction of two energies, called "yin" (black) and "yang" (white), which cause everything to happen. They are not completely black or white, just as things in life are not completely black or white, and they cannot exist without each other.

While "yin" would be dark, passive, downward, cold, contracting, and weak, "yang" would be bright, active, upward, hot, expanding, and strong. The shape of the yin and yang sections of the symbol, actually gives a sense of the continual movement of these two energies, yin to yang and yang to yin, causing everything to happen: just as things expand and contract, and temperature changes from hot to cold. A co-existence of doubt and faith.

In a Lecture Series given by D. T. Niles, he finished by saying, "Let me conclude with a story told by a famous French bishop to his congregation. Three university students of Paris were walking along the road one Good Friday afternoon. They noticed crowds of people going to the churches to make their confession. The students began to discuss this custom of the ‘unenlightened,’ and talked in rather cynical terms about the survival of religion, which they described as superstition.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /

Suddenly two of the students turned to the third, who was the leader among them, and said to him, ‘Will you go into this church and tell the priest there what we have been saying to each other?’ ‘Sure, I will,’ he said, and went in. He stood in the same queue of those who were going to their confession, and when his turn came, he looked at the priest and said, ‘Father, I have come here merely to tell you that Christianity is a dying institution and that religion is a superstition.’ The priest looked at the young man keenly and said, ‘Why did you come here, my son, to tell me this?’ And the student told him of his conversation with his friends. The priest listened carefully and then said: ‘All right, I want you to do one thing for me before you go. You accepted the challenge of your friends and came here; now accept my challenge to you. Walk up to the chancel and you will find there a large wooden cross and on it he figure of Jesus crucified. I want you to stand before that cross and say these words: ‘Jesus died for me and I don’t care a damn.’ The student looked defiant but, to save face, agreed. He went up and stood before that cross and said it: ‘Jesus died for me and I don’t care a damn.’ He came back to he priest and said, ‘I have done it.’ ‘Do it once more,’ said the priest; ‘after all, it means nothing to you.’ The student went back and looked at the cross for some time and the figure on it, and then he stammered it out: ‘Jesus died for me and I don’t care a damn.’ He returned to the priest and said, ‘I have done it; I am going now.’

The priest stopped him. ‘Once more,’ he said, just once more and you can go. The young man walked up to the chancel and looked at that cross again, and at the Crucified. He stood there for a long time. Then he came back to the priest and said, ‘Father, can I make my confession now?’ The bishop stunned the congregation when he concluded with these words: ‘My dear people, that young man was me.’"Niles, Preaching Gospel of Resurrection.

I will close with a poem that is about me, maybe it's about you, too. You may decide that for yourselves.

Let me meet you on the mountain, Lord,
Just once.
You wouldn't have to burn a whole bush.
Just a few smoking branches
And I would surely be ...your Moses.
Let me meet you on the water, Lord,
Just once.

It wouldn't have to be on Rock Creek or Big Pipe Creek.
Just on any puddle in any field or back yard this weekend
And I would surely be...your Peter.
Let me meet you on the road, Lord,
Just once.

You wouldn't have to blind me on Route 15.
Just a few bright lights on Taneytown Road or Conover Road
And I would surely be...your Paul.
Let me meet you, Lord,
Just once.

Anywhere. Anytime.
Just meeting you in the Word is so hard sometimes
Must I always be...your Thomas?


(Adapted from Norman Shirk, April 10, 1981)

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