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“Who is Thomas' Twin?”

A sermon by Sid Burgess for Edgewood PC, Birmingham, AL
2d Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2006

Text: John 20:19-31

In order to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church a would-be minister must first pass a battery of four written examinations, beginning with the Bible content exam. Long before the game “Bible Trivia” came out Presbyterian candidates for ministry had to know such things as:

Abraham and Sarah’s hometown--Ur of the Chaldeans;
the name of Queen Esther’s uncle--Uncle Mordecai;
the number of prophets of Baal slain by the prophet Elijah--450;
St. Paul’s street address in Damascus--the Street called Strait;
and the names of the seven churches addressed in Revelations--
my favorites being Smyrna, Sardis and Philadelphia.

Despite my solid Baptist upbringing, I barely squeaked by, leaving me with no fondness for either the game or the test. But every now again and again I come up with an idea for the test makers. Take today’s gospel story about my man, Thomas: “Thomas, who was called the Twin.” So who was Thomas’ twin brother or twin sister? Surely now, someone here can help out our aspiring seminarians? Surely someone knows the name of Thomas’ twin!

Truth be told, no one knows for certain, and the New Testament is not talking. Down through the centuries a number of folks have had fun trying to puzzle out an answer, beginning with the translators. They tell us that the Greek word for the Semitic or Aramaic name, Thomas, is twin. ‘Hey you, Thomas,’ could also be ‘Hey you, Twin.’ But still, why would a child be called Twin if he had no twin? Of course, Thomas’ twin brother or sister may have died in childhood, or my have left home to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. The most fascinating suggestion comes from one of the Gnostics, that is, an early Christian sect that held Jesus was fully divine, but only pretending to be human. The Gnostics claimed that Thomas’ twin brother was Jesus, himself! As you might expect, that would have been quite a shock to Luke’s Mary and Joseph!

All of the above notwithstanding, Thomas is someone we should take seriously. We should give him serious consideration because he is included in the lists of faithful apostles recorded in the first three gospels--Matthew, Mark and Luke--and again, in Acts.

But Thomas gets his most prominent role in the fourth gospel. In an earlier episode in John, Thomas appears “as a tower of strength” when he encourages the disciples to accompany Jesus into a hostile Judea even if it means death (Jn 11.16).” [1] By contrast, next time around Thomas appears to be befuddled, saying to Jesus, ‘How do you expect us to follow you when we don’t know where you’re going?’

Even so, Thomas is best known for his doubts. “Doubting Thomas” refuses to believe in the resurrection of Jesus until he sees the scars. He would not believe until he could place his fingers in the wounds made by the nails of the cross, until he could see where the Roman spear had stabbed Jesus’ side. This is important to us because Thomas stands where we cannot stand, sees what we cannot see, touches the One we cannot touch, and comes out confessing, “My Lord and my God.”

Think for a moment about the example Thomas has set for us. In the face of doubt, a lot of us just cave in. Just acquiesce. Instead of “I think, therefore I am,” it’s, ‘I doubt, therefore I am not.’ I am not a Christian, maybe not even a whole person. Look at all of those good church folks. They don’t seem to have any doubts. It’s all my fault. I’m guilty. No hope for me.

To just such a mindset Thomas stands out among the Gospel witnesses, challenging us to have the courage, the determination to “doubt our doubts.”[2] As Presbyterians we believe that faith is a gift--a gift of the Holy Spirit--not a human accomplishment. But you have heard me say many times before, “My gift of faith came heavily wrapped.” It took me years and years to unwrap this treasure, years and years to say, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

Would that I had pursued my doubts early on. In college, or soon thereafter--instead of waiting 20 years. Would that I had discovered early on that doubt is the fuel of faith. Doubt can be the motivation that leads to faith, so long as one is willing to do what Thomas does--and that is to ask questions, and keep on asking questions until the gift of faith is at last unwrapped.

“Doubting our doubts,” asking our questions, seeking answers can certainly be beneficial to faith. But in a larger sense it is not what Thomas does, or what you and I might do, that produces faith. It is what Jesus does. “At the heart of this story is Jesus’ generous offer of himself to Thomas.” Thomas had established the condition for his faith: He must be allowed to touch Jesus’ wounds. Gail O’Day points out that Thomas should have believed the disciples, just as the disciples should have believed the witness of Mary, who first saw the risen Lord. But Jesus demonstrates here that he is not offended by honest questions.

Instead, Jesus presents himself to Thomas, invites him to examine the body. ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.’[3]

In like manner, Jesus comes to us, passing not through the walls of the church, but walking across the pages of Holy Scripture. Through the Gospels “we are given the words that make faith in Jesus possible for those who live (long) after the first generation of disciples.” By close attention to the passion of Jesus, as told by the Gospels, it is possible for us to answer yes to the ageless question of the hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

Not yes to the details long ago lost to history, but yes to the revelation of God that transcends history through the stories told my Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Among John’s unique contributions is his teaching that we can see God in Christ through the scriptures because of unique work of the Holy Spirit. Our Presbyterian Church “Declaration of Faith” holds that the Spirit--not our own goodness but the Spirit-- makes us able to respond in faith to the gospel and leads us into the Christian community.” The Spirit brings us out of death into life, out of separation into fellowship.

To be sure, we are responsible for our own decisions--deciding to acquiesce to doubt, or deciding to seek answers to our questions. But in the end, when we have come to confess Jesus as Lord, we look back and see it was the Spirit who led us, The Spirit who made us aware of our need, of our painful separation from God, of our own responsibility for that separation. And it is the Spirit who persuaded us to trust Jesus and adopt his way.

So, back to the question, who is Thomas’ twin? Could be me, could be you. Could be each of us and all of us together, as we summon the courage to doubt our doubts, as we read and study the gospel seeking answers to questions. Could be each of us and all of us together when we join the confession of faith: “My Lord and my God.” And making our confession, we may then receive the divine blessing: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen.

[2] Phrase coined by Harry Emerson Fosdick, founding pastor of the fame Riverside Church in NYC, in the early part of the 20th Century.
[3] O’Day, Gail, “The Gospel of John,” THE NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE.