In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in India. Similar to Christopher Columbus, he was looking for a trade route. But as we know one of the excuses that eventually justified European colonization was to Christianize the world. Well to his surprise, da Gama discovered an already thriving Christian community in India! The people of the Indian state of Kerala reported that the Apostle Thomas visited their land and baptized many of their ancestors. Thomas is said to have spread the gospel to many places from Syria to India and possibly even China. He was perhaps the most well-traveled disciple of them all and we are told he was martyred in India in 52AD. I had a professor of theology in college who was from India and traced his family’s Christian lineage back to the Apostle Thomas. Thomas’ impact on India and the origins of Christianity there are apparent not only in the history and stories about him, but also in today’s culture and the popularity of this Apostle in that part of the world.
Thomas sounds like he was an adventurous man. And while today’s Gospel lesson might give us the impression he was stubborn and unwilling to believe without proof, the rest of the Gospel of John presents Thomas as the disciple who was always asking questions.
Sometimes when we explore this story of Doubting Thomas a preacher might share reflections on doubt and how the feeling of doubt and the feeling of faith work together to grow a person on their spiritual journey. And that is most certainly true. There is a place for doubt, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad Christian if you feel it. But I also think it’s important to highlight Thomas’ wonder and curiosity as models for us on the spiritual journey. Attributes that Jesus encouraged in his disciples.
Now maybe he was having a bad day and came across as demanding and stubborn, but the rest of the Gospel of John portrays Thomas as a man who wonders and questions, who is eager to learn and take risks. In John 11 it is Thomas who shows confidence in Jesus when Lazarus dies and Thomas confidently says the enigmatic line, “Let us also go and die with him.” And in John 14 when Jesus tells the disciples that they know the way to where he is going, it’s Thomas who says, “Lord we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” To which Jesus famously responds: “I am the way.” Throughout the Gospel accounts, Thomas appears to have been an engaged disciple who asked a lot of questions, trusted in Jesus, and had a spiritual curiosity and thirst for adventure.
And so it’s not unreasonable that we might consider him “Curious Thomas”. Rather than his unfortunate nickname “Doubting Thomas”. After all, none of the male disciples believed the women at first when they told them that Christ had risen from the dead. But they got to see him on the evening of that first Easter Sunday and Thomas did not. So it only makes sense that the disciple known for asking a lot of questions would continue to ask questions and want to see the same thing the rest of the disciples got to see.
If you notice in verse 20 of our Gospel lesson, Jesus showed his hands and side to everyone on that first Easter evening. So curious Thomas wanted to see the same thing. And eventually, after a week of questioning and wondering and doubting, Jesus appeared again and said, “Peace be with you” and offered Thomas the same evidence they all needed and invited him to touch his hand and side. Thomas then said, “My Lord and my God!” It’s the first time someone calls Jesus God in the Gospel of John. And so it seems his wrestling with doubt propelled Thomas to an even greater realization about who Jesus was than the rest of the disciples. Having spent more time in reflection and wonder, the resolution of Thomas’ doubt was deeper and more dramatic; it led to even greater wisdom.
I think before we can have strong and firm faith, it’s important to question, to wonder, even to doubt. We hear a lot about spiritual seekers these days, or people who are spiritual but not religious. I think it’s important for church to be a place that welcomes those who seek, those who wonder, those who question, and those who doubt. Because it is in wrestling with doubts and questions and curiosity that we actually grow in wisdom. Socrates once said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.”
We can’t grow in wisdom if we think we’ve already got everything all figured out. But when we acknowledge that we are born and live and die in mystery, then we actually open ourselves up to greater learning and growth and transformation. When we think we’ve got it all figured out, even if we do have some idea of what the truth is—if we think we’ve got it all, then we won’t be able to expand our understanding. But when we carry an attitude of humility and curiosity, when we consider ourselves forever spiritual seekers, then we will continue to expand our understanding of the mystery we call God.
Christian author Rachel Held-Evans wrote about the importance of asking questions and growing faith. She reminds us of how often Jesus said to have childlike faith and says, “Those who say that having childlike faith means not asking questions haven't met too many children.” It’s funny but true. Kids are always asking questions. Always curious. Always wondering. Always inquisitive and eager to learn more. That’s the kind of faith Jesus encourages us to have. Not blind allegiance. But a faith that wonders, wrestles, ponders, and explores the mystery of it all. That’s the kind of faith Jesus wanted to instill in his disciples, and that’s the kind of faith Thomas had.
And so this Easter season, let us be like Thomas. Not in demanding signs and proofs. But in wrestling with doubt and uncertainty. In learning to be curious and seeing our faith journey as an adventure that might take us to the ends of the earth. Let us welcome the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing and allow it to shape us and expand us. Let us enter into what the mystics call “the cloud of unknowing”. That mysterious state of prayer where God dwells beyond thoughts and images. Let us see our life as an adventure exploring the mystery of existence, rather than a test to see if we can understand it the right way. And all the while let us know that the God of love who raised Christ from the dead is guiding us, supporting us, and walking with us through it all. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.