We are living through perilous days of disbelief. Today, we encounter again the story of Thomas, the disciple who needed proof. We Missourians might informally adopt Thomas the apostle as our patron saint. They call this the “show me” state for a reason.
We are living through perilous times of disbelief. We are living in times when evidence is ignored, scientific consensus is disregarded as “just one opinion.” This week, as I engaged this Gospel, I wondered. I wondered if John told the story today, would he have Thomas look at his friends who have just told him “we have seen the Lord,” if John was writing today would Thomas respond back to his friends, “fake news.”
This week in our city for the first time there were more appointments for vaccinations than there were people willing to get them. There is a real possibility that this time of pandemic will stretch longer because our fellow Americans don’t trust the science of the vaccines.
John’s Gospel, in this story of Thomas, plays with the themes of belief and unbelief. I know many of us have heard sermons about this story, about why we shouldn’t think of the disciple as “doubting Thomas.” I like the translation we’re reading right now, because it is a more faithful rendition of the Greek and it speaks to our day. When Jesus speaks to Thomas, he’s really speaking to us all. “No more disbelief. Believe.” I want to venture with you, Jesus isn’t trying to get Thomas to recite the creed (he’d be several hundred years too early anyway). Jesus instead is trying to help Thomas see something about Truth.
Capital “T” Truth
This morning, I want to speak about Truth, about the very nature of Truth. I think Thomas has something to tell us today. Jesus has a message even for us for, living through pandemic and the cultural strife in the early 21st century.
In the Gospel today Jesus wants Thomas to believe, he wants Thomas to know that there are Truths worth believing. For grammatical flare, I want to spell Truth at times today with a capital “T.”
For Truth to merit a capital “T,” we must mean more than what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness.” Now Colbert was mostly having fun with that word. There are biases that don’t do much harm. If you believe today that the Cardinals are going to win the World Series this year, God bless you. Your belief probably won’t hurt anyone, but it may not be universally True.
Of course I introduce that lighthearted belief because there are biases that give rise to unhealthy disbelief, to a skepticism that can cause real harm. We know this kind of dangerous disbelief in our society. We’ve seen it around the vaccines.
This partisan disbelief is also the skepticism that talks about the “theory” of climate change. Scientists now say climate change isn’t a prediction. Climate change is an accelerating reality. Seas are rising. Hurricanes are stronger. In the last five years Missouri has experienced multiple floods that used to come every hundred or so years. Climate change isn’t a theory, it is the truth. But climate doesn’t have to be the whole truth.
Climate change is a fact, it is truth with a lower case “t.” But around climate change, I believe in a Truth with a Capital T. It’s this: We human beings have the capacity, the God given capability, to act in harmony with our planet. We can adapt. The climate is a complex part of an endlessly complex ecosystem. There’s a lot of theory there, but my faith tells me that God gave human beings a role, to till the ground, to name the animals and plants, to protect creation. We have a role to play, and we have God-given creativity with which to work. Climate change need not be the end of our story, but we have to have the courage to face the truth that climate change is an important chapter in our story. Disbelief just slows us down.
I know, some churches teach that scientists are tricksters, that the work of faith is about holding strong to your belief against science, whether that means arguing against climate change or evolutionary biology or it means proposing laws to police gender on the school sports field.
The Stakes: The Lives of Trans Kids
This year, again, Missouri’s state house will debate whether participation in youth sports should be conditioned on checking the gender assigned on your birth certificate. Arkansas just passed a law making it illegal for doctors to provide gender affirming treatment to teens, treatment which has been proven to reduce depression and suicide attempts for teens.
I know this may feel like a bit of a side-track, but the debates around trans kids get at why the questions of disbelief and belief, doubt and faith, are so difficult today. I know that for many of us, it feels like the world is changing really fast. I mean, heck, last summer when Sayer Johnson from the Metro Trans Umbrella Group offered a training here, I learned that I was behind on the language. I think I’m up to date, and I find out I’m not. I have a long way to go, a lot to learn.
It can feel like the world is moving much too fast, like you can’t keep up. And. And Truth with a capital T can still help us navigate. Looking for Truth, looking for something that is universally true can help us to find our way through the language games of our fiercely contextual postmodern world. Truth worth believing. Truth worth staking your life on, it is universally true.
What do you do when your “truth” comes up short?
What do you do when something you thought was True, universal, ends up more complicated and contextual? If you believed gender was a simple binary and you learn it is a bright colorful spectrum, yes it can be disorienting. Where do you go? I’d argue look for something you know, you know, is deeply universally true.
In all my conversation with fellow Christians around sexuality and gender there’s one Truth I have heard proclaimed by befuddled Christians that has been universally well received. It’s this: “Look, this is all new to me, but I do know this. I believe you are made in the image and likeness of God. You deserve love and life with dignity.” Say it when your’e confused. You might find you believe more deeply in the Truth of God’s love than in the constructions we have created around sex, gender, or other human categories.
Truth is Eternal. Death isn’t the Truth.
Poor Thomas thought he knew something to be true. Can you really blame him? He was in mourning. The Bible itself never calls him “doubting Thomas.” We invented that name. Instead John calls him “Thomas the twin.” Since the ancient days of the church, people have wondered if that title had something to do with Thomas’ closeness to Jesus. Were they twinned souls? Did they share a deep compassion for the poor or a certain love for making lawyers stumble in their arguments? Thomas had lost his close friend. The Romans killed his teacher. Thomas knew there was no coming back. He knew it. Death is a fact. Thomas knew it, until Christ’s resurrection dared Thomas to believe something more true than death.
This is the other distinguishing fact of Truth with a capital T. I’ve already argued that this kind of Truth is universal. Truth with a capital T is also eternal. That’s how I can say Christ dared Thomas to believe something more True than death. The resurrection tells us that death does not have the last word. Death passes away. Alleluia, Thomas was wrong. Death isn’t the Truth.
St. Romanus in the fifth century composed a hymn about Thomas and Jesus. The rhyme is lost in translation, but hopefully not the power of the verses:
If Christ’s side had not furnished abundant power, How could a right hand of clay have touched Sufferings which had shaken Heaven and earth? It was grace itself which was given to Thomas to touch and to cry out, “Thou art our Lord and God.”
Healing Disbelief and the Courage to tell Truth
St. Romanus opens up the power of this moment. By all good theology, Thomas should not have been able to touch the risen Christ. In another verse the hymn compares Thomas’ hand to the burning bush which Moses saw, which burned with God’s presence and was not consumed. This story is a miracle. Thomas, like so many before him, is healed by Christ’s touch. Healed of his grief, of his disbelief.
This encounter with the Risen One was given to Thomas, and the story was given to us, that we might know there are Truths worth believing. Even in our fast-changing and wounded world, when we must be conscious of culture, context, and language, there are Truths which are universal. There are Truths which outlast even the worst news. There is Truth that can set us on fire for love. There is Truth worth believing.
Will we have courage, in our skeptical and divided world, will we have courage to believe and to tell the Truth of God’s universal and eternal love?