Traditionally today is known as “Low Sunday,” a sort of let-down after the great celebrations of Easter. There is usually a large attendance on Easter Sunday; many people who attend church irregularly are sure to come at Easter. But frequently on the second Sunday of Easter the attendance is rather low which is why it is called Low Sunday.
Besides the anticipated low attendance, another reason today is called Low Sunday is that the focus of our liturgy this Sunday is on the smallness or inadequacy of faith. Today’s gospel reading is about Thomas. Even though Thomas is one of the twelve disciples, next to Judas he gets a very bad press - he is usually remembered as “doubting Thomas.” I think “doubting” Thomas has generally received a bad rap in Christian circles. In fact, our own denomination has so successfully maligned Thomas that, according to the 2017 Year Book of the United Church, only two out of about 3,000 churches, one each in Calgary and Saskatoon, have dared to name themselves after St. Thomas.
The tendency of marginalizing St. Thomas is deeply rooted in Christianity. The trend in modern Christianity, especially in Western Christianity, is to avoid giving much attention to him, In other words, the model of Christianity practised by Thomas is generally criticized, and certainly not valued or praised. This is because, according to traditional theology, he is recorded as doubting the physical resurrection of Jesus. Western Christianity has developed as a belief-centred form of religion, that is, Christians have been expected to believe in a set of doctrines, creeds or teachings as the most important requirement of being a Christian.
When we talk about or are asked about our Christian beliefs, what concepts come to mind? What do we understand the words ‘belief’ or ‘believe” to mean? For some people today, in the church and outside of it, believing in the right doctrines is a matter of life and death, the essence of Christian faith. We often hear that only if we believe in the right doctrines can we be saved, that it is of the utmost importance to believe in the creed and all that is written in the Bible as literal truth.
Believing is a big deal in the gospel named after John. The one named Mark uses the verb thirteen times. Matthew uses it nine times and Luke, seven. John uses it over ninety times in his gospel. According to John’s tradition, Christianity has tended to emphasize belief; particularly for the last four hundred years, Christianity has imposed a set of beliefs on believers. Believing something is mostly related to mental assent. As a result, according to a faith focused on believing in a set of beliefs, we hear that what God really cares about is the belief in our heads.
Even though belief is related to our mental activity, belief is important. What we believe matters. Accordingly, theology matters. People will say, “Well, it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe in something.” Nonsense! Of course, it matters a great deal what we believe about God and our relationship with God and our relationship with other people. Other people will say what really matters is how we act, live our daily lives.
What, then, is important to us in our practice of Christianity? What do we learn from the story of doubting Thomas? One week after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples are still cowering behind closed doors. Thomas is not with the other disciples when the risen Jesus appears. The gospel of John does not tell us the reason for Thomas’ absence but one source says that, at that time, his son Siophanes had died (the Book of the Resurrection of Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle). Even though Thomas missed the appearance of Jesus, he shows up and asks questions. We notice that Jesus himself never condemns Thomas’ attitude or shames him for his doubt. Instead, the writer of the gospel of John reports that Jesus makes another post-resurrection appearance for the precise purpose of responding to Thomas’ doubts, graciously inviting Thomas to touch him.
What can we say about the character of Thomas? I would say he was not an unthinking follower; he does not join in the life of the company of Jesus’ companions automatically. He is a person who makes sure of his understanding and then acts. In Korea there is a saying, “Even though you come to a bridge made of stone it is better to check on it.” He is brave enough to raise questions and to try to clarify his thinking. His questions come from thinking deeply about his practice of Christianity.
Perhaps Thomas is the writer of the “Gospel of Thomas;” if not it is likely one of his disciples is. I would like to quote what his gospel says about the kin-dom of God. When the disciples ask again, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus says, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it” (Thomas 113). It is very interesting to observe that the gospel of Luke agrees with Thomas that the kingdom of God is present here and now, within us (Luke 17: 20-21). Thomas and Luke both say that the kingdom of God is “within you,” that is, within us! According to this phrase, the kingdom of God is embodied not only in Jesus but in everyone.
As I read the Gospel of Thomas I find a very interesting part: When Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to something and tell me what I am like.” Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a just angel.” Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.” Thomas said to him, “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.” Jesus said, “I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended” (Thomas 13:1-5).In this dialogue Jesus declares that Thomas is longer his student since he has reached his teacher’s level. Thomas attains the truth in that it cannot be described with any word; he enters enlightenment (Prajna 般若, not to be confused with Western cultural and historical associations).
Thomas practised his faith with all his heart and with all his mind. You may ask, “How do you know that?” Tradition says he went to India to evangelize there and to this day there exists several Christian denominations named after the founder of their faith. Thomas did not seek only intellectual satisfaction or approval of some beliefs; rather he was a Christian who raised questions boldly and practised what he believed. He was a faithful Christian.
Thomas is an important model of Christian life for us. Like Thomas our faith journeys need to be filled with questioning and searching for meanings and practised with what we believe with all our hearts and with all our minds. St. Thomas tells us Christianity is not just about believing a set of doctrines or beliefs, but is about practising our faith, because the meaning of believing is “giving one’s heart to” (W.C. Smith, Faith and Belief, 76). We give our hearts to God. It is about our loyalty, our allegiance and our commitment to God, God’s people and God’s creation. So, we care about what God cares about. We love what God loves. In this vein, as we celebrate Earth Sunday, we care about God’s creation. We care about our earth, since it is our source, not a resource. Our Creator gives her as a gift to all humanity to live well, to live in harmony and in balance with her and her inhabitants. On this Earth Sunday let us live mindfully with God’s gift, our Earth. So be it.