The phone rang not too long after my family sat down for dinner at the rectory. I knew it was risky, but I decided to answer. It might be a pastoral emergency, I thought.
“Hello," I answered as I picked up the phone.
“Hello. May I speak to St. Thomas, please?” the voice on the other end replied. The number was listed in the phone book as “St. Thomas Rectory.” I was a bit taken aback, but I was pretty confident I had a solicitor on the line.
“St. Thomas is in heaven,” I said. Now there was silence at the other end. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say either “I doubt it,” or “No, but may I get Mrs. Rectory for you.”
“Is this a church?” the salesman asked.
“Yes. How can I help you?”
Click was the only response. I didn’t mind. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from that story.
St. Thomas is one of my favorite saints and perhaps my favorite apostle. Part of it is from my time as rector of St. Thomas Church on Isle of Hope, Savannah. More of it is the story that is the gospel for this Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter.
You know the story (Jn. 20:19-31) well, I’m sure. The risen Jesus appears to his disciples even though the doors were locked out of fear. Thomas, however, was not with them. Upon hearing the good news that the others had seen the Lord, he refuses to believe until he sees for himself.
A week later, Jesus appears again. This time the doors are shut, though the text does not say locked on this occasion. This time Thomas is with the others. Jesus invites Thomas to place his fingers in the mark of the nails and his hand in the wound of his side and says, “Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas’s next words are the first confession in the Gospel of John of the significance of who Jesus is, “My Lord and my God.”
This is an awfully rich passage, and there’s a lot to work with. My focus, though, is on Thomas, the one we typically refer to as the doubter.
The first thing has to do with the nature of doubt and faith. We tend to see doubt as the antithesis of faith, I think, perhaps misreading Jesus’ words about doubting and believing. In the story of Thomas, I think, doubt is not the opposite of faith or even the enemy of faith. It is the precondition of faith.
To have faith is not to be convinced that something is true. Faith is not a matter of knowing something, which is a fairly recent understanding of what truth is. Faith is a matter of not knowing and acting anyway. It is a matter of believing because something is worth believing even if it cannot be proven. Faith is a matter of worldview. It is not a matter of what you think in your head. It is a matter of what you set your heart on and then act accordingly.
There’s one other detail of the so-called Doubting Thomas story that leads me to see Thomas more as an example of faith than common understanding generally does. It has to do with two things at beginning of the story. First, the doors of the room were locked out of fear. Second, Thomas was not there.
Now we don’t know what Thomas was doing. Maybe he was out doing the work of Jesus. Maybe he was out getting provisions for the day. Maybe he just went for a walk to get out of the depressing atmosphere of the locked room. Regardless, he was not hiding in fear behind a locked door.
Faith, if it is anything, is the antidote to fear. Venturing beyond the locked door is the sign of it. Whatever else was going on, Thomas had enough faith to take action, to step outside the safety of the locked door. Action is the surest sign of faith of all.
That’s why I’m pretty sure St. Thomas is in heaven. I have hope to meet him there one day.