What's in a (Nick)name?
The Second Sunday of Easter (Year C)
First Reading: Acts 5:27-32
Psalter: Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
Epistle: Revelation 1:4-8
Gospel: John 20:19-31
O God, you raised up Jesus Christ as your faithful witness and the first-born of the dead. By your Holy Spirit, help us to witness to him so that those who have not yet seen may come to believe in him who is, and was, and is to come. Amen.
Nicknames are interesting. Some nicknames are given as a tribute to a person's gifts and abilities. Babe Ruth was called “The Sultan of Swat,” for his ability to command his bat to hit home runs. Walter “Sweetness” Payton, a running back for the Chicago Bears made running through defenses look easy—how sweet. President Zachary Taylor earned his nickname, “Old Rough and Ready” during the Mexican-American War leading his troops into battle.
Of course, not all nicknames are compliments. Ivan the Terrible was not known for being nice and Vlad the Impaler earned his nickname for his excessive cruelty. There are other nicknames that persons earned, not for their deeds, but for their appearance—Charles the Fat and Olaf the Peacock.
Jesus himself gave his disciples nicknames, at least two that we know of. He referred to Simon as “Peter” (Rocky), and James and John earned the name “Sons of Thunder” for their judgmental ways (Mark 3:17). But one disciple has received a nickname from the judgment of history, and it’s not meant to be complimentary—Thomas, Doubting Thomas—as he is commonly known.
Thomas was apparently absent when the resurrected Christ first appeared to the disciples. Upon hearing the news that Jesus had appeared, Thomas went into skeptical mode. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” Thomas declared his doubt with much certainty. Of course, he would have to eat his words in his own encounter with Jesus. Indeed, John does not tell us that Thomas actually put his finger in the nail marks, nor put his hand in Jesus’ formerly pierced side. Apparently the sight of the risen Jesus was more than sufficient.
But the nickname “Doubting Thomas” has dogged the briefly skeptical disciple for two thousand years, and it is not really fair to characterize this faithful follower of Jesus, whose initial skepticism has labeled him for all time. I think it also says something about how we view the place of doubt in the midst of faith.
There is an old adage: faith is fashioned in the workshop of doubt. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it can often be a catalyst for faith—we move forward in our convictions, even though we are not always sure what to believe. It has become fashionable in some Christian circles today to turn doubt into a virtue, to make it almost as important as faith itself. I think that is going a step too far. Excessive doubt can undermine the faith, to be sure. But, doubt can assist in one’s faith or it can cause one to seek faith even more sincerely—as John the Baptist in prison who sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if he was the Messiah (Luke 7:20), and the man who asked Jesus for healing uttering, “I believe help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). This side of perfection we see through a glass darkly and we know only in part. Doubt is a reality in a world where some pieces of the puzzle are missing. To deny this is to deny the obvious. Easter brings all of our emotions and confusion and understanding, the clarity and the ambiguity together into a new reality that only God can bring. David Henson writes,
In truth, Easter absorbs both the joy and triumph as well as the fear and disbelief, and is irreducible to just one experience of it. It would be easier if Easter were only the trumpet blasts and Alleluias. Or, it might even be easier if Easter were only fear and disbelief. But Easter is all of this, it holds all of it, even the contradictory emotions, and makes them one.
It may indeed be the case that those who do not see and yet believe are blessed, but Thomas is no less blessed for insisting on seeing and touching Jesus; after all, he did stick around with the other disciples to see if Jesus would show up. That is exercising faith in the midst of doubt.
Perhaps it is time to give Thomas a new nickname—how about Daring Thomas—the one who dared to express his doubts when the other disciples would not. They had their doubts as well.
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