Returning Thomas and the Spiritual Cezannes: Sermon for April 23, 2017

An audio podcast of this sermon may be listened to here or downloaded from iTunes

In life someone always has to go first.

Think back to when you were a kid and you were learning something new. Maybe it was diving into the swimming pool. Maybe it was trying a new kind of math problem up at the blackboard. Whatever it was, there would come a point when the teacher would say something like, “Okay, so, who wants to give it a try?”

And if it was something challenging, that’s when all the students stepped back a little and fell silent. Because no one wanted to be the first one. Or, more accurately, no one wanted to be the first one to fail.

We are not a culture that encourages taking risks that might end failure, and we learn that young. As kids we don’t want to be the first one to jump in the pool and need saving. We don’t want to go to the blackboard and get the equation wrong. We don’t want to be laughed at or embarrassed. And so, we hang back, and we let someone else go.

Today we read a story of someone who had to go first, and who had to risk looking ridiculous. Thomas was a disciple of Jesus Christ. And Thomas had the worst timing in the world. Because when Jesus Christ was resurrected, and he came back to reveal himself to all the remaining disciples, Thomas wasn’t there.

We have no clue where he was. At the store. Stuck in traffic. Who knows? But I’ve always felt some empathy for Thomas because it would be just my luck that Jesus would come back, and I would miss it.

And that’s what happens. All the other disciples get to see Jesus. And when Thomas gets there they say, “Tom, you are not going to believe what just happened!”

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio

And they were right, because Thomas doesn’t believe. When the other disciples tell Thomas that Jesus is back he says, “Guys, I am not going to believe it until I see Jesus myself and can physically touch him.”

So all these years later, that’s how we remember Thomas. He’s the guy who doubted. He’s Doubting Thomas.

I feel bad for the guy. All the other disciples actually talk to Jesus, so it’s easy for them to believe, but Thomas has to do something harder than anyone else. He has to be the first person to believe in Jesus resurrection, sight unseen. And like so many of us, he is scared of looking ridiculous.

Truth be told, I would have been too. I have this group of friends from college and we sometimes play pranks on one another, so I always have this suspicion when they tell me something that sounds unbelievable that they’re pulling my leg. I would so have been the person to say, “right…until I see him for myself, I’m not believing any of this.”

And what they tell Thomas is something that is particularly unbelievable. This is a guy who has come back from the dead. How many of us, if put in Thomas’ position, would have done anything different than he had done?

Luckily, Thomas went first. And so, it’s “Doubting Thomas” and not doubting me, or doubting you. But really, if we are honest with ourselves, it could have been any of us.

That’s why I’ve always loved Thomas, and why I don’t think there’s any shame in his story. He was the only one of the disciples, and the first of all of us, who had to believe without the benefit of physically standing in the same room with Jesus. And, like all of us, he wrestled with doubt.

It’s okay to admit that. We all doubt sometimes. And that’s because doubt isn’t a sign of a lack of faith. Doubt is a sign that we are taking our faith seriously. We care enough to ask the big questions. We look for signs. We struggle. And some days belief is just easier than it is on others. Sometimes we look around at all the people saying they’ve seen Jesus, and we want to believe, but we say, “I need to see for myself”.

I think that’s the life of faith. I think that our spiritual lives are about that lifetime journey not between faith in doubt, as if they are some sort of polar opposites, but instead of faith and doubt intertwined.

I was thinking about Thomas this week when I was listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is an author who takes highly academic concepts from fields like psychology and sociology and makes them accessible to those of us who aren’t professional scholars. His work is fascinating. And on this particular podcast he was talking about the idea of creativity, and of two painters: Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne.

Now, you don’t need to know much about art for this to make sense. You just need to know that Picasso and Cezanne were both French artists whose lives overlapped and who were both part of the larger school of impressionism. Both were geniuses, whose legacies are substantial. But both had vastly different ways of painting.

Gladwell tells us that Picasso was a prodigy. He had success young, in his twenties, and he created masterpieces from the very start. And he painted quickly. But Cezanne, he was the polar opposite. He didn’t really hit his stride until he was in his sixties, after years of perfecting and refining his craft. He would create draft after draft of his works, not even signing some paintings because he couldn’t quite admit that they were really finished.

Paul Cezanne painting -  'Zwei Kartenspieler' (Two Card Players)
Cezanne’s Card Players sold for 159 million pounds.

I think about those two painters, and I think about Thomas. I think about how he was expected to be a Picasso, a quick study who believed automatically. In reality he was a spiritual Cezanne, a seeker whose faith was perfected not in a moment, but over time.

We remember Thomas because of one moment of doubt. But what I think we should really remember is this: I think we should remember the fact that he came back.

The next week the disciples were gathered together again. And there they were: the ten who had seen and believed, and the one who didn’t and who doubted. And it is in that moment that Thomas finally does meet the resurrected Jesus, and that he knows for certain that it is true.

To me, the fact that Thomas came back is the most amazing thing about that story. Because after having to go first, after being asked to do what no one else had to do, Thomas decided to keep wrestling with faith.

“Doubting Thomas” was “Returning Thomas”. He was “Persisting Thomas”. But he was a spiritual Cezanne in a world full of spiritual Picassos.

Or, at least a world that felt like it was full of spiritual Picassos. Because Thomas must have been kicking himself asking, “Why can’t I just believe when all these other guys can? Why do I doubt?”

What Thomas may not have realized is that had the other disciples been in his situations, their response would likely have been the same. Maybe those guys wouldn’t even have come back. Because there are few real spiritual Picassos in this world.

That’s true even now. Even if you are a prodigy in other areas of life, even if you can grasp mathematical equations in a second, or learn to play a complicated piece of music in hours, you are probably not a spiritual Picasso.

Few of us are. And that’s good news.

Faith is rarely about instantaneous belief. It certainly isn’t for me. Faith is a lifelong journey. And the important thing to remember is that you are the first you to ever have to take this journey of faith, and so it’s okay if you aren’t so sure sometimes.

Truth be told, I’m not that sure I have ever really met any true spiritual Picasso. But I sure have known a lot of spiritual Cezannes. And, in the end, they are the ones whose lives have looked to me like nothing short of masterpieces.

St.Thomas India 1964 15p. Reddish Purple MNH wmk
St. Thomas (a.k.a. Doubting Thomas) as honored on a 1961 postage stamp from India.

That’s true of Thomas too. We know that he returned to the room where the disciples gathered that second time. But after that we don’t know too much definitively. But there are stories. There are stories that throughout the rest of his life he continued to chase after faith. Tradition holds that he traveled all the way to India, and planted the seeds for what is even now an enduring Indian Christian tradition. He traveled perhaps further than any other disciples. And, by his Cezanne-like life, he created a masterpiece of faith that flourishes even still.

Not bad for a guy who doubted, huh?

And not a bad reminder for us. Because for those of us who sometimes believe and who sometimes doubt, but who always seem to return, there is hope. No one is asking you to be a spiritual Picasso. Instead, all you have to do is pick up the brush, and keep painting. And stroke by stroke, prayer by prayer, return after return, you and God are working together to create your masterpiece.

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