In John 20:29, Thomas, who was not present when Jesus first appeared to his disciples, said, “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.” A week later, Jesus reappeared and told Thomas to touch him where he had been wounded by his crucifixion. With this, Thomas believed. Jesus mildly rebuked him asking, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
From this exchange comes the label ‘Doubting Thomas.’ To better appreciate the inclusive nature of this Gospel story, let’s review the ‘Doubting Thomas’ label. When you think about it, labels are a form of bullying, which often leaves the perpetrator and victim broken. Labels can prevent us from exploring the complexities of human nature. For instance, the label, ‘insane,’ has been used broadly to describe people who are mentally broken; and yet it has been applied to geniuses such as Thomas Edison, Mozart, Albert Einstein, Elon Musk, and others who are actually cutting-edge thinkers. It is also used to describe people desperately struggling to grapple with difficult life-changing scenarios.
In 1987 David Rudder sang a calypso (excuse my Trinidad nature) titled “Madness”. Madness is a colloquial term used to define insanity. Rudder uses the context of a fete (party) to focus on the individual impact of the country’s economic depression. The chorus line is, “This is not a fete it’s madness.” Rudder sings about a series of incidents at the fete to show how the economic decline imploded social boundaries, creating a vacuum, and leaving both a people and a nation broken and ripe for rebirth. He shows that madness is a tool to deal with a rapidly changing society, but at the same time it’s the expression through which those in freefall seek to find a footing in the new world being fermented. The poetry and prophecy is profound! It reminds one of the Old Testament prophets of Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Jesus often sought to push his followers to see and believe in the improbable and even the impossible. To believe in a sustaining relationship with God that is outside of the realms of tradition and human boundaries is not only insane but highly dangerous. Thus, for me Thomas statement doesn’t convey mere doubt. To me it is a dichotomy – an attempt to grapple with a fleeting world and one that is being birthed. Thomas seems to be trying to limit his exposure to danger but at the moment of revelation he immediately abandons his fears. “My Lord and my God”. Thomas is like a juror in the Derek Chauvin trial who has to see all the gory details before any acceptance of the truth of George Floyd’s shared humanity. When allowed, fear can restrict one’s growth and development. We have become prisoners of the world’s sanity while God invites us to explore His madness.
This sanity is visualized when the U.S. is facing a serious crisis of an aging population and a low birth rate that limits and threatens its future. Why, therefore, is it chasing away gifted children at its borders who need salvation, and it desperately needs? Could it be the fearsome colors black/Brown? Is not that madness? Is it sanity to be a nation in which racism has been declared a health and security threat – which means it faces an existential threat – and at the same time it continues to enact legislation intended to deepen racial divisions?
The church also has been caught in that same sanity. It is afraid of the consequences of taking a stand on social ills it knows are wrong, so it demands to first see the damage. It still demands proof of its guilt. This reluctance to take a position has influenced its teachings and practices. What other explanation is there for the Church’s apparent desire to keep Black folks in the pews … at the same time it engages in practices that uphold the privilege of others? Church leadership is convinced of its sanity without accepting that sanity is not color blind. A sane Church in rapid decline yet financially wealthy because of its past support of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Why is it still not convinced that reparation and reconciliation is central to its continued existence? Is that sanity?
My friends, Jesus demanded Thomas and us all to go past societal limitations before we are able to become part of the new madness Jesus was introducing to the world. We are all called to go beyond human fears that nurture artificial cultural boundaries that are alien to God’s Holy Spirit. That courageous, overcoming spirit is the underpinning of the New Testament church. We need to rediscover the centrality of this madness power as taught in the Letter to Philemon which demands the early church for a full and total revocation of societal norms and the rejection of slavery. Yet seminaries for hundreds of years while dwelling in prisons of sanity have failed in making this teaching central to its Kerygma.
Madness is exactly what Jesus demands of us. For Jesus, the Church must view individual and communal life not through the lens of sanity of the present world but through which God is calling into being. “You have heard it said … but I say to you …” Jesus was never willing to accept the world as is, but as that which God calls into being by His word. A world in which love subsumes all human values. A community focused on equity and equality. A world in which spirituality drives human thought and scientific exploration. Christians are called to be radical. We must love the unlovable. We must bring all God’s people into renewed relationships. The salvation of our souls, the salvation of this nation and the salvation of the Church depend upon a seismic shift in our understanding of God. The God who led children from slavery to salvation, from synagogue to chapel, and from slave cabin to the White House is the same God who will move us from broken urban community churches and communities to become the salvation of the Church. That’s the madness of the Jesus who declared, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”