Language is a funny thing.
We use words constantly to express ourselves and assume that the words we use will be understood as we mean them. For instance, if I were to say to someone here, “That’s a nice tie you’re wearing” or “That’s a nice dress you have on”; we would most likely hear that as being a complement. Everyone would think I was saying something positive about that tie or that dress. But what if nice wasn’t as nice as we think it is? What if nice really meant something else?
If you lived in the late Middle Ages, it would have.
Nice entered English via Anglo-Norman from classical Latin nescius, meaning ignorant. Then it wandered off every which way. From the 1300’s through 1600’s it meant silly, foolish, or ignorant. During that same time period, though, it was used with these unrelated or even contradictory meanings:
- Showy and ostentatious, or elegant and refined
- Particular in matters of reputation or conduct; or wanton, dissolute, lascivious
- Cowardly, unmanly, effeminate
- Slothful, lazy, sluggish
- Not obvious, difficult to decide, intricate.
By the 1500’s, “nice” came to mean meticulous, attentive, sharp, making precise distinctions. By the 18th century, it acquired its current (and rather bland) meaning of agreeable and pleasant, but other meanings hung on, just to keep things interesting.
So, if I was from the late middle ages, I might mean, “That is a foolish looking dress” or “That is a disreputable looking tie.” Instead of complementing someone, I’ve insulted them and because we live in a time when the word has a different meaning, the person hearing the comment would have no idea whether they were being complemented or insulted.
Another example is the word bad. It meant something not good until the 1980’s when bad became a synonym for cool. At that point, bad became good or least could be a positive thing under the right circumstances. So, yeah, language is funny that way, that we can use the same word in two different ways. But it isn’t just English that works that way, it’s all languages because over time words evolve to mean things they didn’t before. Culture has a habit of using words in new ways as it evolves.
One of these words is the Greek word pistis, which shows up seven times in one form or another in our reading today. I think this word is an important word to key in on in this chapter because it has such a tremendous impact on our understanding of the Jesus story and the Jesus movement for the last two millennia. The word is used two hundred and forty-four times in the New Testament writings and becomes a powerful symbol for Christian life and way of being. The basic meaning of this word is to trust in or rely on a person, thing, or statement, though most often, the word gets translated as the noun faith or the verb believe. Let’s look at this word in our passage today and see how this idea of trust works in its context or time and place.
Sometimes you just have to be there. It’s like the joke that only makes sense at one o’clock in the morning when you’re watching a dumb movie with friends or the running gag that becomes part of a trip with family. It’s the moment when the sun rises over the edge of the horizon along the beach. It’s a thousand little moments when something happens that seems so small but feels so big. It’s the moment I tell my Sunday school class, “but what if…” and they all cringe at once. And Thomas missed it.
Our story doesn’t explain why, it simply says, “But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.” Maybe he was checking on someone. Maybe he was, like the others, frightened and hiding somewhere else before he made his way back to the other disciples. Maybe he drew the short straw and had to go get something from the first century equivalent of Wal-Mart. We don’t know. All that is said is that he wasn’t there.
But when he got there, the others had a story to tell. “We have seen the Lord.” Imagine their excitement and wonder as they shared with Thomas. Imagine their joy and hope rising as they talked. Yet, Thomas, incidentally like most of us, wondered. Maybe this was a prank, maybe and illusion, maybe they were all just exhausted. It had been a long weekend. Thomas is having none of it though. He declares, “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.”
Then a week goes by, a week of Thomas wondering, second guessing, doubting himself as well as the others. Let’s be honest here. If someone came to you right now and said that your favorite preacher/teacher had come back from the dead would you think, “Oh wonderful! I can’t wait to see them!” or would you think, “Yeah, right. I’ll have to see it to believe it.” Most of us are Thomases and would want to see to be sure. Then they are all together a week later and Jesus appears in their midst. Thomas, the one who wanted proof, got his proof. Jesus stand before him in resurrected form and says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas is overwhelmed and can do nothing but fall on his knees and cry out, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus goes on to say to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”
At this point in the story, I think it would be all but impossible for Thomas to doubt. But what does that mean? What are we saying when we say that Thomas doesn’t doubt anymore? Most of us would say he believes, right? That’s the word that is translated into English in most of our texts, right? But what if that word and its counterpart faith have become spiritual baggage that has, as Jesus might say, lost its savor?
You see I think that these words, believe and faith, have come to mean something other than what they were intended to mean. I also think the ideas of believing in something and having faith in something have become lightning rods for negativity in the last century as the words have taken on more of a political than religious meaning. Some in the church have spent the last century using these words as part of a litmus test for being a Christian. Some Christians ask, “Do you believe in Jesus? Do you have faith in Jesus?” What I think they are really asking is something different.
I think the idea of faith has come to mean the faith with and implies a set of rules and ideas ideas that have to be taken as true statements or facts. I think the words believe or belief as following in that line of thought, where those words are aligned with a certain way of approaching those ideas that we call the faith.
I think the better word with the better meaning and the word that more accurately portrays our understanding of faith is trust. Trust is a relational, connectional way of expressing what it means to engage God personally rather than through a set of ideas or thoughts about God. I think it is the difference in connecting with God and talking about God.
So, let’s do a little translating. Let’s replace the English words believe, belief and faith in our passage and see if it makes a difference.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So, the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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 trust.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not refuse to trust but trust.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you trusted because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to trust.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through trusting you may have life in his name.
May we come to trust in God through Jesus that we may truly know what it is be children of God, living in God’s presence.