At the risk of dating myself a bit, I remember when Snopes.com was the Urban Legends Reference Pages.
The original authors of that site compiled page after page of these things that you hear about “around the water cooler”, rumors that would be passed around by email, usually starting with “I know someone who knows someone who saw this firsthand . . .”.
You can still peruse many of those stories that you heard as a child. There is the one about the couple of teenagers who went into the woods that there was a man with a hook for a hand. Or the time someone found a finger in their French fries at Wendy’s!
These are usually outrageous stories, hard to believe . . . except that “someone knows someone who was there.”
I am skeptical by nature, especially about these sorts of stories. I am that person who fact-checks if the child with cancer really needs all of those little flip-top things from soda cans in order to be able to afford their cancer treatment. I am the sort of person who has to make sure that a story is true; with many things I have a tough time simply taking someone else’s word for it.
And in that way, I can understand Thomas, this one we call Doubting Thomas, because I tend to be a doubter too. Thomas had heard the story. The other disciples had told him how they had seen Jesus, how the Risen Christ had appeared to them in this very room. And even though he was the only one not there, he still would not take their word for it. “If I can’t put my hands in the wound on his side, if I cannot see the wounds in his hands and feet, I will not believe,” Thomas . . . that is . . . Doubting Thomas declared.
But I’m glad that Thomas doubted; I’m glad that we have a record of his doubting. There are some scholars who say that the reason that these stories of resurrection appearances were written down was to help people believe. There were other stories in the mix as well accusing the disciples of stealing the body and stating that Jesus was alive.
Scholars say that beyond telling the story of what happened, these stories have a function, a purpose. And the purpose of these stories is to help people believe that indeed Christ is risen, just like he said that he would.
And that sort of makes sense to me. Because these urban legends, even though many of them are not true, urban legends also have a purpose.
All those stories about killers lurking in the woods who kill young couples who go parking in their cars, those stories are a warning of a sort . . . about what can happen if you go “parking” in the woods. Those stories about strange animals or freak events in nature tell us that sometimes all of nature can be forced out of sync, disrupted, and catastrophe can result.
So maybe when we read these stories, we believe some of it. If the story is passed around enough, then we must believe, right? But in the end, I don’t think that it is just the facts of the story that we may believe; the purpose of the story may be different than that.
Thomas was not simply looking for facts . . . the facts in the way that we think about fact . . . what is true and what is false. Our text is very explicit that Thomas needed to touch in order to believe. He needed to touch something solid, not spirit, not feeling or emotion, but something real.
And sometimes I think that’s what we all want too. We live in a world where it can feel that there is not much real left. We play so many games, read so much fantasy, watch so much video, see so many advertisements where people try to sell us something that will make us stronger, better, and happier; I think sometimes we forget what is real. Because what is real is not all the cars and houses; it is not our jobs or our “score”. In the end what is real, what can be touched, is our relationships with those around us . . . our relationship with God.
Thomas wanted to touch, to touch what was real. And we do too.
This week my wife and I started another introduction to mindfulness class. It is a practice that calls us to be in the present, to really feel where we are, in our breath, feeling the chair underneath us. There is a profound physicality to the practice that urges us to notice our thoughts, but then come back to our breath, to what may be a most basic part of our experience. The breath inside us is very real.
We talked some about the “present moment focus” of children in class, and I was reminded an early experience with our children, of walking them in a double stroller. I remember my daughter getting to that point where she wanted to walk alongside, “like a big girl”.
So sometimes, if we were in a place where it is safe to do so, then that is what we would do. And even though I would tend to be in a mode that is more about doing than being, about getting from point A to point B, she did not think that way. She would walk up the curb and down the curb because it is fun to do that. She put her feet in the grass and pushed them up and down. She would see the weeds along the side of the road, weeds that had little flowers on them and she would say, “fl-ow-uh fl-ow-uh”. And I responded “Yes, that is a flower.” And her toddling along felt real as her brother slept on and off in the stroller, making real sounds of sleeping and breathing.
It has been several years now, but the hugs that these near-adults give us now are real too. The other communities that we are privileged to be a part of, where we talk, hug, where we share bread and wine, that is very real. We do all of this in order to touch what is real in a world where there isn’t much “real” left.
Thomas wanted to touch what was real. He had to touch Jesus. Thomas, like the other disciples, had felt the reality of death. Death is most certainly real. Death most certainly hurts. The pain that we all experience in life is real, the pain of broken families, of the brokenness in our lives.
So we tell the story again. And beyond the reality of the story, the story itself has a purpose and a meaning. Our gathering together, our sharing of doubts, but also our touching and hugging, the sharing of food, of simply breathing together, that is the reality of faith as well.