One of the sweetest gifts you can give humanity is to commit an infamous act. It doesn’t have to be a mind-boggling evil. We’ll settle for a run-of-the-mill variety of sin. It just needs to be documented, well-known, and simple. Think Monica Lewinski.
Infamy is a sweet gift not simply because we relish scandal. Nor because we would rather hear evil about our neighbor than good. No, such acts are especially cherished because they allow us the opportunity to hone one of our favorite crafts: to shrink a 300-page life story down to a single paragraph that narrates what happened on one day, at a certain hour, and in a certain location. We can whittle an entire biography down to a single Tweet. Then, with the authority invested in us by the state of self-righteousness, we proclaim, “This, and nothing else, is who you are.”
Just ask Thomas. Sorry, I mean Doubting Thomas. To my knowledge, he’s the only guy from Genesis to Revelation who has an unfavorable adjective sticking out like a zit in front of his name. Consider: we haven’t christened them Murdering Cain, Womanizing David, Denying Peter, or—for crying out loud—even Betraying Judas. These other men have given us the sweet gift of infamy as well, but we’ve spared them the title to go along with it. But Thomas, ah, him we especially treasure.
For us, the defining moment for Thomas is in the upper room, when he protests that he won’t believe Jesus is alive again until—as one hymn puts it—he “reads like braille, the markings of the spear and nail.” We cut our teeth on this story. Core Sunday School curriculum stuff. But it is not the only story in which Thomas has a part to play.
In John 11, when Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is sick, he informs his disciples they’re heading back into Judea to see him. But they protest, “Very bad idea, Jesus. Look, the Jews were just trying to stone you and now you want to return? That’s just crazy.” Plus, they’re confused because Jesus, being Jesus, talks with text and subtext and sub-subtext. He speaks of Lazarus “sleeping,” so they surmise that “if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” People do that sort of thing. Finally, Jesus speaks in plain English, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.”
It appears, however, as if one person in this conversation already did believe. Without a shred of doubt, without displaying an ounce of fear, in firm and full confidence of faith, one disciple speaks. And it’s our old friend, Thomas. He says to his brothers, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Did you even know that it was Thomas who said that? Now there’s a man with a backbone. There’s a man with conviction, courage, confidence. “Come on, fellows, don’t stand around with your hands in your pockets, hemming and hawing about what we should do. Look, if Jesus is going, I’m going. If he gets hurt, I get hurt. Let’s go, brothers, that we may die with our Lord.”
And yet, no one has dubbed him Courageous Thomas, Bold Thomas, or Believing Thomas. He is Doubting Thomas. Why? Because as we select the narratives by which we want to remember people, we gravitate towards the negative, the infamous, the scandalous. “This episode of doubting, Thomas, is who you are; this and nothing else.”
Who are you? What adjective might people stick as a preface onto your name? Lying Lori, Cheating Charlie, Greedy George? Pothead Paul, Boozing Bob, Porno Paula? Or are you the type that tacks a preface in front of your own name? Do you self-identify by the skeletons hidden in your closet? Do you sew onto your own clothing the scarlet letter of secret shame?
Let me tell you who Thomas really is. He is neither Doubting Thomas nor Believing Thomas. He is Thomas. And more than that: he is Thomas, the son of our Father in heaven, the brother of Christ. Jesus doesn’t not identify Thomas by his doubt or his faith, his bad works or his good works, his virtues or his vices. Jesus identifies Thomas by that man’s union with himself.
And so he does with us. We have died and our lives are hidden with Christ in God. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. Who we are is subsumed into the biography of our Redeemer. The Spirit, with quill in hand, rewrites our life stories in the crimson ink of Christ’s atoning blood.
All of us are more complicated than the singular narrative by which most people identity us. We have done very bad things, very good things, and plenty of cocktails of them both. Most people will remember only the bad. So what? Let them. We have a God who remembers only the good. And the only good he remembers is the good that Christ has done for us, in us, and through us.
Who are we? I am Chad, the child of God. You are Paul or Bob, Cindy or Kathy, Thomas or Travis—all children of our Father, believing citizens of the kingdom of God, each of us birthed anew and bathed afresh in the waters of grace.
If we want to reduce our life story down to one adjective, if we want to whittle our biography down to a single word, then let it be this: Beloved.