A writer named Carolyn Gratton used a story from the Sufi spiritual tradition in her book, The Art of Spiritual Guidance. It’s about a wise fish.
It seems that there once were some fish who spent their days swimming around in search of water. Anxiously looking for their destination, they shared their worries and confusion with each other as they swam. One day they met a wise fish and asked him the question that had preoccupied them for so long: “Where is the sea?” The wise fish answered: “If you stop swimming so busily and struggling so anxiously, you would discover that you are already in the sea. You need look no further than where you already are.” (p. 5)
Carolyn used the story to talk about the presence of God, and the peace, and hope, and meaning, and sense of purpose and value that people experience, when they have the awareness that God is with them. This is not just an intellectual knowing that God is real, or a philosophical position, or even a statement of faith. It is not really a “head” thing at all. It is a deeper knowing. A knowing in our soul, that God is with us, nurturing, and loving, and helping us live, in the same way that water surrounds the fish, and offers them what they need to live and thrive.
One of the ways we can think about Jesus, is that in his teaching, in his listening to people, in the healing that he offered, Jesus was like the wise fish. He helped the other fish know that they did not need to swim madly about looking for what they needed, for it was all around them, if they could learn to see it.
Jesus helped people know that God was all around them, and that helped them live with courage, and confidence. Some people were so inspired that they left behind their old lives to follow him, to swim where he swam.
We know the names of some of these daring fish, because they were the first disciples. One of them was Thomas. The Gospel story for today tells us that Thomas was not with the group when they had a shared experience of the Risen Christ. The others told him about this mysterious time when Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you”, and showed them his hands and his side.
Thomas was not there when the disciples heard Jesus say, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Thomas was not there when Jesus 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.”
The next time Thomas was with the group, they told him about what they had seen and heard, but it was not enough. Thomas 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.”
Thomas’ friends had received the assurance that all that Jesus had started was not over. There was more work for them to do. They would be carrying on, helping others to know the reality, and the love of God.
But Thomas was not so sure. Because Thomas was so honest and forthright, he has gone down in Christian tradition as the doubter. He has been used as the “poster boy” in many “just have faith” campaigns, that suggest that doubt is a big problem.
I don’t think using the Thomas story this way is fair to him, or to anyone else who has questions, or doubts. I think that Thomas’ hesitancy is normal, and that his doubts are healthy. As the writer Anne Lamott has said, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. “
I am suspicious of people who never admit to having any doubts, especially about something as mysterious, and important as God. People who act as if they have it all figured out, often act without compassion, or understanding of the rest of us, who are still struggling along, doing the best we can.
Jesus was not only the wise fish, who helped other fish slow down enough to know that the sea of God is all around us. Jesus was also kind , and empathetic, and knew that confusion and doubt are part of what it means to live in this world.
In a part of the Gospels we call the Beatitudes, or the blessings, Jesus spoke on a hillside to crowds of people who were desperate for encouragement, and said,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “(Matthew 5:3-4)
In his wonderful paraphrase of the Bible called “The Message”, the writer Eugene Peterson has Jesus say it this way, in more down to earth language: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. “
That sounds like Thomas, who has lost his teacher and friend. I don’t think Jesus would condemn Thomas for having doubts and questions.
This story in John’s Gospel, like all the other Jesus stories, was collected, and eventually written down, many years after Jesus’ earthly life. The stories were passed on by people who never actually met Jesus, for the benefit of people like us, who have also never met Jesus in the flesh.
Let’s consider that for a moment. This is a story about Thomas, who expresses difficulty in believing in what he has not seen. Thomas’ story was written down by people who never actually saw Jesus in the flesh, for people like us, who also never saw the earthly Jesus. The writer, the early editors of the Gospels left us this story, not to make us feel worse, but to encourage us.
Maybe that can help us look a little deeper.
“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 doubt but believe.”
Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
That’s the line that hooks me, because it sounds so much like what Jesus said to the people on the hillside: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “
Jesus understands how hard it is for us in this life. We are the poor in spirit. We have trouble trusting in God, and we have difficulty believing in things that we can’t see with our own eyes. We have doubts. We are all kind of like the fish swimming around frantically looking for the sea.
If we just skim the surface of the story, it is easy to focus on Thomas putting his finger in Jesus’ wounds. But what if this story is not just about Jesus’ wounds, but about the woundedness of Thomas, and me and you, anyone else who finds it hard to be a little fish swimming about, in search of something they fear they won’t find?
Thomas, the one who touched Jesus’ wounds, is also in touch with his own fears, and weaknesses, his own vulnerability. That’s the place where Jesus meets him, and reassures him that what his friends have told him is true. What Jesus started will continue, and he can be part of it.
It may be that it is in recognizing our own woundedness, our own vulnerability, our own fears and doubts that we are able to begin to look beyond ourselves, and see, not with our eyes, but with our heart and souls, that God is always with us. Returning again to that paraphrase called “The Message”:
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.