There’s one thing I know for certain about today’s gospel lesson: Thomas needed a better press agent! He should have hired an image consultant to spin the story and help to paint him in a more favorable light. Let’s be honest when I say “blank” Thomas and ask everyone to fill in the blank, what do most people say? Doubting Thomas. 99.9% of the time!
NOT Saint Thomas, the patron saint of architects whose feast day is July 3rd;
NOT Evangelist Thomas who tradition says was sent to evangelize the Parthians, Medes and Persians; who ultimately reached India, carrying the faith to the Malabar Coast, which still boasts a large native population who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas.”
NOT Apostle Thomas who followed faithfully in Jesus’ footsteps, who tradition says was speared to death at a place called Calamine. We simply think of him as Doubting Thomas and this is HORRIBLY unfair.
So today, I’m going to set the record straight. I’m going to be his press secretary and try to convince you that we all have more in common with Thomas than we may care to admit. So, let’s get to it.
We begin with the observation that there’s no disciple who immediately understood what happened that first Easter morning. There is no disciple who didn’t struggle with doubt.
Exhibit Number One: The shorter ending of the gospel of Mark says that after the women heard the angel proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mk 16:8] Doubting women? Check!
Exhibit Number Two: Matthew tells us that when the risen Christ met the eleven disciples on a mountain top “They worshipped him; but some doubted.” Furthermore, Luke’s gospel says that when the women shared with the disciples the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, their words sounded like “an idle tale,” a big fish story, and the disciples “did not believe them.” [Lk 24:11] Doubting disciples? Check!
Exhibit Number Three: Finally, we reach John’s version of the story which was the last of the gospels to be written. What do we have here? Do we have a bunch of excited disciples walking through the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming that “Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed”? Not even close. Mary has a panic attack and fled from the tomb, saying, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter and another disciple arrive on the scene. Peter goes in first but his reaction is unrecorded. John tells us the other disciple “saw and believed,” but also adds “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” So I’m not exactly sure what John believed. Did he believe that Jesus body had been stolen OR did he believe that he had risen from the dead. Inquiring minds want to know!
Finally, we have late Easter evening and where do we find all these so-called faith-filled disciples? They are hiding in fear behind locked doors, afraid the boogeyman is going to come and get them. Doubting women? Doubting disciples? Check and double Check! I rest my case.
There is not a single disciple who gets it right way, who exhibits unshakable faith. This is good news for us. Thomas is no better or worse than any other disciple in the gospel stories. So let’s cut him some slack, shall we?
Thomas’ story is our story. Resurrection and new life might be staring us in the face but we don’t always have eyes to see it nor the wisdom to understand it. We all have questions and doubts about God, about ourselves, and about life. Sometimes, we even want to hide behind locked doors, quaking with fear, like those first disciples.
It’s important that we don’t see Thomas in a negative light because he gives us permission to embrace the mystery of life, to admit that there is much in this world we don’t understand. Thomas, like the rest of the disciples, reminds us that doubt is an element of faith, not its opposite. Doubt allows us to ask questions, to slow down our need to always move forward, to discern a new path where God may be leading us. So being called a Doubting Thomas may be more of a compliment than we realize!
But we’re not finished yet. As Thomas’ new press secretary I need to state that the story continues. After all the doubts and misunderstanding, after fearfully hiding behind locked doors, the resurrected Christ appears to the disciples and says “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathes on them the Spirit/wind/breath of God, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
This is John’s version of the Pentecost story. What it tells us is that the empty tomb is not enough to convince the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was Christ’s continued presence in their lives that helped them to transcend their fear and doubt and move forward in faith. Granted, they would falter from time to time. But this experience of Jesus appearing before them changed their lives forever.
As the story continues we see that Thomas is not asking for something special. He is merely asking for the same experience the other disciples had. We don’t know why, but for some reason, Thomas was not with the other disciples, when Jesus appeared before them. When Thomas arrives back at home base, the disciples excitedly tell him “We have seen the Lord.” to which he responds, “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.”
Again, I rise to Thomas’ defense. Is he asking for something special? Not really. The other disciples had already seen Jesus. They saw the marks of the crucifixion on his body and encountered his resurrected form. Thomas is simply asking for the same experience the other disciples had. Nothing less. Nothing more.
A week later, Jesus grants Thomas this experience along with the other disciples. Jesus appears among the gathered disciples, including Thomas, and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he says 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.”
There is no chastisement in Jesus’ words. Just an open invitation. The interesting thing about our gospel lesson is that Thomas doesn’t take him up on the offer to touch the wounds of his crucifixion. He is simply overwhelmed by the presence of his Savior and friend and exclaims “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus says something to him that I believe has been misinterpreted a bit: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Most people take this to mean that we are supposed to believe in Jesus without seeing him stand right in front of us in resurrected form. However, I interpret this a little bit differently. Yes, there is a special blessing for those that have the kind of faith that believes in Jesus without question. However, this is the exception rather than the rule.
For the rest of us, including Thomas, we believe in Jesus because we experience his presence in our lives right here and right now. We receive his words of peace and sense his presence among us just like those first disciples. Granted, we don’t encounter his resurrected form directly. But we who call ourselves Christians believe that Christ is still present with us: in the waters of Baptism, and the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion. He speaks peace to us through the Word, and breathes the power of the Holy Spirit into us and into the Church. If Jesus were not still with us, If all we were left with was a philosophy to follow, I don’t think the Church would survive. In spite of our doubts and fears, we have the faith that Jesus is here. He’s alive! There is nothing, not even death, that can separate us from his loving presence.
Thomas is not the villain here. He is one of us: an honest, faithful follower of Jesus who reacted to the resurrection in the same way the other disciples did. Thomas gives us permission to name our fears and doubts when they arise. He invites us to receive the presence of the living Christ in our hearts and experience his peace in our lives. Let us be open to Thomas’ story that it may help us to better understand that doubt and faith often go hand in hand. Amen.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck