This morning I was leading and preaching for the home crowd at St Peter’s Lutheran Church. I love this church and the congregation! The Sunday after Easter in the lectionary always features the story of Thomas. I am so glad we get to spend the next few weeks looking at the impact of the resurrection on those who were there.
Acts 5:12-32 & John 20:19-31
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred
open the doors of our hearts today.
Help us when we are slow to believe, bring us to a place where we can say, ‘My Lord and my God’,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen.
The tomb is empty, Christ is risen, death has been defeated, love wins, we are a resurrection people, nothing on earth will ever be the same again. Right?
That was last week! Right?
But this week…the Easter lilies are wilting, the chocolate has been eaten, the eggs have been found, it feels wrong to eat hot cross buns and the rest of the world has moved on. Welcome to the Week After.
Now what? Where do we go from here?
Fortunately, in the church we have a few weeks to contemplate the events of Easter, meet the people who were there that first Easter day and see the effects that Jesus’ resurrection had on them and the rest of the world for the last 2000 years. The readings for the first Sunday after Easter traditionally feature the story of Thomas.
I find Thomas to be a rather interesting character. There is very little mention of him in the gospels; he first appears as a name on the list of the disciples first chosen by Jesus. There is no information about what he did for a job, where he came from or his family only that he was a twin.
Thomas is usually portrayed as the dogged disciple – often accused of being slow on the uptake, the doubter. Poor Thomas. Many a sermon has been preached as a warning to not be like Thomas. Thomas the 50% believer – the one who needed everything proved and crystal clear before he could believe.
Don’t doubt just believe! So easy! Sure – if you don’t want to think too hard about anything! We live in an age where doubt has become the predominant form of belief.
But do we doubt the right things?
How many of us questioned whether the water coming out of the tap this morning was safe to drink? Did any of you question the weight-bearing load of the chair you are currently sitting on before you sat on it? How about the time-keeping capabilities of your alarm clock this morning? Don’t get me started on the brakes of your car!
How is it that when a Nigerian prince sends an email asking for help in return for a few million dollars, some people readily hand over their banking details? What about Dr Google? Weight-loss concoctions on Facebook? The perfect lives staged on Instagram? Daily we put ourselves in a high number of situations that we should doubt more than do. We doubt both we see and what we don’t see.
I think there is another side to Thomas; he needs another look in. Maybe Thomas was the disciple who was asking the questions that everybody had but didn’t want to ask out loud. I am not that person! I often find myself grateful and slightly annoyed by those people who can ask questions publicly in meetings or academic settings.Before his comments that made him the poster-boy of doubt for all eternity, Thomas is quoted on two other occasions.
In John 11 the news of Lazarus’ illness has reached Jesus and the disciples. Jesus was on his way to Bethany to be with Lazarus and his sisters and didn’t seem too concerned with the threats to his life. The disciples weren’t sure that this was a great idea as the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were ready to stone Jesus; if not kill him. In the middle of this Thomas proves himself to be man of the moment, a man of passion who declares, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’. The other disciples were ready to run the other way but not Thomas, he was prepared to go to the wire with Jesus. This doesn’t sound like a man who doubts. Maybe Thomas was the disciple who didn’t say much but when he did everyone else listened? Know anyone like that? I suspect that people with this gift are not doubted as much as those who talk incessantly.
Thomas is next recorded as speaking in John 14. Jesus is explaining to the disciples that he is going to leave them. The chapter starts with the reassuring words ‘do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house…’ Jesus is explaining where is going and what he is going to do there; he also tells the disciples that they know the way. It is Thomas who pipes up and says, ‘we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?!’ Jesus was obviously not being clear enough for Thomas. It is also likely the other disciples did not understand what Jesus meant either.
Jesus responds to Thomas with some of the most beautiful words ever to fall from his mouth. Jesus tells Thomas ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’ Thomas has been told; he has seen the Father in the Son.
So where was he on the evening of that first day of that week when Jesus appeared? The news of the resurrection was fresh and raw, the disciples were living in fear of the Jews and had locked themselves away. As we know the end of the story, their confusion and grief can often escape us. Maybe it was all a bit too much for Thomas? Some people stay away and hide when life gets tough. The disciples were together but Thomas was not with them. Alone time?
That following week must have been torture for Thomas. The disciples had received the Holy Spirit (a whole sermon on its own for another day!) and were in much better moods! I am sure we have all had to miss events due to circumstances. Then those who did attend the event talk on incessantly about it, down to every last detail, the play by play of every moment. And no matter the minutia of detail – you still weren’t there!
It would be reasonable to believe that Thomas become more entrenched in his declaration to see the nail marks and the side wound. Jesus returns again. This time just for Thomas. Thomas the one who doesn’t get much mention, says a couple of brilliant things that we know about, was there through it all and then disappeared in grief and confusion. In a moment in the presence of Jesus, Thomas’ excuses and defences are dropped. Jesus invites Thomas to put his fingers in his hands and in his side.
The text doesn’t say if he did or not; notice that John doesn’t record whether Thomas actually touched Jesus or not. All it gives us is Thomas’ verbal reply of ‘My Lord and my God.’ In this moment, Jesus firmly but gently reminds Thomas that he believes because he has seen (at least twice). Thomas is responsible for the blessing that the whole rest of the world gets for not seeing and yet believing.
I want to finish off with a final observation:
Thomas was part of a community where he openly voices his doubt. Like I said, Thomas has been portrayed negatively as the doubter, one of weak faith, the cynic, the holdout. These are often seen as spiritual flaws. I don’t see Thomas as weak, I see him as a man who wanted a living encounter with Jesus. Thomas wasn’t going to settle for someone else’s experience of the resurrection but wanted his own. Thomas was willing to admit his uncertainty in the midst of those who were certain. This is bravery.
Thomas doubted openly, without shame or guilt and his community allowed him to do so. They seemingly could handle his doubt. He wasn’t told to shut up or hide his doubts. Again, maybe he just said what others were feeling or thinking?
How does this community respond to doubt? Is this a place where they can be shared openly without fear of judgment or silencing?
When Jesus’ wounds met Thomas’ doubts, new life erupted. In Acts 5 the apostles are performing miraculous signs and wonders among the people of Jerusalem, people were believing in Jesus and being healed. I wonder how many times Thomas told people ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed?’
What happened to Thomas? Tradition holds that when the apostles were dispersed after Pentecost, Thomas was sent to evangelize the Parthians, Medes and Persians before he ultimately reached the Malabar coast of southwest India. There is a large native population there calling themselves ‘Christians of St Thomas.’ Unlike most of the other disciples/apostles who were killed for their faith in quite gory ways, it is thought that Thomas was killed in a tragic peacock hunting accident when the hunter missed the bird and hit Thomas instead.
Where are we left with Thomas this morning? Maybe Thomas is the 110% believer – the one who wants to give everything. The one who has so much riding on his commitment to Jesus that he just has to know that he is right. If Thomas is going to give it all – he needs to know he is not making a fool of himself. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails…’ insists Thomas.
This is not a man of weakness but rather one we can learn from, even if uncomfortably. The things that make Thomas seem weak or doubtful are what makes him strong, his willingness to press on and ask the questions that others won’t. Thomas shares his doubts willingly and Jesus responds and meets him where he is at.
The good news for us the week after Easter is that Jesus still meets us where we are at too. He is not afraid of our doubts, our wavering or our slowness. We, like Thomas, can hope for more. So let’s!