Jesus was dead. Anyone who said otherwise was either crazy or lying. Thomas had no desire to waste time entertaining the tales of hysterical women or deluded men. Jesus was dead and all the wishful thinking in the world wasn’t changing that. Ridiculous chatter about visions in gardens and visits from the master only made him miss his friend and teacher all the more.
So he’d skipped last week’s gathering. If Jesus’ other followers wanted to pick at grief’s open wound, that was their business. He’d just as soon try to put the whole thing behind him. Better to meditate on the Rabbi’s teaching than try to conjure the man’s ghost.
“Have you lost your mind?” he’d asked Peter when the fisherman tried to tell him about how Jesus appeared at the meeting Thomas missed. “I expect it from the Marys, or even John. But you? I thought you had a better head on your shoulders.”
“He was here,” Peter insisted. “Right in this room with us. Thomas, it was amazing. You know we agreed to keep the house locked up when we have our gatherings — he was just … here. ‘Peace,’ he said. And you know what? There was. We’ve been so scared, you know — running, hiding, meeting in secret. I’d been so afraid. But the Master said ‘Peace’ and I just wasn’t afraid anymore.”
“Poppycock!” Thomas wasn’t buying any of it. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “When I see the nail prints in his hand — no — when I can put my finger in the holes where the nails were; when I can shove my fist into that hole in his side — then I’ll believe it. Not a moment before.”
He was storming away when Peter called after him. “Just come with me. Come to the meeting tonight, hear what the others have to say.”
At the gathering, the others told the same ludicrous story. The doors where locked, but Jesus somehow appeared, right in the middle of the room. The same bit about ‘Peace’ and something about being sent out into the world.
“And then he breathed on us,” James said. “He breathed on us and he said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Thomas just looked at the wall and rolled his eyes.
“Peace be with you.”
Thomas spun around in his seat.
“Thomas, look at my hands. Put your finger in the holes. Here’s where that spear pierced me. Go ahead, feel the scar.”
Thomas was on his feet now. His lips moved, but he couldn’t find a word to put between them.
“Don’t doubt, Thomas. Believe.” Jesus was smiling now — encouraging, not mocking.
Thomas bowed his head, hiding his tears from the others.
Thomas looked up. His eyes were shining now, his beard was wet with tears. “My Lord and my God,” he cried as he fell at Jesus feet.
If you’re like me, you don’t have too much trouble identifying with Thomas.
Sure the term “Doubting Thomas” has become a bit of an epithet in our modern society. It’s a term that evokes the sort of heard-headed stubbornness that few us would like to own up to. And, yes, Thomas was a stubborn man, or at least it would seem so, based on the accounts we have of him in the Gospels: heard-headed, mind you, but never heard-hearted.
Remember the Lazarus story? When Jesus was making plans to attend his friend’s funeral, the disciples didn’t want to head back to Judea. Jesus had narrowly escaped a stoning last time they were there, and it wasn’t a scene the disciples were anxious to jump back into. They were all against it; all of them except Thomas. Thomas’s response? “Let us also go, that we might die with him.”
Thomas’s bravery bears out in the rest of what we know of his life. He was perhaps the only Apostle who went outside the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel. He is also believed to have crossed the largest area, including the Parthian Empire (an ancient kingdom spanning a region from what we know as Kurdistan into Eastern Iran) and India. In fact, many of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East and the Asian sub-continent have Saint Thomas to thank for bringing the Gospel to their ancestors in the faith.
But before all that, there was a huddled group of terrified people, meeting in the stuffy back room of a locked up house somewhere in Jerusalem.
Thomas had good reason to doubt the word of his fellow disciples. Everyone had just been through the most traumatic experience of their life. Nobody was thinking clearly. Thomas knew this, and he wasn’t going to fall into the same trap as everyone else. False hope is worse than no hope at all, so Thomas wasn’t taking any chances.
He wanted hard evidence. Just the facts, ma’am. Other people’s words, muddled up with all these feelings, feelings, feelings just couldn’t be trusted. Even his own eyes weren’t completely reliable. No. Putting a finger in a nail hole. Now that would be evidence.
I totally get that.
The desire, really the need, to experience something for one’s self is not only natural, it’s commendable. I can tell you over and over and over again that Italian-style strawberry gelato is breathtakingly delicious. But until you actually put a spoonful of that delightful frozen treat in your mouth, you’re not going to fully understand what I mean.
It’s the same with the Gospel. I can intellectually understand the facts of theology. I know and love the stories of Jesus’s life and work. The Acts of the Apostles is probably my favorite book of the Bible. But reading those stories and understanding the facts is not much different from hearing eleven of my closest friends tell me they have just seen our crucified leader up and about at a meeting I happened to miss.
I can imagine how stung Thomas must have felt. Was everyone else insane? Or was it just him? Worse, was everyone telling the truth and he’d just been … left … out.
It’s easy to pin Thomas’s obstinate demand for verifiable proof on a lack of faith in the dear old apostle’s heart. But step back for a second. Jesus’s disciples hadn’t been asked to accept a whole lot on faith. Certainly they’d heard the Master talk about faith. They’d heard him say things like “Your faith has made you whole.” But, by and large, these guys had enjoyed three years of the best seats in the house for every one of the wonders Jesus worked in the lives of those they encountered.
Thomas’s reaction must have felt perfectly reasonable. Jesus had always included him; he was part of the inner circle. Why was he left out in the cold now? Why was he suddenly separated from the direct experience of Jesus in all his awe-inspiring glory?
As twenty-first century Christians, we can understand the desire for an intimate and authentic Jesus experience. In a world that is swimming in technology and drowning in entertainment, we long for the Jesus who says “Peace be with you.”
In an age of instant news, we can watch the world seemingly disintegrate around us, on demand and in living color. Everything seems random, happenstance and capricious. We long for the certainty of a nail scarred hand — to be close to Jesus’s wounded side. It’s all too easy to look at the state of the world today and say “When I can put my finger in the holes those nails left, I’ll believe Jesus died to redeem this mess we call a world.”
In John 20:11 (last week’s Gospel lesson), we read the story of Mary Magdalene discovering Christ’s empty tomb. Her reaction when she comes upon the vacant sepulcher is one of shock and disbelief. “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him,” she cries. Bear in mind that the Gospel of John was written well into the first century of the Church’s history. John, in particular, seems to have been interested in making an ontological statement about Christianity; that is to say: John’s Gospel seeks to answer the question “What is the nature of our faith?”
In that context, “I don’t know where they’ve taken the Lord” takes on an air of poignance. If your fellow first century Christians are dinner and show for a stadium full of bloodthirsty Romans and a handful of hungry lions, one of the first questions that has to come to your mind is “Where, exactly, in the world is Jesus?”
The story of Mary in the garden and Thomas in the locked-up room give both first and twenty-first century Christians the comforting answer to that query. Jesus is with us, gently saying “Peace be with you.”
Thomas demanded proof of the risen Christ. And Jesus was quick to grant his request. He graciously offered the proof of his body to satisfy Thomas’s demands. Likewise, in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of a cup, Jesus comes among us, offering the proof of his body and his blood as a comforting reminder that he is with us always, even to the end of the earth.
When Christ appeared to him, Thomas didn’t quibble; there was no resistance or hesitation. The Gospel account doesn’t even lead me to believe Thomas ever touched Jesus’s wounds. No, Thomas’s response was unequivocal: “My Lord, and my God!”
We judge Thomas too harshly. We focus on his initial doubt, and his demand for proof. But it seems pretty clear to me that the focal point of the story isn’t Thomas’s doubt; rather it’s his response when confronted with the real presence of Christ.
History has labeled him “Doubting Thomas.” But that’s not what the church calls this hero of the faith. We’ve given him the moniker “Thomas the Believer.” We call him that because, no matter what doubts plagued him, his ultimate response to the risen Christ was “My Lord, and my God!”
We too are plagued by doubt. Often we’re paralyzed by fear. We look at our world, our community, sometimes even our family or our own lives, and we ask “Where is Jesus? If I could just touch that nail-scarred hand, I’d know everything would be alright.”
Jesus is here, brothers and sisters. In breaking the bread and sharing the cup, we know the risen Christ. And may we join with Thomas in proclaiming “My Lord, and my God!”