Unless I See

Unless I See

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he 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.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

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.”

~John 20:19-29

Poor, poor Thomas, or should I say, “Doubting Thomas”… for that is definitely the name we hear more often. I saw a cartoon earlier this week that portrayed Thomas, hands on hips, saying, “It’s just not fair. It’s not like people go around calling that guy ‘Denying Peter.’”

If you ask me it’s an unjust mislabeling. Thomas only wants what everyone else has already received—a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus, hands, feet, whole and real. In fact, if you look at the original text, the word “doubt” does not appear anywhere in this passage. The Revised English Bible renders Jesus’ words, “Be unbelieving no longer.” Jesus doesn’t say not to doubt. He goes with the positive… “believe.”

Doubt doesn’t eliminate belief; it is an element of belief, a starting step and an ongoing part of the process. And I don’t think Jesus need have worried about Thomas being an unbeliever. That is, if Thomas were an unbeliever, he would have been living his life off somewhere else by now. He wouldn’t be sitting in the upper room with the rest of the disciples, hoping Jesus might appear again. Thomas is there because this was the place where Jesus was last seen together with his friends. Thomas is up there, waiting, wanting to see evidence of this incredible thing that is said to have taken place. Those aren’t the actions of an unbeliever. That’s someone who’s still engaged with the push and pull of his faith; who is willing to struggle and wait, watch and hope.

Thomas (Greek-‘Didymus’) means ‘Twin’, and as my friend Fred likes to say when he preaches on this, he’s your twin, if you want him. And I know he is the twin of many of us, those of us who have our own struggles, questions, and yes, our doubts.

He’s a twin that lots of folks would be fortunate to have. I’d certainly like to have him in my family tree. Rather than trying to discount and disparage him as many have done with the “Doubting” label, I propose that Thomas has the strongest faith of any of the disciples.

He doesn’t grandstand like Peter: Watch me walk on water! – Jesus, you will never wash my feet! Nor does he jockey for position like James and John, who elbow each other out of the way to see who might sit at Jesus’ right hand. Consider the places we meet Thomas in John’s Gospel.

We see him in the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus loved, who was ill and later dies. Lazarus’ sisters called for Jesus, who is ready to go to Judea, but the disciples say, No, don’t go there, the Jewish authorities want to stone you. That’s the last place we want to be. But Thomas, notably, does not join the chorus of people eager to hold Jesus back and save his skin and their own. He says, Let’s go, so that we may die too. Thomas is a ‘gamer!’

We meet Thomas again a few chapters later. Jesus is teaching about God’s house, which has many rooms. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says. “I go to prepare a place for you… You know the way to the place where I am going.” And Thomas answers, Umm, actually Lord, we don’t know the way. How can we know the way?

We might knock Thomas for interrupting one of the more eloquent discourses of Jesus, except that his question is vital if you actually care about following the Lord.

You don’t ask that question unless you intend to go where Jesus wants to you to go.

So that’s Thomas earlier in John, and then we have this account to round out our character sketch. The first time Jesus appears post-resurrection, Thomas is off away somewhere. Some say that Thomas is the patron saint of the day late and the dollar short crowd. They all get to see Jesus while he’s off wandering around aimlessly, hopeless and looking for new direction in life.

But it can’t be that simple, can it? Where is Thomas, based on his history? It seems clear, doesn’t it? He’s not running away; he’s looking for Jesus! Mary Magdalene had announced that Jesus is risen, so Thomas is going to find him. He’s certainly not going to cower behind a locked door, quivering with the other disciples for fear of the religious authorities. Thomas is the only one brave enough to be on the outside. So call him Daring Thomas, not Doubting Thomas.

In the years to come, after Jesus is no longer with them, the disciples will go on to spread the good news and found churches. Thomas has a special distinction to be the only disciple to have ventured beyond the Roman Empire to spread Christianity. Tradition tells us he established churches in southern India, for heaven’s sake!

Thomas is a disciple of movement:“Let’s go to Judea, even if it means our death.”

“I don’t know the Way, Jesus, but I want to know, so tell me. I’m not going to sit up here in the upper room with the door bolted. If Jesus is alive, I’m going to go find him and I’m not going to be afraid.”That search takes him all the way to India, further than any other disciple ever journeyed.

Thomas’s initial reluctance to believe that Jesus was alive should not surprise us. After all, Jesus was nothing but a corpse when he was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb. God had not saved him from that shameful death; and dead people do not come back to life. Even if Thomas shared the belief of many Jews that God would raise all the righteous to life on the last day, the continuing presence of Roman troops in the holy city was proof enough for anyone that judgment day had not dawned on Easter morning.

If Jesus had been raised, just about everything Thomas thought he knew would have been turned upside down. Can we blame him for wanting some evidence? The other disciples had seen Jesus, but Thomas hadn’t. And in any case, merely seeing would not be enough. Appearances can be deceiving. Thomas demands that certainty only comes in handling Jesus’ wounded body, poking his finger through the nail-holes in Jesus’ wrists and sticking his hand into the gash left by the spear that pierced Jesus’ side.

As heirs of the Enlightenment, we should have a particular empathy for Thomas. We’ve been taught that knowledge begins with skepticism— doubt, inquiry. “I think, therefore I am,” reasoned Rene’ Descartes. Having separated mind from body, thought from action, the mental world of the thinking subject from the universe of external objects, Descartes sought to replace the subjectivity and uncertainty of mere belief with an unassailable system of universal, objective truth.

Like Thomas, we too would love to hold the truth firmly in our hands. We talk of “grasping a concept” or “mastering a subject.” Jesus, though, will not be grasped nor mastered. Jesus turns the tables on us. He won’t be pigeon-holed by Thomas’ quest for certainty — or by ours. Jesus is not an object for our detached analysis or our dispassionate evaluation.

On the contrary, John’s Gospel insists that Jesus is the Subject, and we are always the object of God’s attention. Jesus is the Word who was with God in the beginning, the one through whom all things came into being and by whom all things are made. Truth, John insists, is not information we can hold in our grasp. Truth is a person: the Word made flesh, God with a human face, the Teacher who washes his disciples’ feet, the Lord who lays down his life for his friends.

It is Jesus who takes the initiative on that first Easter. His frightened followers locked themselves away in fear for their lives, but the Risen One finds them out. No stone can shut him in; no door can keep him out. Standing in the midst of his disciples, Jesus shows them his scars. As the one who has triumphed over death, he blesses them with peace. Even more, Jesus sends them into the world as his witnesses. To equip them for this ministry, Jesus bestows on them the Holy Spirit, conferring on them authority to proclaim forgiveness of sins and newness of life through fellowship with the Father and the Son.

One week later, Jesus appears to his disciples again, and Thomas is present among them. Contrary to his expectations, Thomas does not encounter Jesus as an object to be examined and probed. Instead, the doubting disciple finds himself confronted by One to whom all hearts are open, all desires known: the Risen Lord who challenges him to see and touch and believe.

Thomas had thought to make Jesus the object of rigorous and methodical examination. Instead, Jesus invites him into a relationship of trusting love and faithful discipleship.

The response is immediate and unequivocal: “My Lord and my God!” This is no bare statement of fact. Rather, Thomas’s confession constitutes a wholehearted embrace of God’s gracious promise: “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”

Thomas’s encounter with Jesus exposes our modern quest to possess the truth without putting ourselves at risk as a fantasy. We may imagine ourselves to be detached observers, rationally evaluating competing claims to truth. But as Lesslie Newbigin observes, “[Knowing is] the responsible activity of a person who is required to make costly and risky commitments. … There can be no knowing without personal commitment.”

Because Truth is a person, knowledge of the truth demands nothing less than a radical self-commitment to the God who meets us in Jesus Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures the paradox precisely: “Only those who believe Jesus obey him, but only those who are obedient believe.”

Jesus’ post-resurrection encounters with his disciples continue to set the pattern for Christian worship, even in our Secular Age. As we assemble on the Lord’s Day, the Risen One stands in our midst. By the power of the Holy Spirit, his words of forgiveness are pronounced over us, and his blessing of peace is passed among us. In everyday life, Jesus presents us with the gracious invitation: see, touch, taste, believe.

If, like Thomas, we respond in joyful self-surrender —“My Lord and my God!”— we discover that Jesus sends us, too, to be his witnesses in our homes, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, and to the ends of the earth.