“What Was Thomas Thinking”

“What Was Thomas Thinking”


Late that same day, the first day of the week, when the disciples were together behind locked doors for fear of the Judean leaders, Jesus came and stood among them. ‘Peace be with you!’ he said; then he showed them his hands and his side.
On seeing the Lord the disciples were overjoyed. Jesus said again, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Then he breathed on them, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain.’

One of the Twelve, Thomas the Twin, was not with the rest when Jesus came. So the others kept telling him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails on his hands, unless I put my finger into the place where the nails were, and my hand into his side, I will never believe it.’

A week later his disciples were once again in the room, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them, saying, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here; look at my hands. Reach your hand here and put it into my side. Be unbelieving no longer but believe.’ Thomas said, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are they who find faith without seeing me.’
This is the word of the Lord.

John 20:19-29

On this first Sunday after Easter, we begin all over again. And this story, honestly, seems to meet us right where we are, literally. On this first day of the week, as we are gathered behind (presumably) locked doors, I hear this story totally anew. Maybe this morning, you will too. ‘Shelter-in-place’ will do that, I guess.

This is the first time I’ve read this story that I can really imagine being Thomas. Now- I’ve lived my whole life as a Thomas, right?—but it’s taken living in these pandemic times to stir my imagination enough to get a fresh perspective of this story. The author of this Gospel, you know, did everything he could to have this story relate to us in our lives after Easter. The name of this central disciple in this story is a clue as to how we find ourselves as we encounter Jesus anew. The name Thomas, in Greek, is ‘Didymus’, which means ‘twin’, so that we are all to see ourselves in the enviable position of this ‘doubting disciple.’ We are twins of Thomas (and some scholars say that Thomas may have been twin of another disciple, but we’re not given a clue about that.) You could think of it as looking at a mirror of yourself in this story….

So, last week was Easter… and my, did that fly by!! In some ways it was the strangest Easter you’ve ever experienced, right? No church, no gathered choir, no soaring organ, no sunrise service, no dressing up for the big day, no Easter brunch or egg hunt or golden egg.…

Like the first disciples, we were locked away, secluded from society, not out of fear of persecution, but out of care for one another, separated for mutual safety.
And somehow, Jesus came among us. That happened for lots of us. This past week our church officers have been asking about our online worship attendance. I don’t exactly know how to read our viewer hits or likes on Zoom or Facebook live; but it seems that we may have reached something like our normal Easter numbers, approaching 500- maybe we were way over that; it’s hard to tell.

But one thing is for sure… Christ was present among us… It takes more than physical separation to keep us apart in Christ; and somehow, oddly enough, experiencing something as dramatic as this shelter-in-place, out of caution and care is in and of itself an act of mutual love. As odd as it sounds, staying apart brings us closer together; and sharing in this unique experience simultaneously is something we can all relate to, even one by one. …..

On that first evening of Easter, Jesus appeared to the disciples, and said “Peace be with you.” And to prove that it really was him, he showed his hands and side. (I’ve always wondered- who ELSE could it be that would just SHOW UP in the upper room, anyway? And why did Jesus need to prove that it was really him? I think that answer is something like that John always wanted to show an abundance of detail, to provide for more answers to questions than anyone could possibly rationally ask…) What’s more; the disciples were overjoyed to see him…!

And Jesus breathed upon them. Like God in creation, breathing life into the dust that became Adam and Eve, Jesus’ breath is life-giving. It is also a practice that plenty of therapists tell us to do, regularly. Breathe… just breathe, simplify everything and just breathe… Sometimes these days, that’s enough… it’s allowing God to be good to us, just.one.breath.at.a.time. And that is enough.

Jesus then pronounces forgiveness upon them, a blessing, a benediction, which might sound odd at this early point in his re-entry with the disciples. These are truly crucial words he shares with them; and us.

Jesus did not return to shame his followers for their betrayal and desertion. He did not question their motives or ask why they did or did not do what they did. Jesus was not out for revenge. His death was not their fault.

I don’t think the disciples were in hiding just because they were worried that those who killed Jesus would kill them as well. Their fear went deeper. They were afraid of the cross. And they were ashamed. Perhaps the last person the disciples wanted to meet on this particular evening was Jesus, newly risen from the dead, who would rememeber and confront them with their failures.

The word for forgiveness in Greek can be translated “to free,” or “to let go.” So the gospel story is always a message of hope and freedom, (and not blame and guilt.)

So, after finding the disciples, forgiving them and restoring peace to their souls, Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit and the ministry of mercy. Jesus entrusts them and us with his gift of forgiveness, so that we can let go of the past and begin again….

But somehow, Thomas didn’t get the memo about being in the Upper Room. Where he was during this first of Jesus appearances, we’ll never know. So the scene shifts to him, front and center, and he fills the rest of the passage. In the midst of death; having just watched Jesus die just over a day and a half before, he wants real proof of life. His doubt is justified. Death appears to be in charge.

What makes this passage so relevant is that Thomas’ crucial question is our question today. In an online back and forth with Rev. Debi Thomas this past week, (a Pastor in Palo Alto, CA, with an appropriate enough name for the subject at hand), we shared some points about how this story meets us now. Fact is, we’re hardly the first people to ask these difficult questions. Plagues have come and gone in history and Easter has arrived many times in the midst of human hardship.

The last I checked, the number of Covid-19 cases nationwide has topped 3/4 million, over 40,000 people have died, and the numbers of people suffering physically, psychologically, and financially are too high to count. Just a week after we sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” we’re invited to hear about “Doubting Thomas.” And we’re also invited to say what it is we’re feeling: “Unless I see him for myself, I will not believe.”

In Thomas’ likeness, we’re justified in feeling wary and skeptical.

There’s a lot revealed in this encounter, and what is indisputable is that Jesus arrives in a body that is scarred and wounded; that shows its traumatic history. His is a body that refuses to hide its suffering and brokenness.

Jesus’ wounds are still fresh and raw enough that Thomas could place his fingers inside of them. Maybe Jesus winced when Thomas touched him, and if so, that wincing signals real life, lived at a level we understand. Real life and real, human pain. The scene speaks the words you and I need to hear: “I am with you. I am with you in your doubts. I don’t float thousands of sanitized feet above reality. Even after death, I am with you. I will be with you.”

Jesus’ wounded body reminds me that some hurts are for keeps. Some marks of pain, loss, trauma, and horror leave traces that stick through thick and thin. Some wounds remain, even after resurrection — and that’s okay. It’s okay to celebrate Jesus’ rising — and to grieve our losses at the same time. It’s okay to hear other people’s uplifting faith stories and say, “I’m happy for you, but my heart is still broken.” It’s okay to ache for more of Jesus, and to hold our ache in tension with the joys of Easter.

This year — more than I can ever remember — I notice the wounds in Jesus’ post-resurrection life.

On this first Sunday after Easter, even though we are a resurrection people, we are still hurting. This year especially, Jesus’ scarred body speaks with great power, tenderness, mercy, and truth. Please, allow them to speak to you as well…

If you’re finding the joy of Easter difficult to access right now, rest in the fact that Jesus never sheds the marks of his pain — not even when he bursts from the tomb. Consider the blessed truth that ours is a faith of paradox: we Christians live by dying, receive by giving, and rule by serving. Jesus’ resurrected body — his body filled with new life— still retains its scars.

When I look at Thomas, I see a person who yearns for a living encounter with God; one who can’t settle for someone else’s experience of resurrection, but sticks around in the hope of having his own.

What strikes me most about Thomas’ story is not that he doubts, but that he does so publicly, without shame or guilt. Wounds and doubts. Doubts and wounds.
Welcome to life again after Easter Sunday. Welcome to life in the shadow of the empty tomb. If this sounds anticlimactic, then consider this: When Thomas’ doubts meet Jesus’ wounds, new life emerges, faith blossoms, and the doubting disciple becomes an apostle of the good news. Resurrection happens all over again.

Jesus honors the desire to see more, to experience more, to encounter more. He blesses those who struggle to believe, but who stick around, anyway. He leans toward those who yearn for more of him. Jesus leads with brokenness so that we might follow him with brokenness, too, and into glory. …

During this Week After, and through all these hard times, may we find our solace, hope, and courage in our wounded, risen Savior. Amen