What’s So Bad About Thomas?

April 28, 2019/John 20:19-31


The day after my brother died, I made my way to Tegel Airport in Berlin to catch my regularly scheduled flight.  Ricky’s husband, Detlef, went with me, ensuring I did not get lost between the tram/train/bus connections.  God’s gift had been for me to be present as Ricky died, but now it was time for me to head back home and for both of us to try to establish a new normal.

For Detlef, normal would be a hard thing to find.  Raised behind the Berlin Wall in East Germany, he had no concept of God other than a “wonderful imagining.”  His very logical, rational mind had no room for faith, for, as he put it, imagining that God was out there somewhere.  He would have totally related to Thomas.

Actually, he would have related to all of the disciples.  Thomas may be the one who gets slapped with the disparaging nickname “Doubting Thomas,” but none of the other disciples were exactly jumping on the Jesus train that Easter evening.  Locked away, hiding from the Jews, the disciples huddled together in fear.  They had watched as Jesus was crucified – suffering a gruesome, horrible death – and they were scared.  Mary Magdalene brought some tale of having seen the risen Jesus, but they did not yet believe.

Lack of belief, lack of understanding – this was nothing new for the disciples.  All through the gospel accounts we witness the disciples struggling to understand what Jesus was all about.  Three days after Jesus’ death, they knew nothing but loss and fear and pain.  Sitting in the darkened room, what did they talk about?  Do you think they argued?  Some of them probably lobbied for a quick return to their old lives.  Others may have insisted they wait for … what?  While they sat there in that locked room, Jesus came and stood among them.  “Peace be with you,” he said.  And then he showed them his hands and his side.  Into their place of doubt, fear, and longing, Jesus came offering peace.  John tells us the disciples rejoiced.

Well, it is a lot easier to believe in things you’ve actually seen, isn’t it?  The disciples did not see a vision of the risen Christ.  Jesus did not appear as a phantom or ghost.  He was not a spirit figure wafting into the room before the disciples.  He was real flesh and blood, although obviously not the same kind of flesh and blood he was before his crucifixion.  After all, he entered a locked room.  Standing there before those who had been his closest followers throughout his ministry, Jesus met them in their doubt and dismay, drawing their attention to his wounds, allowing them to believe because of the tangible evidence before them.  Theologian Karl Barth says, “By beholding his glory, by seeing, hearing and touching the flesh in which this glory is made manifest … [they] were brought to believe in him.”[1]  John says simply, “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

But not all of the disciples were there that night when Jesus came to them in that room.  Thomas, one of the twelve, was not there.  The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But Thomas wanted the same proof these others had been given.  “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.”

And “Doubting Thomas” was born.

It’s a catchy way to describe this disciple who missed out on the action Easter evening, but put yourself in his place.  The other ten sat in the room that night, and what they experienced was nothing short of a miracle.  Thomas returned to learn that an astounding thing had happened while he was away, and he had missed it all.  Missed seeing the risen Jesus, missed the invitation to examine his hands and his side, missed the breath that filled them with the Holy Spirit, missed the charge to carry Jesus’ message into the world.  Jesus came into the room with the disciples, and he didn’t say, “Where’s Thomas?”  He didn’t say, “I’ve got something special to talk to you about, but let’s wait for Thomas.”  No – flesh and blood Savior, talking Savior, blessing Savior, Spirit-gifting Savior delivered his message to the disciples in the room, and Thomas got left out.

Thomas only wanted what the other disciples had received.  He only wanted to see his risen Lord, see his wounded Savior, and perhaps taste a drop of Holy Spirit for himself.  Jesus showed his special care for Thomas by coming again to the disciples and Thomas just a week later.[2]  Standing before him, Jesus invited Thomas to “put his finger here and see my hands” – to touch the risen Jesus and thus believe.  The writer of the gospel doesn’t tell us whether Thomas in fact touched Jesus.  We learn only that Thomas uttered a profound profession of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

Maybe it is Jesus’ words to Thomas after this declaration of belief that tagged him with that awful nickname.  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.”

But according to John, those who were with Jesus during his ministry – all of the disciples – came to belief because they had seen the risen Lord.  The disciples became apostles – the foundation of Jesus’ community – because they witnessed his resurrection.

The real message here, I think, is for us.  We all are Thomas.  We are all of the disciples.  We are locked away in a room, frightened of our enemies, of what the outside world holds against us, blind to what Jesus has done on the cross.  Wanting a real revelation, some solid proof of this resurrected Lord.  But Fredrick Buechner points out our eyes are not the only things we see with.  Eyes see only facts, not truth.  We see truth with the “eyes” of our hearts.  Thomas believed because he saw Jesus with the eyes of his head.  But he also saw the truth of Jesus with the eyes of his heart.

That’s what we’re left with – a willingness to see with our hearts.  Like Thomas, we may believe a little, but we’re not sure exactly what.  And we’re not really sure if it’s enough.  Or if it all is a “wonderful imagining.”

The good news of Easter is that Jesus comes through our locked doors and stands beside us, saying, “Peace be with you.”

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 448

[2] Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John, 284

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