This morning we hear one of the most quintessential stories in all of the gospels; so definitive in fact that it has given birth to a term that is used to label a person we deem as a skeptic. When someone we know is unwilling to believe something without concrete evidence, we call them a ‘doubting Thomas.’ Beginning with Easter Day we hear an abundance of post-resurrection stories witnessing to the disciples and those close to Jesus seeing, speaking, and eating with Him, giving credence to the fantastic rumors that His body had not been stolen, but that He had in fact risen from the dead three days after his gruesome crucifixion, just as He had prophesied. Our lection from John begins with one of these accounts: it is the first day of the week following the crucifixion and Jesus’ disciples have hidden themselves behind locked doors out of fear for their lives. Jesus appears among them bidding them peace, and then he immediately shows them his hands, feet, and side: the wounds that were inflicted on him to assure his torture and resulting death. John says: ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’
But the gospel writer says that one of them was missing: Thomas, who was called ‘the twin.’ Where was Thomas? Was he out surveying the scene, plotting a safe exit from Jerusalem for the others? Was he discreetly purchasing food and other provisions that they needed? We don’t know, all we can surmise is that Jesus’ disciples were hiding in fear and that Thomas was not with them. Considering the little we know about Thomas, this is not altogether surprising. There seems to be an implicit bravado associated with him. Earlier in John’s gospel, it is Thomas who exclaims “let us also go [with Jesus}, that we may die with him,” demonstrating that Thomas was utterly devoted to Jesus at the most, and at a hothead at the very least.[i]
But all this is overshadowed in our lection this morning by doubt. When Thomas returns to the place where his friends are hiding, they proclaim to him the gospel, that is, the good news that they had seen Jesus and they began to recount to him what had happened in his absence. It is his incredulous response to their witness that has branded him a ‘doubter’ to this day: “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 with that, we the readers, both identify with Thomas (it is doubtful that anyone could rise from the dead) while simultaneously judging him (after all that he had experienced with Jesus, how could he not believe?).
In his commentary entitled Readings in St. John’s Gospel, former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple compares and contrasts Thomas’ doubt with that of the Pharisees and the countless others that could not countenance Jesus’ message during his earthly ministry. There were certain instances in where Jesus refused to entertain requests for a sign. You may recall in Mark’s gospel a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees: The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.[ii]In Matthew’s gospel we hear a similar account where Jesus is teaching in His hometown synagogueand the people take offense at him. Matthew continues: And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.[iii] The New International Version of the Bible reads: And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. And this is what Temple says nuances the doubt of Thomas with that of others: faith.
Now, you may be thinking that ‘doubt’ and ‘faith’ make strange bedfellows. How can one be doubtful and faithful simultaneously? Temple argues that the difference lies in willingness to believe. The Pharisees did not want to believe and demanded of Jesus a sign to prove them wrong. He writes: Their demand proceeded from ill-will; it was necessary first to cure that ill-will. Nothing can be more remote from discipleship than a man who should suppose the Gospel to be true while wishing that it were not. The doubt of Thomas, on the other hand, proceeded from loyalty and good-will.[iv] Thomas’ request to see and touch the wounds of Jesus, while exhibiting doubt, also expresses both a faith and hope that it will be true for him as it is for those other disciples.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes: For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.[v] In all of Thomas’ experiences with Jesus, he had seen people’s lives changed. He had witnessed healing and had already witnessed resurrection. He had participated fully in the very ministry of Jesus, leaving his home, family, and work to participate in Jesus proclamation of the gospel. He was eager to die with Jesus and like the others he abandoned Him in order to preserve his own life. Now he was being told that his friends had seen Jesus. Thomas, while emotional and hopeful, expresses his own need to experience and see what the others had: the wounds of the risen Jesus and to touch them. A week passes and Jesus does appear to Thomas and grants him his request to see and touch. Thomas immediately exclaims: “My Lord and my God!” To identify, judge, and dismiss Thomas with other doubters would result in a missed opportunity to follow his example.
Truth be told, many if not all of us sitting here this morning, have had moments of doubt in our journeys with Jesus. With all that is going on both in our civic lives in this country as well as internationally, we can safely say that the world in which we live is every bit as confusing, dangerous, and uncertain as they were in first century Palestine. It is not hard to understand how one could ask the question, “Where is God in all of this?” I would say that we may need to make Thomas’ request our very own prayer: Show me the marks and let me touch them and I will believe. You don’t have to look far. In our backyard, outside one of the wealthiest and most prestigious universities in this country, there so many who have no home, food, healthcare, or promise for the future. You don’t have to look far to see those who are in power trying to preserve an understanding of faith that promotes their own well-being and security at the expense of these who have nothing. Jesus invitation to see and touch are bound up in the call to serve those whose hopes, dreams, desires, talents, and very being have been squandered by those whose doubt is fed by ill-will. Jesus is calling us to bind up the wounded, attend to the needs of those who cannot provide for themselves, at the same time bearing witness to His life changing power to convert even the most hardened heart.
Thomas’ request to see and to touch follow Jesus’ own example to seek and serve. It is in this way that we will come to know and believe in the one whom God raised from the dead in order that we all might all live and have life abundantly. This may take some time….salvation and healing are a process, but it is with a hopeful faith that we begin our own work to seek and serve. And it is through this work that we will come to know Jesus more fully and exclaim for ourselves: “My Lord and my God!” Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[vi]
[ii] Mark 8:11-13
[iii] Matthew 13:54-58
[iv]Temple, William. Readings in St. John’s Gospel. London: Macmillan, 1942. Print. Second.
[v] Romans 8:24-25
[vi] Collect for the Second Sunday of Easter, Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 224