The Sunday after Easter is, as one commentator puts it, “time for our annual shaming of Thomas, ‘doubting Thomas’ as we call him.” (Elizabeth R. Goodman, Journal for Preachers, Easter 2012, p. 4) It could be said that all of the other disciples, with the possible exception of John, doubted the news of Jesus’ resurrection as well, as most of the gospels say that they didn’t believe the women who were the first witnesses.
But Thomas happened to be out that evening while the others were locked in that upper room, “for fear of the Jews,” John tells us. Who knows where Thomas was? Maybe out in the streets, looking for confirmation of the rumors, or letting loved ones know that they were ok, or maybe just needing to get out and move and try to clear his head, think through his next steps. The fear in that upper room was getting to him. Thomas was not one to sit around and mope, and in fact, had been the one disciple earlier in John’s gospel to acknowledge that Jesus would indeed be killed. When word came to them that their friend Lazarus was ill, the disciples urged Jesus not to return to Judea, where he had recently been threatened with stoning. But when Jesus persisted, it was Thomas who said, “Let us go and die with him.”
But Thomas had not been there on that first Easter evening when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples in that locked, upper room, and when they told him that they had seen the Lord, Thomas said, “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.” When Jesus came a week later and offered his hands and side to Thomas for him to touch, he said to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas, whether or not he actually put his hands in the wounds, cried that great confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas seems to have taken on all our collective doubts and been labeled “Doubting Thomas” for this one, understandable response to the incredible. It hardly seems fair, as a cartoon by Joshua Harris suggests. Thomas is crying out, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter!’” (Lisa Hickman, Odyssey Network, 4/10/12)
Elizabeth Goodman observes that in saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails and in his side, I will not believe,” Thomas wasn’t demanding proof of the Resurrection, but , rather, “proof of the Crucifixion.
I don’t think Thomas doubted the Resurrection; I think he doubted the Resurrection of one crucified. I think he doubted the Resurrection of one so thoroughly abandoned–abandoned even, it would seem, by God. It was the Resurrection of the one beaten and abused and at last abandoned…that Thomas found incredible, unbelievable. How could this one be the Messiah? How could this suffering, bleeding, dying one be the one the world most needs?”
(Goodman, op cit., p. 5)
We still doubt this too, don’t we? We are still hoping for a Super Hero to fly in on the clouds, one who will finally put all the Bad Guys in their place, bring justice to a world sorely in need of it, wipe out evil and tears and suffering , not just enter into it. I think this is why the idea of the Rapture and the “Left Behind” books and movement are so appealing–it’s an incredibly violent end to the “unbelievers,” but somehow that seems right and much more satisfying than a messiah who allows himself to be killed and only three days later be seen and experienced again and become part of his followers. That’s it? That’s the plan for saving the world? Is there a Plan B, we hope?
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails and in his side, I will not believe.” But Thomas is given the opportunity to see the marks of the nails and his side, and so confesses, “My Lord and my God!” God’s plan is to be undeterred by crucifixion and betrayal, by pain and abandonment, by all the worst that can happen to us in life, which actually is good news for all those who feel themselves in the midst of dealing with the worst.
“You don’t have to knock very hard on any door in your parish to find some sort of agony behind that door,” says Gordon Lathrop, a Lutheran liturgical scholar. (Cited in Alyce McKenzie in Edgy Exegesis, on Patheos, 4/9/12)
In this month of Domestic Violence Awareness, Alyce McKenzie writes, “Knock on one in four doors and you’ll find a woman who is being or has been abused, most often by an intimate partner. And you’ll find little boys with big eyes watching what daddy’s doing to mommy. They are being home schooled as future abusers. Boys who observe their mothers being abused are twice as likely to grow up to abuse their partners. I know young adults locked in low self-esteem [she says–I know I do too, and not just “young” adults]. I know couples locked in miserable relationships [Don’t you?]. Most of us are locked in prisons of fear of one thing or another.” (McKenzie, ibid.)
But “there are no walls thick enough to block the Risen Christ” (McKenzie) from entering into all those places of fear and suffering. And when he does, he doesn’t bring condemnation or disdain. What he offers is peace. “Peace be with you,” he tells the frightened disciples. And he breathed on them the Holy Spirit, empowering them to forgive and be forgiven.
Jesus appeared to Thomas and the disciples on the 8th day after Easter. The eighth day, in Hebrew Scripture, is the day of dedication of first-born children, the day of fulfillment of priestly dedication, the day of circumcision for male babies, a day of gratitude and offering. It is said to be the Eighth Day of Creation, the New Creation, when we are to take up the ongoing work of creation by using our gifts. What tradition tells us of Thomas is that he became the apostle to India. He took that energy and courage and trust in the Healing, Forgiving, Suffering, Dying, and Risen One and created churches in India, who established hospitals for healing that are still in evidence today in the Kerala region in southern India.
The story of Thomas and his confession, “My Lord and my God!” is not a call to “believe” a certain set of statements about Jesus. It is a call to lean into faith and trust in the midst of doubt and uncertainty and a very complicated world.
New York times columnist David Brooks wrote a response to Jeff Bethke’s YouTube video “Why I Hate Religion and Love Jesus.” For all its power and appeal, Brooks observed that the message lacked vision beyond its lament. “Rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm,” he wrote [in NYT, “How to fight the Man”]. Brooks challenged Bethke to move beyond rebellion and turn his “passion into change.”
Thomas is a model for moving beyond doubt and rebellion. “Unless I see the marks of crucifixion,” he said, “I will not believe.” Christ offered him what he needed, and he did indeed move on. This story in John’s gospel is for all of us who have come after Thomas, who were not given the opportunity to see the actual marks of crucifixion but can see them in so many hands and sides throughout our world. With Thomas, who, when Jesus told the disciples that they knew how to follow him, even though he was going to leave them, we may ask, “Lord, how can we know the way?” Jesus’ response, though too often used to exclude others, invites us to lean forward and be part of the new creation”–”I am [–the name of God–] the way, and the truth, and the life.” Follow that way.
Nobody said it would be easy. “The reality of Easter [as one commentator has written] is the complexity of living anew in a broken creation.” (Lisa Hickman, ibid.) As David Brooks said to Jeff Bethke (and to all of us looking to a new incarnation of the church), “Take the next step beyond the easy word to a broken world.” “On the eighth day after Easter, the world looks to you and me to take the first steps to turn the passion of Christ into compassionate change.” (Hickman) Jesus and Thomas go before us, calling us out of our locked rooms of fear and into the world where Love and Compassion, Justice and Mercy, despite all the news stories and rumors to the contrary, are still alive and at work. On this Eighth Day of Creation, may we too be part of the New Creation, believing, i.e. trusting in the great “I Am” who promises us life in that name.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark