or ‘Thomas just like me’?
April 28, 2019
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.”
I realize, that for some time now, I have been sharing the scriptures with you as though they always seem to have something new or different to say. As though there constantly was a new way to hear them or a new way to understand a particular story or old familiar account. And I also realize that maybe that is not such a bad thing…as though there may be more to these ancient words than we once thought…as though they are not finished telling humankind all that they were meant to, as though they truly were words given for all times, and for all ages. As though perhaps they were not just for the past, or for a culture and society such as ours, that began to lose its hold on, or interest in religion and faith matters some two or three decades back.
And I think that I have a tendency to do that because I believe the scriptures truly are a living word, a revealed gift from God that we seek to interpret and understand to the best of our ability. A message for today that can speak truth into our lives, can speak truth to power in this day and time. Being willing to read the bible as though it actually is a living word, is like reading a new book every time you pick it up.
And so, once again we are offered an old and well-known story in the post-Easter account of the disciple Thomas…or as he is better known, ‘Doubting Thomas’. And I wonder if our, or at least my interpretation of this narrative, has almost always focused on the wrong lesson. And I say the ‘wrong lesson’ because in looking at it anew I realized that I have only ever read this story as one of human weakness or human failure…centered on this particular disciple. Which is perhaps there, however that seems to me now as a pretty harsh judgement on one who had just had the absolute worst week of his young life.
For do not forget that we always read the Easter and resurrection story backwards…we already know the ending before we start, and so we always read and hear the story from that point of view. Seldom I think, do we stop and hear or understand what an incredible struggle the week just prior to the crucifixion was, both for Jesus and for those who loved him. Which if we are not careful I think, can make us prone to judgements that are, if not unfounded, at least unfair.
For you see, Thomas had just lost his Jesus, his Jesus was gone…he had been hung on a cruel cross until he breathed his last. And as a result, along with all the others who felt pretty much exactly the same, Thomas had lost all sense of hope for a new future. And he had also gone headlong into a new awareness of a deep-seated almost visceral fear, so sure that he, along with everyone else who had been close to Jesus, was now in danger of being hunted down and eliminated. Before we start to judge Thomas, we need to remember that he did not know where to turn, who to trust in, or what to do next.
You see, Thomas had come up against the hard reality that life can be really very difficult at times, that life can be dark with loss, or worry. His whole life, his sense of purpose, all that had given him meaning over the past three years was gone in an instant…and he was lost, and hurting. Is it any wonder then that upon hearing his fellow disciple’s wild and unimaginable tale, he might feel that it sounded just too good to be true? Might not any of us also observe caution when the thing we are so sure is not true, even if it is the thing we most need to be true, is said to be true without any evidence? Or at least evidence other than the outlandish claim of someone else?
That, is the usual focus…the lens I have always viewed this story through. Somehow, I have always thought that the primary point of this whole little episode was to show once again the weakness of humanity. And this view of human frailty as the primary focus is the one which I question as perhaps being the ‘wrong’ one. Perhaps it is not the one we should focus on exclusively.
For I think that if we only see this as a tale of the human weakness of someone else, we may also open ourselves up to just a touch of righteous conceit. As is the case in other recorded instances of the disciple’s behavior, such as with Peter’s denials of Jesus for instance, I think we often only see these scriptural accounts as lessons on what we know we should not do. In other words we may be tempted to take on a sense of smug self-righteousness, thinking to ourselves that, ‘there is no way we would have denied Jesus’, at least not more than once, and there is ‘no way’ given the excitement of the disciples in the upper room who said they saw Jesus, that ‘we would have insisted on a divine reappearance’, in order to satisfy our own doubts. I think we are perhaps guilty of seeing these unflattering accounts of people like Peter or Thomas solely as evidence that they themselves were flawed or weak…rather than seeing them as ordinary people, much like ourselves.
And I make this point because if we only see this story in this light, I think we may be missing out on another way to hear it. A way that perhaps is not only more honest, but maybe one that can give us more hope in our own day and in our own moments of failing or weakness. And that other way is that,perhaps the greater lesson to be learned here is of the true depth of our Lord’s love in our times of greatest need.
Like Thomas, when Jesus came back a second time just for him…like Peter when the words of the Angel at the empty tomb in John’s gospel told Mary to ‘tell the disciples’…‘and Peter’ that the Lord had risen…these are scriptural ‘windows’ into the incredible care and attention our Lord Jesus pays to each one of us in our time of need. Somehow, I know, that Jesus would never have considered denying Thomas what he needed in his hour of greatest distress.
And so, although I think I have always seen it as such, I now feel that Thomas’ story is not so much about ‘proving the resurrection’, as it is about proving the depth of God’s love for me. I see it now as a simple and humbling story that should prompt us to give thanks. To be so grateful that a God as loving as we see here, would not only be able to find us in the darkness of doubt, but in truth would actively seek us out there, in order to reassure us that in fact, doubt is not bad or ‘less then’, but rather is sometimes perhaps a good thing if it keeps us seeking…keeps us looking for Jesus…keeps our heart inclined such that in looking thus for our Lord, we find that he has already found us…
Thomas, dear Thomas…you don’t know me…but I truly feel as though I know you…for I too have said many times that I need more, I too desperately need more evidence in order to commit that much, in order to trust that deeply…in order to be able to love others that unconditionally…
…every time I have wondered or wandered; I have been you Thomas…every time I have entered into the darkness of loss or fear, I have shared that time with you…every time I have heard someone make an outrageous claim that was just too unbelievable to be true, I have doubted and asked for more proof – just as you did. And every time I have so needed Jesus to be real, to be there, to let me know he heard my prayer, and that he heard my heart cry out…every one of those times, he has blessed me, just as he came back and blessed you dear Thomas.
This is not a story counseling us to ask for forgiveness for our times of weakness or doubt…although Lord knows we often need to so ask, but rather it is about feeling so grateful for the all-forgiving love of the Good Shepherd who refuses to stop looking for us when we are tangled in the thickets of life. That same Shepherd who time and again comes to our aid in order to rescue us from the lurking creatures of the night. Those who try and rob us of our hope or our strength, or of the confidence to walk as people of the light. Jesus always knows our level of need…and finds us right there.
Thank you Thomas for giving me a deeper understanding of myself, for allowing me to see myself in you, for giving me the place of needing a visit from Jesus on my own…for making it alright to need more proof that Jesus is alive, that Jesus is who he said he was all along.
For indeed in the asking…he will make his presence known here in our midst…it’s just what he does…and for that, let us ever give thanks…