Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday in Easter + April 12, 2015
Photograph by Andy Moxon, with thanks to A Concord Pastor
Today we tell the story of Doubting Thomas, the man who could not believe the good news that his teacher and Lord had risen from the dead. It seems like the resurrected Christ made a special appearance among his disciples just to say 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.”
But I also want to tell the bigger story of Thomas the Apostle – Doubting Thomas – who might also be called Thomas the Logical, or Thomas the Loyal, or maybe Thomas the Grieving.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are pretty quiet about this disciple of Jesus, but in the Gospel of John we get a few glimpses of his character. There is, of course, the famous story of Doubting Thomas. But before that, there’s the story of Jesus’s friend Lazarus.
Jesus and his disciples have just left the region of Judea, fleeing across the Jordan River after Jesus was nearly arrested and stoned to death. Then Jesus gets the news: your friend, Lazarus, is dead. Jesus plans to travel back to Judea, to the place where Lazarus is lying in his tomb.
His disciples are 100% AGAINST this idea. They say to him, “Rabbi, the Judeans were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?” When Jesus explains that his friend is dead and that he has a plan up his sleeve, it is Thomas who turns to the other disciples and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas the Logical knows the cost of following Jesus. Thomas the Loyal will follow his Lord to death. (John 11:1-16).
The second glimpse of Thomas comes later, during Jesus’s last supper with his disciples. Rather cryptically, Jesus is explaining to them that he is going away to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, so that later they might follow him. Thomas is the first to pipe up, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas the Logical wants to know the full plan. Thomas the Loyal is once again ready to follow Jesus anywhere. (John 14:1-6).
The last snippet is the familiar story of Doubting Thomas. Thomas missed out on Jesus’s first appearance to his disciples, and when he rejoins the group later and they’re rushing to explain to him, “Jesus is alive! We saw him! We saw him!” Thomas just isn’t buying it. “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.” Doubting Thomas. But also Thomas the Logical, who needs that physical proof. And maybe Thomas the Loyal is still here too; maybe Thomas wants to make sure he isn’t following a false rumor instead of his true Lord. And maybe he is also Thomas the Grieving: a man who has just lost his teacher, companion, and hope for the future; a man who is terrified of hoping lest he be hurt all over again.*
We can’t know the exact reason for Thomas’s doubt. But one thing I can say with some certainty is that this story is meant for us, for readers of the gospel who have not seen Christ with our own eyes or touched his wounds with our own hands. After Thomas comes to believe, Jesus goes into Aesop’s Fables mode and tells us the moral of the story: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Maybe we believers will never see and touch the risen Christ in this lifetime. But it is not because Jesus is hiding from us or because God has abandoned us. We are still blessed. We are blessed even without a personal visit from the Savior.
But, if you’re like me, you might be thinking now, “Yeah…but sometimes that’s just not enough.” It’s hard to believe in something we can’t see, hear, or touch. Or, we look around the world and see so many other faiths, all so certain of their truth, and wonder “Why believe in Jesus over all of these?” Or, we see all the tragedy in our world and wonder if there really could be a loving God. Sometimes it seems there are so many reasons to doubt and so few reasons to believe. And in those times we understand Thomas’s doubt. In those times we hear Thomas question the resurrection and think “Yeah! You tell them how hard it is to believe!”**
Still Doubting by John Granville Gregory with thanks to A Concord Pastor
And you know what? I believe that sometimes, when we’re stuck in that Doubting Thomas place, Christ still comes to us, to let us touch and see the power of God.
Think back to our very first reading for today, a reading from the book of Acts. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
It’s not flashy — but isn’t that miracle? Sharing anything can be hard for us humans, and sharing EVERYTHING sounds impossible. And yet here is a group of people willing to lay down their lives and their livelihoods for one another. That has got to be the power of God. That is the Body of Christ in the flesh right here with us.
When the Church is at its best, it lives out that kind of abundant giving, that total generosity. And that radical sharing shows us – and the world – Christ.
I experienced that myself in just these last few weeks. Word got around St. Andrew that I had moved into my own apartment. Almost before I’d signed a lease, I was being stopped in the hallway by people asking if I needed anything: a set of dishes? a couch? help moving? And I thought, “This really is the Body of Christ. I believe in God all over again.”
My friend Caleb told me the same story yesterday without even hearing mine. He was on his way from Virginia to Texas to start a new job. He had first left on Wednesday, but a few hours out his car broke down. When he got back to his hometown, he went right to work looking for a car, but he worried about how he would be able to afford one on such short notice. Word got out to his church. And the money came in. When Caleb finished the story, he said the same thing I did: “There’s that Body of Christ thing!”
It’s not seeing the body of a Jewish teacher from ancient Israel. It’s not putting our hands in the wounds on his body. But when the Church follows in the way of Jesus: the way of washing feet, of sharing just a few loaves and fishes to feed as many as possible, of laying down one’s life for another – when we act like that, it must inspire faith. Such generosity and sacrifice is so different from what we usually see and from what we expect that it must be God’s work.
We truly are the Body of Christ. We are the body sent to all the Doubting Thomases, within the Church and without, to show that God’s power is great, that Christ is risen and working in our midst, Alleluia, Alleluia.
*The idea of Thomas the Grieving came from a comment on “Commentary on John 20:19-31” by Lance Pape. Scott Major wrote: “…Thomas was likely wrestling with loss. I see this often as a chaplain. My brother wasn’t able to be there…present with God and his friends. Is this doubt…maybe, but it is definitely grief.” (April 7, 2015).
**Lance Pape also cheers on Thomas for being willing to voice doubt (see link, above.)