Of all the disciples mentioned in the scriptures, Thomas gets a bad rap. Early on he was given the moniker “doubting Thomas” and through the centuries he has been unable to shake it. Of course, the other disciples could have just as easily been given names. There’s Nathanael the skeptic, and James and John the power grabbers. There is Peter the coward, and Philip the stingy. Even Judas gets a break from his title of betrayer every now and then. Only Thomas seems to carry his name throughout the ages.
It’s unwarranted really. Thomas appears in other places in the gospel and could be known instead for his deep faith. When the disciples find out about the death of Lazarus, Jesus declares that the crew will go to him and Thomas responds, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And later in his last days, when Jesus states that he has prepared a place for the disciples and that they know the way, Thomas in his desire to follow the Lord asks “How can we know the way?” Thomas could have just as easily have been called Thomas the seeker, rather than Thomas the doubter.
But, doubter he is, and most famously known for this story which only appears in the gospel of John. There is a lot to unpack in our reading for today. The season of Easter continues for seven Sundays in the church year and so our reading brings us right back to where we left off last week. It is the first day of the week, Easter day, and in the gospel of John, Peter and the beloved disciple have witnessed the empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene claims to have seen the risen Lord outside the grave.
And yet, despite the rumors of good news, the disciples are locked away behind closed doors. They are hiding, in fear of the Jews and the Romans, and I would wager in fear of their own shame at abandoning their Lord. Jesus appears behind the closed doors and it is interesting to note that he is not recognized at first. The writer of the gospel of John makes it clear that it is only after Jesus shows the wounds in his forearms and in his side that the disciples realize that he is the one who stands among them.
Jesus gives the disciples a blessing “Peace be with you” and goes on to breathe upon them, giving the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the Pentecost moment for the writer of the gospel of John. The gathered community is given the power of the church, to preach the gospel of forgiveness of sins in the world and to hold each other accountable for their actions.
Thomas of course was not there that night, and when the others share their story with him he struggles to believe it. He too wants the experience that they had, to see with his own eyes that the one he saw wounded upon the cross is now raised to new life. He is no more doubter than any of the other disciples who refused to believe Mary’s story of encountering Jesus in the garden. Or even Peter who continues to wonder about the story even though he himself witnessed the empty tomb.
Strangely, a week later in the story we find the disciples in the same place. Even though they have been visited by Jesus, even though they have been gifted the Holy Spirit, even though they have been commissioned to go out into the world and be the church; they are still hiding behind locked doors. Jesus appears again, and where we may expect a word of judgement we once again find grace.
Jesus again blesses those gathered with his peace and he then offers Thomas the opportunity to touch the very wounds that had broken his mortal body. The writer of the gospel does not record whether Thomas actually touches the wounded body of Christ or not, but the writer does record Thomas’ great statement of faith, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus goes on to say blessed are those who have not had such an opportunity and yet come to faith anyway.
This is a wonderful story because it says so much about the person and nature of Jesus Christ. First of all, this story tells us that God is the one to seek us out. Just as in the beginning of the gospel when Jesus called his followers, the movement of God is always a movement toward us, rather than us moving toward God. They have heard stories of resurrection and yet the disciples are not out seeking the risen Lord. Jesus is out there somewhere, and yet they remain hidden and locked inside.
It is significant that they are not seeking Jesus, they are not looking for God, and they are not taking any actions that we could construe as faith; and yet God comes to them. God is seeking them out. God is going where they are. If they are going to hide behind closed doors, God will find them there. If they, like Thomas, are going to request a personal appearance of Christ, God is going to make it happen.
In our own day and time it is important to remember that faith comes to us as a gift of God, rather than as something we are able seek out for ourselves. Especially during this Easter season, I know that there are many of us whose thoughts turn to our family members who are not religious. How we wish we could bring them to church, how we wish we could share our faith in such an articulate way as to convince them of its truth. And yet, we are unsuccessful.
It is important to share our beliefs with our friends and neighbors. Like the disciples, we have been gifted the Holy Spirit and have been commissioned to be the church. But it is also important to recognize that God must move first, God is the one who will decide when the time is right to enter the locked room of an individual’s heart and win them over with love and grace.
The second thing that I notice in this passage is the complete lack of judgment. Poor Thomas has been judged throughout the centuries as one whose faith simply doesn’t measure up. In labeling him the doubter we have looked down upon him for ages. And yet, neither Jesus, nor the other disciples in this passage engage in that behavior. There is no judgement here, only acceptance of Thomas’ heart and his needs for faith.
In fact, there is ample opportunity for Jesus to be judging all of the disciples in this reading. He has been tortured, crucified, visited the realms of death, and returned to be with them. Not only is he not bearing a grudge for his suffering, he doesn’t bear a grudge against the disciples for abandoning him. Upon seeing them gathered for the first time since their final moments in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus doesn’t say “Where were you? Why did you leave me?” He doesn’t say, “How could you not watch with me? How could you not admit your love for me? How could you leave me alone upon the cross to die?” He doesn’t say, “My friends, why have you forsaken me? And why do you refuse to believe in my resurrection even now?” He doesn’t say any number of things I imagine he would say, any number of things that would break the hearts of those gathered together in shame and grief.
No, Jesus enters the space and says, “Peace be with you.” Not only does he not rub it in how awful they have been, he actually seeks to assuage their guilt for abandoning him. “Peace be with you.” He gives them a gift, he gives them a blessing, and in giving them the Holy Spirit he seeks to give them the courage and confidence that they lack. It is the ultimate example of forgiveness and grace. He shows up with his wounds and brings with him the salve of forgiveness rather than the well-deserved sting of judgment.
His openness in sharing his wounded state is the other moving and valuable piece of this story. So often in our modern society we cover up and hide that which makes us vulnerable. Be it our wounded bodies or even our healthy bodies, our culture has taught us to hide away in shame.
Just this week I was sharing a story about this with the brown bag group. When I was in the hospital right after Oliva was born my family was constantly in and out of the room. While I was breastfeeding I heard a knock on the door and assuming it was my parents I invited the person in. Well, in walks an 80 something year old man from my church. Talk about a vulnerable moment, we both felt uncomfortable. It is hard enough for you old guys when your pastor is woman, let alone having to see her boobs!
It’s a funny story, but as a leader I can say that I honestly have difficulty being vulnerable. There is a big part of me that wants to always seem put-together when I stand in front of you as your pastor. I am embarrassed and ashamed of the parts of my life that aren’t perfect.
And yet, Jesus models just the opposite. He comes to the disciples and displays his woundedness. He shows the places where he has been injured, the parts of his body that are not perfect, and he invites the disciple to share in those wounds. It is a powerful example of leadership, and it is a powerful challenge to all of us to be more honest about who we are when we are gathered together as the church. This is the place where it should be OK to share our pain with each other. This should be the place where we can share our mistakes and vulnerability. This should be the place where there is peace and forgiveness, and so we should be willing to share our scars in this community.
Today we gather around the communion table and we remember all the elements of this story. Jesus was wounded and so we share in his body and blood. Jesus offers us forgiveness and so we gather as the community of faith, forgiven for our own doubts and disbelief and tasked with forgiving each other. Jesus comes to us with an invitation. We are invited to touch and taste our Lord, we are invited to be nourished and fed, and we are encouraged to experience the power of our faith in the tangible elements of bread and wine. Just as we experience this body of Christ, we are sent out to share this good news and to be the body of Christ in the world around us.
This reading from John gives us a powerful vision of the risen Christ, and a powerful message to us as modern readers. Like the disciples, we are the church community. We are commissioned to share our wounds with each other. We are called to go out and preach the good news of forgiveness. And we are tasked with the hopeful work of watching for the movement of the Lord in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. May God be with us as we strive to live into this amazing and wonderful faith. Amen.