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The Case for Thomas -- John 20:19-29 (Second Sunday in Easter)

This morning’s scripture brings us behind closed doors with the disciples in those bewildering first days after Resurrection – and tells two stories of how the disciples encounter the Risen Christ – first, with all the disciples gathered (except Thomas), and then with Thomas coming late to the party.

Have you noticed what I am NOT calling Thomas? I’m not calling Thomas, “Doubting Thomas.” Because I don’t agree with that. Over the years, the church has labeled this story: the story of “Doubting Thomas.” And that’s what we’ve ended up calling him, “Doubting Thomas,” as if the only thing Thomas ever did was doubt.

The traditional version is this: When Jesus was resurrected, Thomasis the one who didn’t believe. Thomas is the one who didn’t get it. The phrase “Doubting Thomas” has even slipped into our everyday speech – that’s what we call someone who stubbornly and obstinately insists on more proof – “Well, they’re just a ‘Doubting Thomas.”

Well, I submit that history has not been fair to Thomas – there is much more to this story – there is much more to Thomas. And for that matter, that there is much more to doubtand to faith, particularly in bewildering times.

And so, I would like to make the case for Thomas this morning.

But first: The case against Thomas. The case against Thomas is straightforward: The disciples are gathered together after the crucifixion – they’re scared, trying to make sense of the tumultuous events of their world, reeling from their trauma, and they’re staying safe behind closed doors. And the resurrected Christ appears in their midst, and says: “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

But Thomas isn’t there. And when the disciples tell Thomas about it. He doesn’t believe them. He doubts. And Thomas tells them as much – “I’m not going to believe you until I see Jesus for myself, until I put my fingers in the nail-marks in his hand, until I put my hand in his side.”

So Jesus comes back and offers himself to Thomas, “Thomas, place your finger here. Thomas, place your hand here.” And then, and only then, does this “doubting Thomas” believe. Thomas doubts. Doubting Thomas. Blessed are those who believe without seeing.

But there’s more to this story. First of all, there’s so much more to Thomas. We are always so much more than any one moment in our lives.Thomas has been with Jesus for the whole journey. He’s a bold disciple, not afraid to speak up at important moments.

Do you remember a few weeks ago when we shared the story of Lazarus. Jesus doesn’t go to Lazarus at first, but when Jesus decides to go, the disciples try to stop him. They tell Jesus that it would be dangerous to go to the town where Lazarus has died. The authorities there are trying to kill Jesus. But when Jesus says, “No, I’m going,” only Thomas speaks up and says, “Let us go with Jesus, so that we may die with him.” But we don’t call him Thomas the Courageous.

Then at the Last Supper, Thomas asks Jesus, “How can we know the way?”, prompting Jesus to answer, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” But we don’t call him Thomas who-asks-the-right-questions.

And in this story, is Thomas’ reaction reallyall that unusual? Thomas certainly isn’t the only one who is perplexed and confused at the Resurrection. In fact, almost everyone in the story has to experience the Risen Christ for themselves before the reality of Resurrection starts to sink in. They have to see to believe. When Mary tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple that the tomb is empty, they have to run and see for themselves. And only then do they believe, and then, only that the tomb is empty.

Then, when Mary encounters the Risen Christ, she doesn’t recognize Jesus. She thinks Jesus is the gardener. She only recognizes Jesus when he calls her by name, and thenshe says, “Rabboni! Teacher!”

And when Jesus appears to the other disciples at the beginning of this morning’s scripture, Jesus shows them his hands and his side, and then -- but only then – do they recognize him.

Quite frankly, I’d be perplexed too. These are stories about Resurrection. This is a world where someone who was dead is now alive. Someone whom they loved – Jesus – has been crucified, and now he has appeared again in their midst. And everyone in the story is struggling to come to terms with this remarkable event – to make sense of their world, and to make sense of Resurrection.

And I just think that’s the way we are wired. That’s how we process new information – how we learn – how we cope – how we become – how we grow. We try so hard to figure out our way through life:

· We learn basic survival skills.

· We learn how to take care of each other, how to become a family, a community. We do that again and again as circumstances of life change.

· We may learn special skills, a vocation.

· We try to create something new in the world.

And, as we go along, we try to make sense of it all.

We try to make meaning out of the world as we live in it.

But every once in a while we encounter something that is just beyond our comprehension. Something bigger than us. Something bigger than all that we have experienced up to this point in life: What I have come to know so far just isn’t enough to fully grasp the news I’m hearing now. The Psalmist says it like this: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.”

Think of all the things we’ve had to learn these past few weeks. Of course, there are the mysteries of Zoom, and they are no small thing – think of what you have needed to learn just to get here this morning. But beyond that, all of a sudden, almost every pattern that we have in life has been interrupted. We have been hit with the reality that the globe is wrapped in pandemic, so many are sick, so many are dying. And we’ve had to adapt every part of our life. We’ve had to head behind closed doors – collectively to slow the virus – something I didn’t even know that we could do – and individually, to keep ourselves and our families and our neighbors safe. We’ve had to learn new ways of working and doing our jobs; new ways of learning and being a student; and for parents, new ways of teaching our kids; new ways of being family; new ways of living in solitude; new ways of connecting across physical distance.

And think of all the questions that rise up in us. How will I get through this? Will I get sick? Or my loved one? How can we stay reasonably safe, and still live life? What is my part to play in the collective and global effort to save life? Is anyone else feeling like this too? How do I stay connected with my people? How do we continue our work for justice when we shouldn’t leave the house? How long will we be doing this? Where is God in all this?

The world is utterly bewildering, our times overwhelming, and each of us, sheltering behind closed doors, we come together this morning, each of us with our questions.

And so it is for Thomas (and, quite honestly, for everyone else in this story). Because the world that Thomas knows up to this point has culminated in crucifixion. Thomas has been with Jesus for the whole journey – and Thomas alone among the disciples has been acutely aware that what Jesus was doing was dangerous, and could end in Jesus’ death. And so it has. But now Thomas is being asked to come to terms with the news that the one who was crucified, dead, and buried, is now alive.

So when the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus alive. Thomas says, quite simply, I need to see Jesus, too. I need to see to believe. Just like you. It’s as if Thomas says to his friends,

“Nothing you are telling me makes any sense. In fact, nothing in the past few weeks makes much sense. We heard the Hosannas. We gathered in that Upper Room, and Jesus washed our feet. We heard what he said: “I am the way the truth and the life. A new commandment I give you: Love one another.” We were there when he was arrested. We watched as they crucified him. We laid him in that tomb."

It’s as if Thomas says to his friends:

After all this, you’re telling me that he’s alive? None of this makes any sense to me. I need to see Jesus for myself. In need to touch Jesus. I don’t understand any of this.” I need Jesus.

Thomas is being asked to come to terms with something that – right now – is beyond his comprehension – beyond the way the world makes sense to him. And his response isn’t so much “doubt” as it is a cry for help – a reaching out. “I need to see Jesus.”

And so perhaps Thomas’ defining characteristic isn’t so much that he is “doubting.” Maybe it is just that he is thoroughly human. What is so remarkable about Thomas isn’t his doubting, but his open and honest humanity. Human Thomas.

Perhaps the case for Thomas is really the case for us all.

And in this scripture, no one makes that case more powerfully than Jesus himself. Just look how Jesus responds to Thomas:

The disciples are gathered together again. This time Thomas is with them. And Jesus appears in their midst: “Peace be with you!” And Jesus walks over to Thomas, and he says, “Thomas, here I am. See me. Touch me. I’m still here.” Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas for doubting. In fact, Jesus doesn’t even use the word “doubt.” Here’s the kicker: The word “doubt” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Greek text. In the Greek, what Jesus says here really translates, “Become not unbelieving, but believing.” Jesus invites Thomas to become.

Behind these closed doors, with the world swirling around outside, Jesus invites Thomas to become. Jesus has heard Thomas’ questions. And in response, Jesus offers himself to Thomas. Thomas, I’m still here.

And that’s all Thomas needs. “My lord and my God!” And it turns out that Thomas doesn’t actually need to touch Jesus, after all. Jesus offers himself to Thomas, and that is enough. As one writer noted, it’s as if Thomas asks for proof, and what Jesus offers is presence. And that presence transforms Thomas into something new. He sees something new: “My lord and my God!”

When Thomas’ world just doesn’t make sense to him anymore, it’s as if Jesus reaches out and takes Thomas by the hand and says, “I’m still here.” And Thomas gets it. This is Resurrection. Thomas, I’m still here with you. Thomas, there is nothing that can separate you from me.

And so it is with us.

This is Resurrection.

Life – where we least expected to find it.

Love – when we thought the world had run out.

When life defies all comprehension, when the world is a confusing, even scary place, when we run like the disciples and gather from behind closed doors, bewildered,

God comes to us in Jesus Christ, again and again, and says:

Peace be with you.

Receive the warm breath of Christ.

Let the Spirit of God breathe, in you.

Ask your questions. Be kind to each other. Love the world.

In Resurrection, God says to us, “I’m still here.”

© 2020 Scott Clark

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