Have you ever had the experience of taking a photograph of someone, and finding the result rather disappointing? Not necessarily because the person you photograph is out of focus; not because the color is funny; not even because the composition is off-balanced… but because the person captured in the moment of photograph is not reflective of the whole personality.
The photograph only presents part, maybe a skewed part, of the picture of who this person really is. In the gospel lesson appointed for this evening, Thomas is literally missing from the picture… and when he finally shows up, he doesn’t get the picture about Jesus. But I want to say that we don’t get the picture about Thomas if we take just this particular snapshot of his character and presume that this is reflective of his whole person… because it isn’t.
Here the scene is the “Upper Room,” that same place where the “last Supper” (the first Eucharist) had been observed just a few days before. Here, now, the disciples are under cover, hiding following the crucifixion of Jesus. They are afraid that they will be the next to die. The scene is terribly tragic, the likes of which have been repeated so many times around the world, in every age and even in our own time, when angry people take out their rage on others. Yet to this terrified group, Jesus appears, and they recognize Him as their risen Lord. Apparently all of them did… except for Judas, who could not wait with the rest of them to be forgiven, and for Thomas. Thomas simply wasn’t there. Where’s Thomas? We don’t know; we’re not told. All the other disciples were present when, probably for the first time, all of them (except for Thomas) got the picture about Jesus. But because Thomas was not present at that moment, an amount of history has branded him as something of a loser, as a doubter or dunce, a notoriety which he does not deserve.
When Thomas eventually meets up with the other disciples and is told the impossible news that Jesus, whom Thomas knew to be dead, was alive – truly and physically – Thomas would not believe it. He could not believe it. He doubted their experience with all his might. Why so? Why Thomas? What’s going on here? We’re given two other glimpses of Thomas elsewhere in the Scriptures. These are scenes, of course, prior to the crucifixion and the betrayals.
One scene is when Jesus was trying to say “good-bye” to his disciples, just before He was seized in the garden at Gethsemane. Jesus had just said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…. I go to prepare a place for you… and you know where I am going….” No. Not so – at least not for Thomas. Thomas doesn’t have a clue. Or, rather, it could be that only Thomas has the courage to admit that he is clueless. Jesus says, “…You know the way where I am going,” and Thomas (it seems only Thomas) clears his throat a little and says something like, “I beg your pardon, Lord…. we don’t have the foggiest idea where you’re going! How can we know the way?” It’s a good question, an honest question – for us, too. How can we know the way, especially when the path is dark and the risks are many and our fear is great and the way ahead is so very unclear?
And then one other glimpse of Thomas. It’s from an earlier scene when Jesus had first proposed to return to Judea in response to the news of Lazarus’ death. It seems that several of the disciples had strongly objected, knowing full well the danger that surely awaited Jesus there. They were aware of the growing opposition to Jesus and sensed that his life – and by association, theirs, too – was at risk. Several protested Jesus’ plan – but not all. You’ll recall that James and John were eager to return to Jerusalem because they thought that Jesus was going to take over, that he was going to become the king. (Do you remember their mother’s petitioning Jesus that they be able to sit at his side when Jesus came into his glory in Jerusalem?) We can get a glimpse here of, maybe, two different groups among the disciples: the one group that wanted to avoid Jerusalem at all costs because it portended death; the other group that couldn’t wait to get to Jerusalem because it portended glory and power and an enormous career advancement. Two groups… which, maybe, included everyone except the two loners: Judas, who apparently had his own plan, and Thomas. It was Thomas, when he had become convinced that Jesus would not be dissuaded from returning to Judea – it was Thomas who exhorted his fellow disciples not to desert Jesus but to stay with him, to abide to the end. Thomas urges the other disciples: “Let us go with Jesus,” he says. “Let us go that we may die with Him!” Thomas is surely no dunce here. Neither do we hear in him the voice of a faithless coward.
It seems that Thomas, perhaps more than any other disciple, was prepared to die with Jesus. Perhaps all along, Thomas had been following a Messiah whom Thomas knew would suffer and die. Not true, it seems, for the other disciples. And so that night in the Upper Room, when the resurrected Jesus had first appeared to the other disciples, Thomas was not hiding with them. He was not hiding his willingness or readiness to serve His crucified Lord, even to the point of being captured and killed for Christ, killed with Christ. What Thomas was doing that evening, when all the other disciples were huddled together, we don’t know. But given the evidence, we may well imagine that Thomas was out doing what they had always done with and for Jesus: helping, healing, feeding, loving, speaking in the name and love and power of Jesus.
And that is a much fuller picture of Thomas. That is his story, what we know of it. When Thomas finally meets up with the other disciples in that Upper Room, and they tell him the incredible, impossible news that Jesus has come back to life and has appeared to them, alive, Thomas is incredulous. Thomas knows these other disciples. He’s witnessed their arguments; he knows their betrayals, their blindness, their duplicity, their deafness, their hardness of heart. Could he possibly trust the report of this not-too-convincing group of friends that it really had happened, as they said? No, obviously not. He could not believe them. He doubted their experience, because their experience was not his experience. It didn’t fit. It didn’t ring true. If Thomas was going to believe, he would believe with all his heart and with all his integrity.
Thomas – yes, “doubting” Thomas – but with such wonderful, refreshing honesty, says, “UnlessIcan get hold of Jesus,” “unless I can see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe you.” And so it was. Not until Thomas had personally, physically, undeniably seen and been touched by Jesus was he, Thomas, willing and ready to respond, “My Lord and my God.”
Thomas, rather than the scapegoat, is for me the hero among the disciples. For me, Thomas will always stand for the person who gets the news second-hand, the person who wasn’t there when the miracle took place. We sing that old Gospel hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And I answer, “No, I wasn’t. I was not there.” Which is why I find Thomas such a powerful witness. Thomas dares to express for me, perhaps for many of us, the meandering doubts that can wander through our minds, about whether it really happened. Did Jesus Christrise and is he alive and does he care and will he really come again?
I suspect that many of us have found ourselves, more than once, on a lonely path where, it seems, we have moved on, maybe certain of where we are; and yet, uncertain of where God is. Perhaps doubting whether God is there any more at all. The path may have begun with God, and yet, there we are now, alone and in the fog, not being able to see ahead, not be able to recall the faith we once held so strongly. How can it be? Where is our risen Lord?
If you doubt God – when you doubt God – from where does the doubt spring? Maybe from a relationship which had seemed so graced at one time – maybe a marriage or partnership or friendship or a love for a child or sibling – and there now seems only dusty memory: the relationship is dead, and maybe God with it. And we say, with Thomas, I cannot believe. Or maybe the doubt is informed by some illness: your own health or the health of someone whom you love: someone who is suffering, perhaps someone who is dying. And you say, alone in your garden of agony, where is God in this? God is dead; there is no resurrection. I cannot believe.
With Christmastide soon upon us, where is the risen Lord in Zimbabwe or Pakistan or Iraq or Gaza? Where is the risen Lord among the thousands of children orphaned by AIDS in Africa and Asia? Where is God in the delicate and tense balance of nations and peoples in the Middle East? Where is the risen Lord among the “illegal immigrants” in our land, or among those who struggle to survive this economic crisis, unsure how to feed and clothe and house their families? Where is the risen Lord among the leaders of the nations? Where in corporate America? Where in our government? Where in our painfully divided Church? Where is the risen Lord amid all of the suffering that surrounds us and fills our lives and wounds our hearts? It’s hard not to doubt sometimes whether Jesus did rise and is alive and does care and will come again.
There may be no question in our mind that Jesus was with us. The question is whether Jesus is with us: God Emmanuel. And you may find yourself doubting. Against sometimes insurmountable evidence, you may doubt that God is anywhere in sight, and feel that Christ has died and left you, and you are alone, and it is a dark night. What to do? It seems to me that the answer is not to run away in the dark. I would say, stay with Jesus, who had his own doubts. Do you remember him crying out from the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus himself had moments of doubt.
It is in doubting – Jesus’, Thomas’, our own – in that vacuous hungering, longing, thirsting, questioning, yearning for God, panting after God, that there is a place within us into which the risen Christ has yet to come. And so we doubt that he can, that he will, that he is. But that is not bad. Doubt is not the antithesis of faith. Doubt is a component of faith. Doubt may well be disguised grace, as God breaks down and breaks through the confines of our past experience and brings a new reality of God’s presence into our lives. The very emptiness out of which our doubt comes, can be our awareness that we are ready and needing of a new sign, a new birthing, a new reality of the presence of the risen Christ in our life and in the world around us.
And, like Thomas, the report of others is not enough for us. Second-hand information about God is not enough. We need to be able to touch and know and undeniably experience Jesus at work in our world and in our lives to be able to believe God, to be able to believe in God, to be able to move from doubt to faith. We need help. Because God is in heaven… and all is not well on earth. We need help. We all do.
And so Thomas, rather than being a “skeptic” or a “dunce,” is actually a faithful friend to us all. He points us to the Way and reminds us that others’ experience of God is not enough. We need more than story, more than theory about Jesus Christ. We need reality. We need to be touched by God, to experience God’s presence and healing and love for us, to be able to believe that Jesus is alive.
I suspect that many of us, amid our greatest doubt and despair, would crave to do what Thomas did: to be able to take the nail-torn hands of our Lord into our own hands, to be able to know that He is there and alive. We may long for that Upper Room experience of Thomas, to be able to reach out and touch him, to be taken by Jesus’ hand, held in Jesus’ embrace. Thomas extends his open hand to Jesus, to touch him, to know him in a way that quells any doubt: Jesus – weeping, forsaken Jesus – alive and with them, with him, with us. Thomas extends his hands to hold the body of Christ.
It is neither by pun nor by accident that the food on which we are soon to feast at this table is called the “Body of Christ,” the real presence of the broken Body of Christ. And so we extend our hands to receive this same “Body of Christ,” and to know the risen Christ, to fill our doubt with Christ’s real presence. And it is not incidental that we, Jesus’ followers, are also called, “The Body of Christ.” Thomas, standing with the disciples, became convinced of the resurrected Body of Christ in the context of the Body of Christ. And that is the second point. That our life in God, our doubt about God, is not something to nurse or try to cure alone. That Jesus, who wills to come to us personally and fill our vacuous doubt, does not come to us privately. That the Christian life is not to be lived alone; that our doubt is not to be squandered alone, but shared with the Body of Christ.
And that is what Thomas shows us and reminds us: doubting, faithful Thomas, pointing the way for us to be honest doubters and ready seekers, as he holds out his empty hands to touch the broken Christ… whom we also want to believe did rise, and is alive, and does care, and shall come again. Someone has said that “faith is a series of doubts vanquished by love.” May you be touched in your hands and your heart by this very real experience. Come, Lord Jesus.
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