The apostle Thomas is often branded as the stooge of the apostles – “Doubting Thomas” – but that is both unfair and inaccurate. In actuality, the opposite is true. There are two encounters in the Gospel, prior to what we’ve just heard, that shed light on the apostle Thomas. One scene was in Galilee, when Jesus first said to the disciples that he would return to Judea because his friend Lazarus had died. Very risky for Jesus. The disciples knew full well about the death threats against Jesus (and probably against them, too). Many of the disciples protested Jesus’ plan to return to Judea. But it was Thomas who really understood Jesus. Thomas pleaded with his fellow disciples not to desert Jesus but to stay with him. Thomas said, “Let us go that we may die with Him!”[i] Perhaps more than any other disciple, Thomas was prepared to abide with Jesus to the end. Thomas had been following a Messiah whom Thomas knew would suffer and die. Not true, it seems, for the other disciples.
The other scene was in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before Jesus was seized. Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…. I go to prepare a place for you… and you know where I am going….” No. No idea. It seems only Thomas had the courage to admit that the disciples were clueless. “My Lord,” Thomas says, “We do not have the slightest idea where you are going! How can we know the way?”[ii]
Jesus is then crucified. When Jesus, resurrected, first appears to the other disciples who were hiding in the Upper Room, Thomas was not with them: neither hiding his willingness nor his readiness to serve his crucified Lord. What exactly Thomas was doing that evening, when all the other disciples were huddled together, we don’t know. But given the evidence we have in the Gospel, we could well imagine that Thomas was out doing what he had always done with and for Jesus: helping, healing, feeding, 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. After Jesus’ crucifixion, when Thomas meets up with the disciples, and they tell him their news that Jesus has appeared to them, alive, Thomas is incredulous. Thomas knows these other disciples: their arguments, their vanity, their betrayals, their blindness, their duplicity, their deafness, their hardness of heart. Could he possibly trust their report? No. Clearly not. He doubted their experience, because their experience was not his experience. With such transparent candor, Thomas says to the other disciples, “Unless I see in Jesus’ hands the print of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe. I simply cannot believe you…” As we read, it was not until Thomas had personally, physically, undeniably seen and been touched by Jesus was he, Thomas, willing and bold to respond, “My Lord and my God!”
I find Thomas a great hero because of his courage and clarity to value his own experience and needs, and to express them. He was not asking to know about Jesus; he was not banking his life on other people’s experience of Jesus. Thomas knew he needed to experience Jesus’ resurrection personally, in a way that Thomas would be able to believe. Jesus did not have monochromatic relationships with people, then and now. Jesus’ relationship with Thomas was very different from Jesus’ relationship with Peter, was very different than Jesus’ relationship with the Beloved Disciple, very different from Jesus’ relationship with Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany – not to be confused with Mary of Magdala; nor Mary, wife of Clopas; nor his own mother, Mary. Jesus has uniquely personal relationships with everyone he encounters, then and now. The apostle Thomas gives us a very helpful inspiration.
As much the same as we all are with a very similar needs, common hopes, typical fears, an expected longevity, and virtually-identical DNA, there is one way in which we are not at all the same. I’m drawing on the insight of George MacDonald, a Scottish poet and minister, and a mentor to C. S. Lewis. We are not the same in our experience of God. Each and every person has an indelible and a unique relationship to God. Each person has been created and fashioned by God, like no one else. Each one of us can know and worship God as no one else can.[iii]
Over many decades, as I have had the privilege of listening to people talk about their lives and what matters to them, I have never heard the same story. As I have listened to people talk about their longing for God, their awareness of God, their experience of the love of God and power and mystery of God, every story I have ever heard has been utterly unique and real. We find in the witness of the apostle Thomas a kind of “double faithfulness”: Thomas, being faithful to his own integrity, his own experience of Jesus. Clearly, his experience overlapped with that of the other disciples, but not identically. We also see in Jesus a kind of faithfulness to how we have all been created so uniquely, and with such distinguishing experience. Jesus validated Thomas’ unique experience of him, and so he does ours. So he does yours.
Each and every one of us can know and worship God as no one else can. And for each one of us, God has a different response. Drawing again on George MacDonald: in every person there is a kind of longing, an “inner chamber” which only God can enter. There is also a chamber in God, into which none other may enter excerpt you, the peculiarly unique person you are. There is no one else in the world like you. Never has been; never will be, God knows. There is no one else in the world like you. You are precious, God knows, and God uniquely loves you. Jesus says very intimately, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” “…I call every sheep by name.”[iv] Jesus has your name. Jesus knows your story.
[i] John 11:11-16.
[ii] John 14:1-7.
[iii] George MacDonald (1824-1905), from An Anthology of George MacDonald, edited by C. S. Lewis (1960).
[iv] John 10:1-5; 14.
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