19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Thomas the apostle gets a poor press. Even his real name is obscure to us – Thomas is the Aramaic for twin. Rather better known is nickname the doubter, or ‘doubting Thomas’. In this age when so many struggle with faith , every sceptic, every person with difficulties or even doubts looks to him and seeks help in his example and from his prayers
This is not just a fairly recent thing however. In a play from what used to be called the Coventry cycle of mystery plays, Thomas is late to attend the funeral of the Virgin Mary and he is very sad not to have been there; he is met by the Virgin who consoles him and the play ends with reconciliation with his slightly grumpy friends, disciples, and a long speech of thanks for release from doubt, a long speech
Thomas does indeed put a condition on his belief. “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.”
The issue here is not I think the overcoming of doubt.
Just think of how Thomas figures in the gospels, mainly John. In John 11:16 we hear Thomas saying“ to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Thomas is the one who urged the disciples to go with Jesus to raise Lazarus even thought it might spell their deaths (Jn. 11:16).. He is trusting, wonderfully straightforward, deeply trusting, courageous. In John 14:5 he asks “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” and it allows Jesus to say something at the core of the gospel message “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well ” John 14:6.
None of this is the person of a doubter. He is far more together than Peter for example. In the gospel we have just heard, he wishes to be on the same footing as the disciples when they saw the wounds of the Risen Jesus. More to the point without being introduced as such he has the role of one standing in for the others. He is voicing the deepest and most secure aspect of where they stand with Jesus.
As you know,in other gospels the disciples are not the most open to believe. In Matthew, Matt 28:17, “when they saw him, they worshiped him—but some of them doubted”. In Mark 16.11 we hear “when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe”. In Luke they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” And when Jesus appears to them and shows them his wounds, they still, [they still doubt!]. Luke 24:36 and 43)
I suggest that this may not be the main issue. Clearly there is a blessing on those who believe but who cannot see. It should be an encouragement that so many of the disciples who had the amazing gift of being with Jesus, one who was is indeed the way the truth and the life, who knew God; (can you imagine?), it should be an encouragement that they messed up big style. If – when – you mess up big style, recall who was there before you. It is a challenge to believe but there is no want of welcome from Jesus to you, none; no sense of loosing your way is so fearful, no fog of confusion is too clammy, no numbness so bleak that it cannot be brought to close meeting by and with the Risen Christ.
What is really the key to Thomas is that in the gospel we have heard today, he has been away, not with the band of disciples; he has been on his own. The disciples greet him back, their own history of disbelief suppressed, and Thomas holds back, the clammy numbing fear of the disciples there in his gut, as his hand stretches forward…
Believing in the Risen Christ involves being in a community, grumpy or not. Thomas finds himself in community, Jesus is in the midst of them, here in the community of the church, the Risen Jesus greets them and him. What is made possible for Thomas, the end of his way through the gospel, is to be united with other believers, and to make confession; he is the first to do so, My Lord and my God, the confession of the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth. Thomas confesses this first and many thousands, many millions have followed on, as we are about to do.
I end with some lines from the York cycle, from the Scrivener’s play on so called ‘Doubting Thomas’
James Thomas, truly he is alive
He let us feel his wounds five,
Our Lord verray.
Jesus Behold my woundis are bleeding,
Here in my side put in thy hande
And feel my woundis and understand
That this is I,
And be no more mistrusting
But trust truly.
Thomas My Lorde, my God, full well is me,
A, blood of price, blessed must thou be.
Mankind in earth, behold and see
This blessed blood.
Mercy now, Lord, ask I thee,
With main and might.
181 Mi Lorde, my God. Thomas’ speech translates the motto, taken from the Vulgate, on a window which shows the subject in the church of All Saints, North Street: Dominus meus et deus meus (John 20:28). Love says that Thomas “reverently” kneeled “don with bothe joy and drede” and “touchede hees wondes as he badde and seide, My Lorde and my God” (Mirror, p. 208).
Here’s my simple contention about this passage: Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a realist. Think about it. Everything we know about Thomas up to this point suggests that he is forthright, genuine, and even courageous. Way back in chapter 11, for instance, Thomas is the one who urged the disciples to go with Jesus to raise Lazarus even thought it might spell their deaths (Jn. 11:16). And in chapter 14, when Thomas doesn’t understand Jesus’ metaphorical speech about the place he is going to, Thomas calls him on it: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how then can we know the way.”
Thomas, I would contend, is at heart a pragmatist, one who likes his truth straight up and who relentlessly takes stock of the situation before making a decision. You can count on Thomas, but you’d better not be false with him, because Thomas doesn’t suffer fools easily.
From this point of view, it’s interesting to me that Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples in the upper room when Jesus first appeared. Actually, I should describe it differently: Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when they were cowering in fear in the upper room. We don’t know where he was, but I’m guessing he was out getting on with his life, figuring out what was going to come next and getting on with it. Because Thomas is, first and foremost, a realist.
And here’s the thing: reality came like never before on that Friday just two days before this scene, when Thomas watched as they nailed his Lord, teacher, and friend to two slabs of wood. Jesus was dead, and with him all the hopes and dreams of the past three years had perished as well.
So when the disciples come saying that they had seen Jesus, Thomas doesn’t merely doubt them. He out and out just plain doesn’t believe. And so I suspect that his demand to see and feel the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands is less a request for proof than it is mocking the disciple’s claim. He makes that demand, in other words, because he knows it will never happen; it’s a request as absurd, even ridiculous, as what his friends are claiming.
Which leads me to believe that what changes when Thomas is confronted by the risen Lord is not that he is no longer a doubter – he never really was – and certainly not his realism. No, what changes is his perception of reality itself. Of what is possible. Of what God can do. Even of what God can do through him.
Jesus comes and takes his mocking words and turns them back on him, not to humiliate or scold him, but simply to confront him with the possibility that his reality was too small, his vision of what is possible too limited. And when Jesus calls him to faith, he’s actually inviting him to enter into a whole new world.
And this issue of having too small a vision of reality is what I find interesting. Because I also fall into a worldview governed by limitations and am tempted to call that “realism.” Which is when I need to have the community remind me of a grander vision. A vision not defined by failure but possibility, not governed by scarcity but by abundance, not ruled by remembered offenses but set free by forgiveness and reconciliation.
Might we imagine that in and through our preaching we are inviting people into a whole new reality? That part of what it means to come to church is to have our view of the world challenged with the possibility of something more? Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t about scolding people. Life is real, and life is hard, and sometimes life is real hard, and if our vision shrinks it’s usually under the duress of personal hardship and tragedy. And let’s not forget that we are bombarded 24/7 with headlines about all that’s wrong in the world. “If it bleeds, it leads,” may sell newspapers and internet ads, but it also leads us to believe the worst of the world.
There’s a scene from King Lear – arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play (and definitely my favorite!) – that comes to mind. It’s when mad old Lear encounters his daughter Cordelia, the loving daughter he foolishly spurned for the sake of a realistic pragmatisim. Precisely because Lear is a realist, he expects to receive from her what he knows he deserves, what he has coming by all the laws of the land and human experience. When, contrary to expectation or reason, she forgives him, however, Lear is disoriented and asks, “Am I in France?” His servants, thinking him still mad, reply, “In your own kingdom, sir.” Yet Lear has left his pragmatic, realistic England and has been caught the reality-expanding, world-creating experience of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
And so perhaps this week, Dear Partner, it would be useful to hold the confession and absolution until the end of the sermon (and if you don’t normally practice confession and absolution, to do so this time). After reading the words of the confession together, perhaps we might allow time for people also to name and confess where their vision has shrunk. To name, that is, the relationship we are about to give up on, the disappointment we can’t seem to get over, the wrongs we have done – or have had done to us – that seem to haunt our nights – and ask those gathered to turn these things over to the God who raised Jesus from the dead. “Do not continue disbelieving,” the words of absolution might begin, “But instead believe…in God, in grace, in mercy, in possibility, in forgiveness…and in yourself.” There are, I suspect, a lot of Thomases in our congregations – and perhaps more than a few in our pulpits as well! – who should not have to surrender their sense of realism, but instead be invited to a whole new reality that God created