Second Sunday of Easter
This coming Sunday is sometimes referred to by liturgical insiders as Easter 2. Last Sunday we had our fun, our big moment filled with uplifting sermons, shouts of “Alleluia,” and rousing hymns sung by choirs and congregations, the latter probably swollen by the ranks of once or twice-yearly Christians. But you can’t keep that kind of mountaintop high going every week (nor can we continually dwell in the valley of Good Friday either).
We return to reality, and thanks to the lectionary on all three years of its cycle the Gospel passage we encounter is the post-Resurrection story of Thomas. OK, most people refer to the poor guy as “Doubting Thomas.” I’m not the first to say that’s pretty much a bum rap on this close disciple of Jesus, who later became an apostle and is credited with, among other things, taking the message of Christ to the subcontinent of India. For that, and his fervent statement “My Lord and my God,” Thomas has always been revered in the Eastern branches of Christianity. Not so much in the West, though, which tagged him early and often with that “Doubting” moniker.
Thomas, though, is not so much a doubter (in other words, an “unbeliever” or an “unfaithful one”) as a realist. For some reason Thomas missed out on the meeting the risen Jesus had with the ten other remaining close, male disciples. Let’s pick up the Gospel writer’s account:
When 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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So 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.” A 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.” Then 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” –John 20:19-28
Here are these ten frightened men hiding behind locked doors, fearing for their lives. (By the way, where are the women? Most likely, they’re out in public doing all the stuff that needs doing so the men can stay hidden.) The risen Jesus suddenly appears to them. Maybe his first “Peace be with you” is aimed at calming them down and relieving what must have been quite a shock.
Then what does Jesus do? He shows them the nail prints in his hands and the scar in his side where a Roman soldier had poked him. It was only when they saw the physical evidence that the disciples rejoiced. Why should we be shocked and dismayed at Thomas for wanting exactly the same experience as his close friends in this first believing community. Contrary to what’s generally believed about this story, Thomas did not poke his fingers into Jesus’ side and hands. Instead he not only recognized his Master but immediately uttered what is arguably the foundation for all subsequent Christological statements: “My Lord and my God!” And for that he gets tagged with the name Doubting Thomas.
Two millenia later I grew up in a Christian congregation that, for the most part, equated doubt with a lack or weakness of faith. Granted it was the late-fifties and sixties and those folks were hardly the most intellectually curious group, even though they cared deeply for one another and held securely to the church they all loved. Perhaps oddly enough, this was in Missouri, the Show-Me State. One would think that would be one place where a realist like Thomas would be appreciated. (One would most likely be wrong.)
I’m happy to testify that I both owe much to my childhood upbringing in the church and have managed to grow beyond–maybe even transcend–significant parts of it. That’s something about faith communities: they certainly aren’t perfect but they are necessary. I bet Thomas would have concurred.
Something tells me he also might have agreed with theologian Paul Tillich: “Serious doubt is confirmation of faith.” Nor is doubt the opposite of faith; and faith is not certain knowledge. As the writer of the Hebrews letter (11:1) aptly states it: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
For several years now we Americans have dwelt in a land filled with “truthers” and “birthers” and all kinds of others happily denying reality and seeking out every weird conspiracy theory the internet offers. I suppose they, too, are convinced of “things not seen” and are most assured of what they’re hoping for. But they all work in an opposite direction from the Apostle Thomas, from hoped-for conclusion to irrational thesis.
We have much for which to thank Thomas, who first recognized in the risen Jesus our Lord and our God. As for all those populating the corners of the World Wide Web (does anybody still use that term?), I suppose (to paraphrase another scripture verse: John 12:8), the nut-jobs and crazies will always be there.
Peace be with us.
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*Adapted from the ForeWords archive