Tomorrow is St. Thomas Sunday on the church calendar. Last year was the first time I realized that there was such a day. I was immediately glad about it, though, since Thomas is my favorite disciple. In services tomorrow countless churches will be reading the story of Thomas’s post-resurrection encounter with the Lord. It’s what he’s best known for and the reason that his nickname is Doubting Thomas. In the Sunday school class I teach we’ll reflect on the role of doubt in the spiritual journey: is it a necessary evil, a sign of weakness, or a means through which we grow? It’s an important subject, but doubting is not all there is to Thomas.
We hear Thomas speak three times in the gospel of John. Taken together, doubt is not the quality that seems most characteristic of Thomas. What I hear, instead, is unpolished honesty. If Peter is brash, impulsive and emotional, Thomas strikes me as blunt and pragmatic. Also a bit of a pessimist – or maybe he would have preferred “realist”. “This is the situation,” Thomas says in various ways, “and I’m not going to put any niceties on it.”
John 11 gives us the story of the raising of Lazarus. Just a few days before Mary and Martha sent word of their brother’s illness, Jesus had escaped an attempted stoning in Jerusalem. When he tells his disciples that he’s heading back that way to see Lazarus, they are understandably alarmed. “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” Jesus answers them, but (as is often the case) they have no idea what he means. They are not reassured. Then Thomas speaks up and delivers one of my favorite lines in the gospels: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
I realize that I’m speculating when I insert motives and emotions into such a line, but I can’t help imagining a certain exasperation behind Thomas’s grim declaration of loyalty. I imagine him thinking, “I have no idea what he’s talking about, and I think this is a terrible idea. But I’ve sworn to following him. If he’s going to get himself killed, I suppose I will, too.” There is no grandeur in Thomas’s declaration. He might sound courageous, but it’s the courage of a soldier obeying orders that seem not just incomprehensible, but misguided.
Of course, when Jesus does finally go to his death, Thomas doesn’t die with him. He runs, like most of the other disciples. I wonder how much disappointment in himself is wrapped up in his reluctance to believe in the risen Christ. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.
In John 14 we hear Thomas speak up again. Jesus is sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, but this a Passover unlike any they have experienced before. Jesus is speaking of betrayal, of death, of leaving them behind. Although it’s clear that the disciples are confused (again), although they don’t understand what, exactly, is coming, a heavy blanket of sadness seems to hang over the entire evening. As Jesus tries to comfort them he speaks words that are dear to Christians everywhere, and that have been used at countless Christian funerals:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.
It’s such a beautiful, familiar passage – and when we read it we often stop right there – that what Thomas says next comes as a bit of a jolt. It seems impolitic, at best.
Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?
I hear Thomas’s exasperation again, but this time even more weighed down with anxiety and sorrow. “What do you mean we know where you’re going??? We don’t, as a matter of fact, so how can we know the way to get there?” Perhaps the other disciples were thinking it, but it is Thomas who speaks up and contradicts what Jesus has just told them. It’s a bold move, but as I said, I think Thomas was hardwired for telling the plain truth. And the truth was, he didn’t know. He didn’t understand. This leads Jesus to make a declaration on which the hope of Christians everywhere rests:
Jesus answered, “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. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
We don’t hear from Thomas again until after the resurrection. He is not with the disciples the first time that Jesus appears to them. That’s an interesting detail in and of itself, but I won’t try to figure out where Thomas was or why he, alone, was not with the group. We do know that the other disciples considered it a priority to tell Thomas what he’d missed: “We have seen the Lord!” And then, in the middle of all the rejoicing that’s been going on in John 20, Thomas brings it to a screeching halt. He will not believe the news that’s being reported to him. Here are the words that have given Thomas his image through history:
Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.
Consider: Thomas is receiving the news of the risen Christ from the other disciples. He has lived and worked alongside them for years now. What does he think this is? A joke? Why would he disbelieve all of them? He’s seen Jesus raise the dead, so he ought to be open to the possibility of the miraculous. But Thomas just can’t bear to believe unless he has rock solid physical evidence. In this moment I think Thomas represents everyone who has ever had their heart broken by God. When our expectations are not met, when the worst-case-scenario comes to pass, when everything in which we have invested our lives seems lost – how in the world can we open ourselves up to that kind of pain again? In the book of Hebrews Jesus is described as a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, and Jesus seems to sympathize with Thomas. When he appears to the disciples again, with Thomas present, he offers the evidence.
Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
That’s enough for Thomas. The gospel doesn’t tell us whether or not he took Jesus up on the offer, actually touching the wounds. We’re simply given Thomas’s words in response: “My Lord and my God!”
This is Thomas, who spoke the truth without self-consciousness, who was willing to admit confusion, pessimism, and despair. And this was now Thomas’s truth: “My Lord and my God!” It was the truth that drove him for the rest of his life. Early church writers tell us that Thomas took the gospel to India, successfully launching the church there before being martyred around 72 A.D. That’s right: in the end Thomas the doubter did go and die with his Lord.
I readily recognize myself in Thomas, and I’m moved by the willingness that Jesus had to reach Thomas where he was at – in his almost belligerent despair. He’s done the same for me on more than one occasion. No, I haven’t seen the wounds, but the wounded and risen One has waded into my own my moments of doubt, welcomed me speaking the truth to him, and strengthened my faith through His presence.
This poem by Thomas Troeger is from the Psalter-Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church.
These things did Thomas hold for real:
the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of blood and bone.
His brittle certainties denied
that one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.
May we, O God, by grace believe
and, in believing, still receive
the Christ who held His raw palms out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.