Labels are a tricky thing. When I go to the grocery store, I want my food to be labeled clearly and accurately. For people with food sensitivities, this can be a life or death matter, but when we label people, we tend to put emphasis on something that is often irrelevant to the current situation that adds a bias, either for against that person intended or unintended. For example, I saw a recent Facebook post where someone had shared a very talented drummers offering for our isolation. The headline included a sexuality and an occupation label on the individual. My friend was upset, feeling that the labels were unnecessary and could potentially create a negative bias where someone else felt they were very positive because of the initial audience for whom the video was created. We are all far more complicated that any labels that are used either to honor or defame us. This morning we hear the story of the unfortunate disciple who has been labeled as a doubter for the last two thousand years.
So who was Thomas, the Apostle? Thomas first appears in Matthew 10:3 and the parallels Mark 3:18 and Luke 6:15 where he is named in a list of Jesus’ twelve apostles and never mentioned again in any of the synoptic gospels. It is in the Gospel of John that we get to know a little about him. John mentions the twelve as early chapter 6, but Thomas is first mentioned by name in the story about Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary in chapter 11. After Lazarus has died, Jesus determined to return to Bethany, a town just on the other side of the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem. The disciples were concerned about Jesus returning to Jerusalem because last time they were there the people had tried to stone him. Jesus is adamant that it is time to return. John tells us that “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” (John 11:16) Thomas already has a label “The Twin” though we have no idea who his twin was, but we can see from this statement that Thomas makes that John believes Thomas to be both loyal and courageous. If Jesus is determined to return to the area near Jerusalem, then Thomas will be there by his side for better or for worse.
The next time we see Thomas, Jesus is talking about his upcoming departure. He is talking about leaving to prepare a place for them and telling them that they know the way to the place where he is going. It is Thomas that speaks up and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas does not appear to be suffering from poor self-esteem. He is confused and he does mind admitting it, to Jesus or in front of all the other disciples. He genuinely wants to know how to follow Jesus wherever he is going.
There is no mention of Thomas by name during the Holy Week activities, though we have every reason to believe he was there. From the time that each of the synoptic gospels gives the list of the twelve, which is fairly early in Jesus’ ministry – they often just refer to the group as the twelve who were constantly with Jesus until they scattered at the time of his arrest and who, according to John, still gathered together after his death bringing us to today’s story.
It is Sunday, Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday. Sunday morning, Mary Magdelene and at least one other woman witnessed the empty tomb and Mary is stating that she saw and spoke to Jesus. Peter and another of the disciples, probably John, have seen the empty tomb. It is now evening and the disciples, which probably means more than just the twelve, have gathered together in someone’s house and have locked the doors because they are afraid of the Jewish leaders. Thomas is not with them. We do not know why. He could be out getting food for everyone. He could have decided to go back to his former occupation and/or family rather than continue to hang out with the twelve. He could have been “sheltering in place,” hiding out wherever he ended up on Friday night. We just don’t know what he was thinking or doing at this time.
Jesus suddenly appears in the room with the disciples. I visualize Resurrection as being freed from the restrictions of time and space because Jesus just materializes in the room with them. He speaks to them, “Peace be with you” (John 2: 19). I’m sure they were terrified, even if it was Jesus. First, because of this strange otherworldly appearance of one you know died and secondly, they all failed him on Friday – most of them ran, Peter denied him, John found his way to the foot of the cross, but not before Jesus was tried and executed. But Jesus speaks not of their need to be forgiven, he forgave them while still nailed to the cross, but of their need to forgive. Forgive themselves, forgive each other, forgive the Jewish authorities, forgive the Roman authorities, forgive the crowds that mocked Jesus and called for his crucifixion. John also preempts Pentecost and says that Jesus breathed on them and told them to “Receive the Holy Spirit.” ( John 20:22) Then as mysteriously as he appeared he is gone. WOW! and for whatever reason, Thomas missed it.
We don’t know if one of the twelve tracked him down or Thomas was just late getting to the party, but the disciples tell Thomas what he missed that day. The empty tomb, the angels at the tomb, Jesus speaking to Mary, Jesus appearing in the room with them that evening. Jesus showing them the holes in his hands and his side. Jesus offering them Peace. Jesus telling them to forgive others, and finally, Jesus breathing on them and giving them the Holy Spirit. This is all a bit much for Thomas who saw Jesus’ arrest, probably saw him crucified and hanging on the cross, but did not see or experience any of what they are talking about. Thomas is a realist. Thomas likes to have his facts in order and then he can act. If going to Jerusalem meant dying with Jesus, he could do that. If Jesus wanted them to follow him to some new home, he could do that, but he needed a map, he needed to know where he was going. If Jesus was alive, he wanted to see for himself. We have learned to verify anything posted on the internet, perhaps Thomas had learned to verify anything he heard by word of mouth.
John tells us “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them” (John 20:26). Once again Jesus materializes in a locked room. Again, Jesus greets them with “Peace be with you.” Then, he immediately turns his attention to Thomas. Jesus knows what has been said, and even what Thomas has been thinking. He offers Thomas the reassurance he knows Thomas needs – “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, believe.” Jesus not only assures him that he is real, he helps him to connect with the sacrifice Jesus made for Thomas and the rest of humanity.
Thomas’ response to Jesus is “My Lord and my God.” Thomas’ affirmation is more than confirmation that Jesus has risen from the dead. Thomas’ affirmation is a pledge of allegiance to Jesus the Christ, affirming not only that he is alive, that he is the Messiah, but that he is one with God, but that Thomas is his slave. This is much more than even what Peter confessed when he stated the Jesus was, “the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16). This is the point that Jesus was trying to make on Thursday night when he washed their feet and instituted the Eucharist, and no one got it at that time.
Jesus’ question to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” is not a condemnation of Thomas, but sets up for John the opportunity to tell all those who will come to belief later, in the future, not because they too got to see and touch the physical risen Chris, but because they hear the stories and hear truth in them. John has Jesus saying that they are even more blessed for they have come to that belief through faith not evidence.
Jesus commended the faith of children. Sometimes it is easy for us to become religious snobs, and I confess that I can be as guilty as the next person and must constantly remind myself that it is not what we know about theology or church history, or how well we perform the liturgy, or how beautiful our prayers sound, or how hard we work that is important. What is important is the statement that Thomas gave to us, “Jesus – My Lord and My God.” If we can say that and mean it, if we can live into that confession then our denomination, high church or low church, traditional or progressive, ZOOM or Facebook Live, are of no consequence. Peace be with you and may all your labels be in the grocery stores.