It is odd, and a little sad, that what history – the human memory of the past – remembers is when someone stumbled or fell, when they made a mistake, an incorrect statement, or even just hesitated. And right now, it seems that we go out of our way to look for people’s errors to discredit anything good they had accomplished. When we see this between two individuals, we are likely to say that the fault finder is jealous, they are trying to elevate themselves at the expense of another. When a large portion of a society does it, we find it harder to shake off. This isn’t new. It has been happening for centuries.
One of the main characters of today’s gospel has fallen victim to this kind of negative labeling. He is often called Doubting Thomas, but I think it would be far more appropriate to call him Faithful Thomas or Believing Thomas.
From the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all we know about Thomas is that he was one of the twelve chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and his students. It is something that those of us who embrace Christianity and seek to live into that calling share with him. In John 15:16 Jesus tells those that were with him immediately before his arrest, that “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16). We believe the words Jesus spoke that night were not just for those who were physically present, but they hold true for those of us who have inherited the faith through them.
The Gospel of John give us a couple more insights into the personality of Thomas.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus and the twelve had gone to Jerusalem for Hanukkah. (John 10:22) It was there that Jesus made the statement, “The Father and I are one.” (John 10: 30) and some of the local people had taken up stones with the intent of stoning Jesus for blasphemy. (John 10:31). Jesus and the twelve had left the area and crossed the Jordon River, effectively like crossing the Rapidan River here takes you into another county; he moved into another province of the Roman Empire, probably the area that is now the country of Jordon. While they were there, Jesus gets word that Lazarus is near death, and when he decides it is time to return to Judah, the disciples try to talk him out of it, but it is clear that he is determined. Thomas speaks up and says to his companions, “Let us also go, that we might die with him.” (John 11: 16). Thomas is not willing to abandon Jesus to his fate in Jerusalem and is the one rallying the troops so to speak to fall in and support Jesus with courage.
A couple of chapters later, Jesus is trying to explain to the twelve that he is leaving them, but he is talking about leaving to prepare a place for them and they don’t understand. It is Thomas that has the courage to ask Jesus for clear directions, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).
I see Thomas as forthright, courageous, a born leader, seeking clarification when he doesn’t understand, and one who likes to have all his facts clear and then he makes a very decisive decision. If you look at Thomas in that light, removing the negative label from him before you hear the story, does it change how you view the story and Thomas?
It is Sunday evening, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Peter and John have seen the empty tomb. Mary Magdalen has spoken to Jesus. Some of Jesus’ disciples have sought shelter together behind locked doors because they are afraid. Thomas is not with them. We do not know why. Jesus suddenly appears in the room with them. (I always have visions of the Star Trek transporter as this point.) It appears, that Jesus, in his resurrected body is not encumbered by time and space.
It is an unbelievably poignant moment. Jesus, whom they had abandoned, whom they had seen tortured, crucified and buried. He is not a ghost. He is not an imposter – he shows them his scars. He is not angry at their abandonment of them. He greets them with “Peace.” He commissions them to continue his work, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21). He breaths on them, giving them the Holy Spirit (John 20: 22) and he gives them the power to forgive sins, just as he had done. When Thomas arrives, and we don’t know if it was that same night or later that week – “Oh, what you have missed.” Thomas is not willing to accept the testimony of the group. He is reserving his hope, his expectations until he witnesses the risen Jesus for himself. “Unless I see that 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.” (John 20:25) There are a lot of people that we share our experience of Jesus with that seem to say the same thing. The hope in this story is that Jesus provided that opportunity.
A week later, they are in the same place, the doors locked just like last time, but this time Thomas is with them. Again, Jesus appears, and apparently just for the benefit of Thomas. Jesus offers Thomas his hands and his side, the proof that Thomas needed. Thomas’ response is “My Lord and my God!” Once Thomas has experienced the risen Christ for himself, he his wholly committed. This is one of the highest Christological statements in all of the gospels by anyone other than Jesus himself. This is a declaration that Jesus is not just a wise teacher or a good role model, this is a statement of total allegiance and an acknowledgement that Christ and God are one.
According to tradition, Thomas took the gospel message all the way to southern India where he was martyred. The Mar Thoma denomination that is now world-wide (I got to work with them when I lived in Dallas) claims that apostle Thomas as their founder.
How would you like to be remembered by future generations? I would encourage you to remember that “respecting the dignity of every human being” doesn’t end when that person dies. We are all sinners and we don’t have to approve of actions that are morally wrong, but if Jesus could forgive Peter and Thomas and the other disciples and go on to entrust his mission to them, I think we need to be forgiving, not just of those who are living, but also, those who have gone before us.