This weekend, for the first Sunday after Easter, in many of our churches, we will hear the story of Thomas. He is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas.” Many of us are not sure that he deserves that moniker. Especially if it is seen as a negative judgment on his skepticism.
The Gospel of John tells the story of Thomas, who was not with the disciples when the risen Jesus first appeared to them. Upon hearing the reports of the disciples, he tells them that he will not believe, unless he sees the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands.
Many are grateful for Thomas and his story of asking to see before he believes. This measure of skepticism speaks to something many of us feel. In our experience, people do not rise from the dead. Death is one of the few certainties out there, and the stories the disciples tell Thomas sound either crazy, or too good to be true.
Years ago I read a great reflection on this story. What was the loss for Thomas? It was that for a week he lived in anguish and uncertainty, because he had stationed himself in a place other than where Jesus appeared. The disciples were together, and Thomas was not with them.
Last week, in a compelling column titled: “Five Lies Our Culture Tells,” David Brooks wrote about how we need community to help shape a meaningful life. Among the mistaken notions that have shaped many of us in this day, which he called lies: “I can make myself happy,” “Life is an individual journey,” “You have to find your own truth.”
That is a strong term, calling them lies. Each of these sound like the sort of thing that would be offered as wise advice given at a graduation ceremony. Happiness is up to you, find your truth, make the most of your journey. David Brooks wants to suggest that we need to set aside the hyper individualism that is tearing us apart, and come together in community. There we will see that we are called to something greater than simple self-actualization.
Thomas’ problem was that when he absented himself from the community, he was not able to be shaped by the truth the disciples came to know in Jesus’ appearing alive to them. Due to not being there when Jesus first appeared to them, Thomas suffers through a terrible week that didn’t have to be. He bears the grief of loss, perhaps made worse by a faint, yet strange and unreal seeming hope.
Then, as they were gathered together, on that next Sunday evening, Jesus stood among them and brought his Easter greeting; “Peace be with you.”
What happened next tells so very much. Did Jesus scold Thomas for his unbelief? Did Jesus ask him; “Who do you think you are, putting forth requirements before you will believe?” Did he point out that his demands were an offense to the one who had done so much for him? Did he suggest that such insolence would not be tolerated?
No, in fact, quite the opposite. Jesus 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.”
Whatever we call him, I appreciate Thomas and his doubt more and more. So much so, that I don’t object to calling him Doubting Thomas at all. I think Thomas gives voice to the doubts that come to all who live in this broken world. And in joining the disciples, a week late, he finds himself face to face with the depth of God’s love, shown to him in the wounded hands and side of his risen Lord.
In the community of faith, Thomas is shaped by the encounter with Jesus, shaped by those who gathered with him. And from there, legend has it, Thomas was the first missionary to India, and he was faithful to the end.
Phil Wold is a pastor with Trinity Lutheran Church.