Hurry! It’s a Matter of Death and Life
A Meditation on John 20:19-31
Rev. Michelle Denney Grunseich
Aston Presbyterian Church
April 19, 2020
“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 them, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand, 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!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Poor Thomas. I’ve always felt bad for him…..it seems as though it’s difficult enough for people to remember the names of all twelve disciples, let alone their apostolic legacies, and Thomas—who was in so many ways a leader, a revered figure in biblical history—has been largely conscripted to the corner in our mind’s eye; a thought bubble containing no more than the word ‘Doubter’ hovering there above his head. Poor Thomas.
In our passage this morning, we learn about the disciples who gathered on the eve of the Resurrection Day, when Thomas was not with them. We also learn about Jesus’ appearance a short time later to Thomas, and about Thomas’ reaction to seeing Jesus for the first time since His crucifixion. Poor Thomas—a man who history is remembered through a nickname so frequently uttered with dismayed intent…. ‘that hesitant, skeptical, distrustful, unbelieving THOMAS.’
If we take the time to really get to know Thomas, though, we can see that, in reality, he was actually a leader. We know that, as he was one of the 12 disciples, he was a treasured companion of Jesus. As a matter of fact, there are some scholars who believe that it might actually be Thomas who is the ‘Beloved Disciple’ referred to so often in John’s Gospel.
In reading other passages from the Gospel of John, we get a more holistic view of Thomas as a careful and prepared and thoughtful leader, someone who was willing to stand by Jesus through trial and triumph.
For example, in the eleventh chapter of John, we read the account of Lazarus’ illness, and of his sisters’ concern for his health. The sisters set out to find Jesus to tell him of Lazarus’ condition, and when they found Jesus and told him, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” His disciples were shocked, having recently LEFT Judea because of the threat of stoning! The disciples were quick to try to dissuade Jesus from his decision, but it was Thomas who was the first to agree to go along. Thomas spoke up in support, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” ….Are those the words of someone who doesn’t believe? Or someone who is so steadfast in their loyalty that they willingly agree to potentially lose their life for the cause they believe in? Maybe Thomas wasn’t the “doubter” we always assume he was.
Then, in the fourteenth chapter of John, as Jesus is explaining to his disciples that He must die…that he is going on to ‘prepare a place for them’. Thomas asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Does this sound like the question of someone who doesn’t care? Who doesn’t believe? Who isn’t concerned about the future? Who is doubtful and who has lost hope? Or does it sound more like someone who is engaged, concerned, practical, steadfast, committed and brave?
Why are we so quick to blame Thomas and write him off as an unbeliever?
Let’s remember that Thomas is a disciple. He’s in the ‘in’ crowd with Jesus. He’s one of the few true companions that walked alongside Jesus and were privy to His every deed and direction. He was chosen by Jesus. Thomas is just trying his best to live out what he believes to be true. We have to keep in mind that, by the time Thomas is asking to see the wounds and touch Jesus’ scars, things were not going all that smoothly. The governor of the Roman Empire had just KILLED Jesus. The Romans want Jesus’ followers to be SILENCED. What was there for Thomas to be hopeful about? Thomas was a man—a good man, a committed man, struggling to be a faithful man—but just human nevertheless. He had just witnessed everything that was real and good and true in his reality turned completely on its end. Life as he had known it was done. Who here among us has not experienced that? A friendship ends. A job is lost. An accident leaves us injured. An addiction overwhelms us. A marriage fails. A loved one dies. Every one of us has experienced something that has completely changed our lives in some way…..and, like most people, ‘hopeful’ and ‘full of faith’ were probably not our first responses to that loss…..Maybe Thomas wasn’t the “doubter” we always assume he was.
After Jesus died on the Cross, Thomas could have just walked away. How could we blame him if he had cried his tears, hugged his old friends, walked down that hill on which his Lord had died, and closed that chapter of his life? But that’s not what he did. He gathered with the disciples a week later, in a room that was locked for fear of attack from the Jews. He gathered with his old friends and his community of believers not sure of what to expect next. Not knowing where to find hope in a situation that seemed, at best, grim. Thomas came back….the mystery of faith called him into the community of believers once again.
Jesus reappears. He promises His disciples that the Holy Spirit will breathe new life into them. They are renewed by the Holy Spirit. They are renewed by their questions. They are given hope by just seeing Jesus again—by touching, sensing, seeing. It strengthened their resolve and renewed their hope. In the end, who triumphed? The last I checked, the Roman Empire was dead and gone, relegated to folklore and history books….But I see the living, breathing witness to Christ Jesus in life all around me. Thanks to those eleven men who were not willing to let the light of Christ be extinguished.
I am so thankful that the writer of the Gospel of John included Thomas’ story. No doubt, we’ve all heard or thought about how different the Gospel of John is from the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As with all biblical history, there are many opinions about the time, date, and authorship of the Gospel of John. One thing that is definitely true of this Gospel is that it gives a ‘deeply satisfying’ portrait of Jesus Christ. The writer of the Gospel of John writes so differently from the way in which the other Gospel writers did. The Gospel of John is no less focused on the importance of telling about the life of Jesus than the others, but there is a multi-layered expressiveness to his account that is not found anyplace else. The Gospel of John is primarily concerned with sacramentalism—the genuine appearance of God in history. The word ‘believe’ is found in John close to one hundred times. John was primarily concerned that his readers would come to know Christ. He wants to evangelize and refresh those already on the journey.
The Thomas story is a story of salvation. It is a story of a man so deeply desiring to know Christ that he wants to literally touch the Resurrection. Is there anything more hopeful, more steadfast, than believing in Jesus so completely that you want to reach out and touch the divinity of life through the thin veil of death? It’s as though Thomas is crying out, “Hurry! It’s a matter of death….and life.”
I think, too often, we think that we hear Thomas’ words spat out with hostility and condescension: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Just as we think we hear Jesus’ reply spoken with admonishment and frustration: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have come to believe.” But what if we replay those words in our heads with a different tone…..what if Thomas is asking to see and touch the wounds of Jesus with a voice of wonder and a soul ready to embrace the mystery of living faith? And what if Jesus’ response is one spoken softly, tenderly, open to the idea that there is so much we can never know for sure, but with a respect and an admiration for the attempt at figuring it all out? What if we reframe it in our minds to think that, in that moment, the overarching feeling was that of awe and wonder, and not one of distrust and suspicion?
The Gospel of John was written to a people who were hurting and lost. To a people who were suffering with alienation and separation. To a people whose lives were changing irreparably…To a people who had little reason to try to find the hope in their circumstance.
When we’re asking questions of our faith, it’s not because we don’t care. It’s not because we don’t believe….It’s because we care so much and believe so deeply that we want to try to make sense of things. I don’t think of Thomas as a doubter. I value his inquisitiveness. I appreciate his honesty. I long to be so faithful that I would lay down my life. I, too, want to reach out and touch the hand of God. I am so grateful for Thomas because he gives substantiation for my questions. He gives permission for our doubts to help to strengthen the Truth. The one eternal truth that is Jesus the Christ.
Jesus tells us to become like children to enter the kingdom of God. What is one of the first things you think of when you think of children? Exuberance. Innocence. Excitement. Inquisitiveness. No one thinks of child who is asking questions about her world and says, “That child is full of doubt!” No—we are refreshed to see children in our midst because they are so full of HOPE.
I’m going to unofficially change Thomas’ nickname. I hope you won’t mind…but for me, he will not be known as “Doubting Thomas”, but as “Hopeful Thomas”. Hope—that feeling that what is wanted CAN be had—that events WILL turn out for the best. Hope is what makes us an Easter people. Hope is what we found at the tomb when we thought we had lost it all. Hope is what enables us to reach out our hands and touch the wounded hearts of those we love because we believe so completely in a Savior who is big enough to handle all the confusion that our earthly lives entail.
I don’t think many of us have to worry about our lives being canonized for eternity as Thomas’ is…..but still, I hope history doesn’t remember any of us by one moment. I hope that my legacy is not one question—one moment of uncertainty; or one harsh word of anger; or one moment of cold-heartedness…..I hope that my legacy in this life quilt that we’re all woven into, is that I was a person of faith. Like Thomas. “Questioning Thomas”. “Curious Thomas”. “Enlightened Thomas”. “HOPEFUL Thomas”. Anything but doubting. Are we ready to live into the Easter message? Are we ready to touch Jesus’ hand? Are we hopeful enough to voice our doubts so that our faith can be restored? Hurry! It’s a matter of death….and life. Amen.