All Saints' Episcopal Church

Believing Thomas

Leendert van der Cooghen / Public domain

A sermon on John 20:19-31 given by Charles Tyrone on April 19, 2020…

In the lectionary, the lessons change over a three-year cycle. But there are exceptions. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter is always John’s story of Jesus’s resurrection appearances to the disciples and to Thomas in the upper room.

John gives us four post-resurrection stories. Mary Magdalene goes early on Easter morning to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Alarmed, she goes to tell the disciples. Peter and John run with her to the tomb and find that, indeed, Jesus’s body is missing. They leave, and Mary lingers behind when a man she thinks is the gardener appears. He calls her name, and she realizes it is Jesus. Mary runs to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”

But it seems Mary’s astonishing story isn’t believed. Overcome by grief that their beloved Jesus was dead, they can’t see how Mary’s proclamation is possibly true. Compounding their grief is their fear. They had seen Jesus arrested, tried, and crucified. They had seen the mobs in the street mock Jesus. They were aware that the High Priest and the Council acted mercilessly to eliminate Jesus. Judas had betrayed him. Peter had denied him. Only John had been present at Jesus’s crucifixion. All the rest had scattered in fear for their lives. Now they are gathered in the upper room, where Jesus had washed their feet, told them he was going away, consoled them, and prayed for them. Now terrified for “fear of the Jews”, they hide behind locked doors.

In the evening on the first Easter Sunday, Jesus suddenly appears in their midst. He greets them, “Peace be with you.” “Shalom,” a customary daily greeting that’s now filled with more meaning. Be at peace. Have no fear. Jesus shows them his hands and his pierced side. Jesus is again incarnated and, moreover, resurrected – alive. He is not a ghost or a spirit. Jesus stands before them embodied in human flesh still bearing the wounds of his suffering and death. John says the disciples, the men and women who were Jesus’s closest followers, “rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

But Thomas isn’t there. It’s possible he’d earlier heard Mary’s astonishing claim to have seen the Lord with same effect as the other disciples, dismissing it as a fantasy, a story born out of grief, in any event an unbelievable story. For reasons John doesn’t share, Thomas left the group for the day, and when he returns in the evening, the disciples excitedly tell him, as Mary had said too, “We have seen the Lord!”

Thomas says, “No! Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and thrust my hand in the wound in his side, I will not believe.” Now if we had only Matthew, Mark, and Luke to rely on, all we’d know of Thomas is that his name appears in the roll of the twelve disciples. But John, embodies Thomas, makes him a rounded character. Recall that when Jesus decides to return to Judea to raise Lazarus, the disciples warn that returning puts his life in danger. Seeing that Jesus is determined to go, Thomas says, “Let us go and die with him.” And a few days later in the upper room, Jesus in his final discourses gives the disciples an enigmatic, puzzling message about going away to prepare a place for them and that they’ll know the place where he is going.

Thomas, bewildered, says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” John lets us know that Thomas is no coward and that he is a literal, concrete thinker, who wants things spelled out plain and clear. Thomas, in the upper room, demands to see the risen, wounded body of Jesus himself before he’ll believe. Now, for resisting the disciples’ excited story of seeing the risen Jesus, Thomas becomes forever in church lore “Doubting Thomas.” But let’s realize that what Thomas asks for is the same experience, the same palpable evidence of Jesus in the flesh that Mary and the disciples had. Thomas wants to bring his senses to bear – to see the pierced hands, to touch the wounded side in order to believe Jesus lives.

A week later, on the second Sunday of Easter, Thomas and the men and women who are disciples are gathered again in the upper room. Again, the doors are closed. Danger still threatens the community of followers. Suddenly, Jesus stands among them. This time he has come so that Thomas might see and believe. Jesus, the Shepherd, comes to find and save his lost lamb, Thomas. That resurrection appearance is a gift of grace just for Thomas. For Thomas, we can imagine that nothing existed in that moment but his astonishment at seeing his beloved Jesus. Jesus speaks to Thomas and offers his wounded body for him to touch. He gives Thomas the very evidence he said he needed in order to believe in the risen Lord. It is a very personal and intimate moment, offered only to Thomas. We may suppose that he falls to his knees saying, “My Lord and my God.” This is Thomas’s encounter with the risen Jesus. This is Thomas’s moment of transformation from his unbelief. This is the moment when Thomas’s own fear is dispelled, and he becomes the courageous apostle whose journey will take him to India to proclaim the Gospel and die a martyr.

After Thomas’s proclamation, John seems to rebuke Thomas for believing only because he had seen the risen Jesus. This looking askance at those having to see to believe appears elsewhere in John’s Gospel. And, we might note John does a bit of self-valorization, because when John goes with Peter and finds the empty tomb, he “saw and believed”, not the risen Jesus, but the empty tomb, which fulfilled Jesus’s promise that he would rise after three days. Setting that “rebuke” of Thomas aside, Jesus in the next sentence, speaks in the form of a beatitude, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus here is blessing us. Peter in today’s epistle lesson expands on the meaning of the blessing to us who believe, having not seen: “Although you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Jesus is risen. Death is conquered. In Jesus, we are saved.

At this time, we are in our own locked upper rooms. We are an isolated, alienated, and scattered community. We are anxious and in fear of our lives and the lives of those we love. We are dealing with the sadness of not being together with each other, of being kept apart from those who are sick, who are dying, who are grieving for those who have died and need us. John’s resurrection stories assure us that in our aloneness, Jesus shows up and comes to be with us. We like Mary, the disciples, and Thomas can rejoice that the risen Jesus is present among us.

Believing Thomas
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