When we hear of the disciple Thomas, we instantly think of “doubt.” Instead of being known for all the times he was faithful, like so many people, Thomas is best known for the one time he leaves and misses out on the action. It’s the first day of the week, and all of the disciples are hiding behind locked doors, afraid of what might happen, when Jesus comes and stands among them. At least all the disciples are there except for Thomas…. And of course we know the story from there. Poor Thomas arrives home to find the disciples telling him that Jesus had been there. Thomas replies: “Unless I see the 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.” From then on Thomas’s reputation is sealed as the disciple with little faith, the one who doubts, the one who finds it hard to believe. He becomes the symbol for all of us who would rather see things for ourselves instead of just accept the stories of others.
But a few weeks ago we saw a very different picture of Thomas. That Sunday’s gospel reading was the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. When the story begins, Jesus and the disciples are on the other side of the Jordan River, having fled Jerusalem because the people there were getting ready to stone him. When Jesus hears of the death of his friend Lazarus, he waits a couple of days and then says to the disciples: “Let’s go to Jerusalem.” The disciples respond in what seems like a very reasonable way: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to kill you. Do you really want to go there again?” In other words, “Are you crazy?” It is Thomas who says to the other disciples: “Let us also go to Jerusalem, that we may die with Jesus.”
Now that doesn’t sound like someone with little faith; in fact, Thomas seems to have so much faith that he’s willing to lose his life over it. He’s loyal; he’s determined; he’s willing to stay with Jesus until the bitter end. Thomas still might come off as a pessimist but, in reality, he wasn’t far off base – Jesus did go on to get crucified once he returned to Jerusalem. Thomas was right; he just didn’t see the happy ending that came three days later. And in his defense, who would have expected it?
If we take a closer look at today’s gospel reading and the passage that has sealed Thomas’ reputation as the one who doubts, we find that there’s not much reason to see Thomas in such negative light. After all, he’s not really asking for anything the other disciples haven’t already experienced. There the other ten remaining disciples are on the first day of the week. Even though Mary Magdalene has told the other ten disciples that she’s seen the risen Lord, they don’t act like they know how to understand that information any more than Thomas would know how to understand it when they said the same thing to him a few hours later. The disciples are locked in the house, afraid the same thing might happen to them that happened to Jesus. Jesus comes and stands right there with them; he shows them his hands and his side. And it’s only after that revelation that the disciples rejoice over the presence of the Lord.
Who can blame Thomas for wanting that same experience – for wanting to see for himself the marks of the nails and the wound in Jesus’ side? In fact, we know exactly how Thomas feels. We, too, live in a time after Easter. We, too, haven’t seen the marks of the nails or the wound in Jesus’ side. We, too, find it hard sometimes to believe the second-hand accounts that Jesus is risen. We want to see for ourselves. And this is one place we find incredibly good news in today’s gospel reading.
The resurrected Christ didn’t give up on Thomas out just because Thomas wanted to see for himself. Instead, a week after Jesus appears to the other disciples in the upper room, he appears again and says 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.”
And two thousand years later the resurrected Christ doesn’t give up on us, either. Wherever we are, whether it’s hiding down behind the locked doors of our hearts, or haunted by the skepticism that lingers in our minds, or paralyzed by the pain of so much loss and grief – wherever we are, Jesus still comes and stands right here with us. True, we don’t see the marks on his hands or feel the wound in his side, but we do experience his presence. We experience it through the peace he breathes into us. We experience it through the courage we find to take one more step toward resurrection. We experience it every time our heart widens, becoming more open and compassionate. We experience it through the grace we receive to be the Church in the world we live in. Each and every time we fulfill our mission to be the resurrected Body of Christ in a broken and hurting world, it is a witness to the presence of Christ with and in us.
It’s easy for us to lose sight of these signs of Jesus’ presence with us, especially on this Sunday after Easter – a day when we feel a little bit of a let-down after last week’s glorious celebration, a day when we have slipped from our Easter festivities back into life as normal. Maybe on this day more than any other we need to give Thomas a break and remember him not as someone who doubts, but for his faithfulness as a disciple. After all, he’s the only disciple not hiding out behind locked doors in today’s story; he’s the only one with the courage to actually be out in the world. Thomas isn’t unfaithful; he just prefers to be the realist – trudging ahead with perseverance, praying and hoping for the best but expecting the worst, preferring to be surprised by a happy ending instead of disappointed by a routine, predictable one.
It’s OK if the message of Easter is one that’s hard for us to wrap our minds around. Because in the midst of all of our doubts, in the midst of all of the messiness and the beauty that we call life, God continues to surprise us over and over again with the resurrection – at times and in places where we least expect it. Just like Thomas, we find ourselves surprised over and over again by the experience of the risen Christ in our midst – like a gentle voice saying “Go ahead. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”