April 7, 2013
The late humorist Erma Bombeck wrote about life in the suburbs, life for the housewife, and life with children. She was a favorite of mine from the time I was a young girl.
In one of her books she wrote about her youngest son who would believe any wild, fantastic story his friends would tell him. But he regarded what she would tell him with suspicion. One day he came into the kitchen where she was working and asked her what day it was.
“It’s Tuesday,” she answered. He continued to look at her quizzically. So Erma continued. “Tomorrow is Wednesday. The day after that is Thursday. And the day after that is Friday.”
Her son stared at her for another moment then said, “Are you sure?”
In the traditional interpretation of this post-resurrection story from John, Thomas – aka, Doubting Thomas – wasn’t sure. He probably should have believed the disciples as well. But he wanted to see for himself.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the mark of the nails and my hand on his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas was absent when Jesus made his appearance to the disciples. They were gathered together behind locked doors, out of fear, when suddenly Jesus was there, standing among them.
The first words he spoke to them was a greeting of peace. “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side. And they rejoiced at seeing the Lord. Then again Jesus greets them with his words of peace, and he proceeds to commission them for ministry.
“As my father has sent me, so I send you.” As he says this, he breathes on them, covering them with the Holy Spirit. He also gives them authority to forgive or retain sins. They are commissioned and empowered to spread the word.
But Thomas was not there to witness this dramatic event. Thomas the Twin, or Doubting Thomas.
Doubting Thomas – this name probably sums up the way most of us have heard this story over the years. When I was a child, the last thing any of us wanted to be told in our Sunday School classes was that we were acting or sounding like a Doubting Thomas. Thomas doubted. He was skeptical and demanded tangible, physical proof that Jesus was really resurrected before he would believe it. Doubting Thomas was not a flattering nickname to be given.
But what about the others? Jesus also appeared to them and showed them his hands and his side. Mary Magdalene announced to them, quite forcefully, that she had seen the Lord. But the disciples didn’t trust her word anymore than Thomas trusted theirs. The disciples were staying in a locked room for fear of the Jews. The Jews in this context are the powers and the authorities that conspired to put Jesus to death.
The sudden presence of Jesus among them surely must have shocked and frightened them. Mary Magdalene’s report of seeing the Lord, speaking with the Lord, and even trying to embrace him had not lessened the disciples’ fear at his crucifixion. It had not lessened their lack of belief.
It is only when Jesus appears to them and shows his hands and his side that they believe and rejoice. They too needed proof that Jesus was really alive. Just like Thomas.
But Thomas put into words what he required for faith. As one commentator said, he set out the conditions for his faith. He needed to see the marks of the nails on Jesus’ hands. He needed to touch them and to touch the place where the sword pierced Jesus’ side.
So a week later Jesus comes again to the disciples, to Thomas. He gives Thomas what he asked for. He gives Thomas permission to go ahead, touch him, place his hands on the marks left by the nails, touch him. See firsthand the proof of the resurrection. Thomas says, “show me.” And Jesus says, “here I am.” Jesus offers himself completely to Thomas.
And it is here that the misconceptions about Thomas happen. Thomas is the cynical, skeptical doubter. But this text is not so much about doubt as it is about faith. Most of the translations of the Bible we have at our disposal, including the NRSV, the one I use, translate Jesus as saying, “doubt.” Do not doubt. But the Greek word for doubt is not used in this story at all. The more literal translation for the verb apistos is “unbelieving.” Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
Do not be unbelieving, but believing.
Now maybe to make a distinction between doubt and unbelieving is like talking about two sides of the same coin, but making that distinction takes us in very different directions.
Do not be unbelieving, but believing. Go from being without faith to having faith. Not having faith isn’t the same as being cynical about faith, is it? It’s not quite the same thing as doubt.
Jesus offered to Thomas exactly what he asked for. He told him to touch the marks of the nails on his hands and to put his hand on Jesus side. Jesus offered himself as motivation, as a sign for Thomas to believe, to have faith, to go from unbelieving to believing.
The text doesn’t say specifically that Thomas took Jesus up on his offer, but we do know that when Jesus offers himself as proof and motivation for faith, Thomas utters one of the most profound confessions of faith in the gospel. “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is not exclaiming here. He is confessing. He is confessing his faith. My Lord and my God.
When we examine the interaction between Jesus and Thomas in this light, then the next words of Jesus sound different as well. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.”
Is Jesus trying to shame or scold Thomas? That’s what many of us have been told to believe. Or was Jesus confirming what had just happened? And in his confirmation, he opened the door to faith for generations of believers yet to come. This is one of those moments in the scriptural witness when we are able to see ourselves firmly in the story. It’s as if Jesus isn’t just speaking to the disciples in the immediate vicinity around him, he’s speaking to us.
I don’t believe that Jesus was scolding Thomas for wanting to see Jesus with his own two eyes, for wanting proof of the resurrection. Instead Jesus offered hope to Thomas, to a world of others, and to all of us through him.
What this passage promises all of us is that our faith is not disadvantaged because we were not firsthand witnesses to Jesus and his ministry, his life, his death and his resurrection. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The peace that Jesus gives to the disciples when he first appears to them is our peace as well.
Still it would be nice to have a sign, wouldn’t it?
I think it’s interesting that Thomas doesn’t just want to see the risen Christ himself. He wants to see his wounds. He doesn’t request a glowing, ethereal being to appear before him. He wants to see the mark of the nails. He wants to touch his wounds, and Jesus encourages him to do just that. He willingly shows Thomas where he is wounded so that Thomas will believe. What would happen if we did the same? What would happen if we showed each other our vulnerabilities, our pain, the places where we’ve been hurt, the scars that we bear?
What would happen if we shared the broken places in our lives? I’m not advocating that church be a place of self-obsessed group therapy or maudlin self-revelation. I just realize that more often than not it is in my wounded places, my broken places where I recognize Jesus’ presence in my life. When I acknowledge the ways that I am wounded and someone else says, “me too,” that is the sign I most need that Jesus really is risen. It is at those moments where I most clearly see Christ in that person and they in me. I don’t recognize the risen One in the perfect, I recognize him in the wounded.
I just wonder if maybe others need that same sign as well. I found a quote this week that said, “The church is not a museum for good people, but a hospital for the broken.” Maybe other people beyond these doors need to know that this is indeed a hospital; that those in the church are as broken as they are. Maybe others would be more willing to walk through these doors if they know that they are not the only ones who are wounded. Maybe the sign of resurrection that we look for is in our wounds, in our broken places, and in our trust that we all will be healed. Peace be with you. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”