John 20:19-31Several years ago, I was summoned for jury duty. It wasn’t the first time I was summoned; it had happened two or three times before, but always just after I’d made a big move – away from the jurisdiction of the summoning county or state. Therefore, this was the first time I actually served.
Despite myself, I became intrigued by the case itself, and by my duty to try to discern which side of the case would be able to prove its argument. Who is right, and who is wrong? Who should win, and who should lose? Within our legal system, of course, one is considered “innocent until proven guilty,” so in our discernment of any facts, we need to come to the table like Switzerland – neutral in our opinions of the case.
In essence, we need to doubt the claims made by both sides in their opening arguments – until we can see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, decide with our own minds through a preponderance of the evidence, what to believe.
Today, we have a case like that with the disciples. The risen Lord Jesus visits them as they sit, huddled in fear, behind locked doors. Jesus comes through that locked door and stands before his disciples; he speaks to them; “Peace,” he says; he shows them his hands, his side, and as they look upon his crucifixion wounds they begin to get excited.
Here is Jesus, the one they mourn, standing before them! He speaks again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And with that, Jesus empowers the disciples by breathing the Spirit into the them, and then offering up words to commission them for mission in the world.
Of course, we all know that there is
le, Thomas, who is missing. You can imagine the scene when he returns. “Thomas, you’ll never believe it!”
“Our Lord was here! He came and stood right here, right in this very room! Right in this very spot!” “He spoke! We saw his wounds! It was truly he!”
Of course, this is where “Doubting Thomas” earns that moniker. For he says in effect, “Sorry guys, you’re right, I don’t believe you. I can’t believe you. It’s just too fantastical. You were all just overcome with the heat, with your fear and your worry.”
But they insist all the more, “No, no, it’s true! We swear it, it is true! Truly, we have seen the Lord!” So poor Thomas tells them that unless he sees Jesus with his own eyes, and unless he can see the wounds for himself, he just won’t – he just can’t believe. What Thomas needs is evidence - cold, hard evidence.
For him, without such evidence, the jury is still out. Without proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Thomas will not believe.
Poor Thomas. I’ve always felt that he gets the bum rap in the story that is presented in our gospel lesson for today. Doubting Thomas – whom we often judge as the perfect example of faithlessness – simply operates the way we all do in life.
When Jesus first appears before them, the other disciples are confused and fearful because they doubt the vision before their very eyes. When we suffer pain and see unnecessary suffering, doubt often seeps into our minds as well. Isn’t it simply wise to doubt what we don’t know is true, especially when it seems impossible?While Thomas gets singled out as the doubter in the group, it occurs to me that Thomas is not the only one who had difficulty in these days following the crucifixion. Mary lacked understanding in her encounter with the risen Christ until he spoke to her, until he called her by name. When she reported to the disciples that she had seen the risen Lord Jesus, didn’t they doubt her? And in this very account, before they could react at his first appearance, the one Thomas was absent for, Jesus showed the disciples his hands, his side. He showed them the evidence; the proof of his identity. Because Jesus knows, he understands, how hard it is for most of us to believe what we cannot see, what we cannot experience, what we cannot know for ourselves.
He knows that the human mind searches for order: to make sense of things, to understand the world around us, and what is encountered in these stories is contrary to natural law!
Doubt and wonder are natural responses to what we cannot understand; it is in our nature to then pick confusing things apart and assess what we find. It’s the way we are hardwired. After all, our judgments are important for our survival. We need to discern what is true and what is false, what things to believe and what things may lead us down the garden path to the compost heap!
We love to tangle with a mystery, and to figure out the answer to most things. Even in our entertainment, we often gravitate to the books, movies and TV programs that present a mystery to solve, a puzzle to put together, a story that makes us think and try to find the answer to some driving question or problem. Faith itself is a mystery of the heart that the mind wants to resolve.
Last week I quoted St. Anselm, who spoke of our journey to belief being one of “faith seeking understanding.” Perhaps nothing describes our faith – our belief – better. We seek the truth.
It seems to me, my friends, that while we traditionally focus on Thomas in this story, it is Jesus, and what Jesus says and does that the gospel writer John is truly revealing to us here.
This story centers on Jesus – not Thomas, because it is Jesus who lives again. It is Jesus who comes into their midst and blesses the disciples with peace, and it is Jesus who commissions them for the work they will do.
It is Jesus, our crucified, risen Lord, who demonstrates in this appearance his abiding presence with those who believe, and even with those who doubt. And in abiding with them, he blesses them with peace – peace that the world cannot give.
Jesus blesses them with life. For the gospel tells us that here, when Jesus visits the disciples in the upper room, he breathes new life into them and equips them for mission.
Back a couple of chapters in John’ gospel, in the farewell discourses Jesus promised his followers a life shaped by joy, grounded in his gift of peace, and guided by the work of the Spirit. And here in this gospel, we see Jesus’ abiding love that even death on the cross could not destroy.
The peace that Jesus offers the disciples comes from the knowledge that, in spite of all the hurt and harm the world can and does inflict, God’s compassion and care embodied in Jesus, stands again in their midst.
At the heart of this story is that God makes available just what is needed for faith.
Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas, he shows him the truth. He doesn’t become angry, he invites Thomas to satisfy his need. He doesn’t limit the grace and mercy he offers to those in that room, he promises to reveal God’s presence to those in the future who come to belief and who love him.
This is the way that God works. Knowing how fragile our comprehension and faith can be, God provides a way for us to remain and abide in him.
For this reason, Jesus came to live, die, and to rise again; Jesus came into the world to bring light, to share God’s revelatory Word, and to bring us to everlasting life. No longer will sin and doubt define us. Not only is God present in the world, but God meets us in our need.
Through Jesus God meets us in our doubt and provides the means of grace – the means of living and believing, even in the midst of our unbelief. Through the Baptism for which we give thanks today, and through the holy meal that we share, that grace comes to us to strengthen our faith, and to nurture us in the way of believing.
God grants us faith itself in the person of the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, the advocate who works in us and with us and for us. And God places us in the midst of community, where we are nurtured and supported, and can grow into the people God desires us to be.
Throughout the Gospel according to John, we are met with stories. Here at the end of the text for today, John reveals why – there is a grand purpose behind these writings, and it is this – “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.”
John is providing us evidence, so that we might believe in Christ Jesus. No longer should we live in doubt. Instead, may we live in trust and faith that because Jesus lives, we shall share in the abundant life he came to bring.
We don’t know if Thomas actually touched Jesus’ wounds, or whether he put his hand in Jesus’ side. It seems doubtful that John would have left such detail out.
But what follows from Thomas is one of the strongest claims of faith found in the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!” With these words, Thomas leaves no doubt of his judgment of the “evidence.” With these words, Thomas invites us to believe with him. He invites us to believe and to have faith, so that we may live always in relationship with God through Christ Jesus.