Sunday, April 28, 2019

Just What We Needed: Reflections on Jesus' Encounter with Thomas

Last week was Easter. Unlike the story in some of the other gospels, in the Gospel of John we have only Mary Magdalene going to the tomb and finding it empty. She goes and tells Peter and John and they all go back to the tomb together. Peter and John leave the empty tomb confused and dismayed and Mary stays outside the tomb and cries. In that moment, Mary has an encounter with Jesus. She goes and tells the disciples that she has seen Jesus and she told them what he had said to her. We are not told their response, but what they do is lock themselves in their house out of fear. The passage says that they were fearful of “The Jews”. (I want to be clear, John’s Gospel uses the term, “The Jews” several times and this has become part of the reason for the mistreatment of Jews through the centuries. The disciples, however, were not fearful of all “the Jews”. They were fearful of some of the Jewish leaders who had felt threatened by Jesus’ teachings and actions and they were the ones who sought to have Jesus arrested and crucified. The disciples where there when Jesus was taken, and they feared that these same religious leaders would also come for them.) This is why they are hiding, and this is where we begin reading our passage for today:

19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[c]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

26 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.” 27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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.”

There are some things about this passage that probably raise some questions for you (they certainly do for me) and, unfortunately, there are not really good answers for these things. One of those things is the fact that Jesus appears among the disciples while the door is locked, but he also confirms that it is, indeed, him. How did Jesus get in? Was he let in? Did he know some secret way to get in? We might ask if Jesus was a spirit, but he proves that he is indeed there in body. He shows his body to the disciples. So, is the risen Jesus something that is not spirit, but not fully bodied? We do not know. There are many thoughts about this and no concrete answers. We are told and we are to accept that Jesus appeared through the door that was locked. We don’t know. It seems reasonable then, that this is why Jesus has to say “Peace be with you” to the disciples. This appearance would be very unsettling.

I don’t know if we can truly put ourselves in the place of the disciples because we have so much history and experience with this story and we know how the story ends. However, the disciples have already been shown to not fully grasp the things that Jesus has tried to tell them. They have shown they do not understand what Jesus’ kingdom will be like. They have shown that they do not understand that Jesus will die and despite the fact that they saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the grave, they do not understand that Jesus has power over death. People die and they are dead. The disciples may have seen the one-off miracle of Lazarus, but the experience was that when you die, you’re dead. So, the disciples could apparently only see things one way and that way did not include a risen Jesus. They were huddled together in their house and were afraid and confused trying to figure out what they were going to do next. The story they had heard from Mary Magdalene about seeing Jesus had not really been a comfort to them but had only added to their questions and confusion. And in that moment, Jesus appears. No wonder he has to say to them, “Peace be with you”. It would have been confusing and unsettling. They disciples were not expecting to see Jesus, but there he was.

We are told that Thomas was not there at that time and we do not know why. So, when Thomas shows up, the other disciples tell him that they have seen Jesus. While Thomas may want to believe that this is true, Thomas is clear that he will not be able to believe until he sees the nail scars in Jesus’ hands and touches the wound in Jesus’ side. It is because of this that Thomas has sometimes gotten a bad rap. In fact, we usually refer to him as “Doubting Thomas.” For some reason, we want to see Thomas as the one disciple who cannot believe that Jesus is risen. This is so not fair to Thomas. What Thomas asks for is to have the exact same experience that the other disciples have had. The other disciples didn’t have to ask to see Jesus in person because Jesus appeared to them and showed them his wounds. Thomas, says, “I hear what you are saying, but I want to have that experience for myself.”

This really does not sound that unreasonable to me. Although, I am not a person for whom faith comes easily. However, part of the difficulty may be in how we have framed faith. Many believers, and non-believers as well, have tended to frame faith as a blind acceptance of that which we cannot prove. For some, faith is about accepting as fact something that does not seem to have any factual basis. We have tended to turn faith into an intellectual ascent to certain fact that we then call beliefs. “Belief” and “Faith” are reduced to saying that certain things are true while other things are not. The reality is that faith is not about certitude about certain facts, it is about what principles and reality we put at the center of our being. Theologian, Paul Tillich, writes that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith”. To have doubts is part of believing and “Faith” is not a noun, it is a verb. We don’t HAVE faith, we LIVE faith. We cannot fully grasp and put in the center of our being something that we do not understand at a fundamental level.

What ultimately changes our lives; what gives us hope, is not an intellectual belief that something is true, but a deep and profound experience that alters our perception. All of the disciples – not just Thomas – were stuck in the fact that they could only see the world one way. They were despairing, confused, grieving and lost because Jesus was not who they thought Jesus was. They had put their faith in an understanding that could not sustain them when things were difficult. We can fall into the same trap. We create ideas about how God is to work. We think we know how life is supposed to go. We can “faith” into these things being at the center of our being. We may also put other things at the center of our being like pleasing other people, having nice things, or achieving some type of success. Ultimately, those things will fail us, and they leave us locked in small way of thinking, paralyzed with fear because we do not know what is going to happen next, and we are afraid of the possibilities – like the disciples.

In those moments, we need a savior who shows up and says, “Don’t be afraid. Have peace in this moment. This is not going to turn out like you thought. I am indeed here with you. Here is the proof you need. Here is the reality that I am bigger than you believed. I have brought you life that you could not imagine. Put your faith in this.” Like Jesus did for the disciples, Jesus gives us each just what we need. Sometimes this comes after we have spent a bit of time in fear and confusion. Sometimes it comes at moments of profound doubt, but Jesus provides us just what we need.

Jesus said to Thomas, come and touch the wounds in my hand and touch the wound in my side. Thomas had said, “I will not believe until I can do this” and here Jesus provides just what he needs. The other disciples did not ask for it, but the mere fact that they were locked in a house in fear indicated that they did not grasp the power of the risen Jesus. They needed to see it for themselves. Thomas’ experience is so real and so meaningful that he proclaims Jesus to be Lord and God – two terms that were reserved only for God, the father. Thomas’ experience gives him a glimpse of the God who had broken into the world to give him something bigger to put his faith in.

But you may say, “But Chris, aren’t you forgetting that Jesus said to Thomas?” When Thomas called Jesus “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.” Again, many have taken this to mean that Jesus is saying that our faith should be blind. We are blessed if we can somehow affirm our “faith” without any proof. I would suggest that this is not what Jesus is saying at all. Look at John 20:31 – just a few verses beyond our passage for today. John writes, these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. The people who would be able to believe without seeing are all of the people who are not disciples. Every other person in that time and in history would not have the experience that the disciples had. John’s Gospel is written so that we will have “proof” that Jesus has overcome death and that there is life in following him. The blessed ones that can believe without seeing are you and me.

However, it is still true that none of us can actually believe without seeing things for ourselves – or experiencing things for ourselves. The fact that your mother or father has faith does not really change your life. The fact that your pastor has faith, does not change your life. Your mom, your dad, your pastor, your friend, or anyone else can tell you about their faith, but all of us will need to have an experience of that for ourselves. We need to experience Jesus in a way that is meaningful to us. While the disciples may have questioned how Jesus got into that locked house, there was obviously no doubt that they encountered the risen Jesus in that house. In fact, all of them would suffer or die because of their witness to their experiences with Jesus. We may have doubts about certain “facts” from time to time, but I would hope that we all have an experience with the risen Jesus that leaves no doubt about Jesus’ presence in our lives.

Finally, I would want us to note that Jesus sent the disciples into the world as God the father had sent Jesus into the world. We are to give a witness of our experience with Jesus. We are to seek to be the hands and feet of Jesus for those we encounter. We cannot make others believe, but we can seek to be the presence of Christ for another that is so real that they come to believe; not because of us, but because of the power of Jesus’ love that lives in us. I pray for you this week that you will encounter Jesus in a way that transforms you life and your faith and I pray that, in turn, you become the presence of Christ for another that becomes an opportunity for them to see Christ.


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