Thomas Gets a Bad Rap: John 20: 19-31
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.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.’
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.’ 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.’ Thomas answered him, ‘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.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written 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.
Here we are on the second Sunday in Easter, still learning what the Resurrection means for the followers of Jesus. Easter Sunday itself can be so big. Do you remember all the stuff we did last week? We moved flowers all over the place. There were balloons and extra musicians and twice as many kids as usual. Easter is such a raucous celebration. It can be tempting to stop at the Resurrection part of the story because it is so much fun to live in that moment where our Alleluias fly high like the balloons the kids found last week. Sometimes it can be hard to show up the next Sunday, after the balloons have fallen to the ground and all the eggs have been collected, and know what to do with all this Good News that we heard. Yes, Christ is Risen. But, now what?
Our Scripture today shows us what can happen once we move from the empty tomb back into the world. Do we follow the directions we received from the Divine? Do we even tell anybody? Today's reading from the Gospel of John shows us that tricky space between hearing about the Risen Christ and actually believing in the resurrection. Last week, we heard Mark's version of how the first witnesses to the resurrection responded. Today, we hear John's version about how the next ten witnesses responded. Central to the story is the response of Thomas, the one who usually is called the Doubter. But, I think Thomas gets a bad rap. After how horrible the last week has been, why wouldn't he have questions? Who among us wouldn't question someone who showed up saying they were a beloved, but dead, relative. Thomas was not being hard-headed. He was being realistic, especially after everything that had happened. A little doubt makes sense in times such as these.
As we may recall, in Mark’s version of the resurrection that we heard last week, the women were so shocked and afraid that they told no one. And, while we may point out that eventually they must have told someone, the official first response of record was fear, not joy. To be fair, I imagine that a resurrection is probably more than a little terrifying. Now, the Gospel of John tells the Resurrection story a little differently. John's version of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene traveled to Jesus’ tomb alone and found it empty. She ran back to find her friends, Simon Peter and the unnamed disciple who Jesus loved. They verified that his body was indeed gone, but then, they received no angelic vision of reassurance. They simply left, and returned to their homes.
But, Mary… Mary couldn’t leave. Not yet. As she wept at the tomb that should have been filled with Jesus' body, she discovered that she was not alone. In this version, rather than seeing a random angelic visitor, Jesus himself appeared to her and she rejoiced. And she ran to tell the other disciples what she had seen and what Jesus had said to her. What is important in this version of the story is that for Mary, seeing was believing. When she saw Jesus, she believed and quickly carried this news to her friends. That is where we begin our reading today, shortly after Mary has told them that she saw Jesus. But, as we read today, they don’t appear to be all that swayed by her revelation. After all, they were pretty afraid. They were hidden and had locked the door to keep away the people they thought would be coming after them. And yet, as they huddled together, not knowing what their next steps should be, the Gospel of John tell us that Jesus slides in past all the barriers they created to keep themselves safe. And, he offers them peace.
Now, if you are someone who doesn't think people of faith shouldn't need physical proof of the resurrection, his next action might surprise you. He doesn't fuss at his followers for not believing Mary. Instead, he holds out his torn hands and offers his scarred side as proof of who he is. And, just like Mary, when the disciples see Jesus and his wounds, they believe. It is only when they see his wounds that they rejoice. He then offers them a second great gift. He commissions them to bring about the Reign of God. Mirroring the lovely imagery of the creation story in Genesis 2, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them, enlivening their frightened hearts. Surely, this, too is a bit of resurrection for those petrified people. Maybe breathing is believing, too.
Thomas, though, missed the whole thing. Who knows where he was. When he returns to their place of sanctuary, he doesn’t believe them. He states, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hands in his side, I will not believe.” With these few words, Thomas became known as a doubter and a counter-example of faith of generations of Christians. Poor misunderstood Thomas. Now, not one other person in the whole story believed without seeing. Why does Thomas get called a doubter? Why should he be expected to need any less confirmation than anybody else? Despite of how we often think of him, Thomas is not a pitiful coward too afraid to truly follow Christ. Thomas has been portrayed as being a brave follower of Jesus elsewhere in the book of John. For example, when Lazarus died, it was Thomas who said they should travel to help him, even if it was dangerous. To characterize him as anything other than faithful, simply because he wanted the same proof everyone else got, seems unfair. He, like the disciples before him, needed a little more assurance than the excited words that his compatriots could offer. He needed some evidence that his hope wasn't unfounded. There was too much at stake to go without it.
The next scene in the Gospel truly is a scene of grace. Once again, Jesus slides past all their defenses and enters the room. Once again, he offers the ones who love him a reason to trust that they can go on without him. And, he gives Thomas proof. He offers up his wounds, saying, “Here. See this. Feel this wound here. This is real. I am here." Many translations of this passage have Jesus telling Thomas "Do not doubt." While this is close to the meaning in Greek, a better translation would be "Do not be empty of faith." And, it is this emptiness that Jesus refills in the simple act of showing his wounds to the one who needed to see them. In showing his wounds, Jesus, yet again, brought new life to one who needed it. Once again, we have a bit of Resurrection.
Jesus’ next few words to Thomas are often considered a rebuke. He said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” See, I don't think these are actually a rebuke. Up to this point, everyone who we know who believes in the Resurrection has actually seen it. First Mary Magdalene, then the 10 disciples, then Thomas. Seeing seems to be a prerequisite to believing. It doesn't make sense to me that Jesus would critique Thomas for needing the same proof everyone else did. I think these words are better understood as a challenge. After all, Mary, Thomas, and the 10, had Jesus' risen body to help them believe. That is very solid proof that that which they believe is real. But, no one who believes after them would have that same level of evidence. Jesus' actual body would only be around for so long. What are the rest of the believers to do when they need proof... when they need their faith refilled? If you can't see Christ's body and feel Christ's wound, how can you believe? Seeing is believing. If you can't see, how can you believe?
I think one part of this story is particularly important for answering these questions about Christ's body. Remember the part when Jesus first slid in through the locked door and found the disciples? The second thing he did when he saw them was breathe the Holy Spirit onto them. Now, where else have we heard that language of breathing God's spirit into creation? That's right. The creation stories in Genesis. Scholars remind us that this is a very similar scene to the first descriptions of creation where God took a lump of mud and loved it and breathed life into it, creating humanity. What if Thomas' story is best understood not as a critique of doubt but as the creation of a body...the Body of Christ... the church and all those who seek to follow Jesus. Just as God once breathed life into clay, Jesus breathed new life into his disciples. When he revived them, they went forth and found new followers of Christ. Had these 11 not been so filled with the Spirit that it pushed out their fear... had they not been willing to leave their homes and continue Christ's work, we would not be here. What this story teaches us is that while we may not have Jesus’ own body here in front of us, we most certainly have the Body of Christ and we are still blessed by the proof their faith offered.
What if we, the modern day followers of Christ, are all the body Christ has left in this world? I believe that we are now being called on to offer the world the same grace Christ once offered Thomas. We are being called to offer our bodies and ourselves, our wounds and our great joys, as proof of the Resurrection. I bet if you look, you will see the body of Christ all over the place in this church. It is in the grief that you are so willing to offer up and share with one another during prayer. It is in the grace that you show visitors and those in need who come through these doors. It is in your willingness to share your stories of how you came to faith and came to this faith community. It is in the trips abroad you take so that you can stand in solidarity with the oppressed. I bet it’s even in our church council meetings where everyone is working together to discern just what will be the church’s next steps into the world. I suspect that even though we don’t have Jesus’ actual body right here with us, we can feel the Body of Christ whenever we worship and serve together. Jesus' breathed new life into his disciples and we have inherited that new life from them, just as surely as I inherited my father's brown eyes and my mother's poor vision. We can continue to embody the Resurrection today. The question for this second Sunday in Easter is Christ is risen... how are we going to prove it?
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Fred. B. Craddock, “The Softer Side of Pentecost, “ The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 66-70.
Lance Pape's commentary on John 20, 19-31: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2407
Gail R. O'Day. “John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press,
David E. Leininger, “Laugh, Thomas, Laugh!” Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit (Lima, OH: CSS
Publishing Company, Inc., 2008), 130-133.
Elisabeth Johnson's Commentary on John 20: 19-31: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1991.
Thomas, B. Slater's Commentary on John 20: 19-31: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2058.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.