Last Sunday – Easter Sunday – we heard how the women came to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial only to discover that he had risen; that they rushed to tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised; and that the disciples didn’t believe them, instead believing that the women were telling an idle tale.
Today’s reading reports that the disciples didn’t have to rely on the witness of the women, because the disciples, in turn, had their own encounter with the risen Christ. While gathered together in a locked room, afraid of the religious authorities, Jesus appeared among them, bringing peace. When the disciples saw the wounds on his hands and in his side, they realized that it was indeed Jesus who was standing among them and they rejoiced.
The women had a first-hand experience of the empty tomb and angels and believed. The disciples had a first-hand experience of the risen Christ, and believed. But there was one more person who needed to have a first-hand experience in order to believe, and that was Thomas, the one called the Twin, the one known as Doubting Thomas, one of the original twelve disciples.
Poor Thomas hadn’t been with the disciples when Jesus had appeared, and he didn’t believe them when they reported to him what had happened. “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.” To believe, Thomas needed not only to see the risen Christ, he needed to touch his wounds.
We can relate to the disciples because they were real human beings with real human flaws. Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, but when Jesus was arrested Peter denied him because he feared for his own life. Paul was the premier evangelist for Christianity, but before his conversion he persecuted and murdered innocent Christians out of zeal for his Jewish faith. Thomas was one of the original disciples of Jesus but he didn’t believe the women or the other disciples when they reported their first-hand experiences of the risen Christ. The disciples were real human beings with real human flaws – just like us.
The common understanding of the Doubting Thomas story is that those who believe Jesus is the Messiah out of a pure faith, without doubts and without proofs, are the better disciples. If you have doubts or need proof of some sort you are a lesser disciple. But that’s not what the story actually says. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29). He doesn’t say, “Better are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” but “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And this is true – certainly it is a blessing to have the peace and joy of a belief that is not plagued by doubts and questions. Those of us who have been kept awake at night by doubts and questions about the meaning of life, why bad things happen to good people, how evil could exist, and so on can surely see that it would be a blessing to fall sound asleep without such worries, simply reciting a prayer before bed like, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Surely it is a blessing to have such a faith.
But not all of us are blessed in such a way. Some of us are blessed with questions and doubts – which we may or may not consider a blessing. Some of us are like Thomas – we don’t take things at face value – we want to know why, and wherefore, and how. And the very fact that Thomas was a disciple – one of the original disciples – allows us to be who we are, to ask questions and have doubts, however much we torment ourselves and others while doing so.
I like the way Frederick Buechner presents Thomas in his book, Peculiar Treasures. He describes him as the kid in class who is compelled to ask the question that no one knows the answer to but that no one has enough courage to ask. The other students would rather sit there and remain ignorant than make a fool of themselves by asking a question. They’d rather miss that question on the test than reveal that they don’t know the answer in front of everyone else. But Thomas can’t stand missing a question on the test – he wants to be a good student, to get an A in the class, and he’d rather look stupid than be wrong. So, on the evening Jesus was arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified, as he talks to the disciples about where he is going and how they know the way to the place he is going, Thomas raises his hand, breaks in, and says, “Um, Teacher, we don’t know where you’re going. As a matter of fact, we have no idea what you’re talking about, so would you please tell us because it is obviously important and we want to do well on the test when it comes” (Jn 14:1-7). Thomas is the disciple who isn’t afraid to ask the question that everyone wants to ask but is afraid to ask. He isn’t afraid to push Jesus so that he can do well on the test when it comes. It’s more important to him to understand than to look good.
And Thomas makes it okay for us to be like him. He makes it okay for us to ask questions and express doubts. He makes it okay for us to push Jesus for answers when we don’t understand – because Jesus accepts it when Thomas pushes him. Jesus hears his question and answers it. He hears his doubt and gives him proof. He makes sure that Thomas gets what he needs to keep on believing that Jesus is the Messiah and to keep on being a disciple. Jesus takes all the questions and doubts of Thomas and turns them into faith. By the end of the story, Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). Jesus sticks with Thomas until Thomas can have the life that Jesus is offering him, the life that truly is life – life with God.
And Jesus will do the same with us when we have doubts and questions and misunderstandings. If we keep pressing him, he will give us what we need. Remember, he told his followers, “So I say to you, Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10). What a comfort it is to know that when we ask we will receive, when we seek we will find, when we knock the door will be opened. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would teach us everything and remind us of all that he said to his disciples (John 14:26). He wants us to have what we need so that we can live the life God would have us live, a life embraced and illuminated by the light of Christ.
The original disciples were real human beings with real human flaws, just like us, and that is okay, because God takes what we give him and turns it into faith. He desires that we have the life that he offers us, the life that truly is life – a life with him. He desires that we be blessed in whatever way he can bless us, given who we are and given what we bring him, “just as we are, without one plea.” And for that, we can be thankful. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, on Sunday, April 3, 2016, the Second Sunday of Easter.
 “Thomas,” in Peculiar Treasures.