Last Sunday we celebrated the wonderous Resurrection of Jesus in a joyful, colourful service both here in person and through Zoom. And what a joy to be able to sing again especially Easter hymns. There were even a few Easter eggs for those who still enjoy them. Speaking for myself I went home feeling uplifted and glad to have been able to come.
This morning our focus continues to be on the resurrection story. Each gospel has a different presentation of the same story. For Mark the tomb was empty. The women came and saw and ran away afraid. But for John, as it was Luke and Matthew, there was more to be said. We are thinking about one of the resurrection stories in the gospel of John. The story of Jesus meeting with one of the Twelve – Thomas.
The author of John’s gospel tells us that there was a huge range of stories from which to choose in putting together his narrative of the life of Jesus. So why include the story of Thomas, and his belated encounter with the risen Jesus?
To begin with there is nothing in the account to help us even understand why Thomas was not there. Perhaps he was angry with the others because they had ignored his warning about would happen as they approached Jerusalem the week earlier. Perhaps he was shattered because all the dreams of freedom and justice for his occupied homeland were gone. Perhaps he was too full of grief to be with anyone. Grief is isolating. Grief can make us angry.
Yet Thomas has gone down in history, quite unfairly, as ‘the doubter’. All he wanted was the same experience as his fellow disciples, before making a huge, life-changing decision: whether or not to continue on the path that he had chosen when Jesus was alive and it had seemed as though the establishment of God’s kingdom was imminent. He needed to know, one way or another, if Jesus was or was not alive; whether he was or was not the promised Messiah; whether he, Thomas, had been right to give up everything to follow him, or whether he had made the worst mistake of his life.
I imagine the late 1st/early 2nd century Christians, like their 21st century counterparts, would have been asking themselves very similar questions.
The gospel was written to the Johannine community, a group of Hellenistic Jewish Christians living somewhere in Syria or Asia Minor anything from 50 to 80 years after Jesus’ death. They had been expelled from Jewish synagogues -a huge upheaval. They would have been aware of other claimants to the title of Messiah, as well as many other stories of dying and rising gods. John instinctively realised that they would have been more likely to take seriously the testimony of someone who had been slow to believe, and who demanded evidence, than someone who was instantly convinced and had no questions.
Thomas was given what John’s community was denied— visible, tangible evidence of the truth of resurrection— but he had given voice to their questions, to our questions, and if he was satisfied, perhaps, the writer hoped, they could be too. Jesus’ rebuke to Thomas would have leapt off the page to the later audience: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”
People of all ages tend to be sceptical especially when confronted with something new. In our COVID world there are still those who doubt the virus exists or that vaccines work or are safe.
But I wonder if Thomas’ outburst was more than just a demand for verifiable proof of Jesus’ resurrection? Many books have been written trying to achieve just that. Perhaps you have read Frank Morison’s 1956 classic, Who Moved the Stone?. For many people it fails to convince and is dismissed. There have been movies made as well but movies only convince the converted otherwise there would be many more committed believers both in church and elsewhere. All the latest surveys reveal there are more with doubts and questions than those with rock solid beliefs. And even more telling, they find few safe places to ask questions.
Sadly some think to doubt is to sin. But it is not a sin to doubt. Throughout history people have called out to God in their doubt and bewilderment. Think about Job crying out for God to give him a response—any response—or the Psalmist comparing the stories of God’s great deeds in the past with his apparent absence now. Read Psalms 44; 74; 77; 89. Even Jesus called out to God in the Garden as he faced his death and on the cross while he was dying.
Thomas is in good company. He feels the absence of his God.
Like many now, Thomas is saying to God, or to the risen Jesus, ‘What about me?’ I just can’t believe what everyone is telling me! Who really cares what I think? Who really cares about me? “
He not only needed to see for himself, he needed to be seen and known, if he was ever to be able to trust again.
The Risen One graciously comes when Thomas is finally with the others a week after the momentous events in Jerusalem. There are no words of chastisement or reproof. No questions of any kind. Only recognition of need and words of forgiveness -“Peace be with you” and encouragement – “ Touch me. Feel me. Come closer and see the evidence for yourself.”
Could it be that Thomas was not looking for a convincing argument, rather he was looking for a lost relationship to be restored?
Could that be why he never actually touches Jesus’ hands or his sides?
He doesn’t need to anymore. By the time it becomes possible, it is unnecessary. No-one had told Jesus what Thomas had said, but Jesus knew, and that was what mattered, rather like the Samaritan woman who was impressed, more than anything, by Jesus’ ability to see to the very core of her being. So comes the climax of the gospel narrative as Thomas proclaims Jesus: My Lord and my God.
You see, belief in resurrection is not about giving intellectual assent to theological arguments based on historical proof.
Thomas discovered faith is about recognising that relationship with God, through Jesus, is still possible without his physical presence on earth. It is also about being willing to voice doubt and feeling safe to do so.
That was what John wanted his community to hear. It is what we want and need to hear.
As one writer has said: “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture (and I’ll add Australian culture), is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small. (Nadia Bolz-Weber)
Written by Rev Margaret Middleton
The Rev Margaret Middleton is a retired Uniting Church minister. She occasionally provides supply ministry in the wider church but leads worship in TUC regularly.
Margaret also supports our work by leading several groups of people seeking to grow and deepen their faith. She is a member of the Karralika outreach team and is a member of the Presbytery Pastoral Relations Committee.More from Rev Margaret Middleton