If you’ve been around the church for a while, then you likely know that Thomas gets a bad rap. Peter, despite his frequent bluster and unflattering denials, is nicknamed “the Rock” because Jesus says of him, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” James and John are called the “sons of thunder,” continuing a trend of apostles who sound like pro-wrestlers. Levi “the tax collector” is remembered for his work. But, Thomas, well … you know what he’s called, right?
Doubting Thomas, remembered forever as such because John’s gospel remembers him for saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
It’s only in the gospel of John that we get to know anything about Thomas. In the other three he just shows up in the lists of the disciples who followed Jesus. In John he appears three times. We heard the story in which he makes his first appearance three weeks ago, before Palm Sunday, when we heard the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. You might remember how at the beginning of that story Jesus decides that they must return to Judea to visit Mary, Martha, and Lazarus — who had fallen ill. The disciples are hesitant because the religious authorities in Judea had tried to stone Jesus to death, but Thomas backs Jesus up, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
Later, as he prepares them for his imminent death, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (14:1) Then he goes on to tell the disciples that he is going ahead of them to prepare a place for them, and that they “know the way to the place [he] is going.” But Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (v. 5) This sets Jesus up to deliver his famous line, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
This is a bold claim, left hanging in the air. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the one who sent him. You have seen God.
If we were to describe Thomas’ character arc through just these first two appearances then, we would have the picture of a disciple brave enough to follow his teacher into death, but still trying to understand what that death will mean. He can see that Jesus is leading them toward conflict, and it seems inevitable that this conflict will end tragically. Still, Thomas is ready to follow Jesus wherever he would lead them even when the way is dangerous or unknown. For this I would rather call him “Brave Thomas” or “Loyal Thomas.”
But his character arc isn’t done yet.
In his final appearance, which we’ve heard today, Thomas is absent when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. The way the scene is described, it seems that the followers of Jesus are hiding behind locked doors, afraid that they will be rounded up to face a death like Jesus’s. But not Thomas. He is not hiding with them. His earlier words ring out now, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” The way I imagine it, Thomas is not interested in hiding from the law. He knew what they were headed for, and he was ready to follow Jesus to the end.
We don’t know where Thomas was as the other disciples were hiding, but I imagine him wandering the streets of Jerusalem, lost, remembering all that Jesus had said to him and trying to make sense of what it had all meant. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
What could he have meant by that? What Thomas had seen was Jesus dying on a cross, tortured by the state, abandoned by his friends. Jesus, who’d claimed to be the visible face of the invisible God, had been put to death. How could this be true, and what did it mean — not only for those who’d followed him, but for the world that had longed to be set free?
I imagine Thomas was haunted by the cross, remembering the nails that had pierced Jesus’ hands and the spear that had entered his side. Knowing that Jesus was not the only one Rome had crucified, not the first and not the last. Aware that he, too, might one day soon be crucified for his association with a man thought to be a rebel and an insurrectionist. None of this had been a surprise to Thomas, who’d guessed early on that following this Jesus would lead to his death.
So why, then, had he followed him? Why did he stay close to Jesus, when he knew the path they were on was leading to a death? I have to think that it was because in Jesus’ life Thomas saw an alternative to the world around him. In Jesus’ life, Thomas saw the sick healed, the possessed liberated, and the dead brought back to life. In Jesus’ life, Thomas saw a new and larger vision for his own life, a dignity and meaning beyond whatever work he’d left behind to follow Jesus. In Jesus’ life, Thomas had seen what it might mean for him to be truly alive. Having experienced that, the thought of going back to any other way of living was no life at all. Not even the cross was strong enough to scare Thomas away from pursuing that new life he’d known. Which is why he wasn’t hiding in the locked room with the other disciples. He was out in the world, looking for the way, the truth, and the life that he’d known in Jesus.
A week later, when Jesus once again joins the disciples, Thomas is with them. Now, the risen Jesus addresses Thomas directly, inviting him to touch the wounds that have not disappeared. This is the same Jesus that had hung on the cross. This is the one who had promised to go ahead of Thomas to prepare a place for him. This is the same one who had said, “From now on you do know [God] and have seen [God].” And what Thomas says in response to the risen Christ is, “My Lord and my God!”
The cross which stood in the center of our assembly on Good Friday, looms over this story as well. For Thomas, and for all of us, the resurrection does not erase the horror of the crucifixion. The empire that crucified Jesus on a Friday, crucified someone else on Saturday, and Sunday, and still crucifies us every day. Thomas could not hide from that fact, nor did he want to. He wanted to follow in a way of life that did not lie about death, but also did not bow down to it. He wanted to know that the one who’d called him to follow had not abandoned him. As he touched those wounds in his hands, in his side, he now knew that there was nowhere that he might go that Jesus would not go, had not gone, and that God therefore had also been.
In Christ Jesus it was God upon the cross, not hiding from the pain and horror of our lives, but touching the pain, holding the pain, believing our pain and fear and facing it with us, and in us, and for us. Transforming our fears and doubts into solace and comfort that we are never alone.
Jesus turns from Thomas to speak to us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And Peter, who’d denied Jesus at the moment of his death and who must have been in that locked room when Jesus appeared to Thomas, speaks to us as well, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”
As Easter people this is our task: to bear witness to all the ways that God has brought new life to people and places left for dead; to testify to the wounds that God has touched in us, that we have touched in God, and that have been healed; to declare that we who have seen Jesus have seen God and that we will keep following Jesus — not only to death, but beyond it.