Many of us are probably familiar with the story of Thomas. Doubting Thomas. Thomas, the one disciple who stubbornly refused to believe until he saw with his own eyes the risen Christ. Silly Thomas. If only he had listened to the others, but no. He has to see for himself. After all, seeing is believing. He has to ask questions; he has to make sure.
But let's really look at Thomas. Is he really all that different from the other disciples? Let's think back to the Easter story. Mary went to the tomb and it was empty, so she ran back and told Peter and John. Did they immediately believe her? No, they went to the tomb to see for themselves. It isn't until they go inside and see the cloth and the linens lying empty in the tomb that they believe. What is it that they believe, though? That Jesus has risen? No. We are told, "They did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead." (John 20:9) They return back home, knowing only that the tomb is empty.
Even Mary, when Jesus appears to her directly, does not recognize him at first. And even after she does recognize him, she goes back and tells the disciples, but we are given no indication that they do anything about it. In fact, in the other gospels, it tells us that they did not believe what she told them. As Luke puts it, "These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them." (Luke 24:11)
Then we get to the passage for today and what happens? The disciples are in a locked room and Jesus comes and stands among them. Do they immediately cry out in relief? No. And then Jesus says, "Peace be with you." Do they immediately proclaim his resurrection? No. Then "After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. THEN the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord." (John 20:20) Are these really the faithful disciples of whom Thomas is the only skeptic? No. All the disciples need proof to believe. All of them see Jesus, all of them hear Jesus, and all of them see the evidence of his bodily resurrection. It is only after they see this proof that they rejoice.
But, of course, after they believe, and they tell Thomas, he still wants proof for himself. I mean, sure, no one believed Mary Magdalene; but she's only one person, and not even a "real" disciple. But now Thomas has the word of ten people, all of them disciples of Jesus. Why would he still doubt?
Let's think about Thomas for a moment. What else do we know about him? Has he always been such a lackluster disciple? There isn't much about him in the gospels. In fact, aside from his name appearing in the lists of disciples, there are only two other instances where Thomas is identified by name, both in the Gospel of John. One is when Jesus insists on going to Judea after the death of Lazarus. The disciples know this is not a smart move. The last time Jesus went to Judea, the Jews tried to stone him. But Jesus is determined to go. And Thomas says, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." (John 11:16) This doesn't sound like the Thomas we know, the doubting Thomas, the stubborn, hard-headed one. This is a Thomas of courage and conviction.
Thomas appears again in John 14. Now, this is more like the Thomas we know, the questioning one. Jesus is telling the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father's house and that they already know the way. "Thomas says to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?' Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.'"
Thomas has been told by Jesus himself that by seeing Jesus he has seen God. So when the disciples tell him three days after the crucifixion that they have seen Jesus alive, is it any wonder he wants to see for himself? He knows what seeing Jesus means. Seeing Jesus means seeing God. Ah, yes, you might say, but he doesn't just want to see him, he says he will not believe until he does see him. But, here again, we see Thomas actually being faithful to Jesus. Because Jesus has told the disciples, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and 'The time is near!' Do not go after them." (Luke 21:8). Thomas will not be led astray. He's going to test.
Now you may have caught on by now that I think Thomas gets the short end of the stick in most Christian traditions. You see, I identify with Thomas. I AM Thomas. I'm not one for blind faith. I'm a question-asker, a doubter.
You see, I'm a scientist by training. Forming hypotheses, looking for evidence, questioning, testing, re-testing--that's my bread and butter. It's in my DNA. In fact, back when I was in seminary, I went through "vocational discernment" (which is the seminarian's way of saying "What are you going to be when you grow up?"). One of the ways that mentors suggest you understand what your gifts and graces for ministry are is to pay attention to what people compliment you on. So I started listening and found that what people told me over and over was, "You ask really good questions."
That's it? That's my big gift for ministry? What the heck am I supposed to do with that? It certainly didn't bode well for someone who thought she was called to be a pastor, to stand up in a pulpit week after week and proclaim the gospel with certainty and conviction.
If Jesus is asking us for faith, what does that mean for a questioner like me? What does it mean for a "doubter" like Thomas?
One of my favorite paintings is Carvaggio's "The Incredulity of Thomas." In it, Jesus appears to Thomas and Thomas is leaned over looking intently at Jesus' wounds as he thrusts his finger into Jesus' side. But what is especially striking to me is that in this painting Jesus is not viewing Thomas accusingly. He has no expression on his face that says, "There! Are you finally satisfied? What does it take to convince you?" Rather, Jesus is looking down at Thomas and guiding his hand into the hole in his side. He offers himself as physical proof.
It's true that Jesus asks for faith, but he does not ask for blind faith. Jesus is willing for us to have open-eyed faith.
But what about that pesky part at the end, "Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed"? Okay, so Jesus forgives Thomas for wanting to make sure, but isn't Jesus saying that those who really believe won't need that kind of proof?
The thing we must remember here is that Thomas did not just believe what he saw. Thomas also believed what he did not see. Remember, Thomas has seen someone come back from the dead before. He was there when Jesus raised Lazarus. Being alive after being dead does not necessarily equal being God. The key for Thomas is that he knows the implications of what he has seen. He believes that Jesus is not only alive, but also is God. The other disciples rejoice at seeing Jesus alive, but Thomas is the only one that proclaims "My Lord and my God!"
Thomas is both the one who sees and believes that Jesus has risen and the one who has not seen, but believes beyond seeing that Jesus is Lord.
The Christian faith will always face challenges from those who claim it will not stand up to scrutiny. John says as much in the sentences right after this story of Thomas, when he says,
"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." (John 20:30-31) Clearly, John knows that like Thomas we are going to need evidence for our faith. And he provides it.
In a culture that seems to vacillate between on the one hand uncritically accepting and forwarding every sensational e-mail that comes along--especially when it strengthens our political position or confirms our long-held beliefs--and on the other hand skeptically crying out "that picture is photo-shopped!" when something seems too fantastical or challenging, we seem to be caught between blind faith and blind doubt. Perhaps it is time to let Thomas be our guide. To not be afraid to ask questions or seek evidence--God can stand up to it--but also to not be afraid to accept the amazing reality that is the resurrection. To see with open-eyed faith the confirmation of Jesus' life and the revelation that he is our Lord and our God.
Let us pray. Gracious God, open our hearts and our minds. Give us the wisdom to believe what we have seen and what we cannot see. Help us to follow you with open-eyed faith. Amen.