Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
On this second Sunday of Easter we read Thomas’ story. We read it in all three lectionary cycles, making it the ONLY one of the post-resurrection stories that we hear every single year. The story includes Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, but most of the content of the story is about Thomas.
I saw a cartoon online this week that illustrates the fact that poor Thomas seems to be indelibly linked to this story of his questioning the other disciples’ report of Jesus’ resurrection. In the cartoon, he is addressing two other disciples: “They don’t call you “Denying Peter”, or “Ran-away-naked Mark”. Why can’t I catch a break?”
So I want to spend some time with the Thomas story, but first, I ask you to take a brief side trip with me, to pause and take note of John’s statement that when Jesus came among the disciples, the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. The Evangelist John speaks about “the Jews” 71 times in his gospel, almost always in a negative light. By contrast, the other three gospels counted together refer to “the Jews” 16 times: Matthew, Mark, and Luke are more inclined to refer specific groups of Jewish leaders such as the Pharisees, or the Priests and Scribes as opponents of Jesus.
John was written at a time when there was very significant animosity between the Jewish Christians following Jesus, including John’s community, and those Jews who remained loyal to Jewish tradition and did not recognize Jesus as the Promised One. Scholars generally agree that John’s negativity toward “the Jews” is a reflection of this dynamic characterizing the time when John’s Gospel took shape.
I think it’s important to notice and remind myself of this every time I come across John’s bias. Such claims as “the Jews killed Jesus” have fueled antisemitism throughout history, and I think it is important for us to be very intentional in recognizing and rejecting those roots of anti-semitic prejudice found in Christian scripture.
But back to Thomas!
Here’s what I want to suggest: It’s time to rethink Thomas. Everything we have known about Thomas up to this point in the story tells us that he is a pragmatist, a realist, and a truth-teller. He is the one who, when Jesus was going to raise Lazarus, urged the disciples to go with him even though, he pointed out, it might mean their own deaths. And then in Chapter 14, when Jesus is telling the disciples where he is going when he dies and assure them that they know where this is, it is Thomas who is willing to speak up and admit that they have no clue what Jesus is talking about. He is just not into the mystical stuff.
On that afternoon of the third day – and notice that whereas WE are a week into Easter season, John’s story takes place the very day that the disciples have heard Mary’s story of seeing Jesus in the garden – the disciples are together, locked in together because they are frightened. But Thomas is not with them.
Where is he? John doesn’t tell us. Bishop Fisher published a column this week in which asserts his belief that Thomas is out on the streets carrying on with Jesus’ ministry of mercy, compassion, and hope. I’m not sure I’m that optimistic.
I do think that in his pragmatic way Thomas is doing what he can to get on with life. I think he’s trying to figure out what comes next and is probably just someone who does his thinking best outside, on the move. Thomas is grieving, absorbing and processing the memories of Jesus’ terrible death, and with his death, the end of the hopes and dreams Thomas nurtured during his time with Jesus. He’s working on seeing a new alternative. (Maybe the Bishop is right and he’s out feeding the hungry – I could be wrong.)
So when he gets back to the disciples’ lodgings, and hears that they, too, have seen Jesus, he doesn’t just doubt, he honestly can’t believe it. It is too implausible, too much. I think his remark about seeing and feeling Jesus’ wounds is not so much a serious request as it is a statement of how absurd he finds his friends claims to be. I think his statement is the equivalent of saying “Yeah, I’ll believe it when pigs fly.”
But, of course, Thomas’ perspective does change. The risen Christ appears to him, too, in the very same place, a week later. Jesus comes to Thomas in the flesh, offering the very wounds that Thomas has claimed to want to see without ever believing that he might.
Thomas the realist, the pragmatist, has his entire understanding of reality upended. What he never imagined to be possible is actually true and undeniable. Thomas discovers that his reality was much too small, and his vision much too limited. In seeing and hearing from the risen Christ he is given a new understanding of what is possible, of what God can do. He does not hesitate before declaring “My Lord and my God.”
I get Thomas. I try to be practical, and I tend to be a realist, and this often results in my seeing the limitations rather than the possibilities. I don’t thinki I’m alone in this. I think that often when we “expect the worst” even as we “hope for the best”, we do so to protect ourselves from disappointment. We don’t want to be let down. We want to be prepared for the things that can harm us so that perhaps they won’t cause us pain.
I remember years ago when I was teaching having an advisee who was trying out for a readership position that I was quite certain she wouldn’t get. I was worried about how her self-confidence would be undermined. I tried to – in a gentle way – lay the groundwork for rationalizing the rejection I expected her to be facing. I remember telling her that sophomores are almost never selected for something like this, and that I was confident that she’d be chosen in another year or two, if not now. I was soon astonished, because she was chosen!
How might life be different, for those of us who tend to expect things to be the way we’ve always known them, if our minds and hearts could remember and trust that God’s abundant grace is always ready to surprise us? What miracles await our discovery?
When Jesus calls Thomas to faith, Jesus is inviting Thomas into a greater vision. He calls him to focus on possibility rather than failure, on abundance rather than scarcity, on forgiveness and reconciliation rather than on the burden of remembered offenses.
Can we dare to think large? Can we look beyond our fears and our discouragement to trust in God’s grace that, working through us, can do more than we ask or imagine?
God give us the grace to do so.
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