Sunday, April 19, 2009

My brother, Thomas

ACTS 4:32-35; PSALM 133; 1 JOHN 1:1- 2:2; JOHN 20:19-31

Where was Thomas when Jesus appeared in the upper room that first night? When everyone else is locked in for fear of being associated with Jesus and, thus, receiving the same treatment He did, Thomas is out and about. Why would that be?

We get a little glimpse of the character of Thomas earlier in John, when word comes to Jesus that Lazarus is dying. Some of the other disciples are concerned that heading back toward Jerusalem will mean certain and sudden death for Jesus. Jesus slows his own walk, so that Lazarus might be raised for the glory of God. However the other disciples hope to dissuade him from the plan all together. Another dramatic healing within close proximity to the holy city is just too dangerous.

Finally, it would seem, Thomas gets tired of the hemming and hawing of the others and realizes Jesus is going to do what he’s going to do. Thomas turns to the others and says, “Let us also go [meaning to Jerusalem], that we may die with him.” Thomas gets it. This life with Jesus means putting everything else behind him and so he has. Where Jesus leads, he follows.

In John 14, as Jesus promises to prepare a place for his followers, a place where they can meet him, practical Thomas asks, “We don’t know where you are going. So how can we know the way?” Jesus answers, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Philip asks for the disciples to be shown the Father, but Thomas is quiet now. If Jesus says he’s the way, then he’s the way.

He’s not Peter, always offering a quick, blurted response- “Lord, let us build booths and stay here”, “Lord, you will never wash my feet”, “Lord, I will never deny you, deny you, deny you.” Thomas isn’t James and John, the sons of Zebedee. We don’t see him ask about seating arrangements in heaven. He isn’t Judas or Simon the Zealot, confused about the role of the Messiah and refusing to accept that this carpenter is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

From the little we see of him, Thomas has taken up the yoke and started down the road with Jesus, wherever it leads. So, why isn’t he in the upper room? Maybe because he doesn’t think the mission is over. For Thomas, perhaps fear must take a backseat to all that Jesus commanded. Maybe he’s out laying hands on people. Perhaps he’s in the synagogue, praying and discussing Isaiah with other men. He could have journeyed out to the tomb and might be running his hands over the rock rolled away, wondering just how it happened.

Somewhere, when someone came to the upper room and said Jesus was no longer in the tomb- Thomas apparently stood up, dusted off his sackcloth and ashes and decided there was work still to be done and he left the room and his fellow disciples.

When he returns, maybe with some food for the evening meal, and they all are clamoring to tell him that Jesus appeared among them- he’s a little skeptical. You can imagine Peter and James and John, people whose reluctance has frustrated Thomas in the past, going on and on about Jesus coming through the wall, about the experience of receiving the Spirit, of seeing Christ again. Thomas can’t take it, “Enough. Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in their mark and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And there Thomas sealed his fate in the life of the church to come. Oh, Thomas, doubting Thomas, how could you not believe in what the others had spoken to you? But Thomas, faithful Thomas, knew the Jesus whom he was still following. He didn’t say, “I will never believe that” or “You’re lying” or “I think we should switch to weaker wine”. If Jesus came once, he would come again and Thomas would wait for that encounter.

And so it happened. This time, Thomas is there and Jesus comes into the closed room and extends his peace to his frazzled disciples. He immediately looks at Thomas and extends his hands, saying- “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.” And then Thomas gives the most profound profession of faith in the gospels. This is not Peter’s recognition of the Messiah, God’s anointed one. This is not Mary Magdalene’s recognition of her rabbouni, her teacher. This is not the cry of the soldier for a healer or the call of the centurion identifying the Son of God. This is the deep-rooted cry of Jesus’ most practical follower, recognizing not only his Lord, but his God.

Only Thomas, with his questions, his stubbornness and his willingness to follow without totally knowing the way, can see the two natures of Jesus the Christ, risen from the dead and apparent before him. His cry is the cry of the church from that moment on, from that upper room to this open room and in all times and places.

Thomas is called the “Twin”, but no mention is made of his sibling. Sometimes, it is we who are considered his twin, Thomas’ other half. We are with him in the gospel and he is asking the questions in our minds. Will we die with Christ? How can we know the way? Did he really appear to so many? Our brother in faith and in questioning draws the answers we need to live in faith. And the answers we need to live with our questions.

Jesus extends to Thomas what Thomas needs to believe. So also do God the Holy Spirit give us the gift of faith, but also opens us to see Jesus’ hands, body and blood and blessing extending to us as well. It might not have been right when Thomas asked for it, but he received what he needed in order to believe.

In the meantime, it would appear that he kept doing what Jesus had called him to do. He didn’t sit and wait until he fully understood. He did not refuse to ask anything, hoping someone else would clarify or ask the questions that seemed stupid or outrageous.

So, we, Thomas’ faith brothers and sister, can do no less. We are called to wrestle with difficult questions, with painful realities, with the real presence and sometimes felt absence of our risen Savior. We want to reach out and touch Jesus or at least to feel Him touching us. However, we keep going. You keep going. I keep going. The church keeps going. And we believe. We believe when we have not seen, we obey when we don’t understand, we persist when we don’t feel like it, we thank God before we receive and we keep trusting when we don’t receive.

This is the life to which we are called through the risen Christ. This is the life that Thomas led and offers as an example. We take our convictions and our questions, both of which make up our faith, the hope of things unseen, and we live the life to which we have been called- service to God and to our neighbors.

And we keep our eyes open for signs of God’s gracious presence and love. For we know signs were given to Thomas and the other disciples and to so many who have preceded us into glory, signs that are not written down anywhere. But we have the Spirit and God’s Holy Word so that, with or without signs, we may come to believe that Jesus is our Lord and our God and that through believing we may have life, abundant life, in His name.


luthersbrewer said...

Amen! I have to tell you, to often we hear about "doubting" Thomas. Thank you for that, I've never seen it this way and I'm so happy I just read this!

Pastor Annie said...

This one has really stuck with me. I'm doing some confirmation curriculum writing on John's resurrection account and had to come back and read this again to get my perspective on straight. I don't think I thanked you for this message back in April 2009--it's a little late, but thank you!
Thinking of you and wishing you all sorts of blessings.