The story of Thomas comes up the week after Easter every couple of years. Because of this story, Thomas has the reputation of being a doubter - Doubting Thomas we refer to him as. I don't think that's fair. This morning we'll get a better picture of Thomas - and perhaps ourselves as well...
Today’s message is based on John 20:19-31. To read it now, click here.
This passage comes up fairly often right after Easter. But today, it seems especially appropriate. Next week, we will be bringing in some new members. Just before Lent, we had some baptisms, and perhaps a baby dedication in the not too distant future. Faith, and the results of faith, are all around us this Easter, and it’s exciting to see.
Does that mean they all understand everything about faith? Not at all. But it means they are on a spiritual journey. And as they progress on that journey, they will understand more. That’s what happened to Thomas in our reading this morning. He didn’t understand until He saw Jesus. Neither do we. We have seen Jesus, by faith, by believing in Him, before we can begin to understand. And we grow in our understanding as we journey together.
I do have a couple of thoughts about the passage. First, the story doesn’t tell us where Thomas was when Christ first appeared to the other disciples. I wonder why he wasn’t with them? I wonder where he was. We don’t know much of Thomas before he began following Jesus. All four gospels list Thomas as a disciple, but none of them give any mention of the calling of Thomas. We don’t know where he came from or what he did before.
Could it be that he returned to his previous work, whatever that was? I guess it might be possible, but it hadn’t been very long since the crucifixion, and none of the other disciples seemed to have left, so it’s unlikely that Thomas would have.
Maybe he was like many people are today; when they experience a tragedy in their life, some difficulty or disappointment, some people withdraw from fellowship with others. Maybe Thomas was like that. Or maybe he was somewhat moody after his companion’s death, and just didn’t feel like going to the upper room with them this time.
I’m going to assume that’s what it was – maybe he felt a huge disappointment and wanted to be alone. But here’s the thing, I want to suggest that these are the times that you need your church family the most. Don’t avoid your church family because of a bad mood, or because of one of life’s big disappointments. We’re family. We need each other. And we’ll get through life’s difficulties together. These are the times we need each other all the more.
Our reading tells us that Thomas refused to accept a secondhand faith. He said that “unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” He wouldn’t believe that his friend, who he saw die, had risen from the tomb. His faith was going to have to be based on more than the testimony of others. He was realist, he needed proof.
We’ve labeled Thomas as the doubter, Doubting Thomas we like to call him. But I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Looking back through scripture at the times when Thomas’ remarks are mentioned, we don’t see some timid shy person who doubts most of what he hears. We see a person who desperately wants to understand. It was Thomas that often asked the questions that everyone else were thinking.
If we look at John 14:3-5 – Jesus is explaining to the disciples that soon he would leave, that he was going to his father’s house to prepare a place for them. And when that place was prepared, when the time was right, he was come back for them. Jesus mentions in verse 4 – “you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas is the one that asked the question – How can we know the way? We don’t know where you’re going! I have to think that everybody was wondering about that, but only Thomas asked. This isn’t someone who doubts what he hears, he wants to understand.
I also think that Thomas was a very courageous man. When Lazarus died, and Jesus heard about it, he told the disciples that he was going there, he was going to return to Bethany in Judea. His disciples reminded them that last time they were in that area the Jews tried to stone him, they were out to kill him. It’s Thomas who stands up and says, “Let us also go, that we die with him.” He’s a realist, he could see what’s going on. He accepted the risk, and was ready to face death instead of life without Jesus. So you can’t really say he was a man without courage. He was a man with great courage. This isn’t a doubting person, this is a man of great faith and understanding.
Beside, when the disciples heard the news that Jesus had rose, Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves. They didn’t believe Mary. They ran all the way to the tomb to check it out for themselves. And we certainly don’t think that Peter was a doubter, we think of his great faith.
So Thomas questioned Jesus’ resurrection. So did Peter and John. Questions and doubts are not bad things. Some of the greatest discoveries ever made have been because of struggles or questions about the way things were done before. I imagine that every invention ever made was because of this questioning – Is this the best way? Or is there a better way? Questions are good things. Some of the greatest Fathers of the faith struggled with their faith from time to time. They had questions and doubts. Abraham had doubts that he would become a father at his ripe old age, in fact Sarah laughed out loud. Yet it happened, and in working through those doubts, his faith became stronger.
Moses complained he couldn’t speak well, he doubted and questioned God when God called him to go and bring his people out of Egypt. Yet he worked through that, and God used Him to deliver the Hebrew people out of slavery to the Egyptians, and his faith was strengthened. Elijah, Jeremiah, Job, all the psalmists; they all struggled with doubts and questions, and yet they worked through them, and in doing so, their faith was strengthened. That’s true of our faith, too. It is strengthened by struggles and doubts. Don’t ever think less of someone because they doubt or question their faith – for they may be on the verge of a much deeper understanding!
Jesus didn’t condemn Thomas for expressing his doubts, instead he gave Thomas what he needed to believe – he came to him specifically so that he might believe. In this reading, this second visit to the disciples was for the benefit of Thomas. This time was for Thomas. No other purpose is mentioned. Nothing else was done in this visit. This was so that Thomas would see and believe.
Something else that I found intriguing. Thomas gave very firm conditions exactly what he would need to see to believe. When Jesus came back, he repeated Thomas’ words almost exactly. Thomas believed. He didn’t even have to touch the nail holes, or stick his fingers in Jesus’ side – he saw Jesus and he believed! In fact, when he saw Jesus, and heard those words, he fell down at Jesus’ feet and made the most definite confession of any disciple in the New Testament. “My Lord and my God.” Thomas, who we remember as the biggest skeptic, makes the biggest proclamation. And this is the very proclamation that the whole gospel of John is leading up to. My Lord and my God.
After this proclamation, Jesus gives us what you might call a new beatitude that’s actually, I think, directed to all of us. He told Thomas, “You have believed because you have seen me, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Thomas has just made a wonderful confession of his faith. Jesus didn’t respond with a “blessed are you, Thomas, because of your faith.” He said, blessed are those who have not seen, yet believed anyway.
Jesus knew that the church would go on for a long time, and He knew that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to see him personally, yet our faith is so important to Him. It is so important that we believe. Even without physically seeing him, or physically reaching out to touch him, we can still experience his presence. We don’t have the opportunity in this life to know him in a physical sense, But we can certainly know Him in a spiritual sense, we can still experience his presence with us. We can sense him. We can feel him. By believing without seeing, we can feel Him with us.
That’s a profound and ironic part of our faith. By believing without physically touching him, we can be strengthened in our faith, and spiritual feel him. And I can testify to that. There have been times that I have felt his presence strongly. And every time, I’m reminded how Thomas must have felt when he fell to his knees and cried, My Lord and my God.
Be strong. Have faith. Believe. And you will feel his presence.