In some of my writing, I have talked about the ways I think Judas is treated unfairly in the gospels. None of the writers can mention him without reminding everyone that he betrayed Jesus. Thomas is the other disciple that gets misrepresented, I think, more by the generations that followed than by the gospel writers, perhaps, because he continues to be “Doubting Thomas,” and there’s so much more to the story.
Here’s what I found this week as I read about him again.
When I was a kid, the family that lived next door to us had four boys. My brother and I fell in the middle of them age wise, so we spent a lot of time together. The youngest was name Richard, but everybody called him Chubbs. But he wasn’t fat. I think it had started when he was little. He grew tall and thin as a preteen, but he never lost the nickname.
He was always Chubbs.
I think about him whenever I read about Thomas because most all of my life I have heard him called “Doubting Thomas,” which I have never felt was a fair take on the guy. When it comes to gospel portrayals, Thomas and Judas are probably not treated fairly. Since the stories were written down years after Jesus had gone, none of the gospel writers can mention Judas without making sure we remember he was the one who betrayed Jesus. Truth is all the men around Jesus betrayed him in one way or another. The women were the ones who stayed true, but they got written out of the story for the most part. And then, the one story about Thomas is this one, and he ends up being called Doubting Thomas–a name that has outlived him by centuries.
This is the last story in John’s gospel. It immediately follows Mary’s encounter with Jesus that we talked about last week and then John signs off, hoping we will find faith in Christ. Because of that, I want to cut the gospel writer a little slack because I don’t think he meant to stick Thomas with the nickname anymore that Richard’s parents thought Chubbs would last for life. I say that because this is the closing scene of the book and not just another episode.
The first part takes place on the evening of the day they found the tomb empty–Easter night, if you will. Even though they knew Jesus was alive, they had not seen much of him. They were back in the upper room with the doors locked. They were still scared. They weren’t sure of anything. And Jesus came through the door–literally–and said, “Peace be with you,” and then blessed them with a calling to go and love others; actually, to forgive others.
For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there. When he came back, they told him they had seen Jesus and he said, “I need to see for myself to be able to trust the story.” Though John doesn’t give us details, it feels like they must have given him a hard time about not trusting what they had seen. But remember, these people had locked themselves in a room out of fear because they hadn’t trusted the story either. They didn’t have room to talk when it came to hassling Thomas about trust.
I hope you are picking up that I am using the word trust instead of believe because the distinction matters to me. The Greek word means more than what the word believe means to us. We have made belief an intellectual assent, a heady thing. I think trust is a better translation because trust is a risk. Something is at stake when we trust someone else.
Thomas wasn’t trying to make sure he was right in his belief; he wanted assurances that he could trust that Jesus was alive, so he said, “I want to see him and touch him.”
A week later–so, on this very day–all of them were back in the same room and this time Thomas was with them. Since Jesus came through the door without opening it, I am going to assume they were still locking themselves in. Nobody in the room was living into their trust quite yet. Jesus offered peace to them and then turned to Thomas. He didn’t admonish him or shame him or make a speech. He just said, “You wanted to touch me. Here I am. Trust instead of distrust.”
Thomas didn’t life a finger. He just said, “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus then said words that have taken on a life of their own, even outside the world of faith: “Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe.” I want to rephrase those words in terms of trust. Blessed are those who have not seen and are still willing to trust.”
Instead of Doubting Thomas, I think we would do better to call him Honest Thomas, if we want to give him a nickname, because trust is hard work.
If we are going to share in Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God,” then we have to learn how to live in trust, and the way Jesus us taught us to live teaches that to live out our trust in God means to learn to trust one another in Jesus’ name.
One of the things that strikes me about this story is that Jesus came looking for Thomas, which means Jesus had gotten word that Thomas was having a hard time. Instead of talking around Thomas, or telling someone else to tell him what he was doing wrong, Jesus showed up in the room, looked Thomas straight in the eye, and said, “Put your finger in my side. Look at my hands.”
He dealt directly with Thomas.
If we want to grow as a community of faith “passionately committed to Christ,” as we say in our mission statement, it starts right here: we commit to building trust with one another.
I want to say again that to follow Christ is not about intellectual belief in something, it’s about trusting God and one another. A faith that matters, that changes lives, is one lived out in relationships, which means one committed to building trust.
Thomas was open about what he was struggling with, and when he said he couldn’t trust without physical proof, he didn’t say, “But don’t tell Jesus I said that.” He was open and honest and he showed up in the room with the others so Jesus could find him. Jesus, as I said, didn’t send word to Thomas, he came and found him so they could talk face to face.
Perhaps you are thinking, “This is the second Sunday of Easter and he’s talking about direct communication?
Yes. Yes, I am.
If we are passionate about living out our faith, it will show in the way we relate to each other. If we don’t trust each other to speak the truth in love, then we will find it hard to trust God, too, because God is not off somewhere looking down, God is here among us. If we want to find new life in Christ, we will find it in building trust with one another. If you want to see this congregation grow spiritually and numerically as you get ready for a new pastor, then work on trusting each other. Speak directly. Don’t give or take anonymous feedback. Feedback that does not offer the possibility of conversation and understanding is sniper fire. It destroys trust, and thus destroys community.
To be a part of the Body of Christ together means to choose each other over the history of the way things have been done, over personal preferences, over opinions. To choose life together in Christ means asking questions rather than jumping to conclusions, listening first and then speaking, and assuming positive intent when we don’t understand what is happening.
The difficulty of the past couple of years has left us all tired. We are all exhausted. We are all hurting. We are all doing what we can. Locking ourselves in a room like the disciples did sounds like it might be an option worth considering. However, they hid in fear, not trust, and Jesus found them to say, “I called you to more than this.” Then he came back for Thomas so that he knew he belonged as well.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and are still willing to trust,” he was talking about us. He is not going to come barging in the room while we are all here so we can be sure it’s him. If we want to see Jesus, we are going to have to trust each other. We are going to have to incarnate the love of Christ in what we do and say and think if we want to see Jesus.
“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. And you remember what love looks like, don’t you? We read those words again two weeks ago:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Let us love one another in hope and trust. Let us speak the truth in love, but first, let us learn to listen in love, to ask compassionate questions, to do everything we can to let love burst in and chase out fear. Amen.