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“So rejoice! Be perplexed! Ask questions! Sit in amazement! Do whatever you need to do this Resurrection Day. But above all, know that God loves you so much that he did the impossible to be in relationship with you.” That’s how I wrapped up my Easter sermon last week, by giving you permission to take your time in coming to an Easter faith. Resurrection is hard to believe, even a week later. Thomas isn’t buying yet. He wasn’t in the upper room last Sunday when Jesus appeared through a locked door. He missed seeing the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet and the gaping slit in his side. He didn’t get commissioned as an Apostle, that is, one who is sent in John 20:21. He didn’t get the Spirit of new life breathed into him. He wasn’t there. John doesn’t tell us why, but we know, for sure, that Thomas was missing on Easter night.
Understandably then, he’s a little hesitant when the remaining ten disciples, turned Apostles, come running up to him shouting, “We have seen the Lord.” He had heard it already, early in the morning on Easter Day when Mary Magdalene came flying through the door, breathless, huffing and puffing, “I… have… seen… the… Lord…” Nobody believed her then, why is Thomas expected to believe the ten now? He’d like to see it for himself. Being a human being, Thomas does what most of us do best when it feels like everyone is judging us, he gets defensive, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week goes by before Thomas gets his wish. It is the next Sunday and the 10 plus Thomas are again holed up in the Jesus Party Headquarters when Jesus appears out of nowhere. For the third time in seven verses Jesus offers his disciple peace, and then he turns his attention to Thomas. “Look Thomas. More than that: touch Thomas. Feel the holes in my hands, but your hand in my side.” And then, in perhaps the most famous sentence that Jesus never said, the NRSV has Jesus say, “Do not doubt but believe.”
I grew up attending Saint Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was formed as a Christian under an enormous stained glass window of Thomas reaching out to touch the wounds of Jesus. Since we hear the Thomas lesson on the Second Sunday of Easter every year, I’ve heard sermon after sermon on Doubting Thomas and how we are called to faith: “blessed are those who believe without seeing.” The moral lesson of each Doubting Thomas sermon is so simple, so perfect for Low Sunday when both priest and parish are exhausted. “Do not doubt but believe,” Jesus says, “now go and do it.”
The problem, as I said, is that Jesus never said, “Do not doubt but believe.” I’m sorry to burst your bubble, and I offer my apologies to the thousands of preachers who are going down that homelitical road this week, but the simple truth is that Jesus didn’t say that famous line to Thomas. I don’t mean this in some sort of Jesus Seminar, uncovering the real historical Jesus way, but rather, based on my crude knowledge of Greek, I see Jesus saying something very different.
Let me explain. In Matthew 14, after Jesus fed the five-thousand the disciples set off in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. Meanwhile, Jesus went up a mountain to pray. At sunset, Jesus set out to meet his disciples by walking on the sea. The disciples were terrified, thinking they had seen a ghost, but Jesus spoke to them saying, “Take heart, it is me. Don’t be afraid.” Boldly, Peter responds, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So Jesus summons Peter out of the boat, and after a few steps, Peter feels the wind on his face, panics and begins to sink. Jesus saves him and, in another famous Jesus-ism, says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt.” Doubt, distazo, being of two minds, vacillating between two stances. First, Peter doubted that the figure walking across the water was Jesus and not a ghost. Second, Peter doubted that Jesus would protect him out atop the waves. It is clear from the Greek that Peter doubted.
In our Gospel lesson from John 20, Thomas draws just as clear a line in the sand as Peter did back in Matthew 14, “If Jesus really is back from the dead, then let me see his hands and feet. Better yet, let me touch the holes and put my hand in his side.” Jesus appears in the closed room, meets his friend and disciple face to face and offers him exactly what he wanted. “Go ahead; put your finger in the holes. Look at my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer, but instead, believe.” In Greek, Jesus says, “kai ginou me apistos alla pistos.” Literally, “don’t be a-believing, but rather believe.”
Despite what millions of sermons by thousands of preachers have said over the last 2,000 years, Doubting Thomas didn’t doubt, but rather he was a-believing. This makes a huge difference because in John’s Gospel, belief isn’t about an intellectual assent to some list of facts, but instead, belief is about a relationship. When Jesus died on the cross, so too did his relationship with Thomas. Thomas had believed in Jesus, he gave him his heart and his hope, but that belief couldn’t live beyond the grave. Unless, that is, Jesus lived beyond the grave, and, like I said last week, resurrection is pretty hard to believe. It is so hard to fathom, in fact, that Thomas wants a little bit of proof before he he’ll hand his heart over to be burned again.
I think Jesus understands that. Nobody has been ready for him to appear before them: not Mary Magdalene, not the 10, not the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, nobody. Instead, he’s been met with a-pistos, unbelief, at every step of the way. So, when he encounters the honesty of Thomas, “unless I see and touch, I just can’t go there,” Jesus is compassionate and tender.
“Peace be with you, Thomas.”
“Here, touch my hands. Feel my side.”
“Take your time, but have faith that I am alive. Reenter into a relationship with me. Trust me, for the Kingdom will come to earth through you, and, through those who will come to believe without seeing, indeed some will come to believe through the story you will tell.”
Thomas does return to faith, his relationship with Jesus is restored in a simple creed, “My Lord and my God.” The tradition says that eventually, Thomas will go east to spread the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection all the way to India. To this day there are Christians who are members of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar on the southwestern coast of India who claim, without a doubt, that Didymus Thomas, Thomas the Twin, founded their church. It seems that instead of doubting Thomas, perhaps we should marvel at the faith of Thomas that took him to the very ends of the earth.
We all have doubts from time to time, that’s a normal part of living the life of faith, we shouldn’t begrudge Thomas for doubting (even if he didn’t). What Jesus longs for in this post-resurrection encounter with Thomas is that we all might believe in him by handing over our hearts and our hopes that he might bring them to the fullness of joy. That’s what living an Easter life is all about. That’s what Thomas wanted, he just needed to see it, touch it, experience it before he was willing to risk relationship again. We don’t have that luxury, but thanks be to God for the witness of John and Thomas and the many others who have passed on to us the Good News, “We have seen the Lord! Jesus is alive!” Amen.