Locating Ourselves in the Easter Story
But Thomas, (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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 later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”– John 20: 24-28 NRSV
I’m Thomas, one of the characters in the original Easter story. Until now, you may have known me as “Doubting Thomas.” But that’s a label, isn’t it? The kind of thing people apply to someone else when they don’t want to get too close to them. I want you to dare to get close to this Easter story, because (whether you’ve realized it or not) you are a character in it! I don’t want anything, including the church, stunting your imaginations about that.
I think I am a pretty down-to-earth guy. Show me what’s real–that’s what I care about! I like encountering things “in-the-flesh.” Jesus was always teaching us in every way possible, but his parables used to confound me. I’d ask myself: “Why is he telling us this story? Can we just get a straight answer?” I will share with you a couple of his qualities that never confounded me: his remarkable patience and the fierceness of his love!
As you sit with this Easter story in John’s gospel, let me ask: Do you really believe it’s about me doubting the resurrection? Yes, the first time Jesus came to that sealed room, I was the only one except Judas who wasn’t there. But why would you assume I wasn’t out looking for him in the world–where he said he’d be–even if my buds were triple-locking the doors? Just asking.
Back at the beginning, I had been called from life as I had known it to follow him, just like the others. Jesus had spoken personally to each of us, and then to all of us together. What a crew!
Once we were “on the way,” he sent us out to proclaim God’s nearness with every ounce of who we were. He gave us authority over all the powers that had bound people, terrorized them, diminished them; over the demons that limited the offering and receiving of love, and crushed the spirits of the Beloved. I had always thought “authority” was power over people. But Jesus taught me that it was about having the willingness to be liberated and the capacity to help to liberate others. Author-ity was the inspiration to author life-giving outcomes where death once reigned. It was always deeply personal even as it reshaped the world.
Now I have never talked as much as Pete, but there are three places in the gospels where my words are recorded. The first was the encouragement I offered my fellow disciples when Lazarus of Bethany had died: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” We were camped out by the wilderness beyond the Jordan. I wasn’t really sure why Jesus had brought us out there, but it was a relief to get out of the frying pan of Jerusalem, with all its threats. I remember skimming stones as I sat on the banks of the river, and then looking down in the water at my reflection and pondering who I was at this point in our journey. I had the sense that I wasn’t the same guy who had started out; this whole thing was changing me. I also remember looking up into the heavens and asking myself who God was calling me to be. There I was, the straight-talk guy, in deep reflection (don’t tell anybody)!
About that time the folks from Poortown arrived and told us that our friend Lazarus was critically ill. Jesus said that odd thing: “This kind of illness doesn’t lead to death; it’s for God’s glory, that the Son of Humanity might be glorified.” He disappeared into the dusty terrain to pray by himself. I assume he wanted us to do likewise. For two days we didn’t move. I recalled when he had stood by the woman about to be stoned for adultery and how he challenged the integrity of those who would hurt her. He had blessed her, given her fresh direction, then turned to us and said: “I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will not walk in darkness but have the light of life.” And I remembered the time not long after when we encountered the man who had been born blind sitting by the side of the road. The group of us had a truly horrifying theological debate within earshot of the man, arguing about whether he was being punished by God for his sins or those of his parents. I marvel that Jesus didn’t start over right then with a new, more promising band of followers. Instead, he responded to our inexcusable ugliness by saying clearly, “It was neither this man nor his parents who sinned, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” His light was illuminating those in the scene who really needed to repent, but we were not first in his concern. He drew close to the man, fashioned a clay mixture from the soil of creation and his own saliva, and applied it to the man’s eyes as he shaped a different future. He did not forget us, though, saying, “We must do the work of him who sent me while we are in the light.”
Finally, after two days, Jesus said, “Our friend has fallen asleep but I am going to awaken him.” Somebody said, “If he’s fallen asleep, he should be okay; maybe we should let him rest.” Jesus responded, “Lazarus is dead. I am glad for your sakes I wasn’t there. What’s going to happen will give you new ground for believing. Now. let’s go to him.”
We would be crossing back over the Jordan, just like our ancestors did to enter the Promised Land. My mind and heart were beginning to put two and together, though I make no claim to genius. Jesus had said that Lazarus’ illness didn’t lead to death, but was rather opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed. That sounded to my ears like what he had said about the man’s blindness: that it wasn’t punishment for sin but so that the works of God might be revealed IN him. Jesus was always saying that that we needed to let go of our lives, to lose them, in order to really discover them . . . to heal them. “Let us also go,” I blurted out. The gospel doesn’t hit ground in an imaginary world. The Living Word moves and breathes and heals in this one. Immersion in that Word requires us to BE in the very places, the spaces, the margins where the Word is moving and breathing and healing. If we wouldn’t go, then what would be the point? The people of Bethany were on the frontlines of the new world. They were real!
We needed to be with Jesus. We needed to be with them. And with the woman facing the stones. With the man by the side of the road. With Mary and Martha. They were the bearers of God’s new life being birthed into the world. Death wouldn’t have the last word. Or the first one, either.
A few nights after that, Jesus gathered us for the Passover supper, sharing the bread and cup with all of us–including Judas–and washing our feet. That night he would be arrested. He told us not to let our hearts be troubled, to believe in God, to believe in him; that he had to go ahead and prepare a place for us in God’s house, and that he would return and take us to himself, so that where he was we would be also.
“And you know the place where I am going,” he said. It was excruciating, bewildering, overwhelming. I wanted some straight talk, and I had found my own voice. I said to him in my own grief and irritation, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going! How can we know the way?” He looked at me with those eyes. He looked at me as though to say, “You’ve been putting things together, claiming your life with me . . .knowing me and knowing yourself . . . and now you have amnesia? Tom, I am the Way, and the truth, and the Life.” I’d like to tell you that my questions brought out the best in him! “I know,” I whispered. But I, too, would be among those running away into the darkness that night to hide. We would see him again, that our lives would truly become one.
Now about that doubt. I don’t know that what I felt about Jesus was doubt. I may have doubted us. I realized looking back that we had spent a lot of time on our amazing journey being consumed by what we ourselves wished for, who we wanted him to be, the endings we wanted him to engineer for us. But he had been unfailingly straight with us.
I admit that when I went back to the house where we had been holed up, I was skeptical about what my brothers were telling me they had seen. After all, they hadn’t even tried to escape the air stale with sweat and fear! I was also more than a bit skeptical about myself. given my own history–at least my perception of it.
When they said, “We have seen the Lord,” I responded sharply, telling them, “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands–unless I get to touch them with my own fingers, and place my hand in that gaping hole in his side, I will not be believing.” I needed to touch the wounds I had helped inflict on him. It might have been willfulness, yes, but maybe more than a little confession, too. And he had led me so close to the world’s wounds, beckoned me ever closer, again an again, whenever God’s power was going to be revealed.
A week later he penetrated that closed room once more, and whatever “closed rooms” remained in me. “Peace be with you,” he declared to us all. Then drawing so close to me I could feel his breath, he invited me: “Bring your finger here and perceive my hands, and bring your hand and thrust it into my side, and do not become unbelieving, but believe.’ I didn’t need to touch him; he was already touching me. “My Lord and my God!,” I gasped.
It is important to look for the living Jesus in the world; essential even. He startles us in the everyday. The encounter is a recognition scene. It is okay to be unsteady, uncertain, as we venture into unfamiliar terrain. After all, certitude can be a killer– ask the chief priests and the scribes! Welcoming signs of his presence leads to questions, to inner struggles, to venturesome exploration and risk, to some devastating failure as well. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Here’s a set of beliefs; memorize them.” He invites us, “Follow me.” And into everything that entails.
So if you still need to call me “Doubting Thomas,” okay. But it’s a label. I’m not a label, and neither are you. The gift in these stories , stories ultimately of resurrection, is that you can locate yourself in them, perhaps in more than one character. My name means The Twin. Maybe it’s you that is my twin.
When you meet Jesus in the midst of your own life, do tell him that Tom said to look for him.