In the name of the one God: Our mother, our brother, and our friend.
Seeing is believing, so they say. And, I wonder, what do the disciples believe when they’ve locked themselves away, fearing the same persecution they just witnessed Jesus endure?
This Gospel passage gives us a story of Jesus’s appearance to the disciples immediately following Mary Magdalene discovering his empty tomb and Jesus appearing to Mary, asking “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary goes to the disciples and tells them, “I have seen the Lord!” Instead of rejoicing or going out to find him, the disciples bar the door, pull the shutters closed, and extinguish their lamps, sitting in an eerie dark silence. They don’t know what will happen next! Perhaps the knowledge that Jesus’s body went missing from his tomb has spread around to the crowds, to the authorities, and to the Romans, and maybe there is a reward for those who know something about this theft!
Well, all of them except Thomas.
When we encounter this set of lectionary readings, we often hear preaching centered around Thomas and his doubt of Jesus’s resurrection. That Thomas doesn’t play a large supporting role in the Gospels—like, say, Peter does—makes his appearance in today’s Gospel all that more interesting. The passage tells us that when Jesus first appears to the disciples in the locked room, Thomas is not with them. If he wasn’t in that dark room with the other disciples, where was he? Was he out spreading the news? Out buying eggs? Perhaps Thomas spent that week hiding somewhere, knowing if he were seen in the street, he could be arrested. John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us very much about Thomas at all, which makes me think there’s more to Thomas’s story than we regularly hear about!
A week later, Thomas rejoins the disciples when they have again shut themselves away in the locked house. I picture him sitting at the table with them, hearing their stories about how Jesus just suddenly appeared to them! And spoke to them! Um, weird! But he stood there and watched Jesus die on the cross, just like all the others. And yet, convinced as they could be, they all claim to have saw him. Well, of course, he’s going to have this indignant reply, “Until I see His hands, feel the wounds of the nails, and put my hand to His side, I won’t believe what you are saying” (Jn 20.25, VOICE). Thomas’s skepticism doesn’t seem unwarranted.
I don’t see his statement as “belief” in the sense that we might understand in the word today—not in that “seeing is believing” way. I think of it much more as confusion, almost as if he just couldn’t possibly fathom what the other disciples were talking about. He’s dubious about their words to him. I see this especially in how he says it; the Greek word he uses is πιστός (pistos), which is often used as “believe” or “faithful” but can also mean “trust in” or “persuade.” His statement may be much more like “I want you to make me believe this, because I know I saw him dying on that cross and none of this makes any sense!”
And then, Jesus appears before the disciples in the locked house, as he had done before, and speaks directly to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and your hand to my side, so that you might believe.” Thomas’s uncertainty washes away and he believes, exclaiming “My Lord and my God!”
Perhaps out of all the disciples, Thomas was most persuaded by this moment. I want to go back to there being more to Thomas’ story for a moment.
I have a classmate—an excellently brilliant fellow—who is from India. He isn’t an Episcopalian, but is instead a priest in the Mar Thoma Church. The Mar Thoma church is one of the Episcopal Church’s “Full Communion Partners,” along with the Church of Sweden, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and others. This Full Communion partnership highlights that we recognize these denominations as part of our same Christian family and that we are committed to working together to share the Gospel. In short, these churches are our closest “siblings” in the great spread of Christian denominations.
The Mar Thoma Church is unique, however, because it traces its origin back directly to Thomas the Apostle. Mar Thoma itself is Aramaic for “Saint Thomas.” Their tradition teaches that Thomas, after being sent out by Jesus at Pentecost, travelled with seafaring traders around the Red Sea and Persian Gulf for almost twenty years, spreading the Good News in any port along the route. His travel eventually led him to the southwestern side of the Indian subcontinent, to a land called Malabar, which is known today as the Indian state of Kerala. There, he is reported to have spent twenty years evangelizing to the Malayali people, spreading reports of Jesus’s miracles and teachings to those who would listen, until his death in 72 CE, nearly forty years after Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Some traditions say that Thomas also traveled as far as eastern China, aided by the Silk Road on land and the Indian Spice Route by sea. Over a hundred years after Thomas’, missionaries from Alexandria, traveling that same Indian Spice Route, discovered that the teachings of Christ had already arrived in India. They were surprised to find a healthy and thriving religious community who called themselves Nasranis, the Nazarenes. Over time, the Nasranis became the Mar Thoma church and were under the supervision of the Church of the East, the Persian Church, which also traditionally traces its origins back to Thomas the Apostle.
So, as I said earlier, this idea of a “doubting” Thomas seems misleading. Or, at least, continuing his legacy as the doubtful apostle is confusing. I see Thomas as the apostle whose eyes were opened the widest by Jesus, the most filled with the breath of the Spirit, and who then took that message of Christ’s suffering and resurrection to the farthest distance away from Jerusalem. Maybe instead of Doubting Thomas, we should call him Industrious Thomas, simply because of his commitment to following Jesus’s instruction to go out and make disciples of all nations.
Jesus explains to his followers, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This feels like a direct rejection of our “seeing is believing” mindset. We so often refuse to believe in what we haven’t seen, or what we can’t imagine. Some people misinterpret news reports and videos and photographs of bodies lying in the street or of mass graves across eastern Ukraine, believing they are hoaxes, or that they’re staged. There are people in Ukraine who know all too well the pain that comes with living through something so unthinkable, and yet there are skeptics who try to distort their reality.
But what really matters is that Jesus invites his followers to believe in something greater than they can imagine! He is proposing that we open ourselves to transformation—to become something new, to look for a greater meaning in our world, to bridge the divide between “What is” and “What could be.” For example, just because we have always had the poor with us doesn’t mean we can’t put an end to poverty if we simply believed it were possible. Jesus’s invitation forces us to ask ourselves the hard question: Will we be like the disciples and lock ourselves away from the world, fearing our own death and destruction? Or would we act like Thomas? Even though he had doubts about the resurrected Jesus, that didn’t mean he couldn’t spend his life in foreign countries and share the love of God and the stories of Jesus’s life with everyone he met… and then have an entire denomination named for him!
The joy of Easter is that we are repeatedly invited into these resurrection moments. Just as he broke bread with the disciples before and after his resurrection, Jesus welcomes us to this table again and again, always asking us to be changed by his love. He breathes the Spirit into us, giving us the breath of life, so that we might be inspired to go into the world and share his love with those who need it most. Just like we’ve preached all through Lent, Holy Week, the Triduum, and Easter, Jesus always asks us to lean into being a “new” type of believer, because even though we might not always be able to imagine something greater, we can still have faith, we can trust, or we can be persuaded that it is possible.