Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear the story of Thomas, the disciple who refuses to believe in the resurrection unless he first has an encounter with Jesus and is able to place his hand and fingers into the wounds of the One he knew had been crucified. The encounter between Jesus and Thomas occurs exactly one week after the resurrection, which is one of the reasons why this story is read every year on the Sunday following Easter. Unfortunately, because of this one particular event, our poor friend Thomas has become permanently known to history as “doubting Thomas.” I say that this is unfortunate, because the essence of this story is not really about Thomas’ skepticism or his doubt. This is not ultimately a story about the need for proof or the need for some kind of empirical evidence for the resurrection. Rather, the story of Thomas and Jesus is primarily a story about the restoration and renewal of relationship.
Now, in order to see this story in terms of relationship, we have to step back into John’s gospel and review what he means when he uses a particular word, and that is the word believe. Believing is really important in John’s gospel, but he is using this word believe quite differently from the way we often use that same word in our modern context. In our contemporary, post-enlightenment context, to believe that something is true usually implies that we have some verifiable, empirical evidence. That which is true and real is that which can be observed and measured and proven. And so, we tend to divide our experience into two categories. On the one hand, we have the experience of belief, which is our intellectual assent to that which is verifiable and provable and on the other hand, we have the experience of doubt, which is our questioning and wrestling and uncertainty when we don’t have evidence or proof that something is true. We can think of these experiences as being the two ends of a spectrum – belief at one end and doubtat the other.
But these are not the categories that are at work in John’s gospel. In John’s gospel, belief is not primarily a matter of intellectual assent. Belief is not about correctly interpreting every line of the Nicene Creed. Belief is not ultimately a matter of information or understanding. In John’s gospel and throughout the New Testament, to believe is to enter into relationship with Jesus. This begins to make sense when we realize that in the New Testament, the words believe and faith and trust and fidelity are all derived from a single Greek word.
And so, to believe is to have faith! To believe is to trust! To believe is to enter into relationship! To believe is much more a matter of the heart than of the head.
Let’s go back to the story of Thomas and Jesus. Thomas is a disciple. He is a believer. He has spent at least three years of his life following Jesus and participating in his mission and ministry. So, for Thomas and all of those first disciples, the crucifixion was a devastating and crushing blow – emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. They were afraid. They were grieving. They were angry. And all they could think of to do was to lock themselves up behind closed doors and wait. Thomas, perhaps because of the depth of this own grief and disillusionment, didn’t even stay with his fellow discipled, and therefore, he missed the encounter with the risen Christ that took place on that first Easter night. Given his emotional and spiritual state, is it any wonder that when the disciples share their experience Thomas is guarded? Why are we surprised that Thomas is resistant and hesitant given the pain and hurt that he has experienced? His heart has been broken once, and he’s not about to allow it to be broken again!
And I want you to notice that in that moment, Thomas doesn’t try to hide his brokenness he doesn’t try to be strong or religious or pious. He’s brutally honest, and he says, “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. I will not have faith. I will not trust. I will not enter back into that relationship.
But one week later…once again, the disciples are in the house. Once again, the doors are shut. Once again, Jesus appears. But this time Thomas is present and accounted for. Jesus doesn’t condemn or judge Thomas. He simply says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” In other words, “Look, Thomas, it’s really me!”
Now the very next line is where most translations get it wrong, because the word doubt does not actually appear in the original Greek. The literal translation is “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” What Jesus is saying to Thomas is essentially, “Do not be without belief. Do not be without faith. Do not be without trust. But believe. Have faith Trust me. Come and renew your relationship with me. Because, I’m not dead, I am alive, and I am here with you!
And Thomas responds, My Lord and My God! Not only is this one of the most profound and complete theological statements in the entire New Testament, it is also one of the most personal. This is not simply a theological declaration; this is a relational declaration – my Lord and my God.
Notice that the story never tells us whether Thomas actually touches Jesus. I personally don’t think he did. Because it is not proof or empirical evidence that leads Thomas to a restored relationship, it is the presence of the risen Christ and the gracious offering of himself to Thomas. It is the power of the resurrection as a present reality in Thomas’s life that leads him to a restored and renewed relationship with Jesus.
My brothers and sisters, this morning, I would like to invite us to reflect for a moment and to think about how often in our lives to we find ourselves identifying with Thomas. Times when we are afraid, grieving, angry and disillusioned – when the doors of our lives and our hearts are locked tight. In those moments believing and trusting can be difficult. Those are the times in our lives when we, like Thomas, need resurrection more than ever. Those are the times when we need the power of the resurrection as a present reality. And in those moments, it’s okay to be brutally honest with God. To express our frustration and brokenness. To release our anger and disillusionment.
Because somehow, often in the most surprising and unexpected ways, resurrection breaks through. You might be sitting in church or sitting in your car. You might be feeling spiritual strong or utterly defeated. It doesn’t matter. Resurrection life breaks through. Jesus walks right through the locked doors of our lives and offers himself to us. He says, “Come, renew and restore your relationship with me. I am not dead. I am alive and I am here with you.” And in those moments when the power of the resurrection becomes a renewed reality in our lives, we can boldly proclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”