Just north of Pittsburgh PA in a little crossroads just off the interstate near Ellwood City lies the Monastery of the Transfiguration. A small community of nuns from the Romanian Orthodox Church live there and are very hospitable to those who come by, even unannounced.
It was less than an hour from where I went to seminary, so regular groups of seminarians would drive up, often unannounced, and raid the gift shop, buying icons and incense, and visit the amazing chapel and gaze upon the icon that wept holy oil.
One of our unannounced visits took place in the week after Easter one year. I drove some friends to the secluded location. As we drove into the small parking lot, we saw an older woman on her hands and knees working in the garden.
When she saw us coming, she struggled to her feet, and wiping her hands on her apron she greeted us as we approached her.
“Christ is Risen!” she said.
Being seminarians, we knew the correct response, at least after a moment of looking at each other, “The Lord is risen indeed!”
I’ve never forgotten how powerful that moment was, not to be greeted with colloquial pleasantries but by an acclamation of faith. Our faith united us despite our different traditions and nationalities.
We began our service this morning with the same acclamation – Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Do you believe this?
Thomas didn’t. Thomas couldn’t believe the rumors. First there was the testimony of the women who said that Jesus appeared to them in the garden. Then Peter and John reported that the tomb indeed was empty. And now all the other disciples said that Jesus had actually appeared to them. Jesus had entered a locked room where they were hiding. He wasn’t ghost. He was flesh and blood. He had risen. Good news indeed! But had Thomas missed it. The Gospel writer simply states, But Thomas wasn’t with them.
Thomas has become a figure frozen in time. For many Thomas is stuck in this moment, he even has a nickname — Doubting Thomas. Over the years, Thomas has become a caricature of sorts. He has become the iconic skeptic, the rationalist of the twelve apostles. In many of the bad Hollywood versions of the life of Jesus, where Judas Iscariot is typically portrayed as the snarling, aloof figure that any child could pick out as the bad guy, Thomas is often portrayed as scratching his head or raising objections to things. He is portrayed as the fretting doubter.
How many children in Sunday schools learn the lesson – don’t be a Doubting Thomas. But to me, Thomas’ name and his reputation are being ill-used. The truth is we know very little else about Thomas outside this passage in John. From another account in John’s gospel, we do know that Thomas was very courageous in the face of growing opposition to Jesus. He speaks up when the other disciples are afraid to follow Jesus to Bethany where he might be arrested. It is Thomas who says, “Let us go with him also, that we might die with him.” That doesn’t sound like a fretting doubter to me.
We have no reason to believe that Thomas’ life was plagued by doubt. Doubting is not Thomas’ profession, nor is it his pastime. And yet, this one moment has been used as an example of someone who lacks faith or someone who is an overly analytical skeptic who should be reprimanded or at least pitied.
But personally I find Thomas here to be a much more sympathetic figure. I resonate with Thomas, and you know what, I think many of you do too.
Let’s consider his doubt. We do not hear the story of a stubborn man comfortable with his doubt. Rather, Thomas is wrestling with the story he has heard. His doubt is not an excuse for unbelief. He doesn’t announce, “Well, you say you saw Jesus, but since I didn’t see him, I choose not to believe you.”
Thomas is simply being honest. He wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the other apostles. When they tell him the good news, Thomas is left to wonder. Is this rumor of a risen Lord just wishful thinking on the part of his friends? Sure Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but could Jesus himself defeat death? Thomas wants what the rest of the disciples had. Thomas wants to experience the risen Jesus.
Thomas’ doubt is full of expectation. Thomas wants to see Jesus. He doesn’t simply roll over in bed and sigh, “Oh well, I guess I’m just a skeptic at heart.” Thomas has missed out on being with Jesus and he is the worse for it. Their word is not enough. He wants to share in their experience. After all, Jesus showed them his wounds. I hear in this account the story of a man who wants the same chance. His doubt is not a way of life, and he says so. The Greek could also be translated this way, “Until I see the mark of the nails in his hands. Until I put my finger in the mark (the Greek is more colorful here, unless I jab my finger in the wound). Until I do these things, Thomas says, I will not believe. Thomas’ doubt is not one of “never,” it is one of “not yet.”
Thomas dares to demand more of the Lord than just the rumor of his resurrection. Thomas is a man of unrealized faith. Faith is based on relationship. I hear in Thomas’ doubt the cry of one who has found himself isolated, left out. Thomas was one of the twelve. He knew Jesus, he had seen the miracles. I believe that it is based on that relationship and experience that Thomas is wanting more.
You may have heard the expression, “Blind faith,” but one of my favorite images I’ve heard used to describe faith is that the nature of faith is having courage to open one’s eyes in the dark.
Thomas’ doubt is not hopeless, it is full of expectation. Thomas is in the dark with his eyes wide open.
Some seem to believe quite readily and happily. You tell me Jesus is risen, “Wow! I believe it! Hallelujah!” They believe the story sight-unseen. Jesus calls these ones blessed, what could also be translated as “happy.” For others, like Thomas, the journey is harder. They want more than rumor or a second-hand experience. They want to meet the risen Christ for themselves.
One of the blessings of our tradition is that we are not afraid to touch, in fact we encourage it. In a few minutes we will encourage you to touch your neighbor – exchange the sign of peace, with a handshake, sometimes even with a hug or a kiss. When we received the Eucharist, it isn’t hermetically sealed in sterile containers; it’s placed in your hand by someone else’s hand. We drink wine from the same cup as other people – it’s a messy business, if you think about it.
But I find something holy in all this touching, all this contact. Our faith is not one of pure rationality or reason, we get our hands dirty.
“Touch me, Thomas!” Jesus says. At last, Thomas has a chance to be reunited with his risen Lord, his doubt is gone.
With Thomas we are counted among those who have not seen. All we have are the rumors, “The Lord is Risen!” The question is left open — will we yet believe? Let us live our lives, with Thomas, in expectation of meeting the risen Lord. Amen.