The disciple Thomas is famous for his doubt. When the other disciples said they had seen the risen Jesus, he replied, “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.” And according to the Gospel, Jesus then appeared before Thomas too.
A huge trove of art depicts this scene, usually with Thomas bending over with a probing finger about to touch Jesus’ side. And yet, as often as we’ve told the story this way, I’ve started to wonder about Thomas and his doubt.
A number of Biblical scholars are rethinking Thomas, too. David Hensen suggests we call him Thomas the Faithful because, whatever his doubts, Thomas remained in the community. He remained faithful to the movement of Jesus, remained despite his doubts. As Hensen said, “Thomas had the courage to wait.” Jesus once said the most profound statement of faith was the prayer, “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” And so we might consider Thomas an example of faith, one who reminds us true faith can encompass doubt.
Scholar Nancy Rockwell suggests a different tact. Rockwell would remind us of the bodiliness of the resurrection. Nearly every sense is used to describe the resurrection. The beloved disciple and Peter saw the empty tomb and the rolled up cloths. Mary heard Jesus call her by name. The ones on the road to Emmaus tasted communion and in that moment recognized the risen Jesus. And today we heard Thomas touched Jesus to believe the resurrection.
Each of the disciples experienced doubt but Jesus came to them through sensual experiene: sight, sound, taste, touch. Rockwell holds that Thomas’ doubt was not any different than Mary’s disbelief before the gardner or the disappoint of the disciples before communion in Emmaus. What differed was the way Jesus came to Thomas: touch. So Nancy Rockwell wants us to remember him as Thomas the Toucher. But that sounds to me like the headline of a British tabloid covering a political sex scandal. Thomas the Toucher; that man needs to call Olivia Pope.
But Rockwell’s connecting the resurrection stories of Jesus to 4 of our 5 senses made me think: what about smell? What did the resurrection smell like? After all, Jesus was bloody and sweaty after the crucifixion and then lay in a tomb; a sweaty guy after three days? Ugh: the ripeness of resurrection. On the other hand, perhaps Jesus came up smelling like Easter lilies.
I appreciate how scholars like Hensen and Rockwell are trying to reframe Thomas. And yet, after two millennia the phrase is likely to remain: Doubting Thomas. So instead of renaming Thomas, I think its better to ask, “whom did Thomas doubt?”
We’ve often told the story as if Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection. That seems to be the whole point of his request to touch and explore the wounds of Jesus. But presented with the body, he exclaimed, “My Lord and My God” instead of completing his probing autopsy of Jesus.
Something else bothered Thomas. I think Thomas doubted the disciples. On Easter Sunday they heard the amazing news of Jesus’ resurrection, but within a week they were locked in a room out of fear. Then Jesus came to them again, showed them his hands and feet. Later, the disciples described how Jesus appeared to them. But Thomas didn’t believe them, because they were still locked in the same room. The resurrection hadn’t made any difference in their lives. Seeing how little had changed, Thomas doubted.
Last week I said Easter challenges us to take up our resurrection, but this week we heard the disciples hadn’t budged. They saw the resurrection, but they didn’t take up any change in their lives.
In a way, the detail about the locked door captured the problem of the disciples. We heard the doors of the room were locked, but that Jesus passed through them anyway. We might wonder, “What kind of magical body can pass through doors?” But the important question concerns the doors, “Why were they locked?” Out of fear; fear closed and bolted and barred the doors.
The Greek word for locked is klesio. The disciples were a closed community: locked in by fear; locking out the world.
Hearing the Greek word for locked - klesio - reminded me of another Greek word - ekklesia. Ekklesia is the Greek word for church. It means open, unlocked. The Church is meant to be the open community, the open door congregation, the unlocked place.
Klessio vs. ekklesia, closed vs. open: this detail gets to the very problem of the disciples. They told Thomas they experienced the risen Christ, but they lived as if he’d just died; they lived with fear; they closed their hearts and homes to the world outside. Thomas doubted the disciples, because they remained closed instead of open.
Of course he doubted; we would too if someone said they had a life changing experience but their life didn’t change. In fact, Thomas was called “Thomas the Twin” but nowhere in scripture do we hear about his twin. I’ve come to wonder if we’re the missing twin. Or rather, if those who doubt the church are the missing twins.
Butch Hancock, guitarist for the country band the Flatlanders, once told of all the strange stories he heard growing up in a religious home in Texas. “God loves you,” he heard over and over, “and God’s sending you to hell.” It’s more bizarre than any of the miracle stories we hear in the Bible. I could more easily accept that God made the world in 7 human days and that dinosaurs were just part of God’s whimsy than I could make sense of a loving God hating us so much.
When we think of the dominant stories about Christians, when we see Christians seeking the freedom to discriminate or protesting outside abortion clinics, the message too often seems to be, “Jesus loves you and that’s why I hate you.”
I get Thomas; I know why he doubted. The church can disappoint; the disciples can let us down; our fellow Christians can leave us bewildered by their tightly closed minds.
This weekend I saw the First Stage play Luchadora. (Full disclosure: my son David and Rowan Chheda are in the cast). The play tells the story of a young girl named Lupita who wants to become a lucha libre, a masked wrestler, in the 1960’s. For much of the play Lupita trains in secret, but one day her father discovers the truth. Her secret discovered, Lupita stormed off as the father said to her trainer, “This isn’t something girls do.”
But the trainer imagines a world beyond their small, 1960’s town in Texas. The trainer knows of women doing all sorts of jobs just as well as men; and the trainer can imagine an even brighter future. Turning prophetic, the trainer spoke of the father’s future great-granddaughter becoming a boxer, “She’ll train with boys and quickly gain their respect when they feel her jabs. She’ll be fast and fierce. And she’ll keep her gloves on until she reaches the Olympics. Most importantly, she’ll do it despite the fact that her father says, ‘This isn’t something girls do.’”
The father says with dismay, “The world is changing.” Doesn’t that sound like the voice of too many religious folks, “The world is changing.” You can hear the fear, the dread, and the clicking of doors as they lock, the minds bolting shut in the comment.
But the trainer doesn’t give up, “It’s not the world that’s changing. Your world is.” The trainer invited the father to open his heart to a larger world, open his spirit to more possibilities.
Just as the trainer didn’t give up on Lupita’s father, Jesus didn’t give up on the disciples Thomas doubted. You see, I think we spend too much time imaging Jesus’ appearance to Thomas and not enough considering what Jesus said the day Thomas was absent. That day, Jesus said to the locked-up disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, Jesus told them: “Open the doors; go outside.”
And he gave them a job to do, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” The word forgiveness literally means to let go. It’s related to the state of our hearts; to whether we are open or closed. Is the grip of our hearts tightened around some hurt, some disappoint, some unmet expectation? Have we closed our hearts around some memory? Have we been so hurt we’ve locked and bolted the doors to our hearts? That’s how Jesus found the disciples. “I send you,” he told them (and tells us), “I send you to let go: unlock the doors, open your hearts, let go your hurts.”
Of course the disciples stayed put. That’s where Thomas found them: still locked down even though Jesus had risen up. Earlier I said I sympathized with Thomas - and who doesn’t - when he doubted the disciples for the lack of change in their lives. But I also sympathize with the disciples. Change can be hard; opening our hearts can be hard.
Which is why Jesus came back again. Jesus found the door still locked, but he managed to get inside all the same. Thomas at once exclaimed, “My Lord and My God.” But he also could have said, “It’s the God of Second-Chances.” For Jesus came back to the disciples to give them yet another chance, a second, a third, a fourth chance to unlock the doors of their hearts. I think this is what moved Thomas - not the sight of Jesus’ wounds - but the realization of Jesus’ unending commitment to change the hearts of the disciples.
We all have those moments when, like Thomas, we doubt our fellow disciples. And we all have those moments like the disciples when we just can’t unlock our hearts. But we follow a God of second and third and fourth chances, a God who comes with grace to say, “Let go and go outside.”
Alleluia and Amen.