Thomas said to the other disciples, “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.”
You came back!
Not everybody came back this Sunday, but you did, and I’m glad you did. I think you will hear in this morning’s sermon that sometimes very good things happen for people who come back on the Sunday after Easter.
Today we continue the series I started last week, one called “The Well-Remembered Word,” in which we are imagining a memorial service for Jesus, held several decades after his ascension, where some of the people who knew him best and loved him most stand up to say a good word about the Word-made-flesh. Last week it was Mary Magdalene who remembered Jesus. This week it’s Thomas, the one featured in today’s Gospel lesson, the one who is often called, “the Doubter.” Let’s give him a few minutes to speak for himself, and tell us how he really feels. Thomas?
Thank you. It’s an honor to be with you today, and an even greater honor to be asked to speak just after Mary Magdalene, who has been called “the apostle to the apostles.” She is certainly not the person some people have imagined her to be. But I think you will find I am not the person some people have imagined me to be either, not a doubter at all but one of the truest of true believers. We’ll get there in a moment, but let
me begin with my nickname—“the Twin.”
That’s the part that some people skip right over in their haste to label me as a doubter. They don’t even notice that the only nickname the Bible ever sticks me with is this one: “the Twin.” It’s in John 11: “Thomas, who was called ‘the Twin.’” It’s in John 20: “Thomas (who was called the Twin).” It’s in John 21: “Thomas called the Twin.” But what does that mean? Does it mean I had a twin? Does it mean I was a twin? And if so, whose twin was I? It’s only a rumor, but maybe you’ve heard the rumor that I was Jesus’ twin, that I looked just like him. The people who started that rumor say that’s why Jesus picked me to be one of his disciples, so that we could trade places from time to time, so that he could get away. Some of them have even gone so far as to suggest that it wasn’t really Jesus who was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, that it was me, and that that’s why I didn’t say anything when I was standing before the Sanhedrin: my voice would have given me away. They say it was me who was stripped and beaten and nailed to the cross, that it was me who died on that terrible Friday and got buried in someone else’s tomb. They say that’s how Jesus could show up three days later and pretend that he had risen from the dead.
It’s a pretty good theory as far as conspiracy theories go, and some people would probably believe it. Some people will believe anything. But not me. I know that wasn’t me on that cross, you know why? Because I’m not as good a person as Jesus. Even before they crucified him they flogged him. If that had been me I would have cried out with the first lash, “You’ve got the wrong man!” But not Jesus. He just stood there and took it, took all the abuse, all the punishment, that should have rightly fallen on people like me, and he never said a mumbalin’ word. So, no, I wasn’t Jesus’ twin. Maybe we did look a little something alike but Mary can tell you: I’m not Jesus and would never
pretend to be. I don’t think I would have been willing to die instead of him, but I once offered to die with him. Do you remember?
We were on the other side of the Jordan, near where John used to baptize. We had gone down there because things had gotten ugly in Jerusalem. The religious authorities were asking Jesus if he was the Messiah. They said, “Just tell us!” And he said, “I have told you but you don’t believe me.” And then he began to tell them about the Father, which was fine, until he said, “The Father and I are one.” That’s when they started picking up stones. He said, “I’ve been doing all these good works. For which of these are you going to stone me?” But they said, “It’s not because of your good works; it’s because you’re making yourself equal to God. That’s blasphemy!” And let me just say: when you get to the point in a conversation where somebody is calling you a blasphemer, the conversation is pretty well over. Jesus tried to make one last point (and it was a good one), but we got him out of there as quickly as we could and as far away as possible. We took him down the Jericho road and across the Jordan, well away from the religious authorities.
Still there were lots of people there. Everywhere Jesus went people followed. One day someone showed up with a message that his friend Lazarus was at the point of death, but Jesus didn’t seem too concerned about it. Two days later, however, he said, “We’ve got to go back to Judea.” We said, “Why? The last time you were there they were ready to stone you, remember?” But he said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep and I need to go and wake him up.” One of the disciples (I’m not saying which one), said, “Lord, if he’s fallen asleep he’ll be all right.” Jesus said, “Let me put it bluntly: Lazarus is dead, and for your sakes I’m glad I wasn’t there, so that you might come to believe. But come, let’s go to him.” And I’m not bragging, but I’m the one who said,
“Let’s go with him, so we can die with him.”
Does that sound like a doubter to you? I’m telling you, I may have had trouble believing that dead people can come back to life, but I didn’t have trouble believing in Jesus. Wherever he went, I went, right? That’s what it means to follow someone. And that may help you understand why I said that other thing John quoted in his Gospel. We were at that last supper, right? In that upper room. Jesus had washed our feet, Judas had gone out to betray him (although we didn’t really understand that at the time), we had pretty much finished the meal, and Jesus was just talking to us, telling us every important thing he wanted us to know before whatever happened next happened. But you could tell something was wrong. You could tell by the way he was talking to us. He said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe in me! In my Father’s house there is plenty of room. I’m going to prepare a place for you, and when it’s ready I’ll come again, and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.” And that sounded good, but it also sounded like he was getting ready to leave us. That’s why our hearts were troubled.
And that’s when he said, “You already know the way to the place I am going,” but I didn’t, and I said so. I was thinking, “How am I supposed to follow you if I don’t know the way?!” But then he did the kind of thing he was always doing: he spoke in parables. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” People have understood that in different ways since he said it, but here’s how I understand it, at least this is how I understand it now: he said he was going to the Father’s house, and that we already knew the way, and then he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” I think he meant, “I am the true way to life with the Father. If you want to get to him you’ve got to go through me,”
or maybe, “you’ve got to get to know me.” And I think he meant really know him, right? Not just know things about him. Because I can’t speak for the other disciples, but my life didn’t really begin until I got to know Jesus.
And then there is the third time I was quoted in John’s Gospel: the time I said I wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead until I saw the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side. That’s what got me labeled as a doubter. But you’ve got to understand: I was grieving. Hard! I’m not sure any of the others were grieving as hard as I was except maybe Mary, maybe John. I had been ready to die with him, remember? I wanted to know the way to where he was going so that I could follow. I was ready to follow him anywhere, but then they arrested him, and tried him, and crucified him, and there wasn’t a thing I could do but watch him die. When he breathed his last it was like I breathed my last. When they stuck that spear in his side I felt the blood drain out of my own body. The others all went back to the upper room to think about what they would do next but I couldn’t think about that, and I surely couldn’t talk about what had just happened. I needed to be by myself, on my own. I went to the place he went when he needed to pray, and just as he did I poured out my heart to the Father. It took a long time.
But early on the first day of the week, for whatever reason, I began to feel better, and by the end of the day I was ready to see the others again. I went to the upper room, and when I got there they practically pounced on me. “We’ve seen the Lord!” they said. “He was right here! He just…walked in, through locked doors. He showed us his hands and his side and then he breathed on us and told us to receive the Holy Spirit. He said, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And then he said something about forgiving people’s sins, or maybe holding on to them? We can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. But
this matters, Thomas: he was here! Right here! Alive as you or me!” And I could see that something had happened. I mean, those disciples didn’t get excited about much, but they were excited about this. At the same time I wasn’t about to build the rest of my life on some ghostly apparition. I needed something solid. So, I told them, “Look, I’m not saying you’re lying, but 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 then a week went by—an entire week when they were looking at me like, “Why don’t you believe us?” and I was looking at them like, “Why don’t you prove it?” Things were a little tense. Mary was telling everybody she had seen the Lord. The others were telling me they had seen him. It seems like everybody had been blessed with a vision of the risen Lord except me and then, on that next Sunday night, there he was. It was kind of spooky, you know? We were having supper. I had just turned to ask Andrew a question and when I turned back he was there. I jumped up from the table and backed into a corner but he stood up and said, “Here I am, Thomas. You said you wouldn’t believe unless you saw me with your own eyes. Here I am. You said you wouldn’t believe unless you put your finger in the mark of the nails. Here they are. You said you wouldn’t believe unless you put your hand in my side. Here it is. I don’t want you to doubt any longer, Thomas. I want you to believe. Look at me; here I am.”
That was all the proof I needed.
I didn’t need to put my finger in the marks of the nails after that. I didn’t need to put my hand in his side. I just said the first thing that came out of my mouth: I said, ‘My Lord and my God!’ And he said, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me, Thomas? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ And he was talking about you, about some of you in this very room, who have never seen him
with your own eyes and yet have somehow come to believe that he is both Lord and God.
If you’ve read the rest of John’s Gospel you know that’s why he wrote it in the first place. After telling my story he wrote, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” I think he wanted you to see that if someone who had been a doubter, like me, could become a believer then you could, too. And did you notice he didn’t say, “These things are written so that you will believe,” but rather, “These things are written so that you may come to believe,” as if faith might come slowly, gradually, over time. For me, in the end, it was not about my ability to believe unbelievable things; it was about my ability to believe in Jesus, the same way you believe in the people you love. Even now, when people ask me, “Have you stopped doubting, Thomas? Do you believe that dead people can come back to life?” I say, “It’s not so much what I believe as who: it’s Jesus. I believe in Jesus.
My Lord and my God.
—Jim Somerville © 2023