Every year, on the Sunday after Easter Day, we tell the same story. And I don’t mean the same story but a different source. Like, on Easter Day, we tell the resurrection story every year but from a different gospel. The schedule we follow for readings, the Lectionary, says one year it’s Matthew, or John. Another it’s Mark, or John. And then Luke. Or John.
Okay, you could read the story from John every year, but usually we alternate to get a different perspective, different features and different ways to get into the most important story of the church year.
But not the Sunday after Easter Day, the second Sunday of the Easter season. That’s always the same story from John, the story of Thomas who, gulp, doubted.
And that right there is the traditional point of the story in a nutshell. The resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, but Thomas isn’t there. When the other disciples tell him, he refuses to believe until he sees for himself. The next time Jesus appears, he’s there and Jesus shows him his wounds and Thomas believes. John’s point seems to be don’t doubt, believe.
Consequently, we’ve tended to cast Thomas as the doubter and told this story as a means to encourage faith. Blessed are those who believe without needing to see, Jesus says. If only we could aspire to that!
So we tell that exact same story every year. So, please forgive me, but I’d like to tell the story again here. But not exactly like that.
See, Thomas wasn’t the first to doubt Jesus was alive. The empty tomb seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Mary didn’t recognize Jesus when she saw him and thought he was the gardener. The other disciples were hiding when Jesus appeared to them and the first thing he does is show them his wounds. Later he’ll walk to Emmaus with other followers who don’t recognize him and the disciples again won’t recognize him at first after they go back to fishing and he comes to them. Why? I think they didn’t expect to see him. He was dead, after all. It’s perfectly understandable. They saw him die, it would be impossible for him to be alive.
But Jesus has demonstrated the impossible frequently in all the stories we know of him. So let’s not use that as an opportunity to give doubt a bad name. I think we need doubt. I think doubt is a part of faith, the same way that death is a part of life. The inevitability of one shouldn’t stop us from living fully into the other. Doubt can inform our faith, questions increase our understanding, engagement with our faith deepens our faith.
Instead, we’ve demonized doubt like it’s the opposite of faith. It’s not. Fear and certainty are, the two things that can paralyze our openness and willingness to engage the uncertainty of life and instead cling stubbornly to “what we know for sure.”
So I want to tell the story like this.
The disciples were gathered together, sharing in their grief. Thomas wasn’t there. And Jesus didn’t ask “where’s Thomas?” I think he might even have known what he was doing. He might have known that Thomas, who always had lots of questions, also had a different idea of how to work through his grief about the death of Jesus. He believed. He believed Jesus that time when he asked him about the way to God and Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He believed Jesus when Jesus said “go and love one another as I loved you. That’s how people will know you are followers of me.” He believed what he saw in Jesus life and he believed what he saw when Jesus died. He believed Jesus when he said “don’t be afraid.”
Thomas wasn’t with the others because he was out sharing the story of Jesus. He was already telling people to love one another and showing people the power of love, even in the face of grief. Jesus was already alive in Thomas. When he saw his friends again, it wasn’t Jesus he didn’t believe in, it was their grief-stricken story of a living, breathing, wounded Jesus. And when he saw Jesus, he said “My Lord and My God” as an affirmation of all he believed. He may have doubted his very human friends, but I don’t think he doubted Jesus for a minute.