My Friend Thomas
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The important question for today, the first Sunday after Easter, is not so much “How?”—for we know nothing can explain it. It’s not even “Why?” because we recognize that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. The big question, it seems to me, is, “What difference does it make?” And what difference does it make to you that Jesus is alive? What difference did it make to the disciples on the original Easter day?
We know that as they approached the tomb they did not call out a triumphant “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” to one another. Nor did the women sing hymns and glad songs when they saw the angel roll away the stone and announce to them that Jesus was not in the grave. And when the other disciples heard from the women that the tomb was empty, did they rejoice? No. They panicked and locked themselves into a room. I don’t blame them. They logically assumed that Jesus’ body had been stolen and that they would be the prime suspects in such a theft. They may or may not have believed that Christ was risen, but they certainly were terrified of what the repercussions of a missing body would be.
And that evening, Jesus came to them. He just walked right into their hiding place and stood among them, his wounds still raw. He did not scold them for abandoning him, betraying him, or denying him. He wasn’t a disgruntled ghost, haunting those who had let him down in life. No. Jesus came to visit the people who had been his friends with open hands and an open heart to share with them the wonders God can do. He didn’t come to instill more fear in them, but to take away fear. His first words are the reassurance they so desperately need to hear: “Peace be with you.”
The Hebrew word shalom doesn’t just mean peace as in “an inner sense of well-being” or “the absence of conflict.” Like the Hawaiian Aloha it means much more. It means, “I wish all good things for you—I wish you wholeness and well-being, beauty, harmony, enough to eat, friends to care for, meaningful work, and a full, rich life.” That’s the greeting Jesus extends to his friends when they meet on the evening his resurrection. And just to drive the point home a little more, in this brief text, Jesus says “peace be with you”—that is, Shalom—three times. Jesus really, really wanted his disciples to take his peace to heart, to know they were forgiven, blessed, and cherished.
At their very first reunion, Jesus doesn’t tell them they are hopeless. Jesus knows that they need to hear that they are still valuable, still precious in God’s eyes, no matter what they had done and left undone the previous week. And he knows that they need to feel they are capable of sharing that good news with others too. So he instructs them to take up ministry again, to pick up where he left off, forgiving sins, healing the sick, and spreading the Good News. Jesus urges his sad and frightened followers to treat people with the honor that is due to all children of God.
It is just like Jesus to empower the weary and heartsick with the promise that they are still the ones he wants as partners in ministry, still God’s beloved children. Maybe some of them even began to feel alleluias rising up from their cavernous emptiness. When Jesus left, the room must’ve been abuzz with their stories and memories of Jesus. Perhaps then they even called out to each other, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
All of them except Thomas, that is. Thomas, for whatever reason, had not been locked in the room with the others. Maybe he drew the short straw and had to go out to get groceries or something. When he returned, of course they couldn’t wait to share the news of Jesus’ wonderful visit. Poor guy. I can’t help feeling sorry for Thomas, who is so often called Doubting Thomas, for his uncertainty about the good news his colleagues share with him. Surely he must have wondered if his friends’ grief had caused them to imagine they’d heard Jesus’ voice, or see him in their midst. And surely he must have wondered why, if Jesus could rise from the dead and walk through walls, Jesus couldn’t have waited a few hours until Thomas got home before visiting. I imagine he felt hurt and left out and angry. I doubt that Easter night didn’t feel very celebratory for him.
The following week must have been tough for him, being the only one in his crowd who hadn’t encountered the risen Jesus. Probably the whole group was sharing, as people often do when a loved one dies, favorite stories and memories, or questions they wished they’d asked. Perhaps Thomas prayed with the disciples and communed with them, even when he wasn’t entirely sure he was one of them. Maybe they all wondered too, and speculated about what Thomas had done or left undone that caused Jesus to leave him out of the visit. After all, in the past week they’d seen both Peter and Judas slip out of their usual roles as friends of Jesus. But Judas had abandoned the group, and Peter had been present to hear Jesus wish him shalom.
On the other hand, Thomas had recently proven himself to be among the most courageous and faithful disciples. When Mary and Martha had urged Jesus to come and heal their sick brother Lazarus, it was Thomas who prodded the rest of the disciples to join Jesus on the dangerous journey to Jerusalem. The disciples knew that both the Roman and Jewish religious leaders were plotting against Jesus, but Thomas urged his nervous friends, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” Sounds like Faithful Thomas to me.
I wonder if the other disciples prayed for Thomas, begging God to show their brother that Jesus was, indeed, risen? And did Thomas pray for them too? Somehow Thomas and the others manage to stick together, even though they may have distrusted and wondered about each other. We as a church could learn a lot from these early disciples. How do we react if we don’t see Jesus the same way or at the same time as everyone else, if someone else encounters Jesus differently than we do? I think we sometimes distrust each other’s faith, or find it hard to pray together, commune together, listen and wonder about God’s word together, support and love the world together. We could do worse than try to emulate those disciples, who stick together while they wait for Jesus, even when they don’t understand each other.
The very next week, of course, Thomas DOES see Jesus. And Jesus does not chastise Thomas for his questions. Instead, he offers him shalom, and holds out for inspection the very evidence Thomas requested—his jagged wounds. It may not have been what Thomas really needed because—as far as we know—he never does touch the wounds. At least, the Bible doesn’t say so. Perhaps all it took to prove to Thomas that this was indeed his Lord and his God was Jesus’ willingness to meet him where he was. And perhaps Jesus, who knew Thomas so well, understood what was behind his request. Maybe there is a story we don’t know about why Thomas distrusted people who didn’t bear the scars that inevitably come with deep love. Whatever the reason, Jesus understood that Thomas desired to see marks of vulnerability and pain on him, and that was what Jesus presented. Something about Jesus’ willingness to meet him exactly where he was in his struggles convinced Thomas that this was indeed the Lord Jesus with whom he had vowed to live with and die.
And Jesus knows what you need too, and will come to you just as you need him to do. Jesus will walk through your locked doors on the darkest nights to wish you shalom and to show you what you need to see. Jesus will breathe into the power of the Holy Spirit, forgiving you and empowering you to forgive others. And if you miss it the first time, Jesus will keep coming back again and again, even if you think you’re secluded behind the closed doors of fear and doubt.
It may be that some of you did not experience Easter last week, when other disciples around the world were exclaiming “Christ is risen!” Maybe the alleluias are stuck in your throat. Maybe you, like Thomas, are still walking around with hurt and uncertainty in your heart. Don’t be afraid. Shalom. Jesus sees you. Jesus knows. And resurrection will come to you when it is time. Jesus will return, again and again, to make sure.
Meanwhile , even as we process the mystery of salvation at our own pace, we are never alone. The Church is on this journey together, though not always in perfect sync. So let’s show grace to one another. Let’s offer prayers of hope and healing for one another. Let’s generously share the bread and wine, the water and the shalom of God’s love, even when some of us don’t believe in it. Easter is not over when the lilies die and the chocolate is gone. Easter is continually unfolding for us, and with us, and through us (and sometimes in spite of us). Alleluia! Christ is risen! Let’s go tell the others.