Where was Thomas?
Homily April 8, Second Sunday of Easter:
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
I wonder where Thomas was.
That first night…
John’s account says, “When it was evening on that day…(that day being Easter)…the day that Mary Magdalene returned with this incredible story of seeing Jesus…Alive.
(She thought he was the gardener, but still), she saw him and ran and told the others, “I have seen the Lord.”
And they do what? Go into hiding. All except Thomas
That evening they are locked in, and afraid.
But not Thomas.
He’s not there.
I wonder what he was doing?
John’s gospel account gives us a picture of Thomas as one of the boldest disciples.
Thomas is willing to go with Jesus back to Bethany near Jerusalem after they hear that Lazarus has died. Everyone else is terrified that returning will result in them all being stoned to death.
But not Thomas. He’s the one who says, “Let’s all go so we can die with him!” (John 11:16)
In the non-biblical stories…the tradition that grew up around Thomas, he was the apostle who ventured the farthest. Legend says that he set off through Syria, and Persia, and made it as far Kerla along the west coast of India, and established a number of churches among the Jewish diaspora there. He may have traveled into Indonesia.
There are other legends, recorded by Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, told by tribes in Paraguay, that a holy man—“Father Thomas”—one of the apostles, had lived among them, preached the gospels and performed miracles.
So maybe on the evening of THAT day, Thomas was hiding out somewhere else…but give what little we know about him, that seems unlikely. Thomas never appears to be a cowering sort…he’s a hands-on kind of guy…a doer.
So what was he doing?
We don’t know—I have some theories—but all John says is that he’s not in the room with the rest of them.
And what about that doubting….he doesn’t appear to be someone who lets his doubts—his skepticism—or his fear get in the way of actually doing something.
But this one incident gets him this unfortunate nickname—“Doubting” Thomas.
But come on…
Would you believe that group?
These are the same people who just a couple of days ago fled…deserted Jesus…publicly denied knowing him…
and now Thomas is just supposed to trust them again?
Let’s think about this doubt for a minute….
We live in a world that is seems to be simultaneously absolutely incredulous (disbelieving) and utterly gullible.
We both refuse to believe in certain things…and we believe in all kinds of other things with very little evidence.
We live in a world where: Show me…Prove it…Pics or it didn’t happen…
Operate side by side with truthiness, and fake news, and outright lies that no amount of facts can combat.
Everyday we are awash in “see it for yourself” images…raw, unfiltered footage of every manner of good and evil.
And we also awash in photoshopped, staged, promotional propaganda.
We’re all doubters (or we should be)…doubt, as they say, is not the opposite of faith…certainty is the opposite of faith. We all need to have a good deal of discernment about what we will or won’t believe.
And here’s one reason scripture is so powerful and necessary in a world like ours…because all that input…your favorite news show…all your subreddits and twitter and facebook feeds, your Netflix queue and all your Amazon recommendations…they all work towards encouraging you to believe that the world really does work exactly the way you think it does. They are all about confirming the status quo…The gospel very, very rarely affirms the status quo. The Gospel is always a challenge to the way we think the world works. It is always there and ready with examples that run counter whatever the status quo is…and it’s important to have that.
But that doesn’t help us with where Thomas was.
There’s a long standing scholarly debate about whether the author of the fourth gospel is the same as the author of this letter we heard today. Maybe they were the same person…or maybe just from the same community…one thing they share in common is this insistence on “what we have heard, and what we have seen with our eyes.”
And do you remember what John’s letter says next? “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.”
Now in the Gospel story, none of the other disciples touch Jesus…they see and rejoice…but apparently it’s not just Thomas who touches…”We declare what we have heard…and seen…and touched with our hands.” The resurrection is not just something to believe in…it’s something that can be touched…and felt…and known…not just intellectually, but known in a tactile…embodied…cellular way.
So here’s my theory…as to why Thomas wasn’t there that first night.
I like to imagine that he wasn’t there because he wasn’t afraid, and was out doing what Jesus had taught him to do…healing…reconciling…ministering…I like to think that he was the one bold enough to carry on with the mission even with the leader dead.
Maybe Thomas isn’t there because, as we can see, he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, so maybe he’s out continuing to care for those wounded by Rome’s brutality…bandaging the bloodied heads, the crushed hands, the bodies wounded by the violence endemic in society …
the hearts bruised by loss, twisted by fear…the spirits battered by the demands of trying desperately to keep up…or souls diminished by being unable to provide basic sustenance for their families.
In other words, maybe Thomas is out being an apostle…carrying out the hard, messy work of God’s mission…bringing reconciliation…pressing for peace…advocating for justice…embodying shalom…
Maybe…And maybe John, through this famous scene with Jesus is connecting the wounds of Christ, with the wounds of the world….
And reminding us…that following Jesus means something other than overcoming doubt and “believing six impossible things before breakfast” (Through the Looking Glass) it means getting your hands dirty…
It means being willing to reach out and touch the wounds that we inflict on each other…in order to bring healing…
It means risking your heart, and being willing to step into the messy, difficult, and scary places of hurt and grief that are always left in the wake of violence…in order to bring peace…
Maybe Thomas wasn’t there that night because he was out doing that….
And maybe he is here every year, on the Sunday after Easter to remind us that following Jesus means bringing your whole self…doubt and all…and standing with others in difficult situations…it means being willing to look at and touch the wounds we inflict on one another….it means going out to be with the vulnerable…to those places of greatest need and to proclaim, “peace”… It means going out and making those connection…those real…tangible connections…because that’s where we truly discover the reality of the resurrection, and where we proclaim “our Lord, and our God.”