“Skeptical Thomas” on John 20:24-31 - by Michelle Ellis - May 1, 2022
I want to begin by orienting ourselves a bit more in this story.As you may know, previous to the event we read about today, Jesus was arrested and then died on the cross. A couple of days later, when Jesus’ friend, Mary, and others go to his grave, they find that his body is not there. Then Jesus speaks to Mary. After that, when most of the disciples are meeting together in a locked room, suddenly Jesus is physically with them. Thomas wasn’t there, a the other disciples tell him about it afterwards. But Thomas doesn’t believe what they tell him.
We don’t know too much about Thomas, but in the book of John, there are a couple of passages that give a fuller picture of the kind of man he was. In chapter 11, Jesus wants to go back to Jerusalem and the disciples are warning him that it’s dangerous to go there because the Jews want to kill him. John tells us in verse 16 that Thomas says, “Let’s go with him if only so we can die with him.” Later, in John 14:4,5 Jesus is teaching his disciples and tells them, “You know the way to the place I am going,” and Thomas responds by saying, “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?”
Now I don’t want to read too much into these little snippets of Thomas, but these stories invite me to imagine a practical person who goes into things with his eyes open. Someone who takes his experience of reality seriously and is very aware of limits and obstacles. I imagine Thomas to be a person who doesn’t get carried away by his emotions or his imagination, but instead he has his two feet very firmly planted in the solid ground of reality.
Can you relate to Thomas at all in that? I can. When Thomas says, “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” I might be inclined to say, “Jesus, instead of speaking in riddles, please hand me a map and show me the road. Just tell me what you’re saying!” All that’s to say, when Thomas says in John 20:25, “Unless I see Jesus for myself, touch his wounds with my own hands, I won’t believe”, I hear him. I hear his desire. I understand his posture. I get his caution and the boundaries that he puts up around his belief.
In Thomas’s statement about not believing unless he puts his hand in the side of Jesus, I don’t hear stubbornness in Thomas so much as an integrity around his trust and belief. Thomas isn’t going to get carried away by grief-stricken disciples and their vain hopes or how they are deliriously coping with what’s happened. Thomas is determined to face the firm realities of life and death and not run away from hard truths.
The boundaries Thomas places around his belief are fair. I think they are even good. Though he’s often known as doubting Thomas, Thomas doesn’t require something extra for his belief than the other disciples did. Thomas just wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the others. The other disciples all saw Jesus appear the previous week. Honouring reality, taking account of what is possible and not possible are important to Thomas and he’s not eager to throw these things out the window especially when walking through the instability of grief.
Thomas wants to hold together his experience with what he believes. That’s good and right. Say if a child never saw his father but the child’s mother kept telling the child that the father loved him. After a while, the child would be right to question that love, to doubt it if he only ever heard about it secondhand.
If you’re told God is love, but all you know is exclusion from the Christians you know. You would be right to question how loving God is. If you’re told that God is love, but all you’ve seen from Christians you know is division, pettiness, and cut-off, you would be right to question. You would be right to ask to see some evidence of God’s love flowing through his people. As we’ve explored in 1st John together over the past months, the importance of the integrity between words and actions, between what we say we believe and how we act, and what we experience has come up again and again.
There is much at stake in holding these things together. I read an article which reported that according to a recent survey, most Canadians perceive Christianity to be more damaging than beneficial to society. It doesn’t take too much effort to bring to mind some of the difficult stories that might be behind this posture, including the church’s historic role in residential schools, the sex-scandals that have become way too common for some pastors in large churches, and the insular fights and debates which have created so much division among believers. I’m sure you can think of more.
In light of all this, is it wrong to want to see in order to believe? Is it wrong to desire to see with your eyes, touch with your hands, hear with your ears that God is real, that he is good? Is it wrong to long with all your heart to know God is good, not just through blind trust, but because of your experience? Is it wrong to desire to see lived out in real time, through real people, a vision of what it means to be the church, what it means to be Christ’s body, his presence in a way that breaks down barriers, that heals, that offers hope and a vision to this world of what is true and lovely, noble and good? Is it wrong to say, like Thomas, unless I see it, I will not believe?
It’s my conviction that Thomas’s posture is the posture of our world today towards Jesus and to his followers, and quite fairly so. It’s my conviction that this is the posture of our community here in the Bulkley Valley towards Jesus and his church — Unless we see love lived out in real people in our own community, people will not believe. I believe that this is a legitimate and important boundary to have around belief and it is one to be honoured. It is fair to need to see, and to need to know by experience. Maybe part of the reason that that is my conviction is because what’s also true is that after journeying through these past few years, this is also the deep longing of my own heart in a new way. I have a longing to see, to touch, and to hear Jesus Christ among us, especially in his new body, in the church. I don’t want to just hear about Jesus’ power from other people. I don’t want to hear about it happening in a far away place. I want to see Jesus here, I want to know him for myself, to see his heart lived out in action.
Let’s turn again to the story in John 20 and notice what happens next. First of all, notice that we don’t hear of Thomas addressing any of his skeptical posture to Jesus. To Thomas, Jesus is dead. There is no point in talking to him. But Jesus hears Thomas all the same. Also notice that Jesus doesn’t require that Thomas perform a spiritual feat that is beyond his present reach. Instead, it’s as though this second appearance of Jesus is specifically for Thomas in a way that especially honours him, that it’s somehow just for him. In this way, I see Jesus honouring the skeptics across time, who for the sake of integrity have been cautious before giving away their trust, before coming to faith.
And Jesus says to Thomas, “Come, come touch my hands, put your hand in my side. Stop doubting and believe.” In my mind when reading this passage before, I’ve heard a bit of a scolding note when Jesus says this. But now, I don’t know if that is fitting. Instead, I wonder if those words can be read as pure invitation.
Jesus is saying, “Stop doubting because you can see for yourself that this is true. I am standing right here with you in the flesh. You are free, Thomas, to enter into the joy of believing.” And Thomas does. Thomas doesn’t doubt when he encounters Jesus. Thomas is in fact the first person in the book of John to look at Jesus and name him as “My Lord and my God.” We don’t even hear of Thomas taking Jesus up on his offer to touch his hands and his side. Thomas sees Jesus and he believes!
Immediately after this, Jesus gives a blessing to the vast majority of his followers that would come to faith from that point on. Verse 29 says, “Blessed are those who have not seen me in the flesh, and yet have believed.” Jesus here points to a shift.
After his resurrection, Jesus told his followers not to hold onto him any longer. When Jesus meets Mary by the tomb, he encourages her not to hold onto him, but to go and tell the disciples. Jesus’ physical presence in his body was not to stay, and so an extra measure of trust is required for believers that follow.
But there is to be another sign. The church, empowered by the Holy Spirit would be Jesus’ body, his physical presence in the world in this next season of time. Jesus’ followers together as the church were then to be Jesus’ presence, his hands and his feet in the world. And as I read this story, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus is inviting his church, his body in this time, to offer the very same presence to the skeptics among, within and around us as Jesus did himself in this story.
We, as Christ’s body, are called to show up in our world and to say, “Come, look, touch.” We’re to show up in unexpected places, in places people don’t expect Jesus to be—in our schools, our work sites, at the hospital, on the trails, in our neighbourhoods. We’re to offer our presence, to invite others into our lives, to give a lived expression of who Jesus is, through the power of the Spirit. We, together as the church, in the power of the Spirit, are to be the “lived-out” evidence in our world in this time of the resurrected Jesus.
Now I know Jesus is at work higher and deeper and wider than any one particular church or the people in it, and he is at work outside the church in powerful ways. I also believe that Jesus still does appear to people in visions and dreams, that his voice is heard by many. So Jesus is not limited by the church.
But what’s also true is that the church matters. The witness of the gathered body of followers of Jesus matters. The church together has a big impact in terms of being a sign for better or for worse. People look to the church to either confirm their doubt and skepticism, or to confirm their faith in Jesus.
Listen to these words from 1 John 4: 11-13: “Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. And God has given us his Spirit as living proof that we live in him and he in us.”
If we ourselves as followers of Jesus are together seeking him, together sitting in his presence, together working out our faith, together working to be a people and trusting him for guidance, if we as a people are faithful to the work of the Spirit in us, and following the call of Jesus to love those on the margins, to break down barriers of hostility, to look out for the vulnerable, to love one another by laying down ourselves for the other, then we by the Spirit, will be living proof of God. Then Jesus Christ will be known and seen in this valley in very real, practical, and powerful ways, ways that will free people to see Jesus, to know God’s love not just by hearing about it, but by experiencing it themselves firsthand.