Today, we are a week past the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A week ago, Jesus left His disciples and walked the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Pain, alone. Some watched Him. Some left Him. One denied Him. One betrayed Him.
And then there’s Thomas. Our Thomas who says that he will not believe unless he has seen the nail marks in His hands and puts his hand in the spear-pierced side of Jesus. Be careful, my friends, to chastise or shun Thomas for his statement. Remember that Peter is the rock of the Christian church, but he is also the one who denied Jesus three times. So with Thomas who states that he needs proof of whom the disciples are talking about. Before we look at our Gospel today, I want to gain a little more perspective of Thomas’ character from earlier in John’s text.
In chapter 11 the friend of Jesus named Lazarus died. “Jesus tells His disciples, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has been asleep he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ The disciples remind Jesus that Lazarus was in Judea, and the Judeans attempted to kill Jesus. For Jesus to go back to Lazarus would also mean going to the place of violence and possible death. But, Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples. ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”
However, it is the words of Thomas that I want to pinpoint here. He tells his friends, his brothers, that they should follow Jesus so that they may die with him. So that they may die! These are not the words of a doubter, of a weak man, of a dissenter, of a man of fear. Quite the contrary, this is the sentiment of a believer, a man willing to die for his faith, and a man willing to lead his friends into that death as well. He is saturated with conviction and awareness of who Jesus is, his passion for Jesus even into death.
Now, let us enter our Gospel passage this morning. We are told that the disciples were in a room, and Jesus appeared to them. But, did they respond? No. Jesus spoke to them by saying, “Peace be with you.” Did they respond? Nope. Then, Jesus held out His hands, lifted his tunic and show them His side. Did they respond? Finally, yes they did. But, it was not until Jesus showed them what they already knew of Him in His final moments that they believed and responded. Did His physical presence show proof to them? No. Did they recognize the voice of their Shepherd? No. They had to see proof to believe.
Now, enter Thomas a week later. The disciples are so excited to talk to him and tell him what they’ve seen. Yes, his response it just like their’s. Our gospel writer is bold to note exactly what Thomas said: Unless I see the marks…I will not believe. For us now, these generations later, we criticize or question his faith. But, each of us could think through the events of our lifetimes and understand that if seeing wasn’t actual believing, seeing certainly made the event more impactful: the footprint of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon, the burning of Notre Dam Cathedral, the evacuation of Hanoi in Viet Nam, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploding, Ronald Reagan being shot, 9-11, the ticker tape at the bottom of the television screen stating that Elvis Presley had died, the Murrah Federal Building bomb site in Oklahoma City. I could go on. I am sure you have your own list of events that you truly couldn’t believe what you were seeing.
But, it isn’t the statement from Thomas — unless I see I won’t believe — that grabs my attention. No, because I am a logical, rational person. If I can twist and evaluate a situation in my mind to the point that I understand the rationale, I believe it. Hook, line, and sinker. I am a person who needs proof. I can fully embrace the words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.” And, I suspect that many of us are also people who need to see the bottom line before we believe. I don’t think Jesus is chastising Thomas because he needs proof. However, I do believe that Jesus is saying there will soon come a time when He will be on the earth no longer and “seeing is believing” will no longer be an option. I think our Gospel writer captured the sentiment of Jesus as much as the words, “Blessed are those who believe and do not see.”
Again, though, it isn’t the statement from Thomas that gives me pause. The question that comes to my mind is: Where has Thomas been for a week?? What in the world has he been doing?? The Man that he was willing to lead his friends into death to follow has now died. I think Thomas was looking at the blood-stained Cross and realizing that his Hope was dead, rotting in the rock, lost. As a result, he left them. He got away. And, it is here, the space between the lines of our text, that I believe we receive our lesson for this morning.
What happens when we separate ourselves from the Church? What happens to us when we move away, isolate ourselves, cut ourselves off from the faith and support of our brothers and sisters? What happens when we step away from the liturgy that is the expression of our faith? This was no “going into the desert to strengthen my faith” journey. This was isolation from despair, fear, perhaps anger. What happens we we leave?
We make ourselves vulnerable. We leave a hole in the community to which we belong.
And, I’m going to go out on a limb here. Summer is coming. School is soon out. Many of us are even now already making plans for travel. To visit family and friends. I wish to make one request as summer approaches: Remember Thomas. Sure, he separated himself from his friends and brothers when Jesus died and he was likely strongly emotional, but even still he was away. He was not with them. It was pain management. For you, you may be making plans for fun. But, the fact remains, you will be away from your friends here, your community, your liturgy. Please do not be naïve that this separation will not affect you. Or will not affect us. As you travel, consider attending a church in the town where you visit. Stay connected to the Church. Continue in the fellowship of believers, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. And when you are in town these next months, be vigilant against the temptation of fresh air and sleeping in, of making travel plans where church attendance is not a priority. We need one another. And, like Thomas, I pray that we all long to exclaim together, “My Lord and my God.”