Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer in Alabama. For nearly forty years, Stevenson has spent his days among people who have been convicted of committing terrible crimes. In some cases, his clients have been wrongly convicted—even sentenced to die for crimes they were innocent of. Many of his clients are guilty but were children or mentally ill when the crime occurred. Stevenson has devoted his life to making sure that their sentence is fair and appropriate.
His work has earned him many awards. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called him “America’s Nelson Mandela.” Stevenson wrote a book about his work called Just Mercy. It became a best-seller and was made into a movie of the same name. But, even if you never heard of Bryan Stevenson before this morning, you may have heard a quote from his book—a quote of one of his guiding principles. Stevenson believes that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Unfortunately, tradition has never been that kind to Thomas. Thomas is known only for only one thing: “doubt.” Because of his outburst after hearing his friends’ report of seeing the Risen Lord, Thomas has been known as “Doubting Thomas.” But, I propose that we apply Bryan Stevenson’s principle to Thomas, and look at Thomas as being much more than the one thing he is said to have been or done.
This encounter in the upper room isn’t the first time we meet Thomas, apart from simply knowing that he was one of the twelve. We first meet him in the land across the Jordan. Jesus had gone there because the religious leaders of Judea had attempted to stone him. They had been shocked and appalled by Jesus’ claim to be God’s Son. They tried to arrest him, but he escaped. During his stay across the Jordan, Jesus and the disciples learn that their friend Lazarus is mortally ill in Bethany, back in Judea.
In response, Jesus announces that he is going to Bethany. The disciples protested: “Rabbi, your opponents were just about to stone you, and you’re going to go back there?” They continue to try to dissuade Jesus, but he is insistent. Finally, it’s Thomas who ends the discussion. He says to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And, they go.
If this were the only story we knew about Thomas, what would we call him? What would you call the Thomas who heard Jesus describe himself as the Son of God, escaped with him from murderous enemies, and not only remained with him but was willing to follow him, even unto death, and convinced the other disciples to take the same risk? How about Loyal Thomas or Courageous Thomas or Trusted Thomas?
After the trip to Bethany, the next time we hear from Thomas is in the upper room in Jerusalem on the night of Jesus’ arrest. They had shared a meal, and Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet. He had told them he was going away. The disciples, understandably, are confused. Jesus tells them about where he is going and why. He tells them that they know the way to where he is going. Peter had asked, “Why can’t I go, too?” But it’s Thomas who is willing to confess what the whole group is surely thinking: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going.” And it’s Thomas who asks, on behalf of the whole group, what they all surely want to know: “How can we know the way?” In response to Thomas’s question, Jesus assures them that he is the way, and since they know him, they know the way to the Father. That’s not enough for Philip; he wants visible proof. He demands that Jesus show them the Father. Only then, Philip says, will they be satisfied.
Why don’t we call him Selfish Peter since, in this story, Peter’s concern is only for himself? For that matter, why don’t we call him Denying Peter, for his actions later on that night? Why don’t we call Phillip Skeptical Philip or Arrogant Philip—or doubting Phillip? It’s Thomas who expresses the desire they all share—to know how to be with Jesus. If this were the only story we knew about Thomas, what might we call him? Honest Thomas? Seeking Thomas?
Fast forward to the evening of Easter day, just hours after Mary first reported the resurrection. We don’t know where Thomas was on that Easter evening—maybe he was out getting groceries, or checking with the landlord to see if they could keep using the upper room. Maybe he was trying to scope out the plans of the religious authorities and the Romans. Maybe he was out shopping for stronger locks for the doors. We don’t know where Thomas was, but we do know where he wasn’t. He wasn’t in the room with the others when Jesus appeared.
Poor Thomas. Imagine his return from whatever task he was taking care of. He climbs the steps, and he can hear excited voices behind the locked door. He knocks and the door swings open. Everyone starts talking at once, telling him about how Jesus had appeared, and how he’d showed them his hands and side—they could see the marks of the nails and spear! They tell him about how Jesus breathed on them and gave them the promised gift of his Spirit, and how they felt a peace they couldn’t have imagined, given the state affairs at the moment. Their words are like a wave washing over him—a tsunami of plans about what they’re going to do next, now that Jesus has sent them out, just as the Father had sent Jesus.
As Thomas listened, his thoughts must have been swirling in his head like a hurricane. Why would Jesus come when Thomas wasn’t there? Didn’t Jesus know he wasn’t in the room? Didn’t Jesus care that he wasn’t in the room? Worse, did Jesus come because Thomas wasn’t in the room? Why did the others get to see Jesus—to see his hands and side? Why did the others get what Thomas so desperately wanted, too—to see Jesus alive?
Thomas must have been feeling hurt, and maybe angry, and surely exasperated. You can almost hear him thinking, “If I hear one more person say ‘I have seen the Lord,’ I’m going to explode.” No wonder his feelings burst out in such a vehement statement: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” In spite of all that he had said and done in his years with Jesus, it’s that one outburst—that one moment—that has defined Thomas as Doubting Thomas.
Have you ever been in a situation like Thomas’s? Your feelings were hurt. You’d been under a lot of stress. You were angry or, as my friend Pam says, someone was “riding your last nerve”? Then something happened that just sent you over the edge, and you did or said something in the heat of the moment. You may have come to regret it later. Upon reflection, it might not even have expressed what you feel or think in calmer moments. But none of that matters because, from then on, you’ve been the man who did such-and-such, or the woman who said this or that. It doesn’t matter if it was a one-off. You are defined by that one moment.
We do it to other people, too. We describe people by their worst deeds and words far more often than we do by their best ones. We hold on to past words and actions that upset us and refuse to let go. I’m not sure if the worst moments blind us to the best moments, or if we just refuse to remember the good over the bad. Scientists say that our brains are wired to focus on the negative. Whatever the reason, we give ourselves permission to define others by their worst moments.
If you want a great example of this, listen to political candidates talk about their opponents. They dredge up the worst vote their opponent ever cast—sometimes a vote even the opponent has come to admit was a bad decision. In spite of our skepticism about politicians, most of them haven’t made an entire career of bad decisions. Along with their mistakes and bad votes, they’ve done good things, too. But, political foes and we, the electorate, continue to define them by their worst moments, as Thomas has been defined by his.
The week after his outburst must have been a long one for Thomas. A week’s worth of long nights, lying awake in bed, wondering why he had been left out—wondering what this meant for his place in the community. Long days of listening to the other disciples talking excitedly about what they had seen and heard. Long days of hearing them rehash how, even though the room was locked up tight, all of a sudden there was Jesus. A week’s worth of mealtimes where everyone except him was talking about what it felt like to have Jesus breathe on them, and what they were going to do now that Jesus was sending them out to carry on his work. “Oh, and by the way, Thomas, we don’t need those extra locks anymore. We’re feeling way too peaceful.”
But Sunday was coming. A week after all the events of Easter morning and Easter evening, the disciples are once again gathered together, and this time Thomas is with them. The doors were shut, but not locked as they had been. The fear that had been present in the room a week earlier had been replaced by the peace Jesus had left behind. Again, Jesus comes and stands among them. He greets them as did before. Then he turns to Thomas.
Jesus simply offers himself to Thomas, as he had offered himself to the others the week before. They hadn’t asked this of Jesus; they hadn’t even recognized him that Easter night. Why did Jesus offer his wounded body for their inspection? He offered it so that they might believe it was him. They saw the Lord—recognized the Lord—only after they saw his offered body.
Do you remember the movie “When Harry Met Sally”? Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal are in the middle of a crowded restaurant, and Ryan convincingly fakes an especially passionate moment. After witnessing Ryan’s enthusiastic performance, another customer signals the waiter and tells him, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Thomas’ outburst after hearing the accounts of the other disciples is no different. “I’ll have what they’re having,” he says.
This isn’t doubt. This is longing. This is desire. This is yearning for contact with his risen Lord, not because he doubts Jesus but because he believes in Jesus. He simply wants to experience what the others had experienced for himself.
Jesus doesn’t reprimand Thomas. Jesus knew this man’s faithfulness, and his courage, and his honesty. Jesus knew what Thomas needed in that moment, and he offered it. But Faithful Thomas didn’t even need to take Jesus up on his offer to touch Jesus’s body. There is a lot of art work depicting this scene, and it usually shows Thomas touching Jesus. But that’s not what John tells us. Jesus offers his body to Thomas, and the offer is all he needs. Thomas immediately responds “My Lord and My God.”
In that moment, and in that statement, Thomas makes the most powerful and complete confession of Jesus in the Gospel of John. He acknowledges the truth that Jesus had taught when he responded to Thomas’s question, “How can we know the way?” To know and see Jesus, Thomas’s Lord, is to know and see Jesus’ Father, Thomas’s God. This is Thomas’ finest moment. His confession affirms the truth that began the Gospel: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Believing Thomas sees and knows God to be fully revealed in Jesus.
But there is doubt somewhere in Thomas’ heart, and Jesus knows it. Jesus tells Thomas not to doubt, but to believe. It seems to me that Thomas doesn’t doubt Jesus, but he had doubted the reports about Jesus from the other disciples. He didn’t feel he could rely on what he had only heard about and not seen for himself. But, the need for first-hand experience as the basis for belief has serious implications for Jesus’ mission—the mission the disciples are to continue in his absence.
On the night when Jesus was betrayed, he had prayed, not only for the disciples, but for all who would come to believe through their testimony. He prayed that, through them, the world would know that he had been sent by his Father. He would not be in the world much longer. His mission could only continue through the work of reliable witnesses and the willingness of their listeners to believe through their word. So, in response to Thomas’s doubt, Jesus assures Thomas—and us—that there are no second-class disciples. Those who believe through what they have heard are blessed, just as those who have believed through what they’ve seen.
As the story of Thomas and Jesus draws to a close, John breaks in as the narrator to emphasize this point: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John explains to his readers—and to us—that the whole point of writing down the story of Jesus is to reveal Jesus to those who haven’t seen him. We cannot see what the disciples saw. But, we can trust their testimony and believe their witness.
We can thank Believing Thomas for his outburst and for the teaching moment it offered. From his story, we are reminded that we are all more than one action, one comment, one moment. Jesus knew this about all the people he met. He knows this about us. He knows us as individuals who are full of quirks and abilities and weaknesses, and who are all made in the image of God. None of us are one-dimensional cartoons to Jesus.
Thomas challenges us to place our trust in the testimony of others. Jesus assures us that we can believe in and will be blessed by believing what we cannot see. John encourages us to rely on the witness of Scripture so that we may come to believe, and continue to believe, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Through believing witnesses like Thomas and believing like Thomas, we too may have life in Jesus’ name. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young