Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the earliest days of the church. “The whole community” remained faithful to Jesus. They performed many miracles and pooled their resources. And while they went to the Temple every day they also gathered in their homes for the breaking of the bread. Their community continued to increase. John’s Gospel begins with the apostles’ first experience of seeing the risen Jesus. Jesus breathes on them and gives them the power to forgive sins. But Thomas was not present at this meeting and when he was told of Jesus’ appearance, he refused to believe it. He told them he would not believe Jesus was alive unless he could touch his wounds. Eight days later they were once again gathered (including Thomas) and Jesus again appeared. Jesus invited Thomas to inspect his wounds. Astonished, Thomas replied: “My Lord and my God!” Jesus responded: “You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” John concludes by telling us that many other signs are not recorded here.
Yep, it’s that time of year again. Every year, the Sunday after Easter, we read about my namesake Thomas and how he didn’t stack up. We even call him “Doubting Thomas.” He had the bad fortune of missing Jesus’ first appearance, and while the other apostles saw Jesus (and presumably his wounds), he did not.
Maybe it’s because he’s my namesake, or perhaps I hold a soft spot in my heart for the underdog, but I ask that we reconsider our judgement on Thomas. Ever since John wrote these words we’ve castigated Thomas as “the apostle with the asterisk” or the apostle who had “just enough faith” but not as much faith as we should have.
I’ve spoken of this before, but everyone in these scenes experienced agony and ecstasy. We view Holy Week through the lens of Jesus’ experience, and we should. His passion, death and resurrection open the door of salvation for all of us. From the inhuman pain of the Stations of the Cross to the recognition that he was betrayed, denied, and abandoned by those very men who pledged him loyalty unto death, we recognize our need to commit our lives fully to follow Jesus.
And while his followers hardly showed the courage we hoped, we should give them a little slack. When Jesus was hauled off on the night of Passover his followers experienced their worst nightmare. They must have felt they had wasted their lives, they backed a fraud, and they had no playbook for the next chapter of their lives.
When those gathered at the beginning of the Gospel saw the resurrected Jesus their joy must have been beyond imagination. In the blink of an eye they went from their greatest despair to something beyond their greatest hope. This Messiah wasn’t there to defeat Rome, he was there to defeat death. And if Thomas had been there, it would have been a perfect story.
But he wasn’t. And on hearing the news, Thomas found himself stuck back on his worst day. Without reading too much into this, I can easily imagine Thomas not daring to hope, not daring to restrap himself back onto a roller coaster whose screaming descent caused him so much pain. He just couldn’t ascend on the promise that Jesus was alive only to descend back into despair.
Several years ago I read an excellent book: My Father, My Son. It was written by Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. (1920-2000) and his son Elmo Zumwalt III (1946-1988). The elder Zumwalt was the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) during the war in Vietnam and the younger served on a patrol boat in the same war. After the war Elmo III developed cancer that was perhaps caused by Agent Orange and other chemicals his father ordered. The book struggles with the possibility that the father ordered the use of a chemicals that may have caused his son’s cancer. One event in the book struck me to the core. After his diagnosis Elmo III was tested after a round of treatment for his cancer (and everyone with cancer knows this dance). He received a call with the best possible news: the treatment was a complete victory. He and his family celebrated and planned for the future with a new and joyful hope. A few hours later he received another call that admitted the previous call got it wrong. Instead the test showed the treatment was a complete failure and he was facing a premature death from his cancer.
They were devastated. And as I read the book, so was I. I felt sucker punched and couldn’t get past the recognition that the pain of the devastating news was made all the worse because they dared to believe the news was good. As bad as the news was, it would have been better if they had not allowed themselves to believe the joyful news they had been given.
And that’s how I see Thomas. And to be fair, the next week he was present for Jesus’ next appearance. When Jesus offered to open his wounds to Thomas, Thomas instead declared, “My Lord and my God.” When he saw Jesus he didn’t need to touch the wounds. He then recognized that his greatest joy would not fall victim to his greatest fear. Thomas’ story had a happy ending.
But what do we do with Jesus’ apparent scolding of Thomas for believing only on seeing him? “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” On some level that should make us feel good as we have not seen and yet we believe.
But I also think this brings us to the value of faith. If we read this through the eyes we were all taught, we may well think of faith as an achievement or a skill. While we all pray for more faith, we also think that increased faith comes from our own strength. But what if it’s not? What if faith is, like so many other things, a gift from God that we can only ask for?
Perhaps Jesus’ admonition comes not from an attempt to shame Thomas for not working hard enough in his faith, but instead comes from the recognition that we all need to ask for more faith.
I like to think this is true. Because when I look at our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles I like to see this as a success story. Last week I spoke of the phenomenal transformation of the apostles. In a few weeks they transformed from “those who abandoned Jesus” to “those who began to build the Church.” I don’t think they could have done this by ranking themselves, or thinking Thomas as the “one who needs more faith.” Instead I think their success found their bedrock on the belief that faith was not a skill they could achieve on their own but a gift that they should hunger for.
Let us hunger for more faith.