Carlos Wilton, April 15, 2012; 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year B; John 20:19-31
“But [Thomas] said to them, ‘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.’”
– John 20:25b
They came by ship, after a long and perilous ocean journey. Setting out from their home country of Portugal in the year of our Lord 1497, Captain Vasco da Gama and his crew sailed to the Cape Verde Islands, then boldly ventured out into the open ocean, heading west – as Christopher Columbus had, five years earlier. They had nearly reached the coast of Brazil before they found the prevailing winds they’d been searching for. The winds blew their ships eastward, to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.
From there, they worked their way up the east coast of Africa, as far as present-day Kenya. Then, taking on an Arab pilot, they struck out eastward, into the open ocean. At last they reached their goal: the west coast of India – the very place Columbus had been headed, before bumping into the American continent.
Like all the Spanish and Portuguese voyages of discovery, Da Gama’s had been designed with two goals in mind. The first – probably the most important, in his own mind – was commercial. He wanted to corner the market on the spice trade, breaking the monopoly of the Arab traders with their caravans. He wanted to be able to transport costly Indian spices directly to Europe by sea. If Da Gama could succeed in doing this, he would make himself – and his financial backers, back in Lisbon – a fortune. We’re talking a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs sort of fortune, here.
The second purpose of his journey was religious in nature. Da Gama carried on his ships Roman Catholic priests, men of missionary zeal. They wanted to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the Indian subcontinent.
Yet, when they finally did reach the coast of India, those Portuguese missionaries were in for a big surprise. They found Christians already there: whole communities of them, with churches and priests, and a tradition of the faith going back longer, even, than in their own nation of Portugal.
Who were these Christians? They followed a form of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Their scriptures were in the Syriac language. They called themselves Mar Thoma Christians. The “Thoma” in their name referred to the Apostle Thomas. They were “the Church of Thomas.
They told their Portuguese visitors how Thomas had traveled, after Jesus’ resurrection, as far as the west coast of India, visiting communities of Jews who were living and trading there. Among these people he had established their church that was still flourishing, nearly 15 centuries later. There are millions of Mar Thoma Christians today, far more than there are Presbyterians here in the U.S.A.
Historians have debated ever since whether Thomas could really have made it that far – and no one can say for sure, because there’s no documentary evidence. Yet, how else could the Christian faith have gotten to India, unless someone brought it? And if the oral tradition of those Christians says it was the apostle Thomas – a tradition so strong, it included naming their church after him – then it seems likely there’s something to the tale.
If there’s even a germ of truth in their story, then move over, Paul of Tarsus! As impressive as your Mediterranean missionary journeys were, there is one who traveled farther than you ever did, and communicated the faith not only to people who spoke your own language, but to those of exotic, Eastern lands.
And what is the adjective we typically attach to the name of this Apostle, Thomas? We all know what it is. It’s a result of the Gospel story we read this morning. That adjective, of course, is “doubting.” Doubting Thomas.
Well, from what little we can piece together of Thomas’ life in the years following – this incredible journey that took him eastward through Persia, and down the west coast of India, founding an entire branch of Christianity that flourishes to this day – that word “doubting” is the most inaccurate, unfair blot on his reputation you could possibly imagine.
You can see signs of Thomas’ courage and determination earlier in John’s Gospel. An urgent message has come to Jesus, to go help his good friend Lazarus, who’s fallen gravely ill. It’s getting dangerous out there. The disciples all know it. Already, a group of Jesus’ religious opponents have tried to stone him.
“Are you sure we should go there, Lord?” some of them ask. “To Bethany? We may never make it out of there alive!”
A lively debate ensues. Jesus, it’s clear, is determined to go, no matter what the cost. The rest of them are not at all sure it’s a good idea to go with him.
What puts an end to the debate, as John tells it, is a statement Thomas makes: “Let us go, that we may die with him.” No sign of doubt, there!
To the Mar Thoma Christians of India, he is not “Doubting Thomas.” He’s Believing Thomas, their great father in the faith, the one who risked life and limb in a perilous journey of thousands of miles to bring them the gospel, the one whose memory they revere.
So, what is it that happens, there, in that Gospel story John tells? On the evening of the Day of Resurrection, having heard the crazy-sounding stories of Mary Magdalene and the other women, that they have found Jesus’ tomb empty, and have seen him walking around – still bearing nail marks in his hands and feet, and the spear-wound in his side, large enough to put your hand in – he appears, suddenly, among them.
The doors are locked, says John, but he makes no mention of anyone opening them. He just says, matter-of-factly, “Jesus came and stood among them.”
His first word to them is “Peace be with you.” In the Hebrew, that would be Shalom, the standard greeting. It might as well have been, “Hi, how ya doin’” – although I think John is well aware of the deep meaning of the word shalom, or peace, and how appropriate it is for these confused and troubled souls.
Surely there are many things Jesus says to them, many answers to their questions, much laughter, and tears, and loving embraces – as that little community of the faithful starts to sort out in their minds what an incredible thing has just happened. First, though, it seems there were credentials, of a sort, that have to be checked. The first thing John makes sure to tell us is: “He showed them his hands and his side.”
It was as though he pulled out an official-looking piece of paper, with a raised seal and the signature of the county clerk, and said, “You want to know who I am? Here’s a copy of my death certificate.”
Last time I checked, a death certificate is not on the list of approved forms of ID accepted by the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles’ 6-point identity-verification system. Can you imagine if somebody showed up to renew their driver’s license, and said, “Sorry, I don’t have a passport, or a utility bill with my address on it, but here’s my death certificate.”
Can you imagine?
That’s what Jesus is showing them, as he displays the wounds in his hands and side. But this is the resurrection, and no stranger, paradigm-busting thing has happened in human history, before or since, so you’ve kind of got to make up the documentation as you go along. They all gather around, and touch his wounds, even stick their fingers into the open gash in his side, marveling at these things they’re seeing. A person with these kinds of wounds, who was flogged to within an inch of his life, then hung upon a cross, has no business being anywhere else except laid out stone-cold dead in a tomb – but here he is!
Yes, there are many things Jesus says to the disciples, and they to him, but John records only the core pronouncements. Among the most important are these words: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Wherever Jesus has traveled from to be there – and remember, this is a journey from death to life, so God knows (literally, only God knows) where he’s been – Jesus is sending them out on just such an epic journey. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Who knows? Maybe even to India!
Then, the Gospel record says, he breathes upon them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Now, our familiar story of Pentecost comes from the Acts of the Apostles, the second volume of Luke’s Gospel, but some have called this verse “John’s Pentecost.” “Spirit,” pneuma in the Greek, literally means “breath,” so it’s like the risen Jesus is walking around the world breathing, only the air he’s breathing is not a mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide, it’s pure Holy Spirit. And he’s now sharing that breath with them.
They’re going to need it, because of what he tells them to do next. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
These disciples of Jesus are being given the Godlike authority to forgive sins. They will serve as God’s licensed representatives here on earth, official holders of the forgiveness franchise – and you’d better believe that, if they’re going to undertake something like that, they’d better inhale deeply of that Holy Spirit-breath. Yes, they are going to need it!
This is the scene that’s just taken place, as Thomas arrives back at the house. He just went out to pick up the lunch order, that’s all. He was only gone a few minutes. But, a lot can happen in a few minutes, if the power of the resurrection is behind it. When his fellow disciples explain to him what they’ve just heard and seen, Thomas just stands there, slack-jawed in astonishment. He lets those bags of Jerusalem Mike’s Subs he’s been holding fall to the floor. What has he missed?
Now, this is where the adjective “doubting” is so unfair, when applied to Thomas’ name. When Jesus shows up again a week later, just as unexpectedly, there’s absolutely nothing Thomas demands Jesus do for him, other than the very same things Jesus has done for the other disciples. Sure, he says he’s got to see and touch the wounds, but that’s no different from the thought that was surely going through the minds of his friends, a short while before. Until each one has the chance to touch the wounds, and verify that this resurrection thing is no apparition, but living, breathing, flesh-and-blood real, the others are doubting, too!
And no wonder. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an utterly unique, one-time historical event. It fits within no law of biology or physics. No one could possibly have predicted it, nor can anyone prove it after the fact, not even those who touched the wounds. All they can offer, at the end of the day, is their testimony. They can say, “I saw him. I touched him. I talked with him.”
And we, for our part, can only offer what can be described as testimony to testimony. We’re in the exact same position Thomas is in, as he arrives there late, having missed the revelation. Now, in Thomas’ case, Jesus comes back, graciously bringing him up to speed on the things his comrades have already experienced. Yet, he’s not likely to do so for us. You and I, my friends, are those who fall within the compass of Jesus’ words from verse 29: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe!”
Here’s something else Thomas does in this passage that proves he doesn’t deserve the adjective, “Doubting.” When Jesus does show him his wounds, saying, “Do not doubt, but believe,” Thomas’ immediate reaction is to declare, “My Lord and my God!”
It’s the first time anyone says that of Jesus, in John’s Gospel – and it’s Thomas who says it: Believing Thomas!
You know how John’s Gospel begins, with that wonderful, poetic, mystical Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”? “Word,” of course – logos – refers to Jesus. What John’s been hinting at all along, he now reveals here, at the end of his book: and it’s in the words of none other than Thomas that he reveals it! Thomas completes the promise John lays out in the Prologue. “My Lord and my God!” – once Thomas grasps that essential truth, it launches him on his career as an evangelist with such momentum, it’s no wonder he makes it all the way to India!
Thomas has some conditions, you see, conditions that have to be met. “Unless I, too, touch the nail-marks, unless I, too, place my fingers in the spear-wound, I will not believe.”
Most of us would affirm that these are reasonable conditions. They’re fully understandable, in light of the scientific laws that govern the universe. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. And a body laid out on a stone slab in a tomb is dead. It’s not going anywhere, nor doing anything, of its own accord.
These are the conditions Thomas lays out before he’s going to believe in the resurrection. “I only want what others have been given,” he says. “Just like them, I’ve got to see him, I’ve got to touch his wounds. I will not believe until that happens.”
In the military world, a war doesn’t end until there’s a surrender. The terms of that surrender – the agreement made between the victor and the vanquished – can be either conditional or unconditional.
I suppose you could say Thomas’ surrender is conditional. He lays out his conditions, and the Lord accepts them. Yet, Jesus concludes by saying that, henceforth, the only sort of surrender there will be is unconditional: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”
The great Christian poet, John Donne, expresses that understanding in these famous words, from a risky and powerful poem depicting God as a fearsome adversary:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blow, burn and make me new.
[Holy Sonnet XIV]
It’s a fundamental truth that you or I can never come to faith without first going through a kind of surrender. We can’t try faith out, provisionally, on a limited basis. It’s all or nothing. Lots of people have tried a limited commitment. They’ve said, “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, I’m yours – except for that drinking habit; except for the way I treat my customers; except for the way I spend my money; except for… (You fill in the blank, for you know how it is in your own life.) We’ve got to give up that proclivity of ours to always be in control. We’ve got to turn our lives over to God in Jesus Christ, allowing him to reign in our hearts as Lord and Master.
To do that is scary and difficult. But it’s the only way.
At the end of the day, that’s what Thomas does. He surrenders – unconditionally. He declares: “My Lord and my God!” May that be our confession as well, today and each day of our lives!
Let us pray:
Help, then, O Lord, our unbelief;
and may our faith abound
to call on you when you are near
and seek where you are found.
[Verse 3 of Hymn #399, “We Walk By Faith and Not By Sight”]
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.