Early in my preaching career, I was appointed as the associate pastor to one of those great tall-steeple-church-in-a-university-town congregations. My mother had been an associate pastor for many years to a nearly identical congregation across town, and her advice to me was, “You will always preach on the Sunday after Christmas and the Sunday after Easter. Better start studying up on Doubting Thomas.”
I always thought that Thomas got a bad rap, being called “Doubting Thomas” all the time, as if that one moment of doubt (not of Jesus, mind you, but of his friends’ sanity) was his defining characteristic. In the olden days he was even on some calendars as “St. Thomas the Doubter”! The christians of India would beg to disagree.
The determinative question, of course, has to be, “Where was he?” If Thomas was not in the Upper Room with the doors firmly locked alongside the rest of Jesus’s friends, where on earth was he? Long ago, I decided that he was the only one with enough guts to go out and get food for all of them. In 2009, John Rollefson offered readers of Homily Service a more comfortingly pious alternative, along with some reflection upon the good news of the gospel in the face of human doubt.
Thomas’s absence from the other disciples that first Easter night might mean that Thomas had alone dared to brave the threatening streets of Jerusalem, hoping to verify the fevered account Mary of Magdala had brought of her encounter with the risen Jesus...
Oh, Thomas must have sensed that something had happened to his faint-hearted friends, but he simply could not trust their word. He had to see for himself.
We seldom think of the story in this way, but the good news of this text is that eight days later Jesus did just that - allowed Thomas to see, and what’s more, touch - for himself. And so this charming episode in the Easter story serves not as a put-down of “doubting” Thomas but as a clear and wonderful sign that the crucified, now risen Jesus will do whatever is necessary to bring us to faith, as he did for Thomas. “The Courage to Doubt,” as one of my former teachers, Robert Davidson, entitled his study of thomas’s Old Testament forbears, is a highly under-appreciated dimension of faith. We can be grateful to St. John for safeguarding this dimension of the Christian tradition through the telling of this story.
I still prefer to think that Thomas was going for the groceries. In your imagination, where was Thomas when Jesus was appearing to the rest of the denizens of the Upper Room?
John Rollefson (2008): "19 April 2009: Easter 2," Homily Service, 42:2, 113.
John Rollefson is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.