Some of us were raised in an atmosphere that said to doubt was tantamount to being pagan. Nineteenth-century theologian and scientist Henry Drummond made a distinction between a doubter and an unbeliever, which I find helpful: a doubter is a person who searches for God with a thousand questions; while an unbeliever is apathetic to God. – Sarah Webb Phillips
This Sunday is so universally given to showing us our likeness to Thomas, that the first reading and epistle might best stand as harmony for the main song of John's Gospel rather than serving as focal texts.
The theme of this periscope, so often associated with Thomas, is not doubt—but, rather, faith. Faith in the risen Christ comes to each believer in his or her own way. And, quite honestly, it rarely, if ever, springs forth full-grown in any disciple without a measure of struggle.
Notice that on the evening of “that day”—the first Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection revelation—the disciples are gathered behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” Old habits and inhibitions to our faith die quite hard, even in the face of the astonishingly good news that Jesus is alive!
Jesus appears miraculously in the midst of the fearful followers, a sign that is consistent with John's gospel and its concern to demonstrate the power of God present in the life of Jesus. Christ's message is peace; he seeks to put them at ease, to calm their doubts and soothe their jangled nerves. He speaks the words of blessing twice (“Peace be with you”). Sometimes, we just don't get it the first time!
Notice that, before Thomas ever enters the scene and makes his special request, Christ shows them his hands and side. Again, we have often cast aspersion on poor Thomas for refusing to believe without a visible sign. Yet, here is Jesus, making himself known in a very tangible way to disciples in need of some flesh-and-blood reassurance. . . .
Some time later, when the disciples attempt to persuade Thomas, who missed the meeting with Jesus, of these things, he utters his bold assertion: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand … I will not believe!” On the next Sunday evening, Thomas gets his wish. The Lord appears again, with the same blessing (“Peace be with you”) and heads straight for Thomas. Immediately, he offers the headstrong disciple the very proof he desires; intently, Christ brings Thomas to face the crux of his personal dilemma of faith.
Evidently, Thomas never needs to touch the nail-prints in Jesus’ hands. Instead, he kneels and proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Seeing is enough for Thomas; his crisis is resolved. Yet Jesus speaks to all those who would come after Thomas, even to those of us who hear the story yet again today.
The real blessing—which is the peace of Christ—is found by those who neither see with their eyes nor touch with their hands, but who still find a way to believe. Still, and always, the risen Christ comes to us behind the locked doors and in the doubt-filled crisis moments of our lives. His sure word to us: “You don't have to doubt; you can believe.” – John P. Fairless
The apostles, serving as the witnesses, will not be intimidated by the preaching police. They are our exemplars, the siblings who nudge us into proclamations right along with them, although in our own venues and in our own ways. Since we are not all street preachers like Peter, it may help listeners to hear the many ways people of faith make our own interpretation and understandings known.
John’s writing names all the people in the churches to whom he sends his vision “priests serving… God…” All of Jesus’ followers constitute “a dominion,” a realm ruled by the one who brings peace. Some of Jesus’ followers write visions (we might just as well call it poetry or hymn lyrics); others teach children how to do math or tie shoes. In the great range of ways we each contribute to the peacefulness of Earth, we are witnesses. Preach that!
We do not do our witnessing in perfect faith, but in knowledge that Thomas’s proclamation was the truth, and we share it––even on the days when we are in doubt.
Sara Webb Phillips is a United Methodist minister serving North Springs UMC in Sandy Springs, Georgia.
John P. Fairless is senior minister of the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Florida.
Homily Service 40, no. 5 (2007): 55-66.