The Show Me Disciple
In the United States, each of the 50 states has a nickname. Florida is known as “The Sunshine State.” New York is the “The Empire State.” Tennessee is called the “Volunteer State.” New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment.” Ohio is known as “The Buckeye State.” Texas we all know is the “Lone Star State.” And Missouri? Missouri is the “Show Me State.” Missouri’s nickname can be traced to a speech made by one of its congressmen named Hillard Duncan Vandiver who said in 1899, “Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me!”
Maybe Thomas, the disciple we heard about in the Gospel lesson today, was a Missourian. He seemed to be a “show me” kind of guy. He refused to rely on a secondhand report of the resurrection or a hearsay happening of holiness. No, Thomas, said he would have to be “shown” the impression of the nails in Jesus’ wrists and touch the depression of the spear made in Jesus’ side before he would believe. And so, for this reason, he is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas.”
Oh great, so this is going to be another doubting Thomas sermon. I can’t wait to hear about how bad of a guy Thomas is. I can’t wait to hear about when the other ten disciples told him that Jesus was alive after his crucifixion that Thomas refused to believe it. I can’t wait to hear how he separated himself from the others and demanded to see Christ for himself. In short, I can’t wait to hear how dull and disbelieving this doubting follower of Christ is. So, the moral of my sermon would be clear – “Don’t be like Thomas! Don’t doubt!”
And so, my sermon would be on believing without seeing and would probably be very hard on doubting Thomas. I’d be perfectly happy giving such a sermon. I’d emphasize the importance of belief, the assurance of Jesus’ presence following the resurrection, and the need for faithful Christians in the world today. That’s a good sermon to preach on this tired Sunday after Easter, on this Sunday when the miracle of the resurrection is already losing its shine. But, I don’t think that sermon is fair to poor old Thomas. I don’t think that sermon is faithful to the text. And, most of all, I don’t think that’s what the writer of the Gospel of John had in mind.
If we look closely at the text, we might realize that Thomas was a practical, no-nonsense sort of guy. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Thomas insisted that the disciples accompany Jesus when he went to Bethany, a place Jesus had to leave under threat of being stoned. Thomas supported Jesus’ apparently suicidal return trip saying, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” And later, in the midst of Jesus’ long farewell discourse, Thomas decided to cut through Jesus’ mystical, poetic, convoluted, and downright baffling language. Remember, Jesus assured his followers, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” To which Thomas retorts, “Lord, we don’t really know what you just said there… so how can we possibly know where you are going?” Thomas is just a plainspoken and to-the-point kind of guy.
Thomas was also absent. He was not with the others on the evening of that first Easter. Yet, I don’t think it was because he was trying to be difficult. I’m sure he was grieving, scared, and confused. Haven’t you ever had something terrible happen and you just wanted to run away from it all? He had every right to not be duped or pulled into the new excitement of a resurrected Jesus. He wanted to see Jesus for himself. He wanted a tangible piece of the miracle. Didn’t he deserve to fall in love with the present, resurrected Jesus instead of with a strange and distant story?
When Amanda and I were looking to buy a house in Atlanta, we did a lot of online browsing. We flipped through pictures and specs of many houses and finally found one that we loved. It was a cute, renovated two-story house with beautiful porches and high ceilings. Well, from what we read online, it seemed perfect. But we knew that we couldn’t simply believe the specs and the stories. We had to see it and touch it in order to believe. We had to walk through it, smell it, and feel it. Well, it’s a good thing we did. We drove up to the house and it literally backed right up to the razor wire fence surrounding the county jail. That little technicality didn’t make it into the story of the house. Doubting is okay.
In the end, maybe Thomas just needed to know by touching. Sometimes we have to know something in our body, a knowing that is beyond the intellectual experience of the mind, or even the empathetic knowledge of the heart. Sometimes we have to feel things in a tactile way to truly understand and accept something has happened, in Thomas’ case, to a friend or a loved one.
I remember when I was in the hospital room when my grandfather died. He had been struggling to breathe for several hours and my grandmother would not accept that he would soon die. She had to literally wipe the last tear from his eye after he took his final breath in order to truly understand his passing. She knew it in her mind, but she needed to touch him, put her fingers on his face, to fully understand. We have all been “Doubting Thomases” at one time or another. And I choose to think that Thomas took one for the team here. He became the scapegoat for doubters everywhere. You and I will never get to see the physical Jesus. We won’t be able to put our fingers in the holes of his wrist and side. So, this encounter with Thomas is an encouragement to us because we are all like him. We all tend to doubt from time to time.
We all have our moments of extreme skepticism, times when it seems that we are being asked to believe the unbelievable. The proof can be right in front of us and we don’t even see it. Earlier in this resurrection narrative when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, she didn’t find Jesus. She encountered an ordinary gardener tending to the graves. The gardener wasn’t what she needed. She needed Jesus, her savior, her passion, but couldn’t seem to get past her own self, her doubts, her grief, her fear, long enough to see Jesus standing right in front of her. So, Jesus took the initiative. Jesus came to her and called her by name, “Mary! Mary, don’t cling to me but go and tell the disciples that I am coming to them.”
Jesus appeared to Mary and she saw him and believed. Mary didn’t need to hold on to Jesus or touch Jesus anymore. She needed to go and tell. Mary needed to go out into the world and stop riding on Jesus coattails. And it was the same for Thomas. It was Thomas’ time to see and believe. It was time for Jesus to come to Thomas. Thomas needed to have a Mary moment, a personal connection with Jesus for himself. Mary couldn’t experience the resurrected Jesus for the disciples, and the disciples couldn’t experience Jesus for Thomas. It was faith and love, not doubt that held out for one’s own experience of Jesus. Someone can’t experience Jesus for us. We, like Thomas, want to see Jesus and for him to show up in our lives! Show me! I know I’m doubting! But I want to follow and tell the world, so show me!
I can hear Thomas saying to the other disciples, “Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. Show me! I need to touch Jesus! I need proof!” Thomas demanded proof. Thomas demanded Jesus. When Jesus again appeared to his disciples in the closed room, Thomas was there. And far from rebuking Thomas, Jesus offered to meet his demands. “Put your fingers in my hands, touch my side.” The Gospel story gave no report of Thomas following through with these gruesome actions, and I don’t believe he felt any need to do so. It didn’t matter. That personal encounter made Jesus’ resurrection real to this faithful follower.
In fact, Thomas’s answer, “My Lord and my God!” is the high point of John’s Gospel. When Thomas got it, he REALLY got it. No one else offered such devotion or named Jesus as God. Thomas held out for an experience of Jesus on his own terms, in his own way, until he found his terms to touch made foolish by the reality of seeing Jesus; having Jesus come to him and knowing Jesus as God.
But what if John’s story of doubting Thomas was not really about Thomas and Jesus, but about Jesus and us? What if this Gospel narrative was a tale about the coming of God to us, wherever we might be? I guess this is why the story began with an emphasis on a place with locked doors. The Gospel of John didn’t depict a Jesus who waited for Thomas to open the door so he could chastise him about his lack of faith. No, John left room for doubt; left room for Thomas; left room for us. Jesus walked through the closed, locked door to get to Thomas. Despite the roadblocks of doubt, anger, and shame, Jesus was determined to reach this stalwart skeptic, whom no one else could convince. It was Jesus who refused to let dead bolts or chains block his movement of love.
And so, it is with us. When doubt crowds out hope; when the four walls and locked doors of life keep out love; we can be confident that Jesus will meet us where we are, even if it is out on the far edge of our faith that is lost in unbelief. Jesus comes seeking us, stepping through the walls that hardship builds around us, offering love at the very moment that grace seems nothing but a far-fetched ghost story told by not-to-be believed friends.
And so, how will we know when Jesus comes? What will he look like? In different seasons of our lives, the appearance of Jesus will change and we might not always know him, particularly when doubt creeps in. He might come dressed in bright white, riding a stallion, or in beggar’s clothes propped on a colt; he might come as valiant warrior or a vulnerable servant; he might come as God or a gardener. When Jesus appears, what do you need in order to believe? What does seeing the resurrected Jesus look like for you? Is it the kind words of a friend, the help of a stranger, the good feeling from choosing to love instead of hate… or is it the putting your fingers in the holes in his wrists and wound in his side? Whatever form Jesus takes, we know that at the center of the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus Christ has come looking for us. Jesus appears to build up the cowering, Jesus appears to console the hurting, and Jesus appears to call out those in hiding. Jesus appears!
And today, two thousand years after the resurrection, it’s not as if Jesus has left us and is hanging out in heaven not caring a lick. No, the whole point of the cross was to say, God is with us; God never leaves us. God will go even to the point of death, for us. “Mary, look around! Thomas, touch me! See me! I am now a part of you and it is your job to take me to the cowering! Take me to the confines of the locked rooms of the world. For, I am with you, in front of you, and in you. I’m here!”
Friends, we are called to be Christ in a “Show me!” world. All around us, in our own families, in our neighborhoods, at our work, there are people who are living on the edge of despair, people who need and want to be “shown” the Jesus who enters into the locked doors of their souls. There are people that need to hear “Peace to you.” And we who love Christ can give nothing less than our full faith response to their cries of “Show me!” We can do nothing less than show them the real presence of Christ within us. We can do nothing less than embrace them with open arms. We can do nothing less than give our lives to them in loving service. That is what it means to join Thomas in saying, “My Lord and my God!” That is what it means to join Thomas and doubters everywhere in saying, “Show me.”