by Ellen Sims
text: John 20: 19-31
I sympathize with Thomas’s need for proof of Jesus’s resurrection. In fact, each time I preach on this text, I’m compelled to defend Thomas from those who’ve disparaged him as a doubter. I do so partly because of what the text itself teaches, but also because I value honest doubt and critical thinking. In fact, I admit that doubt is my default setting. Especially in this political climate as folks across the spectrum seem at once more skeptical and more gullible about news sources and as political leaders lie more brazenly, we should be a people who factcheck and test our sources and the sources of our sources. If the truth is to set us free, we must ferret out truth received from leaders and media and everyday people.
When our daughter was a toddler, her same-aged cousin would sometimes make up new rules just to push her buttons. One night during a family dinner, for instance, he said, “Georgia, you don’t get any dessert tonight. I get dessert, but you don’t.” She cried piteously at the injustice of it all until we explained it simply wasn’t true. Sometimes even a 4-year-old needs to learn some healthy skepticism, right? Questioning and verifying sources is a life skill. So I’m not eager to make blind faith an automatic virtue.
Interestingly, it’s not completely clear what Thomas is doubting, and it is clear the Gospel text does not condemn Thomas for his skepticism. Although Jesus blesses those “who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” it was he who invited Thomas to “put [his] finger” on the wounds on his hands and in his side so Thomas would have evidence and could believe. The story of “doubting Thomas” encountering the risen Christ ends with the narrator’s summation that all the “signs” John’s gospel reports were intentionally included to inspire belief so that Jesus followers “may have life in [Jesus’s] name (vs. 30-31). So the writer of John is himself collecting and presenting an argument for us to “believe” that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” Or at least that is an aspect of or one way of summarizing what the gospel writer wants his community to believe. In other words, the Johannine author doesn’t expect us just to take his word for it. How can we, then, judge Thomas harshly?
But let’s also recall how Marcus Borg and others have defined what “believing” meant to the early Christians, as in coming “to believe so that you may have life in his name” (v. 31). “Believe” did not mean ascribing to particular statements of fact. Instead, “belief” was a spiritual disposition that involved trusting in and placing one’s faith in the Way of Jesus. I think today’s text calls us to follow in this particular spiritual discipline through Jesus’s repetition of the word “peace.” The way of PEACE is life giving.
Look back at our text. When Jesus first appeared to the sequestered disciples, his greeting was this: “Peace be with you” (v. 19). And after showing them his hands and side (Thomas being not the only one who needed that kind of proof, you see) he said again, “Peace be with you” (v. 21). And on the following week when Thomas rejoined them and Jesus came to them again, Jesus again greeted them all with, “Peace be with you (v. 31). Three times he spoke peace. Three times he used that word almost as a password to confirm his identity, so key was peace to his mission.
A few years back I approached this text by doing a little midrash (a creative treatment of scripture from the Jewish tradition) to fill in some of the holes in the story in ways that seem consistent with the larger narrative. I speculated that if Thomas, a man of action (see John 11:16) might have responded to Jesus’s murder with more anger and action than fear. While his cohorts were hiding from the authorities, maybe Thomas was planning to avenge his leader’s murder, take advantage of this moment of outrage among all those who’d loved Jesus, make use of the many sympathetic visitors still in Jerusalem for the Passover, attempt a revolt against the oppressors or at least make them pay for their unjust action against the people’s favorite, Jesus of Nazareth.
It was common in the occupied territory of the Roman Empire for revolts to spring up, as often happens among oppressed people. Public crucifixions were just one way Rome kept its subjugated peoples terrorized enough to stave off rebellions simmering just below the surface. But the Johannine community that later composed this story about 70 years later might not have found it wise to include any overt reference to treason in their writings lest they antagonize the Roman authorities in their day. At most, the writers of John’s Gospel might have only dared to hint that Thomas had at one time considered responding to Jesus’s crucifixion with more violence.
With this mere intimation of a back story, I picture Thomas, in the first week following Jesus’s death, slipping into the shadows of Jerusalem’s side streets, whispering his way into conversations with the folks who’d shouted “hosannas” the week before. I see Thomas warily gauging the outrage at Jesus’s execution, reminding those whom Jesus had fed and healed of all he’d done for them, then reciting all that Rome had done against their own fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. Thomas could have added the ingredient of a fresh injustice to an already simmering pot. And turned up the heat. Things might have been on the verge of boiling over. But Thomas returned to his faith community and there reconnected with Jesus who certainly didn’t support the Empire but neither did he support violent responses to injustice.
One reason I wonder if violence was on Thomas’s mind is because he insists on seeing Jesus’s wounds before he can believe. He fixates upon the gruesome marks of his friend and teacher’s recent torture. Why? Because he thought the crucifixion might have been a hoax? Not likely. Because Jesus was the only person ever to have been crucified and therefore the nailprints, Jesus’ deathmark, had become the inverse of a distinctive birthmark and could thus prove his identity? No. As if Thomas would not recognize Jesus otherwise? Of course not.
I think Thomas demands to see the wounds because they are his measure of reality. Death is the final reality for Thomas in this dark time. Violence is his answer to violence. One recent hymn about Thomas begins:
These things did Thomas count as real:
the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of flesh and bone.[i]
The sign Thomas understands in that dark time is the tempting sign of violence. But the sign Jesus offers is the sign of peace.
Three days Jesus lay in the tomb. Three times he spoke “peace” to those in the hidden room. If Thomas was planning death-dealing insurrection, Jesus was meanwhile doing death-defying resurrection.
What Thomas the doubter is doubtful about is Jesus’s Way of peace. How hard it is to believe in peace when the one who is innocent of any violence has been brutally murdered. It’s easy to be peaceful when no one has harmed or oppressed you. But when you are slighted, when your loved one has been injured, when peace talks between nations stall, when heads of state become belligerent . . . how hard it is then to believe in peacemaking. How easily we are to take offense and lash out at others. That’s not the Jesus way. Certainly the horrors of the cross would be enough to test anyone’s faith in nonviolence. “I won’t believe . . . I can’t believe,” Thomas said, in effect, “unless the very wounds of Jesus attest to a peace that can survive the death of the Peacemaker.”
I know Thomas’s doubts have usually been explained as doubts about Jesus’s divinity. And John’s biography of Jesus does show Thomas acknowledging Jesus as his lord and God (John 20:28). The most elevated portrait of Jesus in all the gospels is found in John’s Gospel, written last of the New Testament gospels when a higher Christology was developing.
But if we listen to the words Jesus emphasizes in this encounter, it is peace that the risen Jesus prescribes and gives. Jesus literally speaks peace to the frightened disciples—three times. Jesus offers his signature greeting, “Peace be with you,” to say that the dream of peace can survive the most violent of deaths, to assure his followers and friends that the Way endures. The resurrection is inexplicable mystery; the peace of Christ Jesus is difficult but doable and, I believe, at the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus who died but lives on.
This passage of John concludes by explicitly stating its purpose: “What is Jesus wanting to be sure his disciples got very clear? He will be leaving them in bodily form forever. He’s been “away” for just a week . . . and they are cowering and one has already left the group. They are afraid they can’t continue the “franchise,” to use Borg and Crossan’s analogy, if Jesus himself isn’t going to stay with them forever.
Imagine what it felt like for them to have had (at most) three years under Jesus’s teaching. They desperately want their fellowship to continue. They cannot believe it’s possible for the movement to survive without their leader. So here’s another way to think about what “believing” in Jesus means in this context: believing might mean “imagining” or “hoping.” They can believe that what he started can continue beyond his physical life with them. If the first disciples had not been able to imagine the possibility that their fledgling fellowship could survive the departure of Jesus, you and I would not be here today. Your challenge is not only to believe in the peaceful WAY of Jesus, but to also imagine that you, Open Table, can carry forward his Way of peace in this community. You must imagine this possibility. You must know deep down that disciples with far less reason to hope have, long before you, carried forward the “belief” in Jesus’s Way.
O Spirit of Jesus Whom We Speak of as “the Christ,” imbue us with the brave and hopeful imagination to be your disciples in this time and place. Make of us a people of peace who are slow to take offense, gentle in words and ways, quick to forgive, and eager to lift up those who won’t make it alone. AmenTr
 Troegar, Thomas H. from “These Things Did Thomas Count” in The New Century Hymnal. Oxford U. Press, 1984.