“But Thomas,” this phrase sticks with me. Poor Thomas was the exception, the one who missed it.
Maybe that makes sense though. It was Thomas who was the first one willing to risk going back to Judea, even tho they tried to stone him the last time he was there John 11: 7-16. No one wanted to return there, even tho Martha & Mary were begging Jesus to return and tend to their sick brother Lazarus. All the disciples wanted to avoid Judea from now on but Thomas, who was willing to die with Jesus, cannot believe he is alive.
And maybe its because Thomas was willing to die with him. Maybe Thomas was one of the clearest-sighted disciples about the danger they were in. Peter liked to talk big, Judas was mired in his own guilt, Mark was unaware of the big secret, but Thomas seemed to understand that death was real.
So all the disciples are gathered, why? To hide but Thomas was not locked in fear in the room, he was somewhere else. Clearly is not one of Thomas’ defining qualities. Perhaps we should refer to him as “Brave Thomas” instead of “Doubting Thomas.”
Then the disciples tell of what they say, they testify to the presence of Jesus. No doubt saying that his words were “Peace be with you” but Thomas cannot be at peace. Thomas needs to touch Jesus’ scars to believe its actually him.
All of the disciples have been breathed on the pneuma of the Holy Spirit, but Thomas.
Thomas is one of the most constant texts of the church year. Without fail, every year, we are reminded of the story of Doubting Thomas. RCL and Narrative Lectionary collide giving the same story over and over again. Reminding us of our doubt.
But Thomas is the person who isn’t in the church today, for whatever reason. Its the person who stands outside the group. Its the forgotten one, its the person who is homebound, or too busy, or too overwhelmed to come to the group. This person is the wandering sheep (I hesitate to say lost, because I’m not always convinced that Thomas was truly lost or just waiting in his own way).
But Thomas could be argued to be the beginning of church. All the disciples had gathered, but Thomas wasn’t there, but Thomas wasn’t forgotten or left out. The disciples tried to tell him, but Thomas hadn’t had access to the Holy Spirit yet.
Recall, Jesus learns from this encounter, that all humans need access to the Holy Spirit. It isn’t until after this encounter that Pentecost happens. There is not church yet, just the understanding that there should be.
“How very good and pleasant it is when we live in unity” proclaims Psalm 133, but right here, in this moment, the church does not yet exist. Its good to live together, but we need the Holy Spirit to be able to do it.
Even then, we have trouble sharing and living in common with one another as is described in Acts 4. But we can, when we do church well, everything is shared, and there is not one person left out. When we do it well, we include the person who was gone.
In John 20, we see the church in action. Thomas is not left behind. Its not a “too late you lose” game. First the disciples try to include him, and when that doesn’t work, God acts. Jesus comes and personally works on Thomas’s heart. Jesus comes so that Thomas can truly taste and see the gospel truth that Jesus is the Risen Christ.
I would argue, in fact, that the gathering with Thomas is actually the first “church” gathering in the Bible. Full of the Holy Spirit, and witnessing, and the direct presence of Jesus Christ, this fellowship shows in full what the work of the church is going to be. And Thomas shows us how important that welcome and work is going to be. 1 John 1 puts it in formal languague, about gathering together and working on faith and sin as a fellowship of people, but John 20 is the story on which this is all based.
Also I always like to note that Thomas did not actually had to touch Jesus to believe that he was real. Once Jesus is there, once Thomas feels the Holy Spirit, all questioning is over. My guess is John is too busy hugging Jesus to worry about such things. Jesus says “Hey remember you wanted to touch these” but Thomas is too busy rejoicing. That’s how I picture Thomas, not touching the scars, but hugging the Jesus who he loves. Sadly its not depicted this way (look for pictures of them hugging, I have yet to find one). But in my head, this image of Jesus and Thomas hugging is the church illustrated in human flesh.
Katy Stenta is a solo pastor at a tiny church that is bigger on the inside in Albany, NY for use over seven years. When she is not dreaming up projects and ideas, some of which creep into the church, she plays with her three boys-boys or goes and visits her husband at the library, while he works, to read.
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