Here’s a confession: I like Thomas, who figures prominently in the Gospel lesson we just heard, for the same reason I like Peter, who shows up in so many Gospels as well as in the Book of Acts. Because they both do stupid things, they say things which make no sense, which show their lack of faith, their cowardice, their lack of self-knowledge, their utter unworthiness – and yet Jesus still keeps them around, and keeps them as disciples, even better, as friends. That gives me great hope for myself, for all of us!
Thomas shows up earlier in John’s Gospel when Lazarus gets sick. When Jesus and his friends are keeping a low profile because they’re afraid Jesus might get murdered by the local religious and political leaders. Jesus does a funny thing there, waits until Lazarus has died, and says, “We will go to him now” — and Thomas, worrying that there will be an assassination attempt on Jesus, still says, “Let us go with him that we may die with him.” That says something about their friendship, Thomas’s commitment to the Lord.
But a strange thing happens then, when they go to Bethany in Galilee: instead of Jesus getting killed, he raises Lazarus to life, and paradoxically then, I believe, something in Thomas dies, because, for him, nothing will ever be the same again.
It’s a big one: what if the dead are really raised? Not only Lazarus but Jesus, not only Jesus but you and me, not only you and me but maybe everybody raised to new life by the grace of a love that will be “all in all.” That can be a hard one to swallow — it isn’t easy to believe that the resurrection might end up that large — and to begin to take refuge in that truth, that where Jesus is now is where we are called to be, and to make that faith the hopeful heart of our lives. It can be a demanding ask.
Because sometimes it’s easier to not expect too much, to not have your hopes that high, to not to see forgiveness and renewal and resurrection in the future for maybe everybody. Sometimes it’s easier to keep it quiet, sometimes it’s easier not to believe much. So when Thomas, who saw Jesus die on the city crossroads, hears that the Lord is alive you can see why he might not want to take up that deep hope again. Because it’s hard to keep hope alive when the mob rules, when justice and compassion and mercy seem far away, when, to quote a poet, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” Can you see then where it might be easier to let faith die, to hide out from the possibilities of an ever renewing love?
Someone once said we are invited to exchange our living death for Jesus’ dying life, and that’s what happens here. Jesus shows up and invites Thomas, in the midst of his living death, to stretch out with all his unbelief and grab hold of the fact of Jesus’ dying life and the bright almost unbelievable reality of the resurrection: here’s where Jesus calls Thomas to be alive again – alive to faith, alive to hope, alive to the love that will haunt him with holiness and the promise of new beginning from here to Pentecost and beyond. And Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God!” And Jesus calls us too, like Thomas, as disciples, as friends. And I’ll cheerfully admit that gives me hope, but it still can be a stretch.
So that’s why I think it’s important to remember that there are forty days in the season of Lent and forty-nine in the season of Eastertide — maybe because it’s easier to live with the inevitability of suffering and death and, surprisingly, harder to learn to live with a life that is both broken apart by the promise of resurrection and held together with the hope of the Holy Spirit, who is closer to our hearts, as Augustine says, than we are to ourselves. That’s a brave, even a merciful, new world, that’s a hope for Thomas, and for us to hold on to.
So my prayers tonight is that this Easter season enables us all to take up the resurrected life and the coming promise of Pentecost in our hearts. Like Thomas, may we walk with our faith and fear and doubt and love even deeper on this further journey with Jesus, into the heart of the goodness of this God who is alive and will reign forever. Amen