When we lived in Australia, for a while we were able to take Tristan to a church service that had been designed by a friend of mine to meet the specific needs of children with autism and learning disabilities. The service was tailored for children who have sensitivities to sensory stimulation, and it appealed to the children’s desires to move around and involve their bodies in worship. At one such service my friend, who was on track to be ordained, prepared a lesson taken from today’s passage from the Gospel of John. She used pictures to illustrate the various moments in the story: the disciples gathered in the shut room, Jesus appearing in their midst, Thomas seeing for the wounds of Christ, and she placed these pictures at the ends of the pews, which allowed the children to physically move through the story step by step, as she recounted it.
When she got to the part where Jesus appears and says to his disciples, “Peace be with you,” Tristan, who was maybe four years old at the time, jumped forward, stuck out his hand, and said “And also with you!”
This was a bit disruptive, but it also made sense. Tristan recognized the words of Christ and realized what he was supposed to do in response to those words. In his own little way he got the message of today’s story.
The disciples are meeting together behind closed doors, almost certainly fearful and demoralized, shocked at what has happened and some of them doubtless feeling guilty about their failure to stand by Jesus in his final hours. Into this furtive gathering the risen Lord miraculously appears and bids peace upon the disciples.
When Jesus says “peace be with you” he is calming the agitated minds and troubled hearts of his disciples by assuring them that his death and now rising from the grave are the final triumph of God’s purposes. It is through God’s raising of Jesus from the grave that his plan to offer salvation for the whole world is fully realized. That salvific plan will now involve the disciples themselves, who are given a charge and a gift. Jesus charges his disciples that they will now be sent on a mission to the whole world, just as the Father had sent him, now he sends them. But they will not go alone, because Jesus also bestows upon the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.
At first one of the disciples misses out, and that is Thomas, called the Twin. There may be a very ordinary reason why Thomas is called the Twin, and that is that he has a twin sibling. But there is also an association between twinness and doubtfulness, the characteristic that has been associated with Thomas. In many languages the word for “doubt” is related to the word for “double.” That is because doubt is a kind of double-mindedness: It says in effect “I want to believe but” or “I will believe if,” and notice this is exactly what Thomas says.
“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” So what exactly is it that Thomas is saying here? He is not saying he is unsure or reluctant to believe, he is saying that for him to believe certain things will have to happen first. He is literally of two minds.
To doubt is not so much as to be unsure as to qualify your belief: “Yes to God but only if.” “Yes I will believe as long as I get the proof I think I need.” “Yes I want to be a saint, but only if I can also be rich and comfortable.” Rather than trust in what has already been promised by Jesus himself, or trust in the testimony of his friends and fellow followers of Jesus, Thomas places a constraint on his readiness to trust. I will only believe if I can see the print of the nails in his hands and touch his side.
Notice what happens next, though: Jesus again appears behind closed doors to the gathered disciples and again bids them his peace. He then specifically invites Thomas to do exactly what he said he had to do in order to believe: You say you need to see my hands and touch my side, then go ahead and do it, I am here to be seen and touched. “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”
Here is the thing about doubt: It’s always an excuse. Always. And John tells us why: Because while Thomas says he will not believe unless he sees and touches our Lord’s body it would appear that in fact he does not need to do these things at all. Jesus, by giving Thomas precisely what he asked for, removes that constraint on his faith in the same instant. You think you need this to believe, but here it is, and now you see that you did not need it after all. Because Thomas does not answer our Lord’s invitation with the seeing and touching that he insisted he would need to do in order to believe, he answers by believing. He confesses his faith in Jesus Christ as powerfully and concisely as anyone in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my God!”
Just as before Jesus bestowed his peace on his disciples and then gave them a charge and a gift, so he does the same again. He bids his peace to all his disciples, including Thomas, and gives him a command to be not faithless but believing. Then finally he gives a gift, but this gift is for us. It is a blessing for those who have not seen and yet believe.
And that is why John turns meta at the end of this passage. No sooner has he told the story of Thomas he then speaks directly to us, his readers, and tells us why he told us the story of Thomas. “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
We are those who have not seen. Jesus says those who have not seen and yet believe are blessed. And John wrote the Gospel that we who have not seen may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing in him we may have the eternal life he promised.
So let us be sure we understand what it is to believe though we have not seen. To believe is the opposite of doubting. “Be not faithless, but believing.” To believe then is not to be absolutely certain, it is to be committed without reservation. It is to say “yes” to God and only “yes.” “Yes” no matter what. I believe. Full stop.
Most of the time we don’t do this but doubt instead. I began my sermon by telling a cute story about Tristan. So let me tell you about a doubt I had that could have cost me the ability to tell you that story. When we were going through the process of adopting Tristan, we were explicitly asked by the orphanage whether we would be open to parenting a child with developmental difficulties. Guess what we said. We said “no.” We said we did not think we could handle that challenge.
“Yes, we have discerned God’s will that we welcome a child into our lives, but only if the challenge is one we can handle.” Unbeknownst to us all, Tristan did have developmental difficulties. And because of that Tristan is a challenge. Any child is, but he maybe more than most. I tried to say “no” to him. But that was just an excuse. It was a constraint I tried to put on full trust in God.
How do I know that saying “no” to a developmentally challenged child was just an excuse? Because it was taken away. As all our excuses will be. All our excuses will be ripped away.
You know what that leaves behind? It leaves behind a scar. A permanent wound.
Jesus Christ said “yes” unreservedly to the will of his Father. He said “yes, thy will be done, not my will but thy will be done.” He said that all the way to the cross. And it left him with scars. And maybe that is what Thomas wanted to see all along. Maybe he only wanted to see what the other disciples had already seen, what Jesus showed them, his wounded hands and side. Perhaps Thomas knew that by his scars he would recognize his Lord and God.
The scars on the body of our Lord Jesus Christ make him who he is: He is and remains the crucified one, and even his resurrected body bears the marks of his crucifixion.
How often do we deny ourselves this opportunity to see him, to touch his wounded body? How often do we doubt? How often do we say to ourselves, “I will do what God is asking me as long as I can also make money at it.” Or “I will believe that God is asking me to make a sacrifice just as soon as he gives me a super awesome sign that that is what I should do.” Or “If I get into the school I want or get the job I want or get to date the person I want, then I will get rid of that harmful habit that keeps me from closer intimacy with God.”
To believe is to let these excuses be ripped out of your life. And to believe is to be scarred. It is to open yourself to hurt and pain and loss. But when you are scarred you will be like the one who was wounded by his perfect love. You will recognize him for who he is, and like Thomas you will know him as Lord and God. Amen.