The Second Sunday of Easter, Year A.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”John 20:19-29
David Starr Jordan had spent his career identifying and categorizing fish. He had spent nearly thirty years travelling throughout the coastal United States observing, documenting, and capturing reference specimens as a pioneer of fish taxonomy in the late 19th century. By the time he had settled into academic life near the turn of the 20th century after years in the field, he had identified nearly 2,500 unique species of fish. In his California lab he had a library of specimens for researchers and reference; thousands of fish in glass jars, neatly categorized and organized with tin tags for labels.
Then the great earthquake of 1906 hit San Francisco.
When the immediate danger had passed, and Dr. Jordan was able to inspect his lab, he found that the building had survived. But to his crushing disappointment, all the specimens had been destroyed. Glass, embalming fluid, fish pieces, and even the tin tags were scattered on the floor. A life’s work of identification and organization reduced to a mass of chaos, a cruel unmaking of all his accomplishments.
Rather than do the reasonable thing, accepting the loss, relying on his notes, or perhaps even retiring, he believed in the value of his work. Rather than doing the reasonable thing he bought all the sewing supplies, glass, and other materials he could, and began putting his library back together again.
There is a certain paralysis that grips the soul after a disaster. When any sense of reasonableness and order to the world shatters on the floor, and all our carefully conceived plans are shattered with it, even the firmest of convictions are called into question. Even the most courageous are forced to hesitate.
This is the predicament the disciples find themselves in the days following the Resurrection. In the wake disaster they are paralyzed with fear. Their leader and their hope hung on a cross, they imprison themselves in quiet upper rooms with locked doors, unsure what to do next.
They are unsure until they are confronted by the Risen Jesus, who cannot be kept out by fear, disappointment, or even secret chambers behind locked doors. What is remarkable about this episode, in addition to the miraculous appearance, is that Jesus offers only the smallest of comforts to his disciples. A simple “Shalom”, and testimony to His identity by showing His scars is the only comfort He gives to the disciples. He is not appearing to mourn His own death with His followers, He is appearing to shake them awake out of their stupor. He is appearing to call them out of hiding, there is work to be done: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
The disciples remain paralyzed with fear.
Despite the miraculous appearance and the commission to carry on the Mission from the Lord Himself, the disciples spend another week hiding in locked rooms, still hesitating. This is where we learn that one of the disciples was missing from the first appearance: Thomas.
Thomas has received an unfair reputation as the centuries have worn on. From this story and its equivalent in Luke, Thomas has become an adjective of skepticism: “Doubting Thomas”. From John’s account at least, Thomas’ record as a faithful disciple surpasses Peter, and possibly even the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. If we look at Chapter 11, when the disciples are reluctant to go to Bethany, it is Thomas who takes a stand and calls his peers to follow Jesus, regardless of personal safety, “Let us…go, that we may die with him” [John 11:16]. In Chapter 14, when Jesus explains to the disciples that He is to die, but through His death is preparing a place for them in heaven, Thomas, almost too pragmatic for his own good, asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” [John 14:5].
Thomas’ story is not about his lack of faith, at least not in any intellectual sense. Thomas is not a modern skeptic or materialist that can only accept any claim by his own observation, Thomas is not so vain. Thomas, like the other disciples, is hesitant after the disaster that has befallen them. Thomas needs direction and inspiration to carry on, and he asks only for the same witness that his peers received: to see God even in the midst of fear and despair. When Thomas can see Jesus, he surpasses the faith of the other disciples. While they rejoiced, their hesitation betrayed them. They may have been glad to see the Lord, but they still failed to see who He is, and what they are called to do. Thomas is the first to truly see Jesus. “My Lord and my God!” is the profound theological statement that so-called doubting Thomas correctly recognizes Jesus as God incarnate.
Thomas’ story is not about the false dichotomy between faith and evidence, nor is it to inspire the faithful who did not have the opportunity to be present for Jesus’ earthly ministry “those who have not seen, yet still have believed” at the expense of a faithful disciples’ reputation. The story tells us the Good News that God is always amongst us, even when our world has fallen apart. It is instructive how to carry on in the face of disaster.
How can one have faith when everything has come crashing down? How can we have hope for a better world when all evidence proves the opposite? What is often misunderstood about faith is that it is both given and made. Faith does not come from either ignoring contrary evidence, nor from receiving extraordinary evidence. Faith is not given to the chosen few to be lorded over the skeptical masses. Faith is seeing God in all places, even amongst the rubble. Faith is asking, even demanding, to see God when the calamity is so great that we cannot see God by our own power. Faith is given when we recognize God when He inevitably appears.
Faith is made when we break free from fear, and choose to believe in the Mission. Faith is made when we look in the face of despair and believe the work is too important to be left scattered on the floor. In the darkest of hours, in the thickest clouds of uncertainty, we are given faith when we look for faith.
As the work is not yet done, we will still face disaster. Even Dr. Jordan, after rebuilding his lab lost everything again after it was struck by lightning, and again in another earthquake. Yet after each disaster he rebuilt. Stitching it back together, one piece at a time. Though a skeptic in many things, he believed in the efficacy of his work. The disciples were scattered throughout the world, each facing rejection, persecution, even death. Yet for each time they lost everything, they rebuilt and continued proclaiming the Gospel. Whenever they were lost, hesitant, or unsure, they found the Risen Lord through the work they are entrusted with.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”