In the Name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
I have to admit that I can identify with Thomas. He’s a little bit cynical. He’s not going to be carried along by every conspiracy theory and fairy tale hope. I’ve heard far too many superstitious stories, sometimes involving departed loved ones, to believe everything that people tell me, as if there isn’t likely a simpler and better explanation (like wishful thinking or coincidence). Thomas is a realist. He calls a thing what it is, and he knows that we don’t get to contrive the meaning of something for ourselves or create our own reality. Thomas believes that if he observes real things in the real world, he can know something about them, that there is such a thing as objective truth and objective reality above us and outside of us, regardless of what we think or feel or wish in our pain.
In that sense, Thomas would have a definite problem with where we’re going today as a culture. For as a society we don’t believe that things have meaning and purpose established and given by God. Rather, we assume that we get to define the meaning of things for ourselves, even to the point of defining our own “identity.” Meaning and truth supposedly come from within us. And any outside meaning given to us by our Creator is to be rejected if it doesn’t feel right for us. How else can we look at someone whose every bodily cell is male and call him a woman? How else can we look at a clearly designed and fine-tuned universe and say that it all came to be by chance random processes? Or look at a same-sex couple and call them married? Or look at an unborn baby and say that ending its life is “women’s health care” or “a courageous choice?” Or, on a more personal and uncomfortable level, how can we look at one of God’s clear commands and say to ourselves that it doesn’t really apply to us in our own particular situation?
No, Thomas knew that you don’t get to define your own reality. Reality has a way of imposing itself on us. And so when it came to the events of Holy Week, “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.” Thomas needed to use his bodily senses in order to believe. And the fact of the matter is, so do I, and so do you! For God created our bodies as well as our souls, our reason, and all our senses. And so, it is not necessarily a bad thing that we desire real sensory things in order to believe. After all, Scripture says that faith comes by the sense of hearing.
The problem with Thomas is this: Even after he heard the testimony of trusted friends who had experienced real things (that could not have been communally hallucinated), things that Jesus Himself foretold, he still did not believe. That is where Thomas the realist goes wrong, when he says, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Now Thomas has shifted from being a realist to being a mere materialist who only counts visible, physical things as real. He reduced everything down to the sense of sight (and touch). Thomas had seen his Lord whipped and the cruel thorns driven into His holy head. He had seen his blessed hands, feet, and side pierced with nails and spear. He had seen His lifeless body taken down from the cross and placed into a tomb. The only thing that seemed real to him was that visible material reality of death.
But Thomas really should have known better from his own experiences with Jesus. For Thomas himself had witnessed Jesus raise the widow’s son from Nain, and Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus from death. He had seen the signs Jesus performed, confirming and fulfilling the prophecies of God’s Word. Thomas had heard with his God-given ears and comprehended with his God-given reason. Thomas had every reason to believe that Jesus really was risen and alive, just as He had said before His crucifixion, just as Thomas’ friends recounted to him. But still, “The vision of his skeptic mind /was keen enough to make him blind/ to any unexpected act/ too large for his small world of fact.” In his sorrow, Thomas had become like a modern materialist. “His reasoned certainties denied/ that one could live when one had died.” So it is with much that passes as science today; it is a close-minded ideology, a “small world of fact,” a materialist, godless, and ultimately hopeless view of life.
However, our Lord is gracious and merciful. He comes to us in our fears and sorrows and weaknesses and misguided thinking to restore us and to free us from our little locked-up rooms. Notice how both times when Jesus comes to His disciples, the first words out of His mouth are “Peace to you.” On the first occasion without Thomas, the disciples were gathered in fear of what was going to happen to them at the hands of the authorities who had killed their Teacher. They were feeling guilty for how they had behaved–fleeing when Jesus was arrested, even engaging in cowardly denial. They didn’t know what to make of the women’s news of the empty tomb. They were a sad, lost bunch. But when the risen Lord appears to them in the flesh, His words bring them life and hope: Peace be with you. It’s going to be OK. I am not here to bring judgment on you, but mercy. The blood that I shed on the cross has cleansed you of all your sin. You are at peace with God the Father now, reconciled to Him through Me. All is well. Fear not. Your future is safe with Me.
And that’s the message the Lord has for you this day. We, too, are sometimes a sad, lost, and confused bunch–fearful, burdened by guilt, following wrongheaded ideas. But Jesus has already entered our assembly today with His words of peace, saying, “I forgive you all your sins.” For what did He say to His apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” By breathing His Holy Spirit on these men, Jesus ordained them and all those who serve in the pastoral ministry after them to stand in His stead and speak His words. And so the forgiveness I speak to you is not mine but Jesus’ Himself; it is just as valid and certain as Jesus speaking to the disciples that first Easter evening. “Peace be with you. I am alive in victory over sin and Satan and the grave for you, so that you may share in my victory. My cross has purified you of your pollutions and your errors, and my resurrection has put you right with the Father as His beloved children. Do not be afraid but rejoice; you’re going to be alright. In Me you have a life that cannot be corrupted or destroyed. I forgive you. You are Mine.”
And then on the second occasion, a week later Thomas was there. He had avoided the assembly of believers the week before–didn’t seem practical or necessary–and so he missed out on the good stuff when Jesus was present for them with His peace. That’s what happens when you skip church; it may very well be the week you especially needed to be there. That’s why we should do what the disciples surely did and invite and encourage those who are absent in our assembly to come back and receive the gifts of Christ the next week.
Jesus comes back to the disciples the next Sunday, on the 8th day, one day beyond the seven days of this creation. For truly with His resurrection Jesus has ushered in an eternal 8th day, a new creation freed from the curse of sin and death in this old creation. That’s how we should think of every Sunday and every divine service, as a participation in the 8th day of Christ, where He brings the life of the new creation into this old creation by means of His words and His supper.
In His glorified humanity, Jesus does not need the door to be unlocked for him to enter and be present. The omnipresent risen Lord comes into the midst of the disciples, and He says to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Then Thomas’ “fingers read like braille/ the markings of the spear and nail.” By Jesus’ wounds we are healed and forgiven. By Jesus’ wounds Thomas is brought back to faith. He confesses the truth of who Jesus is, “My Lord and my God!” If you think about it, Thomas’ confession of faith is just as great as Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And both are given from above. No longer doubting, Thomas confessed Jesus to be God Himself in the flesh. And then Jesus gently says to Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Thomas had everything he needed to believe, but, like we often do, he became enslaved by his desire for visible proof, and he forgot that God had also given him ears to hear the good news of His Word and believe.
Jesus still shows us His wounds today, that our faith may be strengthened. Our resurrected Lord invites you to behold His hands and His side in the Sacrament of the Altar so that you may share in His life. You touch the nail marks in His hands. For with His own hands, Christ gives you His true body, which is imprinted with the mark of the cross. And you reach out our hand and put it into His side. For what was it that flowed from Christ’s side but His precious blood? Therefore, when you reach for the blessed cup of Christ and receive His life-giving blood, you are truly touching His holy side. Do not be unbelieving but believing. That’s why it is that the minister holds high the body and blood of Christ before Holy Communion and says, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” The words and the wounds of Jesus bring you that peace, real peace with God. By your “Amen” you are confessing right along with Thomas, “My Lord and God!” “May we, O God, by grace believe/ and thus the risen Christ receive,/ whose raw imprinted palms reached out/ and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.”
So by all means, use your God-given senses to be a realist, to observe and study His creation and to discern its meaning and purpose. Use your reason and all your senses to understand and believe and receive Christ who comes to you from outside of you. And above all, learn the lesson of Thomas and use your ears. Blessed are you who have not seen, but who use your sense of hearing to listen to His Word, the Holy Scriptures. For His Word is Truth. Everything that you perceive with your senses finds its meaning in the words of God. And the words of God are all about Jesus your Redeemer. “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.”
In the Name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
(With thanks to Jon Ellingworth for some of these ideas)