Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"The Thomas in Us All"

Message preached April 3, 2005
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  

Order of Worship

            Do you ever catch yourself associating a character from the Bible with someone you know who may go by the same name? That is what Iíve done with the disciple Thomas. The picture I have of this man in my head is a spitting image of my cousin Tom. I met this relative of mine for the first time, more than forty years ago, when our family visited his home one summer. As it was past midnight when we arrived, my sleeping body was tucked in next to his. Our first sight of one another was face to face in bed early the next morning. Tom, who was four or five years of age at the time, remembers this more clearly than do I. I guess if I had a stranger wake up in my bed with me, it would make an impression.

            "Are you my cousin, Peter?" he remembers asking. "Uh-huh," I answered. And we spent the rest of the visit, as we did every visit thereafter, making a farm out of their gravel driveway with all of Tomís toy tractors, trucks, and animals.

            Tomís and my relationship didnít survive the transition out of this toy farm stage. He battled with his adopted parents and moved out early. We rarely talked after that. I never got invited into his new life to play with his new toys. The Tom I see when I think of him is the grown man Iíve met only a few times, with mussed up hair, dark eyes, stubble on the chin, disheveled clothes, and hands and face dirty from work. From the few talks weíve had, I see him as a somewhat angry man, still a bit confused over his family origins and full of doubt about himself, his family, and his God.- though I may be wrong.

            For better or for worse, this is the Thomas I see when I turn to the Gospel accounts. It probably is not a very accurate picture of that original Thomas, but it allows me to enter the scripture in a personal way. Though my cousin Tom and I share little in common, deep down we are more alike than I might want to admit.

            The biggest hour for the disciple Thomas is found only in Johnís gospel. Let me retell the episode for you. It all happened after the tomb in which the crucified Jesus had been buried was discovered empty. According to the fourth Gospel, Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ. Peter and the beloved disciple then verified her discovery of the empty tomb. "I have seen the Lord," she told all the disciples. Youíd think after hearing her story that theyíd all run to see for themselves. Of course, men often find it difficult to believe women, which is sad. With this in mind, itís interesting to note that in every scripture account the first witnesses of the resurrection were women.

            Instead of moving with the excitement of Maryís testimony, the disciples closed their doors, according to John. Talk about a lack of enthusiasm! The greatest news in the world is afoot and they shut themselves off from it. Isnít that what usually happens? Fear; thatís the reason given. Fear. Not fear of Jesus and something wonderful happening. No, fear of "the Jews," fear of what others might be thinking, or doing. Isnít that usually the reason we close our doors as well? Weíre afraid of what everybody else might think, or say, or do. That doesnít really matter, though, for no closed door can keep Jesus out. He didnít force himself in, you understand, he just came and stood among those disciples. Thatís also how it often is. Jesus is there all the time. We just donít have the eyes of faith to perceive his presence.

            He came to the disciples in that closed room. "Peace be with you," he said. "Shalom!" This risen Christ is the embodiment of Godís peace. The marks of reconciliation, the print of those nails upon the cross, are visible to those who would see. Fear changes to Joy. There in the stuffiness of that closed room Jesus commissioned his disciples to go forth, and gave them the power to do so. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you," he said. You are to be my presence, my Fatherís presence, in this world. You will embody Godís peace. The world will see you. The marks of reconciliation will be visible in your lives. The Father so loved the world that he sent me, and so I send you. Shine forth your light.

            As Jesus commissioned them, he empowered them. "Receive the Holy Spirit," he said, having breathed on them. The wind of his breath blew open the doors of that stuffy room just as surely as the wind of God blew through the first moments of creation, breathing new life into those disciples just like God breathed the breath of life into that lump of dust he had fashioned and called "Adam." And the Holy Spirit would be the presence of Jesus to them as they, and all the disciples after them - to this very day - would embody Godís forgiveness in this stuffy, dark, and fearful world. What a night that mustíve been!

            Not everyone experienced his visit, however. Thomas had been absent. Why? Who knows? No doubt he had his reasons. Perhaps he was the only one caught up in the excitement of Mary Magdaleneís testimony, and he was out searching for the risen Christ. Maybe . . . maybe not. Perhaps his own depression and fear had led him away from the others, drowning his sorrows in some alcoholic brew. Maybe . . . maybe not. The point is, we are not told why he wasnít there - for in many ways Thomas represents the doubter in us all, and itís up to us to fill in the blanks.

            As for me, I see my cousin Tom. It just makes sense that he wouldnít be there, like all the family get-togethers heís shied away from, at least the few Iíve attended. Well, I guess Iíve done my share of staying away from family reunions. The miles between us have always been an easy excuse. Tom didnít make it to my Dadís funeral back in Ď83. Of course, none of the other cousins did either, distance and all. No card, no letter, no phone call. None either way, really. Itís hard to bridge the gap between play toys and real death. To be honest, I didnít make it to his fatherís funeral this past February. Kokomo, Indiana is a fair distance, especially when the service is on the Lordís day and I have responsibilities here.

            No, Tom wouldnít have been there in that stuffy room on that first Easter Sunday. Maybe I wouldnít have been there either. Name the excuses. There are always other responsibilities, important things that get in the way. Mind you, the original disciple Thomas did eventually show up, after all the excitement. When heheard the news about Jesus appearing to the others, he responded in the most natural way: doubt. "Unless I see it, I ainít gonna believe it!"

            In many ways Thomas speaks for us all, doesnít he? Oh, we can talk up a storm about resurrection, but deep down the doubter dwells. And that is as it should be. If we arenít aware of our own doubt, weíll live it unknowingly. Weíll profess the right words but weíll live as if they arenít true. Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds." Robert Browning penned, "You call for faith: I show you doubt, to prove that faith exists. The more of doubt, the stronger faith, I say, if faith oíercomes doubt."

            Doubt is a part of faith. If there were no doubt, there would be no faith. Even so, a person canít really live in doubt. Doubt becomes the soil out of which grows faith. Without faith, the soil becomes as dust - lifeless and blown away by the wind. I hate to say it, but the picture of my cousin Tom in my head is rather dusty and lifeless and blown by the wind. And this is Thomas the disciple, as I see him, the doubter in us all. However, as no doors can shut out the risen Christ, neither can the dustiness of doubt - though, again, Jesus does not force himself in.

            A week after dusty, Ďol Thomas confesses his lack of faith in a "no see, no believe" fashion, Jesus returns. Again the doors are shut. "Peace be with you," he says to them all. This time Thomas sees him. The risen Lord faces squarely into the doubt of Thomas. "Put your finger here, and see my hands. Put out your hand and place it in my side." The marks of reconciliation. Jesus looks him square in the eye. "Do not be faithless, Thomas, believe." The dustiness and lifelessness in the eyes of this doubting Thomas, who is every doubter, is blown away by the presence of Jesus. The scripture doesnít say so, but the breath of the Spirit seems to blow across the page as we read of this encounter. Itís as if black and white is changed to color, as Thomas the doubter becomes Thomas the believer.

            "My Lord and My God," he confesses, the high point of Johnís Gospel, one of the highest confessions in all four gospels of Jesusí divinity. One commentator describes this episode as if it were a play, with the actors on a stage. At this moment in the drama it is as if the lights in the auditorium come on and people in the audience can begin to see themselves and others around them. With the lights on, Jesus seems to turn and face the audience - us, and bless us with his attention. "Thomas believed me because he saw me. Blessed are you who have not seen and yet believe . . ."

            "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," wrote the author of Hebrews (11:1). With Thomas, the disciple, scripture doesnít say that he touched the wounds of Jesus. In fact, there is some question as to whether his confession of faith would have been for real if he had. It wasnít so much the meeting of his conditions for faith which brought about his confession of faith. Rather, it was the gift of Christís presence.

            Though the physical presence of the Messiah Jesus is not something we today can see with these eyes on the front of our faces, we may know that he is alive and with us by faith, through the breath of his Holy Spirit. That wind still blows. "Seeing is believing?" ... No, the truth is - "Believing is seeing." When we believe in the risen Christ, we see that every morning is Easter morning, every day is resurrection day - whether it happens seven days later or two thousand years.

(published in Messenger magazine, April 1997, vol 146, no. 4, p. 24)   

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Ephesians.


©1988. 1991, 1997, rev. ed. 2005 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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