By Emily Sylvester
Some years ago I was a tourist in Scotland. It was a particularly bright and sunny day in Inverness. I stopped a friendly looking fellow and asked what I should see before I continued on west to the Isle of Skye. “Nessie,” he said, “you’ve got to see Nessie before you go.” I must have smiled. My eyes might have even asked him if he really believed in the Loch Ness monster. I don’t know if he was just pulling a tourist’s leg or not, but he said, “O, yes. Of course I believe in Nessie. We all do.”
And isn’t that just what life is like? People are always telling us things that seem so… unlikely. Like a dentist saying this won’t hurt. Or a sales clerk saying of course we look fabulous in orange. Or a disciple saying he’s alive. We’ve seen him. They are asking us to believe something incredible and simply on their say so. And that’s hard to do.
That’s why John wrote his gospel the way he did. His was the last of the four gospels to be written. By the time he wrote it, all the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had passed on. John wrote his gospel for the people who believed even though they’d never meet an eyewitness. They believed because they’d read the accounts of those who had, and the Spirit of God had breathed on them and won them over.
But it hadn’t seemed to be breathing in that first silent and airless night. One by one they’d crept back to the upper room where they’d last eaten together. The aroma of Passover lamb and bitter herbs still lingered on the air. They were a sorry, scared, and pitiful lot. Some women were weeping in one corner. Two of them sat back from the others, lost in their own thoughts. They’d been the first to go out that morning, and the first to run back, incoherent with shock and grief and hope and a crazed rant about an empty tomb. No one believed them of course. They hardly believed it themselves. One stared down at her own hands and shuddered. She was thinking she wished she’d held on to him despite what he’d said.
Some men crouched by the wall near the locked door. They flinched at every sound on the stairs outside. It was not unheard of for a condemned man’s followers to be rounded up and executed within days of the first. The Romans were efficient at that sort of thing. “We can’t stay here,” one whispered, “this is the first place they’ll look. Everyone saw the donkey and they’ll figure out who we borrowed it from. It will lead them straight to the man who lent us this room for our Passover meal. They’ll make him tell them where we are.” Another man stared down at his own hands and shuddered. He was thinking of the sword he’d struck one of the Roman soldiers with.
Some other men sat under the window shuttered against the sounds of the street below. They sat in silence, unwilling to give voice yet to just how angry and deserted and ashamed they each felt. They had loved him. They had trusted him. They had followed him for three years and look where he had led them to before he abandoned them. One man stared down at his own hands and shuddered. He was thinking of how the soldiers had snatched away his cloak when he’d run. And he’d thought he’d loved their rabbi most of all.
Some were missing from the room. Judas and Thomas were gone, perhaps to seek out the news in the streets – were they being accused of robbing his body from the grave? Were the gates being watched? Had the two from Emmaus gotten through or were they already being held and questioned?
A gentle breeze ruffled the air. A hush, a breath, a sigh, and suddenly the one they all were thinking of was standing in the room before them. “Shalom,” he said, which means, “Peace be with you.” Not, “Where were you?” not “How could you abandon me just when I need you most?” but, “Peace be with you. Peace be with you.” He said, “The work our Father gave me I now give to you. Go out among my people. What you forgive will be forgiven. What you do not forgive will stay unforgiven.” He said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m not sending you out alone. I’m coming with you.” And he breathed on them all and they were filled with wonder and inarticulate joy and he disappeared and that’s when Thomas knocked on the door.
Thomas stepped into the room like stepping into a room in chaos. The men were shouting and the women were wailing and everyone’s arms were waving and some of them even snatched at his sleeve to snatch at his attention. “Silence!” he shouted, then “You’re mad!” then “You’re as mad as the women this morning!” and he flung himself into the far corner to stare at the others in amazement.
Thomas was not a bad man. He’d been one of the first to declare his faith in their rabbi. He’d been ready to lay down his life for him. He just wasn’t fanciful. He wasn’t going to pretend to believe in something just because he wished it were so. He shook his head. They needed to get on with their lives if they were going to survive this. Not open their wounds all over again with hysteria. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he whispered. He looked down at his own hands and shuddered, thinking, “and feel it too.” But no one heard him except the one who was now invisible to them all, and he waited his time.
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A week passed. The room was silent and airless. They still huddled in fear behind the locked door. Thomas sighed. A pity what they’d said was true so obviously wasn’t. None of them had begun to do the work they claimed their Lord had given them to do. None of them had gone outside to heal or to preach or even to feed a hungry child. None of them stood straight and tall and confident like he really believed what they said they’d seen. They looked the same sorry, scared and pitiful lot they’d been a week ago. Thomas sighed again.
A gentle breeze ruffled the air. A hush, a breath, a sigh, and suddenly the one they all were thinking of was standing in the room before them. “Shalom,” he said, “peace be with you. Thomas,” he said, “touch my side. My hands. This is what death feels like. But Thomas, now feel life.” But Thomas touched him not at all. Instead, he fell to his knees, and whispered, “My Lord and my God.” And Jesus laid his hands upon him and said, “Friend, friend, do you only believe what you experience through your eyes? How much happier are those who believe what they experience through my spirit.”
And that is how scholars think John ended his gospel. There is one more chapter scholars think was added years later by editors who needed to add their interpretation of the story. For John, the resounding truth was that even the first disciples didn’t believe in the resurrection until after they’d seen it. “And you have as much reason to believe as they ever did,” John wrote, “because now you’ve not only read their reports, you’ve felt the Spirit of God breathe on you, too.”
And one of the first to feel the Spirit’s breath was Thomas. If the others had really felt the spirit of the risen Lord like they said they had, they sure didn’t act like it. A week later they were still hiding in the dark! Thomas was right to doubt what they so obviously seemed to doubt themselves. The stakes were too high – for him, and for us, too.
Because Thomas is pretty much like the rest of us. We have our own doubts. It’s hard to admit that, especially when the other Easter stories seem to claim everyone believed right away. The story of Thomas is a story of the one who didn’t. It’s the story of an honest, honest man who loved his Lord too much to confuse what he believed to be true with what he only wished were true. He needed proof.
And here is the Good News. God doesn’t mind. He’d rather we were honest with our doubts than pretend we don’t have them. He doesn’t want just a shallow and emotional response from us. He wants our minds as well as our hearts. He wants us to wrestle with our faith. He knows that’s what makes it stronger. He knows that’s the only way we can open ourselves to let his spirit work within us.
I should have talked with that friendly looking fellow in Inverness a bit longer. Admitted my doubts. Confessed my disbelief. I should have given him the chance to prove something to me that he believed in and I didn’t. Because I didn’t, I still don’t.
So we’re glad Thomas stood up for us with his two feet planted firmly on the ground and challenged God, “Prove it!” And God didn’t answer, “Thomas, don’t be ridiculous.” Or, “Thomas, I’ve shown the others and that’s good enough.” No, the God who loves us so much he went back searching for one lost sheep, and the God who held a party to celebrate finding one lost coin, that God answered, “Thomas, you’re on!” and rolled up his sleeves and showed him exactly what death and life feel like. Then God breathed on him the Spirit that, after we have wrestled with our own hesitations, he breathes on us too.
Copyright 2007, Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.