Absent Thomas

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John 20:19-31 NRSV

On the very first Easter Sunday, John tells us that the disciples had gathered together in a house. The doors of the house were locked underscoring the great anxiety they were experiencing. Peter had probably reported to the disciples that Jesus’ body had apparently been stolen. So, they were all probably afraid that the ones who had stolen the body of Jesus would soon be coming after them.

The disciples are not only fearful, they were also despairing. The Jesus for whom they had left their families and all forms of security to follow was gone. The one in whom they placed all of their trust had been crucified. The one for whom they all vowed to even give up their very lives was dead, and now his body is missing.

It is then, as they were gathered together as a community of faith, Jesus shows up and speaks to them great words of comfort and assurance: “Peace be with you.”  Jesus, wanting them to know that he was the very one who was crucified, showed the disciples the wounds on his hands and in his side.  And suddenly, the disciples fear and trembling was transformed into rejoicing.

I believe this speaks volumes about the presence of the risen Lord. First of all, the presence of the resurrected Lord is always transforming. When Jesus shows up, despair is transformed into hope, fear into rejoicing, and as the wounds on his hands and in his side testify, death into life.

John also tells us that Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He then breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is why this glorious event is commonly referred to as “John’s Pentecost Story.”  For John, this is where the Church is born and commissioned.

However, in the middle of all of this rejoicing, we get our first inkling that something is wrong. It is here we read that sometimes dreaded conjunction: “but.”

ButThomas, who was one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  All of the disciples were gathered together in community with their family of faith—all of them, except Thomas.

We can only guess where he was—somewhere perhaps out on his own; someplace withdrawn, somewhere isolated, in some private sanctuary. We just know he was absent from his community of faith.

Later, when the disciples find Thomas and tell him that they had seen the Lord, Thomas responds with those infamous words that has given him the nickname, “Doubting Thomas.” “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I will not believe.”

We like to call him “Doubting Thomas.” However, when you think about it, that is really an unfair designation, because Thomas is really no different from the other disciples. Thomas is not asking for anything more than the other disciples received on that first Easter. The only thing that makes Thomas different from the others is that he was not present with his community of faith when they gathered on Sunday morning. He’s not so much a “doubting Thomas” as he is an “absent Thomas.” The risen Christ showed up as the disciples gathered together in community, and absent Thomas missed it all!

No, we really don’t know why Thomas was absent on that Sunday. But those of us who have been a part of the church could certainly guess, couldn’t we?

Have you ever been tempted to stay home on Sunday morning? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I don’t need those people down at the church to experience God! After all, there are people there who have hurt my feelings. There are people there who get on my nerves. I can experience God better on my back porch, taking a walk in a park, or watching the sunrise all by myself.”

Maybe Thomas was tired of the politics, tired of being around people who were all about power and control. Maybe he was tired of all the self-absorbed arguments about who was going to be seated where in the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe he was simply sick of being around people who were constantly disappointing Jesus—people who could never follow through with their commitments, keep their promises, fulfill their obligations. Maybe he was tired of all of the back-biting, manipulation, resentment, and jealousy. And perhaps he was sick and tired of the way he personally kept failing, kept making mistakes, kept falling short.

So when Sunday came around, Thomas stayed home. Thomas decided that he could worship God better on his back porch with a cup of coffee and a sunrise. And who could blame him?

But here’s the problem.

In staying home on Sunday, in avoiding community, in missing church, Thomas not only missed the transforming presence of the risen Lord and missed his commissioning to be the church in this world,

but in verse 26 we read, that Jesus did not appear to Thomas until “a week later.”

Think about that. A whole week later. Thomas, the only disciple who missed seeing Jesus, the only one who missed the transforming power of the risen Christ, the only one who missed the commissioning of the Holy Spirit, did not receive a personal, private visit from Jesus on Monday morning. He didn’t get a phone call on Tuesday, or a card in the mail on Wednesday letting him know he was missed. There was no text message on Thursday, no email on Friday or facebook post on Saturday.

Thomas had to wait an entire week—until when? When the disciples were again gathered together in community. For it is in community where we experience the Risen Christ.

Listen again to verse 26. “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.” I bet he was!

And just like the week before with the other disciples, Jesus gives Thomas what he needs to experience the fullness of his transforming presence. Jesus says 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.” And this time, not so much because Thomas had stopped questioning, stopped doubting, but because Thomas was present, because he was in community, the risen Lord gave Thomas what he needed to exclaim: “My Lord and my God.”

One of the biggest problems with the church today is not doubt, but a belief that the gospel can be lived a part form community.

The Christian faith today is that it has been moderated to a private, personal transaction between the individual and God. The community-organizing, campaign-building, forward-marching, culture-challenging gospel of Jesus that hast the power to face and transform the world and it’s troubles has been reduced to an individual’s personal ticket to leave this world and its troubles behind.

Our faith has become more about a personal relationship with God and less about a going on a public mission with God. It has become more about worshiping Jesus in the heart and less about following Jesus in the world.

But it was Jesus who announced the gospel by saying:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free… (Luke 4:18).

As follower of Christ, this is our mission. And there’s is just no we can accomplish this mission alone, by ourselves, watching the sunrise or walking our dog in the park.

Because the gospel of Jesus is not good news to the individual. It is good news to the poor.

The gospel of Jesus is not about the release of an individual’s soul. It is about speaking out to release all who are held captive, physically, systemically and spiritually.

The gospel of Jesus is not about an individual closing their eyes in thoughts and prayers to the troubles of this world. It is about possessing eyes that are wide-open to the world’s problems and having the power to come together to do something about it.

The gospel of Jesus is not about individual freedom. It is about coming together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, leaning on one another and on God, while working for the liberty and justice of all.

It is only by coming together as a community that we become who we were created to be as human beings and called to be as disciples of Christ. Our faith in the risen Christ is personal, but it is never private. It is through our coming together, that we experience the fullness of the presence of the risen Lord and are given the power transform the world.

The church is far from perfect. There can be power plays, accusations, denials and desertion. There’s apathy, jealousy, resentment and failure. There’s cowardice, compromise, manipulation, selfishness, intolerance, and malicious words. This is the way it has always been, even with the first group of disciples.

However, when we come together in the name of Christ, something miraculous happens that we call Easter. In spite of all of our imperfections and sin, the risen Christ shows up. He gives us what we need to believe. And we are transformed. And then we are commissioned to transform the world.

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