Something I find very encouraging are the plans for reopening our lives, including our churches. Typically those plans include three or four steps, a delineation of the conditions that would need to exist in order to go to the next step, a warning that it would be easy to have to go back to a previous step, and a concern for the elderly, those with prior conditions, and others who are among the most vulnerable. Typically, the steps basically go in this order – from severe social distancing protocols to moderate social distancing protocols to limited social distancing protocols.
Thinking through the well-known account in John 20 of Jesus’ appearing to His disciples on Easter Sunday evening, when Thomas was not with them, and then a week later, when Thomas was with them, I find the early disciples going through very similar steps.
John starts out by telling us that on Easter Sunday evening “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” (verse 19) Like we have been, so the disciples were under strict self-quarantine. They were inside, not because of a virus, but because of their fear of the Jewish leaders who might do to them what they had done to Jesus. And the doors were not only shut, they were locked.
What did Jesus give to them to help them move from step one to step two? Six things, and Jesus wants to and can give the same six things to us.
First, His presence. Verse 19 says, “Jesus came and stood among them.” Nothing about their circumstances – neither their fears nor the walls nor the locked doors – were able to keep Him out. And nothing about our present circumstances – including all of our fears – need keep Him away.
Second, His peace. Twice – in verse 19 and then again in verse 21 – Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” Peace is also what we need. The peace that passes understanding. The peace that the world cannot give. The peace that only God can give.
Third, unmistakable evidence of His resurrection. Verse 20 – “He showed them His hands and His side.” We also need unmistakable evidence that Jesus is alive. We need the reliable, eyewitness accounts of those who were there. We need that sure and certain hope that comes from knowing that God has defeated our greatest enemies – sin, death, and the power of the devil – even the impact of the corona virus – through the resurrection.
Fourth, a purpose and a calling. Verse 21 – “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.” I know that for me – as I seek to cope with these “stay at home” days – it has been so extremely helpful to have a purpose and a calling. It has been so helpful for me to be able to be involved in ministry that I value very much. To be able to teach a Bible study that is recorded and then posted on the websites and Facebook pages of two congregations. And to be able to do my work as executive director of Lutheran CORE.
Fifth, verse 22 – “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” We do not want or need either Jesus or us to have to wear a facial mask. We are not afraid of getting the corona virus from His breathing on us. Rather we need the Holy Spirit, whom we will receive through His breathing on us.
Sixth, authority. In verse 23 Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The one who just before His ascension said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18), has shared with us His authority. We do not need to go out timid, afraid, uncertain, and insecure. Rather we are going and we are speaking in the name of and with the authority of the one who has all authority.
All of that must have helped the disciples move from Step One to Step Two, because verse 26 tells us that a week later the disciples were again in the house. This time Thomas was with them. And even though verse 26 tells us that the doors were shut, it does not say that they were locked. The disciples had moved from step one to step two.
Again Jesus comes and stands among them. Again He says, “Peace be with you.” The disciples, including Thomas, are now ready to move on to step three.
Jesus invites Thomas to do what Thomas had said he would need to do in order to be able to believe that Jesus is alive – “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.” (verse 25) But it does not say that Thomas actually did what he had said he would need to do in order to believe. Rather in verse 28 Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas became the first disciple to be recorded as actually calling Jesus God.
Thomas Was All In
I believe that Thomas (so called Doubting Thomas) has been given a bum rap. I believe that Thomas wanted to believe. With all his heart he wanted to believe. But death seemed final. The grave seemed irreversible. What the disciples were saying – “We have seen the Lord” (verse 25) – was just too good to be true. So, he could not believe.
But when he did come to believe, he went all the way. He was all in. He became the first disciple to be recorded as calling Jesus God. Other disciples had called Jesus many other things during the previous three years – Rabbi, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But Thomas was the first disciple to call Jesus God.
And Thomas did not relapse from Step Three back to Steps One or Two. Early Christian writings say that Thomas brought the Gospel to India. The Christian church in Pakistan and India traces itself back to the evangelistic work of Thomas.
The congregation I was pastor of in southern California before I retired included a large Pakistani community. They were all related by blood or by marriage. A relative of theirs at the time was presiding bishop of the United Church of Pakistan. In February 2011 I accepted his invitation to visit the Christians and churches in Pakistan and found them to be incredible examples for us of courage, commitment, and faithfulness to Christ even in the midst of a very hostile environment.
In John 11: 16, when Jesus told His disciples that He would be going to Bethany, where Lazarus had recently died, Thomas told his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” Thomas is a tremendous example for us not of doubt but of courage and strength of conviction. Christians today who trace their church back to Thomas are tremendous examples for us of courage and strength of conviction. May we face all the challenges of today with the same kind and level of courage and strength of conviction. May we, like Thomas, be all in.