There’s nothing worse than being given a nickname you don’t like – especially if you really don’t deserve it.
So I’ve always felt rather sorry for poor old Thomas. Everyone has heard of ‘doubting Thomas’ – even people who have no idea who he was other than that he was a Thomas who doubted.
And there are two questions I’ve always had about Thomas.
Why on earth did poor Thomas get his nickname? Because it seems to me he doesn’t deserve it.
And who was his twin brother? Or sister?
Well, let’s deal with that first question – why on earth did poor Thomas get his nickname?
For us here today Easter Day is now a week in the past. And yet, at the start of our gospel reading it is still Easter Day. We are still in the day when the empty tomb is discovered and the news of the resurrection comes to the followers of Jesus. But it’s now evening. And it’s been a somewhat eventful day for those friends of Jesus! They have – or most of them have – experienced a day like never before!
Our experiences over the past two years give us an opportunity to understand perhaps, to identify with, the doubts, the anxieties, the fears felt by those first followers of Jesus. They’ve had a turbulent few days, and despite the news that Jesus is now alive, are still hiding themselves away.
We don’t need reminding that like the disciples, we have spent much of the last two years hiding away behind locked doors for fear of the potential danger posed by the people outside. For them it was fear of the authorities and what the authorities might do to them that was keeping them locked away. For us, it is different in that we know that we stayed in behind our locked doors specifically because of the request of the authorities to protect everyone – and although we are now, to coin a phrase, ‘getting back to normal’, fear has been a part of our lives.
For the disciples it was much worse – their leader had lost his life and they feared the same might happen to them – they feared arrest and crucifixion. So they locked themselves away because of fear.
Their expectations of what the future would bring have been – from their point of view – cruelly crushed by the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. It’s a perfectly normal reaction and nothing to feel guilty about.
And yet – as they discover – Easter has come. Or at least, all of them except Thomas discover that Easter has come. Because Thomas isn’t with them. Why? We’ll never know. But on the surface it seems as though Thomas is not as afraid as the others – he’s not hiding away with them.
And when they tell him they’ve seen Jesus he doesn’t believe them. By why does poor Thomas end up being called ‘doubting Thomas’ – because when you think about it they’re all as bad. The women who went to the tomb found that the tomb was empty and were told by angels that Jesus was risen. They went back and told the disciples what had happened – and the men didn’t believe the women. We heard that last week on Easter Day. Peter has seen the empty tomb. Yet here they all are huddling together out of fear.
Maybe they have grasped that Jesus is risen – but they certainly haven’t grasped that because Jesus is risen everything changes. They haven’t grasped the reality that a risen Jesus means that life can never be the same again – that the power of Jesus is greater than anything the authorities can muster. They still doubt. And they fear. And they lock themselves away.
And Jesus comes among them and says: Peace be with you…
Now they realise. And they tell Thomas – who says he won’t believe unless he can see and touch Jesus for himself. And he doesn’t have long to wait because a week later the disciples are gathered together again, this time with Thomas. And Jesus comes again and greets them with the same words: Peace be with you…
And the gospel writer tells us how the marks of Jesus’ wounds proved to Thomas that the Jesus who appeared to the disciples in their doubt and fear was the same Jesus who had been nailed to the cross. The same Jesus, who was willing to die to show us the height and breadth and depth of God’s love. The same Jesus who rose again and came to be with his friends, and to take away all their fear and doubt and anxiety. As today he comes to be with us in his risen power!
Peace be with you…
And Thomas declares: My Lord and my God.
And that’s significant. After the resurrection Thomas is the first to recognise Jesus as his Lord and his God, and to state that out loud. So why on earth did poor Thomas get his nickname? Because if anything, Thomas should be known not as ‘doubting Thomas’ but as ‘believing Thomas’!
And that brings me to the second question I’ve always had about Thomas. Who was his twin?
Because one thing we know about Thomas is that he was a twin. We heard in today’s gospel reading how he is described as: Thomas (who was called the Twin). Actually the name ‘Thomas’ isn’t a proper name at all – it comes from ancient Aramaic and means twin. Yes – the other disciples had a nickname for him. They gave this man the wholly and completely unoriginal and unimaginative nickname of twin! That’s what they called him. We don’t know his real name at all – we just continue to use his nickname of Twin – or Thomas! And neither do we know who was his twin brother or sister.
In a way, as we come back to that question of who is Thomas’s twin – well, let’s look at it a different way. Perhaps the writer of John’s gospel, who always has a deeper meaning than his actual words at first suggest, wants us to see that it could be you or it could be me. It could be each of us, or all of us together, as like Thomas we recognise the doubts that we all have within us. And as we recognise the risen Jesus in our midst as our Lord and our God.
Because it seems to me that there is a sense in which, as this story of Thomas meeting the risen Jesus is told to us by the gospel writer, we are all Thomas’s twin. As we join him in overcoming our doubts, our fears, recognising his presence among us, and declaring without hesitation: My Lord and my God.
One of the most notable things about the encounter between Thomas and Jesus is that Jesus does not in any way condemn Thomas for his earlier disbelieving. He knows what Thomas’s doubts are about, he knows what Thomas has said about only believing if he can touch him. And he invites Thomas to reach out his hand and touch him so that all his questions can be answered.
And if we’re honest, we all have questions at times. We all have things we’re not sure about. Is that one of the reasons why the writer of the gospel goes to such lengths to make sure we know that Thomas is called the Twin? This isn’t the first time he’s mentioned it. Is it because he wants us to identify with Thomas? To think of ourselves as his twin and to know that it’s alright to ask questions, to seek to confirm our faith? So that we can take that journey with Thomas to complete faith.
Jesus says to Thomas: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Our gospel reading from John shows us how Jesus wants to bring us to the same point as he brought Thomas – able to place complete faith, complete trust in him. And know ourselves to be truly blessed.
So may we join with Thomas – our twin brother in the faith – in allowing Jesus to help us overcome all our doubts and questions and with Thomas declare that Jesus is our Lord and our God.