There are a few biblical characters that begin to take on a life of their own outside of the one they’ve been given in scripture. These characters become personas in and of themselves that the culture uses to describe and define people they know. We might not really know or understand the true nature of these people based on what is revealed in scripture, but we may be very familiar with the baggage that’s been attached to them throughout history. For instance, most of us would know the implications of calling a woman a Jezebel, even if we haven’t spent a lot of time getting to know her story from the Bible. Likewise, there aren’t many of us who would mind being called a “good Samaritan,” even though this phrase was considered an oxymoron in Jesus’ day.
And then there is Thomas. We know Thomas. Perhaps from the passage we read this morning, but more than likely you’ve heard him referred to in a different context. How are we more likely to refer to Thomas? That’s right, as Doubting Thomas. His name has become synonymous with people who don’t believe in something until they come face to face with undeniable proof of whatever it is they don’t believe. It isn’t exactly a positive thing to be called, because it conveys the sense that you are a skeptical person, perhaps even critical, and really, who wants to be that? I’d much rather be a “good Samaritan.”
This morning, I want to say that I believe that Thomas has gotten a bad rap. I believe that we get an incomplete picture of Thomas from this passage, and that he deserves a closer look. I believe he is redeemable. Not only that, but I also believe that another maligned figure from scripture shows himself to be redeemable. Peter, who barely a week ago was heard denying his teacher and friend, is showing himself to be one of the fiercest and boldest ministers of the gospel. By looking at these two people, I gain a better understanding of the love and grace of God. I also come away from these stories with hope. Hope for myself, to be sure, but also hope enough to share with people who believe they are unredeemable.
Given today’s reading, we might not have much hope for Thomas. Indeed, today’s passage offers us a hearing of the last words of Thomas ever recorded in scripture. Thomas speaks no more after his encounter with Jesus, where he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” He shows up a couple of times after this in lists of names, but never says another word. He stands convicted of being a doubter in our eyes, and Jesus’ final words to Thomas seem to cement it for us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The implication here is obvious: Thomas is not blessed.
I just don’t buy it, though. Thomas sticks it out. He remains a faithful part of the community of believers, even though his faith required something a little more substantial. But it isn’t just the fact that he stuck with the other followers, and that they let him stick around, that convinces me that Thomas is worthy of redemption, though. For that, we will have to look back a little ways. Earlier in John’s gospel, there is a story about Jesus leaving Jerusalem because he had been rejected, and the people there wanted to stone him. However, while Jesus was gone, his friend Lazarus took ill. When Jesus decides to return to Judea, his disciples remind him that there are people there who want him dead. They aren’t exactly excited to make this return trip. But Jesus is determined. And guess which disciple is the one to rally the others to follow Jesus, even into the face of danger? That’s right, it’s Thomas. Thomas turns to the other disciples, and says to them, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
That bold and brave initiative is enough to convince me that Thomas is redeemable. I actually find it a little comforting to know that Thomas, who is capable of such passion in following Jesus, is also capable of doubt. Having these two stories of Thomas makes him a little more real to me, more human. More like me.
More like Peter, too. It’s been just a week since Easter, and Peter’s denial of Jesus is fresh in our memories. In today’s reading, we encounter a Peter who has changed since weeping bitterly in the courtyard of the place where Jesus was tried and convicted. Where Peter failed as a witness before Jesus’ crucifixion, he now shines before the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish council. When it comes to Jesus, the risen Son of God, Peter boldly proclaims, “We are witnesses!” Like Thomas before him, Peter does not shy away from the risk of danger in following Jesus wherever he will lead. This is a drastically different picture of Peter than the one we get on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Considering these two stories together, as we did with the two stories of Thomas,presents us with a more complete picture of Peter, one that reveals him to be human, and capable of moments of greatness, as well as moments of not-such-greatness.
So what is it about these two that enables them to stick with it, even in the face of failure, humiliation, and defeat? What happens that makes them continue to serve God and testify to the good news of the gospel? Each of them encounters Jesus after their failures. And it’s very important to notice that they don’t encounter Jesus because they went looking for him. Jesus goes after them. How comforting is that? After Thomas doubts the truth about what Jesus said about his death and resurrection, Jesus still appears to him. After Peter denies Jesus three times, Jesus still appears to him. Jesus comes after us, even when we turn away from him. Jesus redeems those whose sin we may think makes them unredeemable. No matter what sins we’ve committed, no matter what sins others have committed, Jesus always comes after us, always seeks us out, is always willing to give us a fresh start. Seeing Jesus appear to Thomas and Peter is a testament to the amazing grace and boundless love that Jesus has for them. And I believe that that same grace and love is offered to me, and to everyone, every moment of our lives.I come away from these stories today more hopeful, too. Thomas and Peter receive Christ’s love, and it empowers them to continue. Thomas sticks with the group – he remains part of the twelve, a leader in the early church. Peter testifies boldly in the face of danger, risks everything to heal the sick, and holds back nothing when it comes to spreading the gospel. God uses them in mighty and powerful ways.
I receive hope from their stories. I know I have moments of doubt and denial, but I have hope that God will turn those moments into divine determination. I know that I have times of weakness, but I have hope that God will turn my weakness to witnessing. I know I experience times when I feel like my boat is sinking, but I have hope that God will call me out to experience the kind of faith it takes to walk on water. Jesus continues to come after us, even in the wake of our sin, and calls us to something better. And we can follow him, because God is bigger than our failures, our humiliation, and our embarrassment. That’s my hope this morning. That’s the hope I get from the resurrected Jesus who appears to me even in my darkest moments of sin and doubt. That’s the hope I claim for myself, and trust God to provide others, too. Even those whose sin I might deem to be worse than mine. Jesus comes after them, too. Jesus comes after Thomas and Peter and they go on to do great things. Praise God that Jesus comes after us, too. And we’ve got a lot of great things ahead of us. Amen.