Thomas the Unbeliever – a different Easter story

The story of Thomas from John 20:19-25 & Luke 24:36-43   Sunday, March 24, 2013

The wind blew easily out of the north across the barren hilltop with still a biting winter chill lingering in it, whipping the heavy cloak Thomas clutched around him. He stood with tears tugging at the corners of his eyes as he looked across the Kidron Valley at Jerusalem. Today was the first day of the new week after the Passover. The last forty-eight hours had destroyed any hope he had in God being able to overthrow the barbarian hold of Rome on his country. His brothers were scattered. His hope in any changes in their lives was now shattered by the death of their leader. The Jews had won a major victory in killing off a man who did them no harm. Now he was hiding out pretending to be a shepherd.

One of the eleven, Andrew had sent a boy out early this morning to tell him that the rest of the disciples along with some friends would be meeting at John’s house in secret. None of the Jesus followers trusted their countrymen now. The Jews, the ones who held to the teachings of his fathers, could no longer be trusted. They had killed the One who promised so much from God. And now all their hopes lay decaying in a borrowed grave. And yet the twelve … no wait … now ten were going to meet in secret. He would not be going. He ran into the hills to his cousin after the Man had died on the cross. When the sky turned black fear gripped his heart. Some would probable call him a coward but he preferred to think of it as prudent. The Jews would be looking for further revenge. They had been vindicated by His death as a blasphemer. The religious leaders had pulled off the impossible through a mockery of a trial. So he ran.

Jacob his cousin, a shepherd, had assured him he would be safe with him. Nobody paid attention to shepherds. Nobody would come looking for him in the hills surrounding Jerusalem. And what was the big fuss anyway, Jacob had asked. Prophets come and go. This one came and went. He may have said and done some good things but in the end, the grave caught him just like it will catch us. He may have claimed to be God’s Son but where was the proof. It was lying in a grave. Another prophet has come and gone. God has forgotten His people.  

* * * *

The two men, Jacob a poor shepherd and Thomas a towns tradesman, were sitting around a small fire in the in the early morning a week later. The sheep were starting to stir. It had been a warmer night with a softer breeze blowing, hinting at spring just around the corner.

Jacob stirred his tea. “Did you sleep well Cousin?”

“You know I didn’t. My bed in town does not have rocks in it” snorted Thomas.

“Well, you invited yourself out here.”

“Jacob, you were not there to see the near riots caused by the Jews surrounding Jesus’ trial. Besides, you said that it would be safe here in the hills.”

“I did. Tell me Cousin, why do you keep talking about the ‘Jews’ as if you are not one also. I know that you are a son of Abraham. I was there at your bar mitzvah.” He paused as he took a sip of tea. “You know Thomas; you take this religion thing too seriously. Do your duty and leave it at that.”

Thomas was silence. He pulled his robe around himself tighter. He felt exposed. “How do I answer him” he thought. “I am a Jew. But I am not a Jew as they are. I believe that the Messiah was here. I lived with Him and ate with Him and saw Him do miracles and even went on outreaches for Him. But now what could we do? I skipped out when He was arrested. It all seemed to crumble so quickly. I still believe and yet there is a part of me that tells me that I don’t believe. I need proof. He told us that we would see Him again. But where is He now? He acted like we should change the world but how can we do that when He as our leader is dead? Oh God, I feel so confused. Have I believed all of this for nothing? And what are the others doing now? Peter is probably back fishing.”      

“Thomas” Jacob said sharply, “it has been a week now and the Jews have not rioted or caused any more arrests.” “Maybe you should go back into the city and see what is really going on.”

“Yeah … you are right I suppose. Curiosity is getting the best of me!” He stood up and started rolling up his blankets. “I have had enough of sleeping on hard ground.”

* * * * 

Hours later Thomas is walking through the streets of Jerusalem. He keeps his hood over his head and his eyes avoid contact with others. The crowds are moving in the streets as usual. The marketplace is full and nothing seems to be unusual. “This is not what I thought.” He rounds a corner and bumps into Nathanael. “Thomas! Long time no see! Where have you been hiding out?  Oh man, have you missed out on some excitement!”

“No, I do not think so! I stayed out of the city and the Jews way! What are you and the rest doing?”

“The Lord as risen!”

“I came back into the city to see what you guys were … What did you say?”

“I said” repeated Nathanael slowly, “that the Lord has risen. He is alive.”

“Get out of here. That is impossible!”

“Come on Thomas. I am heading to John’s place now. We are meeting to figure out what it is that the Lord wants us to do. I’ll tell you what happened as we walk.”

Thomas hurried after with Nathanael. He spoke first that the ten of them had met at John’s place a week ago, the first day of the week after Passover. They had met behind barred doors due to fear of further reprisals from the Jews. Together, they reminisced about how for about two years they had been a close knit band of brothers. Now they wanted to compare notes and talk over what to do now that their leader was dead. Each of them talked about what was on their minds and what to do at this critical juncture. They were afraid to be in the public eye especially as a group. They were criminals according to the religious Jews. By this time they had reached the door of John’s house. Nathanael stopped and turning to Thomas he said quietly: “But then the most amazing and startling thing happened. Jesus showed up in our midst, just like that.”

“What do you mean ‘just like that?”

“Just like that! He suddenly was standing in our midst. The doors were stilled barred. But there He stood as plain as day.”

“That was a ghost! You guys are fools” Thomas said in disgust as he reached for the door handle to open it.

“I do not think so Thomas. Too many of us have seen Him. Mary. Peter. And then were those two others traveling to Emmaus. And now us.”

“Hey you two!” shouted a man coming down the street hurrying toward them. “Why are you just standing here gabbing? Go inside before we raise too much attention!”

As the man got closer he saw it was Philip. “Hi Philip.” Thomas looked intently at him and asked: “Do you too really believe all of this insane talk about Jesus really being alive?”

Philip herded them through the door and closed the door after them. “Thomas, all I can say is that Jesus showed up in skin and bones just like you and I. He even asked for a …”

“Hey you guys. We are about read to start.” interrupted John as he greeted them in the hallway. “Come on my friends, the rest of us are already here.” He led the way down the hallway and through the inner courtyard to a door that opened into a room in the back of the house and stepped inside. Nathanael and Philip piled through the door but Thomas stayed back. From the doorway, he saw in the room the other ten disciples and some of the others who hung out with them. Suddenly he felt embarrassed. Everyone seemed too excited, so sure, so confident.

“Come on in” shouted Levi over the loud talk of the group from the other side of the room. He shouldered his way across the room to the door. “Come on Thomas, come in and hear the latest news.”

Thomas stepped through the door reluctantly. Not wanting to be in any new conversation he turned to Philip and said: “So what were you saying in the hallway about Jesus? What did the Lord … I mean what did the ghost, do or say next …?”

Philip scratched his beard thinking and then said: “Oh yes, I remember. Jesus was standing in our midst showing us his hands and feet with the blood encrusted holes where the nails had been driven through. We were in a confusion of joy, amazement and just not believing our eyes! Then He asked us if we had anything to eat. One of us, not sure who, grabbed a piece of boiled fish off of the table and gave it to him.” Philip paused seeing one of the servants moving through the room with a tray of wine cups. Philip grabbed one and took a drink.

“And … then what happened” asked Thomas?

Philip looked at Thomas with a puzzled look. “What do you mean what happened? Well, of course He ate it.”

“Oh …” Thomas felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and found John smiling at him.

“I overheard what Philip was telling you. Remember, Jesus often told us that we are like sheep. He also told us that when something happens to the shepherd, the sheep will scatter. But sheep are also social creatures and like to be together. Welcome home brother. We have missed you this week.”

“Thanks … I spent some time with my cousin.” His mind just seemed to be stopped as if by a wall. How his friends could be so taken in by this sudden appearance of a ghost was beyond him. How could they believe this to be real? What was going on here? Jesus came, they claimed though the doors that were not only shut but bolted. He frowned as he too grabbed a cup of wine off a passing servant’s tray. Taking a sip, he thought ‘how is it possible that they can say they have seen Him alive when just a week ago hundreds of people publically saw Jesus die. This is not rational thinking. Sitting down on a bench against the stone wall, his brow furrowed deeper as he stared down into his cup of red wine.

“You seem awfully quiet this evening Thomas.”

Looking up he saw James sitting down next to him. Ah, his best buddy James. Jesus’ brother. A like minded skeptic like him. A man of few words but very practical. “What on earth are you doing here? Did you fall down and hit your head and now you too believe this stuff” asked Thomas jokingly?

“Yup! All but the falling down part.”

“You’re kidding aren’t you?”

“Nope. Thomas, maybe you are justifying your lack of faith. Jesus said that God would raise Him up after three days. I remember Him saying it, although at the time I did not believe it.”

Thomas turned on the bench and said: “James, look at me. You and I have been friends a long time. I have been part of the ‘Twelve’ as folks like to call us. You on the other hand have always been on the outer fringes. You have voiced many times that you were not able to believe that your half-brother could possibly be the Son of God. And now you suddenly believe?”

“I do.”

“Well I am not just going to play along with this. This is really quite stupid. I have no evidence. I just can’t believe such rubbish. What I find incredibly disturbing is that a practical man like you does.” He angrily drained his cup. Jumping to his feet and raising his voice so that the room could hear “And let me tell you all this, unless I see with my own eyes the nail marks in His hands and put my fingers where the nails were driven into flesh …” There was an uneasy stirring in the room. Thomas looked around defiantly around the room “And put my hand into His side, I refuse to believe in ghost tales!” Muttering under his breath he said: ‘Well there, I have said my piece publically.’ He looked around the room. Some were staring into their cups of wine avoiding eye contact. Some ventured to look at him with astonishment in their eyes. Suddenly a man materialized in front of him. Thomas jumped back in shock.

The Man looked around the room. “Peace be with you” He said to them all. The voice was familiar.

Thomas quickly looked at the door to the room. The wood bars were still in place on the inside. In the back of his mind he realized that Jesus had come through lock doors. No screamed his mind. This is not the real Jesus. A ghost.

Turning to Thomas the ghost said: “Put your finger here right on the wound. Look carefully at my hands” he said as He held them out in front of Thomas to examine. “A ghost does not have flesh and bones Thomas!”

Thomas backed up a step and bumped into James. “Reach out your hand and put it into the wound in my side” as Jesus pulled back his robe to expose the ugly wound. Thomas could feel his legs weakening. This cannot be happening. Tears welled up in his eyes.

“Stop doubting Thomas and believe!” Thomas heard a command and not a request. Thomas the Unbeliever stared. Suddenly it became all too clear to him. His unbelief melted. Tears streamed down his face. All he could say in humble repentance was “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus, with compassion in His voice, said to him: “Have you believed because you have seen Me standing before you? Blessed are the people who have never seen Me physically and yet have believed.”

 * * * *

As you do life this year during 2013, are you a believer or unbeliever?