“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We often read these words as an indictment of Thomas. Thomas gets a bad rap: how many of us know him as “Doubting Thomas?” But I don’t think “doubting” is a fair descriptor of him. Sure, John’s Gospel records him saying that he would not believe unless he were able to see and touch the wounds that marked Jesus’ crucifixion. But to be fair, the other disciples already had the chance to see his wounds. To be fair, Mary did not believe when see saw Jesus at the tomb until he said her name. To be fair, these disciples of Jesus, who had followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem and back again, through Samaria, and ultimately to his arrest, were now huddled in a locked room, hiding from the ones who they probably feared would come after them, too.
So John lifts Thomas up as having doubts that Jesus was really back among him – but why wouldn’t he? After all, this had never happened before. Someone had not come back from the dead, returned to full life. He just wanted a chance to see for himself. I get that. Don’t you? We like to be convinced by the evidence of our own eyes and ears. We want to know, don’t we? We don’t want to have to take things on faith.
But that is exactly what we are being commended for this week. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is not an indictment of Thomas – it is a recognition of the 2,000 years of believers who have not seen Jesus face to face, and still believe.
And this is a lot to take on faith, isn’t it? We’re being asked to take the words of the writers of the four Gospels, who wrote about events that happened two millennia ago, events that scholars tell us they weren’t witnesses to themselves. Events that border on the unbelievable. After all, when in the history of the world has someone died, been dead three days, and come back to life? Only once. That’s kind of a big thing to take on trust.
And yet, we do. The foundations of our very lives are built on a belief that these events happened thousands of years ago. The foundations of our very lives are built on belief in a God who made these events possible thousands of years ago, a God of miracles, salvation, and resurrection.
And yet we doubt.
There are times when we doubt God’s creative, sustaining presence in the world. There are times when we doubt whether God really pays attention to us at all, instead wondering if we are just floating along, unnoticed. There are times when we doubt whether we really see God’s hand at work around us.
After all, people still suffer. People still die. Right now, a friend and coworker lies in the ICU on a ventilator, dying of cancer, while her family and friends pray for a miracle. Because of social distancing, we will be unable to say goodbye to her in the centuries-old tradition of gathering together to commit her to God, sharing stories of her life and faith. Where is God in this?
Parts of our country are overrun with COVID-19, with hospitals and morgues in New York City and other cities over capacity. The USS Theodore Roosevelt has become a breeding ground, with more than 14% of Naval personnel on board infected. The unemployment rate in the U.S. is probably hovering around 22% right now as businesses furlough and lay off workers, while other businesses slash hours in an attempt to avoid furloughs or layoffs. As a result, people find themselves unable to pay mortgages and other bills as they feel the financial burden of the shut-down. And in response, a one-time $1200 payment doesn’t seem likely to fill much of the gap. Where is God in this?
At first glance, the story of Thomas doesn’t seem to be much of an Easter story, does it? Yes, it happens after then Resurrection – so it checks that particular box. But on first reading, this is a dark story, full of fear and doubt.
Jesus had died just three days prior, and the grief that the disciples were feeling was fresh. It was also compounded by fear – after all, Jesus had been betrayed by one of their own and put to death by the authorities in their community. They were his closest companions, his confidantes. They had every reason to be fearful – every reason to believe they might be next. After all, his arrest and crucifixion were political in nature; religion was just the excuse. There was no reason to think that the authorities wouldn’t come after them next, accusing them of fomenting a rebellion against Rome.
But even though his arrest and crucifixion were carried out for primarily political purposes, it was very much a question of faith for the disciples. They chose to follow Jesus because they believed in the message he taught. They believed in him as a man of God. And now this man of God, their rabbi and friend, had been taken from them, killed by the powers of the world just a few years into his ministry. Where was God in this?
On the surface, it seems to be a story that is dark and full of fear and doubt. But at its core, this story is the answer to the question, where was God in this? God was right with them all the time, providing reassurance and comfort even in the midst of their deepest grief and fear.
Where was God in this? God was standing among them, bringing them peace and showing them his hands and side. God was breathing the Holy Spirit into them and commissioning them to share the Spirit with everyone they encountered. And later, God was in front of Thomas, helping his unbelief and sharing grace by inviting Thomas to touch his wounds.
Jesus showers his disciples with compassion and peace, inviting their belief and encouraging them to share their faith. Jesus’ peace was with them in the midst of their doubt and fear, embodying care and compassion for them and for the world: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We’ve talked a lot over the past several weeks about God sitting with us in our grief and fear, suffering alongside us. But God is with us in other ways, as well.
Where is God as my friend lies in the ICU? God is present in the conversations her husband is having with doctors and nurses, as he seeks to make the best decisions for her care that he can make right now. God is present with her family, as they seek to provide comfort to each other. And God is present with her, guiding her steps from this life to the next.
Where is God with those who are suffering from COVID-19, and with those who are caring for people with COVID-19 and their loved ones? God is present through the people making and sending masks, donating hot meals to healthcare workers, gathering for parking lot prayer services, and the countless other ways that infected people and people on the front lines are being supported.
Where is God with those who are suffering from the financial impact of this crisis? God is present in the people who continue to pay for haircuts, massages, private lessons, and other services that have been disrupted, in the hopes that some suffering can be alleviated. God is present in those who share on social media the Venmo or PayPal accounts of people whose livelihoods are affected, so that they can benefit from the generosity of strangers. God is present in those who operate food pantries and other charitable organizations where people can go to get help.
Where is God in our world right now? God is engaging in the same work God has always engaged in: creation. In the midst of our shelter-in-place orders around the world, smog levels are dropping. Residents of cities that have had chronically unsafe air now find that they are able to breathe. The waters of the Great Lakes and canals in Italy are crystal clear. Various species of wildlife are venturing into areas they were afraid to go to just weeks ago, seeking food. People are reaching out to help each other, across boundary lines of race and class.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We are seeing right now what it looks like when God is let loose in the world to work, without as much competition from the false gods of greed and selfishness. But we must not only see the good that God is working in the world right now, but also believe. We must remember, and we must commit to maintaining it – to embracing the role that God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden – caretakers of each other and of creation.
Although the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples seems to be dark and full of fear and doubt, it is infused with hope and peace. Throughout Jesus’ encounters with the disciples on the night of his resurrection and again the following week, he brings a sense of peace. He brings to them the Spirit. He inspires Thomas to proclaim him, “My Lord and my God!,” maybe the most strongly-worded declaration of faith that any of the disciples utters to Jesus.
We did not witness the resurrection, but we still believe. We are witnessing Jesus’ care for us and for the world in the midst of this time of fear and doubt; may we bring the peace of Christ to those we encounter, so that years from now, those who have not seen Jesus present in our world may believe. May we, with Thomas, proclaim Jesus to be “my Lord and my God” for all the world to hear.