Three things strike me about the story of Thomas: his intellectual honesty, Jesus’ saving embrace, and the living hope that their relationship invites all of us to share.
Thomas is my favorite saint, and it’s a good thing, because I have preached on his feast day nearly every year since I have been ordained. I have taught homiletics (preaching) for many years, and I counsel new deacons and priests to become particularly familiar with the prologue to the Gospel of John and with the story of Thomas. Assisting clergy nearly always get to preach on “Low Sundays” like the First Sunday after Christmas and the Second Sunday of Easter, when these passages are appointed as the Gospel reading.
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I 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, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25)
Can you imagine how much Thomas wanted to believe Jesus was alive? Can you imagine what it cost him to admit that he needed evidence, to stand firm in his self-knowledge in the face of the others’ joy? Thomas is intellectually honest, and I admire that quality in him. He is self-aware and disciplined, even in the face of something he desires.
A week later, the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them … [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26-28)
Here is another example of Jesus’ compassion, which reminds me of his returning to find the man born blind after he has been expelled from the synagogue (John 9:35). It is as if Jesus here asks Thomas, “What do you need from me in order to believe?” He does not berate Thomas, but offers his wounds as evidence. Here, too, is further evidence of Thomas’ honesty. When he has seen Jesus’ hands and side, he leaps straight to the proclamation, “My Lord and my God!” He is not the Doubter, but the first to name Jesus as Lord.
In Morning Prayer, we commonly use this prayer for mission on Fridays:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. (BCP 100)
In the story of Thomas we see Jesus’ saving embrace bringing Thomas both to knowledge and to love.
We, too, are within the reach of Jesus. If we are honest about our doubts and fears, Jesus meets us with compassion and offers us “a new birth into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). “Although you have not seen him, you love him,” Peter continues, “and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9).
We are also called by Jesus to reach out to others who may have doubts and fears. Like Jesus and like Thomas, we must meet them with compassion and gently offer them the evidence of our own living hope.