As a newly ordained person, I have to say, I find the story of doubting Thomas comforting.
The stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances often involve confusion. The disciples just don’t get what has happened. Peter keeps needing reminding that this guy is the resurrected Lord. Mary Magdalene confuses Jesus for the gardener. In Mark’s Gospel, the ending, at least what Scholar’s consider the original ending, people run away terrified from an empty tomb. All of the disciples seem to mess up, and that is frankly comforting as a Christian. We follow in the footsteps of people who frequently got it wrong.
But no one gets the resurrection as wrong as Thomas. Who knows what drew him away from the Upper Room the night that the Risen Christ appeared to the other ten, but when they all tell him what happened, Thomas is nonplussed. I can identify with Thomas’ response. I could see myself turning to my friends and saying, “sure guys, whatever you say.”
The resurrection is unbelievable, as our rector said in his sermon last week, the idea could even be seen as funny. The resurrection is nonsensical. You can kind of see why Thomas might have thought that the others were having him on. His response, “I will believe when I can see his hands and touch his side” The scene makes you wonder whether the disciples were prone to playing practical jokes on gullible Thomas.
But a week later, for Thomas, the Resurrection got REAL. Jesus calls Thomas out. He invites him to see and to touch. The encounter is intentionally disarming, as Thomas hears his doubtful words repeated to him, his spirit must have sunk. As someone who sometimes suffers from foot-in-mouth disorder, I feel for Thomas here. He has let down his teacher, his Lord, his God. Yet Jesus embraces Thomas, and then the editorial hand turns Jesus’ words out to the reader. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
John’s is the latest of the Gospel’s in the New Testament. It was written a couple of generations after the events of Jesus’ life. The eye here is to all of us, the ones who didn’t get a chance to see Jesus. It would have been hard for John to imagine how far away some of us could feel from those first days of the Resurrection. So many generations have passed, and our Church and faith have developed so far from that little cluster of wobbly disciples in the upper room.
On Friday, we witnessed a shining example of exactly how far we have come. Could a bunch of first century Palestinians ever have imagined that three billion people, one third of the world’s population, would watch a Christian worship service live on television, or over the internet. I have to say, the Royal Wedding was a resplendent example of Anglican liturgy. I come from roots of the Anglophilic branch of Episcopalianism. I sang along to Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s setting of Jerusalem AND Psalm 122. And at six AM Friday morning, I was in a room full of seminarians, so I was not singing alone.
(As an aside, it is an interesting endeavor to watch a Royal Wedding with a group of seminarians. In some ways, it’s like watching the wedding with any group. But we get excited over an entirely different kind of fashion. While most people wanted to know which designer made Kate and her sister’s dresses, we were MORE interested in where the Dean of Westminster got his robes. And if there was a contest over who had the best hat, for us, hands down it was the Archbishop of Canterbury.)
I found myself thinking about Katherine and William. I found myself a bit moved by their very public promises to one another before God. It struck me as very brave. The whole wedding went off without a hitch. The queen, the princes, even the bride to be arrived just on time to walk down the aisle. Everything was perfect, and I thought, that must be very hard, unimaginably hard. In England, like here, the paparazzi keep certain celebrities in the public eye. On their wedding day, and for the rest of their lives, there is an external push for William and Katherine to APPEAR perfect, and there will be thousands of cameras following their every step for the moment they let perfection slip.
That kind of perfection, it isn’t just hard. That level of perfection is impossible. We all screw up sometimes, just like Thomas. Thomas, in John’s Gospel, gets the resurrection wrong. Yet Jesus embraces Thomas. Jesus takes imperfect Thomas’ hands and puts them to his torn side. He takes Thomas’ imperfect fingers in his wounded hands.
For me, the story of Jesus and Thomas keeps the resurrection from being a fairy tale. Because of Thomas, the resurrection is not a thin “happily ever after.” Jesus still has wounds. Jesus’ resurrection includes his whole self, even his scars. Thomas meets Christ, risen in an imperfect body. Thomas is not redeemed FROM his imperfections, but in them. The resurrection does not magically take away painful memories. Christianity is not a magic wand that erases the hard parts of life. We bring our whole imperfect selves, our whole stories, to the resurrection.
Thomas reminds us that Christianity is not about perfection. The old saying is true, perfect can be the enemy of the good. If we expect perfection from ourselves, we can end up wallowing in all of our imperfections, missing out on the grace of the good life God gives us. If we expect perfection of others, we can find ourselves in endless critique rather than loving embrace.
At our baptism, we make a series of promises. Yet we do not promise to be perfect. As we promise to break bread, to read scripture, to work for justice, to respect human dignity, we do not swear to always get it right. We promise to try, and we acknowledge. “I will with God’s help.” We knowingly make promises that we cannot keep on our own.
Thomas the apostle appears again in the narrative after this scene. He is back with the disciples fishing, reincorporated into the Community. In legend, it is Thomas the apostle who carries the Gospel message farther than any of the other eleven. Thomas becomes missionary all the way to India.
Thomas is not the perfect disciple. Following the New Testament, really none of the disciples are. I find this insight comforting. Knowing that the founders of the faith got it wrong at times takes the weight of perfection off of our back. We are reminded that even the most faithful followers can take missteps. Missteps are part of the journey. What matters is that we keep on walking toward the Christ who embraces us, even when we get it wrong.