The second Sunday of Easter is often referred to as “low Sunday”—after the intensity of Holy Week and Easter Day, both attendance and energy are a bit low by comparison. It’s also the day on which we always hear the story about “doubting Thomas,” but I never want to refer to him that way again.
Poor Thomas has been branded as the “doubter” for far too long, as if he were the only one who wanted to hear the voice of his beloved, as if he were the only who needed to see the risen Jesus in the flesh, and to touch him.
Contrary to how I usually read this story from John’s account of the Gospel (20:19-31), I no longer think doubt is the focus of this story at all, and it isn’t even mostly about Thomas. This story is about the healing of a fractured community—and the love Thomas has for Jesus becomes the occasion for that healing to happen.
John constructs this story, broadly speaking, in two parts—the first, when Thomas was not there, and the second when he was. How John stitches these parts together is where the insights simmer.
The first part is framed with fear. The closest friends and disciples of Jesus have gathered together on the very first Easter Day. They are afraid that what happened to Jesus might also happen to them. They’re meeting behind locked doors, John says, for “fear of the Judeans.”
Christian communities need to note carefully whom those first disciples feared. Among first-century Semitic peoples, the Judeans were the religious elite among the Israelites, and they had conspired with Roman authorities to execute Jesus.
So while John doesn’t tell us directly why Thomas wasn’t there, it seems rather plain: he was afraid. There’s the first insight: nothing will fracture a community more quickly than fear—fear of the “other,” fear of the self, fear of change, fear of honesty and vulnerability and even intimacy. Fear gathers to itself a whole herd of toxic energies.
Then suddenly, right there in midst of that toxic stew, Jesus appears—locked doors be damned! John is not writing about a clever magician’s trick with this remarkable appearance. This is instead a second insight we might note: fearful isolation dissolves in the light of love.
“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. He would have said this in Aramaic, echoing the Hebrew word “shalom.” This ancient and beautiful word means much more than merely the absence of conflict; it evokes wholeness, harmony, and completeness.
Jesus blesses them with peace once again and then, John says, he “breathed on them.”
It’s worth considering how close you have to be to someone in order to breathe on them. We have certainly become accustomed to that calculation in this era of Covid. Interior “perimeter alarms” go off whenever somebody gets too close! In this story, the risen Jesus gets close to his friends, very close, close enough to breathe on them—a touching moment of tenderness and intimacy.
It’s also an ancient intimacy of life itself. John uses the very same verb here that the Greek version of the Old Testament uses in Genesis to describe the creation of humanity, that moment when God breathes life into the creature God has just made from the dust.
Into a dusty room of fear, John’s Jesus breathes life.
John could have stopped right there and we would have a lovely story. But this is only Part One, because Thomas isn’t there. You can’t have a story of wholeness, harmony, and completeness when someone is missing.
Part Two begins with the disciples gathering once again, a week later—the original Greek says, eight days later, and that’s not a random number. Returning again to Genesis, this gospel writer is reminding us that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh; the eighth day is for the new creation.
Eight days later and Thomas is there, symbolizing a restored community of friends and the healing of this household of companions—a new creation wrought from the wreckage of violence and grief. Thomas shows up on the Eighth Day, a symbol for our shared healing toward a brand new world.
I’m reminded of some words from Methodist minister and poet Steven Garnaas-Holmes: If you want to see resurrection, don’t trot out your success stories or your jubilations or your triumphant marches in front of defeated enemies. No, if you want to see resurrection, look at your wounds; look at those places in your life and in your communities that need healing, those places we try to cover over, repress, push aside, prefer to ignore, even find shameful.
Thomas knew all this, maybe better than all the rest of them. All this talk of resurrection, he says, is just a sham if we can’t talk about how we betrayed Jesus, and how we deserted him, and how all of us fled when our Beloved needed us most—well, all of us men did, I’m sure Thomas would be quick to add; the women actually remained, and at great risk to their own lives.
Rather than referring to Thomas ever again as the doubter in this story, let’s call him the truth-teller. “Fear of the Judeans” doesn’t hold a candle to the fear we harbor about ourselves, the fear of our own capacity for betrayal, the fear of our own spite and hostility, the fear of our self-destructive patterns that plunge us into isolation and violence.
Thomas will not let us off the hook for that; show me the wounds, he says. Show me that we’re being honest and transparent and real with each other—otherwise this whole resurrection business is worse than pointless; it’s delusional.
Denial and avoidance won’t save us—this is the (annoying) truth Thomas insists we confront. And John’s brilliant story-telling speaks directly to each of us many centuries later: be brave and look at your failures; reach out and touch your betrayals; put your hand out where so much has been lost, where the emptiness breaks your heart, and where your deepest wounds go deeper still.
Don’t be afraid—reach out and touch the healing.
Recalling that we can plausibly read every story in John as a Eucharistic story, a recent commentator suggests that John wrote this morning’s story for future believers, for us. John wrote this for all those who would gather around the Eucharistic Table, for the ones who would reach out their hands to touch the bread and the cup.
Don’t be afraid—reach out for healing.