The story of ‘doubting Thomas’ is one that many of us probably imagine that we know well. St Thomas was the disciple who was slow to believe, the one who doubted the resurrection, the one who asked for proof.
But I’m not at all sure that doubt is the most important part of this story. There are many other aspects to it that can easily be submerged if we take a superficial (and perhaps a little disdainful?) view. I’ve preached about some of these in the past, but the aspect of the story that I want to focus on this weekend is need – what Thomas thinks he needs, and what he actually needs, which, as it turns out, are not the same things. Not so much, then, a story about doubt as a story about need.
Thomas is in a highly unenviable situation. He is the one who misses out. He isn’t there when Jesus appears to his disciples. Why? What must that have felt like for Thomas? Surely Jesus could have chosen to do that differently?
In response, Thomas declares (one imagines a little stroppily) that he needs to see the resurrected Jesus himself. He thinks that he needs to touch him, put his hands in his wounds, and see him with his own eyes. He thinks he needs proof, and that until he gets that proof he won’t believe. But proof is not what Thomas really needs.
If we’re prepared to think ourselves into Thomas’s head a bit more than we normally do, we might have our own ideas of what he needs. We might recognise the pain that he must have felt at being excluded from that first group encounter with the risen Lord. Why was he singled out for exclusion? He may even have wondered, in his worst moments, if a trick was being played on him, a very sick, very mean trick indeed if so. Perhaps what Thomas needs is reassurance, healing, someone to say or do something that lets him know that he’s still part of this little band of Jesus’ followers. But comfort is not what Thomas really needs either.
What he needs is what he gets when he encounters the risen Christ for himself. And what an encounter it is! We should notice that Jesus offers Thomas exactly what he has said he wants. ‘Touch me,’ he says, ‘see me’. It is a staggering offer, and more than enough to overcome any doubts, any pains of exclusion. Thomas is now singled out in an entirely positive way. In this moment of encounter everything else falls away, and Thomas discovers something altogether more important than the wounds of crucifixion – he recognises the risen Christ as Lord and God. This is the faith of the church, and Thomas is the first to declare it.
Well it may be that we, too, have ideas about what we need from God. How might the resurrection of Jesus challenge those ideas?
We are all preoccupied at the moment. Our focus is naturally on the crisis in the world around us. For some of us, this dreadful virus has come horribly close. For all of us, it has had an enormous impact. These are the things that occupy our thoughts and our prayers and quite naturally so. And God is good. Just as the risen Lord reaches out to Thomas, offering him exactly what he has said he wants, God often gives us the good things that we want.
But these are not the things that we really need.
What we need, above all else, is an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. The story of Thomas teaches us that it is an encounter that comes in God’s time, in God’s way, and tailored to our own individual circumstances. Sometimes we have to wait. But when God reveals himself to us in the risen Christ, our Lord and our God, everything else falls away. The presence of divine love, victorious over sin and death, that lives for ever and ever, is all that we really need.
May God bless you all,