Thomas, the Essential Outsider
John 20:19-31 (NRSV)
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." 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."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he 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!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
When is the last time that you felt left out? It’s a common feeling in childhood; though many of us probably don’t have to reach that far back into our memories before a recent experience of being excluded from a group comes bubbling to the surface. These memories of exclusion don’t come alone; rather, they are accompanied with real and raw emotions. No one likes to feel left out. Since we all know how much it hurts, you’d think we would all do a better job of making sure we don’t exclude others.
This is what I noticed about Thomas this year. We hear about the story of the disciple Thomas on the first Sunday after Easter every year and this was the first time I paid attention to Thomas’s exclusion.
The resurrected Christ appeared to the other 10 disciples who were locked in their room, terrified.
The resurrected Christ stood among them and said, “peace be with you.”
The resurrected Christ showed them his hands and his side.
The resurrected Christ commissioned them to go out into the world to serve, live, and love in Christ’s name.
The resurrected Christ spoke to them about their power to forgive.
At no point did a disciple interrupt the resurrected Christ to say, “Um, excuse me, but Thomas isn’t here and I feel like he should be a part of this.”
The thought that a disciple would interrupt the resurrected Christ in such a way might sound like an odd idea; but I guarantee if Bartholomew had the guts to say, “Timeout, Lord. Let’s pause and make sure Thomas is a part of this,” we would be celebrating a yearly festival in honor of Bartholomew the patron saint of inclusion. But instead, Thomas is left out; which begs the question, why?
Jesus was dead for three days, which is something I assume can mess with the brain’s wiring, but certainly the resurrected Christ could still count the disciples in the room and realize there was someone missing. Surely the resurrected Christ – being as he was, in perfect union with all of God’s creation – would have known intuitively that Thomas was not there. The most logical explanation is that this was done on purpose.
Christ’s purposeful exclusion of Thomas from his initial welcome back party certainly wasn’t done in order to humiliate him; which is the unfortunate legacy he has born through two thousand years of church history with the whole “Doubting Thomas” moniker. A better reason for Thomas’ exclusion is that sometimes it takes an outsider to correctly observe and critique a group dynamic.
Since we’re in baseball season, think of it as a baseball team full of talented players who are not playing at their potential. As painful as the process can be, often a mid-season manager switch can make all the difference. The new manager is an outsider who is free to observe the team and offer constructive critique with the expectation that the unidentified or unresolved problems will be exposed and corrected so that the team can thrive.
Of course, it’s up to the team whether or not to acknowledge this new information and respond accordingly; unlike what happens in this example of a similar circumstance:
A constructive critique was something the disciples desperately needed because as the text tells us, even after the visit from the resurrected Jesus in which they saw the wounds and received his commission, they remained locked inside their room presumably still very much afraid.
Picture Thomas returning to the locked room. He whispers the secret password and the door is unlocked for him. His friends are gathered around with strange looks on their faces. They proceed to excitedly tell Thomas of the events that had just transpired. They look at Thomas waiting for him to share their enthusiasm (perhaps secretly wishing to hear Thomas say, “I missed what?!?! You guys are so lucky!”). But instead Thomas says, “I don’t believe you. If Jesus really was just here and said all those things, you wouldn’t still be locked in here and afraid. I don’t believe you because if what you said is true, an experience like that would have radically changed you. All I see are a bunch of frightened and insecure people.”
Thomas was the resurrected Christ’s appointed outsider whose mission was to confront the disciples about their inadequate response to the good news of Christ’s power over death.
I can’t think of a more appropriate or timely image for today’s Christ followers to contemplate. There is so much hand-wringing going on in the Christian Church in the West today about dwindling attendance, budgets, and cultural influence. Or, just as sinful are those congregations who gather primarily to pat themselves on the back about how great they are, while ignoring the lack of justice in their communities. What a gift it is to have an outsider look at the church and say, in the vein of Thomas, “I don’t believe you. If Jesus really was just here and said all those things, you wouldn’t still be locked in here and afraid. I don’t believe you because if what you said is true, an experience like that would have radically changed you. All I see are a bunch of frightened and insecure people.”
Christians in the West have largely abandoned discipleship and cross-bearing in favor of entitlement. Today, like no other time in history, people outside the church feel empowered to point out the hypocrisy of the church that too often fails to live a life of radical discipleship and dependence on the resurrected Christ. The good news of today’s text is that God uses those who have been excluded to point out when the faith and actions of Christ followers are not aligned.
The resurrected Christ will show up to people within the walls of the church, as he did with the 10 disciples. His message is the same today as it was back then. It is a message of forgiveness, peace, and commissioning. I would also take it a step further and declare that the resurrected Christ also shows up in those outsiders who stand outside the church walls and challenge Christ-followers when their lives fail to reflect the good news. It’s up to us whether we respond like the chimps in the commercial and go on pretending we don’t know the truth; or whether we respond like the disciples who ultimately did heed Jesus’ commission and went out to all the world bearing the good news of forgiveness, grace, and love in Christ to all people.