John 11:1-16; John 14:1-7, Luke 24:1-12 and John 20:1-29
Babies make delightful noises. My seven-month-old granddaughter, Lena, babbles with the best of them. Every sound more precious than the last. I want to warn her to be careful, though. When I was her age, my innocent sounds charmed my parents and evidently baffled my uncle. My family says my prattles sounded like “gugen, gugen, gugen” as I crawled across the floor. My uncle, Dean, needed no more reason to shatter my burgeoning self-esteem than to give me my early childhood nickname, “Gugenburger.” Here we are some 61 years later and if Dean wants to pull my chain, he just calls me Gugenburger.
Nicknames have a way of sticking with us far longer than they should, rarely reflecting our more complex personalities.
Consider the label attached to Thomas, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples… “Doubting Thomas.” One incident recorded in scripture, forced a label upon him centuries ago. Like a loving uncle we latch on to it, refusing to let it go, despite the years that pass and the ministry he performed in the following years. I get it. I made the noise. I get stuck with the nickname. Thomas demands to see the nail-pierced hands and gets branded as one who cannot believe unless he sees for himself…a doubter.
Thomas was more than that single life vignette. Discarding the simple listing of disciples named in the gospels, we first encounter him in John 11. He was ministering with Jesus along the Jordan River. One day news arrived that Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus and his disciples, was deathly ill. The message from his sisters begged Jesus to come quickly. Yet, Jesus spent two more days in ministry in and around the Jordan. On the morning of the third day, Jesus woke his disciples and said, “Let’s go to back to Judea.”
The disciples reacted in horror, reminding Jesus that the Pharisees in Jerusalem tried to kill him just a few days before. “How can you go back,” they said, “when the Jews just tried to stone you? I suspect Thomas argued vocally for an alternate plan.
Jesus would not be deterred. He told the disciples plainly that Lazarus had died. God’s timing is perfect, according to Jesus. “For now that Lazarus is dead, you can see with your own eyes the power of God through me and may believe.” When it became clear that Jesus was going to go to Bethany with or without them, Thomas rallied the disciples with fatal resignation and fierce devotion, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Later in the solemnness of the upper room recorded in John 14, Jesus began preparing his disciples for the cold, hard reality of the cross. In words never more clearly spoken, Jesus told them that he would be betrayed, tried, convicted, nailed to a cross and put to death. He offered comforting words.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me…if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.“
His words echoed around the chamber. Grave with meaning. Resting heavily on the heart. Every disciple listened, struggling with the words Jesus spoke. Thomas, searching for clarity and understanding, asked the burning question no one else dared ask. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way.”
Be grateful that Thomas asked the question others failed to ask. For the response to Thomas’ question drew from Jesus salvation’s road map. “I am the Way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Yes, our friend Thomas is pessimistic at times. Devoted at others. Troubled one moment. Seeking clarity the next.
The seminal moment for Thomas’ life and ministry is that same moment that labeled him unjustly as the doubter. According to Luke 24, Mary returned from the empty tomb that first Easter morning telling the disciples the good news that Jesus had risen. No one believed her. All the disciples doubted her story. Every single one of them. They believed in the resurrected Jesus only when he appeared to them in the upper room…and remember, Thomas was absent that day.
When the disciples told Thomas what they witnessed, he responded much as they did when Mary first shared the news. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were; and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” And we tarnish his reputation, labeling him with a nickname…the Doubter.
Here’s the deal. A few days later, Thomas sat sullenly, his head hanging down, surrounded by the energized and enthused followers of Christ, unable to join in their revelry about their risen Lord. Can’t you see the scene unfold?
Lost in thought.
Thomas never heard him enter.
Never registered the rising
volume of excitement.
Never noticed the quiet the then descended like a
blanket of fresh snow as Jesus looked for the
one person he needed to see.
Thomas unconsciously processed the change in atmosphere.
Came out of his trance as a shadow fell over him.
Sandaled and nail-scarred feet stepped into view.
Thomas slowly lifted his head,
almost afraid of what he would see.
Jesus stood before him.
Nodded his head in quiet greeting.
Eyes probing the depths of Thomas’ soul.
Thomas’ mouth opened.
Forming words of surprise without sound.
Stood on shaky legs.
Staring at his Savior.
The reality was too much to bear.
The sound of his early disbelief shouting in his brain.
Thomas could look no longer at the one before him.
Dropped his eyes.
Bowed his head.
Adrift in shame and embarrassment.
Unable to look Jesus in the eyes.
A gentle voice called his name.
Look at me.”
A welcoming gesture.
Taking a step closer.
Jesus said with sincerity that
begged for belief.
“Put your finger here.
See my hands.”
Thomas stared at the hands of Christ.
Made no move to touch.
“Reach out with your hand.
Put it here in my side.”
An open invitation for Thomas to prove for himself that
this was no dream.
Thomas never flinched.
Touch no longer needed.
Proof no longer required.
Once riveted on those hands,
looked into the eyes of Jesus.
Tried to form the words of his heart.
Words that still would not come.
Tears flowed down his cheeks,
rolling through his beard and to the floor.
Thomas’ struggled to gain a breath.
Took a step back.
Clutched his arms across his chest,
forced his hands beneath his armpits,
squeezed as if afraid his chest would explode.
Took another deep breath.
Let it out again slowly and raggedly.
He shook his head with a rueful smile.
Dropped to his knees.
Bowed in reverence.
In a voice that grew
stronger with each word.
truth of profound understanding…
“My Lord and My God.”
No shred of doubt.
No a moment of pessimism.
No inkling of uncertainty.
I like Thomas. I find his nickname unfair. Labeled for eternity for a moment of doubt and confusion common to all of Jesus’ followers at some point in life. I find compelling. Complex. And, at times, I am so much like him.
My response to Christ often fluctuates based on the circumstances in which I find myself. At times, I find myself pessimistic, perhaps even a little fatalistic about God’s plan and the troubled times in which we live. Yet, Thomas revealed the answer. My responsibility is to be with him. Simple as that. Wherever he leads I’ll go…even if that leads me to a place I don’t wish to go. Devotion drives the destination. Devoted Thomas.
There are times I find myself struggling to understand God’s will and purpose for my life. Unable to see the where he wishes me to go, what he wants me to do. I can stand immobilized by fear. Hobbled by my lack of understanding. Pretending to know what I don’t know. Or…I can be like Thomas. Asking for clarity. Digging deeper into what he desires for me at this moment in my life. Searching Thomas.
When it came down to it, Thomas left his heart open to the possibilities. “Show me his nail-pierced hands.” Less a scream of doubt as a prayer to make it so. A longing to believe when everything around him said run away. My Lord and My God. Trusting Thomas.
Thomas’ is a story of Easter at its finest. A time when I am reminded…beneath the shadow of the cross and the silhouette of my risen Savior, that he is My Lord and My God.
Call me Gugenburger if you must and we’ll both have a laugh. Would that I live each day with a different nickname…devoted….searching…trusting…convinced.