Judas the betrayer, Peter the rock, James and John - the sons of thunder, Simon the zealot, Matthew the tax-collector, Thomas the doubter. How we love to categorize. How we love to define people according to a single aspect of their lives. It makes life much simpler. Once you have gained your name, people know how you will behave. Doubting Thomas, Thomas the sceptic, Thomas the enemy of pure faith. We know that should we meet this Thomas he will probably question every word we have to say, he will ask for proof where proof shouldn't be needed, he will take a lot of convincing. Today we are going to try to understand Thomas a little better, we're going to check out his "handle".
The stories of Thomas appear mostly in John's gospel. He first appears in John chapter 11. And he starts off with a label, not Thomas the doubter, but Thomas the twin. Twin is what Thomas means, and its Greek equivalent - Didymus. Thomas was already defined - as somebody else's brother. We are not told who his twin is, or whether his twin is male or female, but I'm sure most of us here will know what it is like to be called somebody's brother, or so- and-so's son, or thingummy's dad. Ah, Phil is it? You must be Lythan's husband! We all want to be known for who we are, not not always in relation to somebody else.
Jesus has been to the feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem and he had attracted hostility and opposition from Jewish leaders. So much hostility, in fact, that they tried arrest him and stone him. Jesus escaped and withdrew with his disciples back across the Jordan. They are now under no illusions. They now know that following this man is going to be no picnic. They have all run in fear for their lives. Now is the time for the fainthearted to give their excuses and quietly leave. But none of them do.
However, there is worse to come. Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is dangerously ill. Jesus proposes that they go back across the Jordan so that he could be with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, back across the Jordan - away from safety and back into the danger zone. At once there is a chorus of disciples' voices - "But rabbi, you can't do that, it would be suicidal. It was only a few days ago they tried to stone you to death. If you do go then you can count us out. We're stopping here where it's safe." But one voice piped up to the contrary, it was the voice of Thomas - "I won't let you go alone, Lord. Come on, let's all go with him, if he dies, we will all die with him. We stand or fall together." This is not the voice of Thomas the doubter, this is the voice of Thomas the courageous, Thomas the loyal and devoted disciple, Thomas the deeply committed who will not be separated from his Lord and master.
He appears again in chapter thirteen. It is passover time, and Jesus has arranged for a meal to be eaten with his disciples. Before the meal he washes their feet, and begins to prepare them for what is about to happen. He explains that he is going away - somewhere that they cannot follow. "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also. And you know the way where I am going."
Again we hear Thomas' voice. "Lord, we don't know where you're going. How can we know the way?" Here, Thomas reveals again his loyalty and devotion. Thomas does not want to be separated from his Lord, whatever happens, even if it means great danger. What Jesus is saying appals him. How can Jesus leave them now, after all they've been together? Perhaps Jesus is trying to protect them from danger, rather like in the films when the hero tells the girl or the child to stay behind while he goes into danger. Of course they never do, and they end up saving his life. This is how I imagine Thomas. He will not be separated from his Lord - "Only tell me where you are going, whatever the danger, and I for one will come with you. Remember, we came with you to Lazarus? I want to be with you wherever you are going." Thomas, of course, doesn't understand what Jesus is really saying, but then neither do the other disciples. Peter says, "Lord, where are you going, why can't I follow you now?" Philip said, "Lord, just show us the Father, then we shall be satisfied." None of them really understood what Jesus was saying, but Thomas' voice was not the voice of a doubter or a sceptic, Thomas' voice was the voice of loyalty and devotion.
And then when that three-year adventure with this remarkable rabbi seemed to have met such a terrible and violent end, the disciples are locked away in anupper room. Some say it is most likely the same room where they experienced that last meal with him. The disciples are no longer courageous and excited, they are trembling with fear and in deep depression. Suddenly Jesus is among them. "Peace be with you!" But Thomas is missing, he is not with the other disciples. Perhaps this is his biggest mistake. We don't know where he was. I doubt that he had just popped out for a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread. I imagine it went something like this:
Thomas was utterly distraught. He was stunned by Jesus' death, numb with pain. His life was shattered and his hopes dashed. He had forsaken the company of his frightened and frustrated friends. The tragedy of the cross and the grief of their loss which they found easier to bear in one anothers' company, Thomas felt he had to face alone. There are times in all of our lives when we need to be alone, when the kind words and comforting gestures of our friends, however well- meant, are too much to bear. At this time Thomas needed to be alone, to begin to come to terms with the enormity of his grief. The Lord who he had followed through thick and thin had been taken away, Jesus had gone to a place where he could not follow. Maybe Jesus' words now made more sense to him. But he had pledged his whole life to following Jesus, what could he do now? The future looked ominously black.
He was not with the other disciples, and so he was not there when Jesus appeared among them. Maybe there is a lesson for us here - that we are more likely to meet the risen Christ in the company of fellow-believers and fellow-travellers than we are on our own. Surely that is what the church is about. Surely that is why the church is called the body of Christ.
When Thomas did join the others he was greeted with the startling announcement that they had seen the Lord, and his next words are those that branded him "the doubter" for centuries to come. "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe."
By his words we can be fairly sure that Thomas had witnessed the crucifixion. Its brutal details were stamped indelibly on his mind. He had seen Jesus die. He was dead. He knew that was true. And Thomas too had died that day - all his hopes and his dreams had died on that cross with Jesus. Paul tried to put the experience into words several years later, "We have died with Christ" he wrote. This was such a deep experience for Thomas that no second-hand report of a risen Christ would do, even though there was nothing Thomas wanted more than to believe that Jesus was alive.
The other disciples had been the same. They had not believed the women - their word was not enough - they only believed when they experienced the risen Lord for themselves. Thomas wanted to see and touch, he wanted an experience as real as the crucifixion to change his pain into joy. Thomas was no doubter. He simply refused to base his faith solely on the testimony of others. Thomas knew that faith is not merely an acceptance of certain facts about Jesus, it is a first-hand, living relationship.
A week later, Jesus appeared again among his disciples, and this time Thomas was there. Jesus said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands." We are not told that Thomas actually did that, I doubt that he needed to. We are told that he fell to his knees and declared, "My Lord, and my God!"
If we are looking for proof, surely no more proof is needed than that contained in that upper room. The proof of lives transformed. It is the same transforming power of God that Ezekiel described with his picture of a valley of dry bones, do you remrember us looking at that story just a few weeks ago? Jesus breathed on those disciples, as God breathed life into Adam, as the Spirit breathed life into those bones and they sprang to new life.
They had died with Christ, now they had risen with Christ and they are given Christ's work to do. "As the father sent me, so I send you."
The same life-giving breath is offered to you, the same experience of transformation can be yours. How? By doing as Thomas did. Not being satisfied with a second-hand faith, but seeking out the risen Christ for yourself. And where might you start? Right here in this company of fellow-believers. And what will the cost be? The cost will be enormous, you will be given Christ's work to do. But be sure of one thing - once you find it, you will know it is the real thing, the very thing you were created for.