It’s Sunday, April 24, 2017. One week after Easter. If there is one story in the entire Book of Books that I identify with more than any other, it’s the one that’s traditionally commemorated today, one week after Easter.
I read this Book and I can’t help imagining the people. Historical scholarship suggests that all of the Apostles at the time of the first Easter were about my age (early twenties) or younger. College age. Imagine that. Twelve college age guys, mostly from blue collar families. More than a few have shady pasts. . . there’s a former gang member; one or two others had mugshots taken after some protests turned nasty; but mostly they’re just ordinary 9 to 5 dudes.
Pete. Andy. Jim. Johnny. Phil. Bart. Matt. Simon. Another Jim. Thad. Jude. And Tom.
And Tom. . .
Of the four Gospels, only John tells us anything about him outside of a list, and Tom turns up three times in that Gospel. Clearly Johnny thought Tom had something to contribute to the story that hadn’t been addressed yet by the other three writers.
The first time Tom speaks, Jesus (let’s call him Josh; it’s the same name) is heading to a little town called Bethany. Josh and the boys have all been to Bethany plenty of times before. That’s where Martha lives. straight-laced Martha and her little sister Mary, the wild child. Martha’s like the mom of the group: they crash at her place whenever they’re in town.
And Lazarus, the brother. The man of the house. The Breadwinner. The protector.
It’s a tragedy many of us are all too familiar with. A loved one. A sudden illness. There’s no logical explanation. Out of nowhere, they’re just. . . gone.
La-Z-Boy and Josh had been tight. Maybe it was because Josh had gotten his little sister out of a really bad spot once when it seemed like no one could get through to her. Maybe they just clicked.
And Josh was going to bring him back.
The only problem was that Bethany was just a few miles down the road from Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the political and religious capital city of the Jews, which also made it the headquarters of everybody in the country who wanted to put Josh on ice. His students had lost count of the number of times that he had publicly called out the political and religious Jewish leaders for being proud, lying, posturing, greedy, self-righteous S.O.B.’s, and it was common knowledge that they wanted him out of the picture, permanently.
Word was bound to get out if they headed that way. It never kept quiet for long when Josh was around. So why would he dive head first into the lion’s den? It didn’t make a dime of sense to his boys. All twelve of them were more than a little lost (and not for the first time).
Tom, though. . . he was as confused and scared as the rest, but he had the presence of mind to jump in (probably cutting off Peter) and say, “Look. . . let’s not fight him on this one. He’s going to go no matter what we say, so we might as well go with him. And if they get him, at least we won’t let them take him out without a fight, right?”
Already I relate to Tom on so many levels (and so much deeper than a shared name). He’s not the loud mouth; that’s Pete. But on the rare occasion that he does speak up, he’s trying so hard to say something profound and important, but more than likely he’s just put his foot in it, and he’s never sure which way it just came out. Still, he desperately wants to do the right thing and stay loyal to his mentor. (Definitely a Hufflepuff.)
The next time hear from Tom, Josh is closer to the cross than ever. In fact, it’s the night before, and he’s trying so hard to get it through his poor boys’ thick skulls what he’s about to do and why.
“Don’t be afraid. Trust God and trust me. My Dad’s house… guys, you have no idea. It’s BIG. There is plenty of room. If that weren’t true, would I tell you that I’m going to get your rooms ready for you? And trust me. . . if I do that, I will come back to bring you there too. I mean. . . come on, you know the way there already!”
And Tom. Bless him. Another one of the reasons I relate to this guy so much: have you ever been in a class where you had no idea what was going on, even though you were trying REALLY hard to understand, but you’re afraid of looking stupid so you just keep trying to grasp it, all the while getting more and more lost, until finally out of sheer panic you admit that you don’t have a clue about what’s happening, and you know at this point to admit it is to look really stupid but you’re desperate?
And maybe it wasn’t you, maybe it was someone else, but once in a while it turns out that everyone else is just as lost as you are and just as scared to look stupid, so now we all look stupid but thank God someone spoke up?
“Lord. . . we don’t know where you’re going! So. . . how can we know the way?”
Last but not least, we have the story that really made Tom famous, or rather infamous, maybe.
Josh did take that cross. He was betrayed by his inner circle, arrested, put through a kangaroo court, tortured, and murdered. The boys all went underground, knowing that if they were caught, as Josh’s students and closest friends, they were next.
Three days later, after that unthinkable, unimaginable Friday, came the even more unthinkable, unimaginable Sunday.
Their Teacher, who had gone into a tomb a bloody pulp, a broken corpse, walked out again, alive. And he went and appeared in the locked room where they were hiding.
Guess who, out of the whole gang, wasn’t there.
By the time Tom got back, Josh had gone and the other ten were in that sort of post-game against-all-odds winning-shot-at-the-buzzer locker room euphoria, except that Tom was hiding his face in his hands at the buzzer so he missed the shot. So he told them:
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Look, we give Tom a hard time for this one, still, two thousand years later. This is where “Doubting Thomas” comes from. But honestly, I can’t blame him. I mean, if you had run away when your mentor needed you most, and you were the one you said “we won’t let him go down without a fight!” and he was supposed to be the Chosen One, and you and your buddies were such sick cowards that you let the Chosen One get murdered Roman-crucifixion style and you did nothing. . . When you’ve screwed up that badly, it feels moronic to get your hopes up.
Isn’t it amazing how sure we are at times that what is possible is determined by our failures?
Thank God that he can’t be contained our doubts.
Because of course, Josh turned up again, and turned Tom’s world inside out.
Three short stories. Three case studies that continue to hit me upside the head with undeniable realities. And I forget so easily, which is why the fact that there are people in the Bible like Tom gives me hope.
In each story, the focus, the lesson, is the same. In all three, Jesus is talking about his Resurrection. For me, this is the most important take away from Thomas’s inclusion in the Gospel narrative.
“Think you’re going to go die for me, Thomas? Slow down. I’ll show you. I am the master of death. I do this willingly. I do this for you.”
“You don’t know where I’m going? You don’t know how to get there? Yes you do, Thomas. This isn’t a riddle. It’s me. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The only way you’ll never get to the Father is over my dead body.”
“You believe because you see me alive, Thomas, but blessed are the people who have not seen, but still believe.”
For every time fear either keeps us from acting or pushes us into the wrong action, there is the Resurrection. For every time we just don’t understand no matter how hard we try, there is the Resurrection. For every single failure and every point where we don’t measure up, there is still the Resurrection.
Think about it. The whole concept of Redemption by the cross is just stupid.
That is, until Sunday morning, and through the foolishness and weakness of the cross, we find the wisdom and strength of the empty tomb.
Like I said, Tom gets a bad rep for the whole “Doubting” thing, but I’m so thankful for his story because it gives me a glimpse of the size of God’s grace.
We cannot out-fail, or out-stupid, the Empty Tomb, because Jesus took the ultimate fail, endured the ultimate stupid, of torture, mutilation and murder on the cross, and walked out of the tomb: alive, and King.
And then took Thomas to school.
I love the week after Easter.