Where was Thomas that Easter day when the others heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection? Where was Thomas when Jesus stood among them alive again?
Perhaps Thomas was foraging for supplies, or for the word on the street. Perhaps he couldn’t bear to be inside. Perhaps he needed to walk… as the one who paces the floor waiting for the doctor to return after a loved one’s surgery. Perhaps he just needed to see that life still existed beyond the walls. Perhaps….perhaps….
Who was Thomas anyway? Though not often mentioned by name in the gospels, we have heard enough to know what distinguished him from all the other disciples. He was the one who understood what was coming. Among the followers of Jesus, those twelve named as apostles very early in Jesus’ ministry, Thomas was outspoken in his belief in Jesus’ mission, not brash or impulsive like Peter, but strong and assured.
In the days before Jesus’ passion, at the healing of Lazarus, Jesus told his followers about his plan to go the Jerusalem and he spoke of the danger of doing so. It was Thomas among the twelve who urged the followers to go, “Even if we must die with him.” He had understood both the plan and the risk, and he was willing to follow.
Thomas knew about death, some might have called him a realist. He had anticipated Jesus’ death, what he didn’t anticipate or know in advance was how to come to terms with that reality when Jesus was gone and he remained. And he asked the question many have asked since, “How do we go on living when death is all around?”
As we hear the story one of the few that is told every year it seems different. It’s hard to know just where we fit into the story this time. Do we identify with the disciples, shut up behind locked doors in fear? Or are we like Thomas feeling guilty, unsettled, and uncertain? Maybe we’re a bit like Thomas and the rest of the disciples.
We look out from our shuttered homes, seeing the ill, and the brave, and the foolhardy. We hear the news of those who taunt fate, who laugh in the face of the risk. We listen well to the warnings, taking them seriously for the sake of the future, of our children and grandchildren, and for ourselves. We see the ones who can’t stay home, those who work at jobs providing the most essential needs of society, and we see those who have no safe home or lack the necessary supplies.
We may like Thomas feel unsettled at what we see and what we imagine to be going on beyond our closed doors. It may be hard for us to wait quietly while the world is in chaos outside.
I remember my training and hear the oft-repeated instructions for chaplains and ministers who are told to provide a non-anxious presence. In this time of isolation and social distancing, we all need someone to calm our fears. How can one be non-anxious in this time of great loss and uncertainty? How can we sit in stillness when there are so many struggling?
And then we hear the words of Thomas’ encounter with Jesus. In awe, we hear Jesus welcome, even anticipate, the questions. “Come and witness my wounds and know that I am with you. In the scars of my suffering and death see that even now I am with you in life.”
It is hard, no it is impossible, my friends, to see the path that is before us. But we know this, that Jesus’ call for us to care for one another continues, and he promises to be with us in the process. Even as we sit in stillness, in prayer, standing vigil as many suffer. Knowing that those who live crowded in cramped living quarters suffer more illness and death and that those who must work are indeed at risk. It is right for us to be keeping watch. As we hold vigil for them and for the world, as we care for one another to limit the scope of the crisis, let us also reflect on how we live now and in the future. I believe even now God is bringing forth new life in us. Let us imagine how we will live into a future that values everyone. Let us remember that Jesus is with us, bearing with us the pain of the world and speaking to us those words for which we hunger, “Peace be with you.“