If Matthew, Mark, and Luke thought Peter’s confession was central to the Gospel proclamation, John believed Thomas’ confession was even more important. He originally ended his Gospel with the colossal, “My Lord and my God.” This was the most far reaching confession in the Bible, perhaps the first time anyone proclaimed Jesus divine.
Yet we remember Thomas as the great doubter, not the great confessor. Some believe the group who preferred the first three Gospels and the leadership of Peter were behind this. I think a more reasonable explanation is people have always associated themselves with Thomas’ doubt. Well “doubt” is the wrong word, isn’t it? We believe. We just have questions about some parts of the story. We identify with Thomas’ questions. For instance, we wonder how it is possible for a dead person to live.
We should remember Christians from the beginning have acknowledged this question. We do not know how to explain the physical act of resurrection, except to say it was an act of God’s love. The early Church simply spoke of the effects of this action. The tomb was empty, people ate and drank with Jesus again, and disciples followed him to places they had feared to go.
It was not until about 1000 AD that people began to think they finally had it figured out. They started to describe and picture the actual event of resurrection. In some paintings, Jesus flies or floats up out of the tomb. Others show Jesus striding out in a burst of light, everything recoiling around him. Michelangelo pictures Jesus breaking out as if he had summoned up all his strength and in an enormous effort broke through the tomb and the death it held.
My favorite is a 14th century work by Meister Franke in which Jesus crawls out of a large vault or coffin with high sides. His back is towards us as he raises his leg over the side very carefully, very quietly, so as not to awaken the soldiers supposed to be watching. He looks at us over his right shoulder and appears to be laughing. I imagine him in the next moment placing his finger to his lips as if to say, “Shh! Don’t tell anybody.”
As I first contemplated that picture, I sensed the familiar, something pleasantly familiar. Where had I witnessed that position? Finally it came to me. When my granddaughter Kayla learned how to throw her leg over the top bar of her crib and crawl out.
Actually, as in the resurrection tradition, I felt the effects before I saw the event itself. At 5:30 one morning as I slept on a futon on the floor, a heavy object landed on my chest and a beautiful voice whispered, “Wake up, Pop Pop. Wake up.” There she was. When I asked how she got there, she took my hand, walked me back to her room, and asked me to place her back into her crib. Then she threw her leg over the top bar, smiled at me over her right shoulder, and crawled out. And we quietly laughed and laughed and laughed. With a finger to her lips she asked, “Don’t tell Mommy and Daddy!” But we did go to announce the good news to her grandmother. “Wake up. Wake up. Look at Kayla can do now!”
As all parents know, her life was entirely changed after that event, and so were all of our lives as well. Kayla was no longer trapped in her crib. She was loose in the world. Everyone was called to action. All sorts of new possibilities presented themselves.
It seems to me all of Thomas’ questioning was caught up in this painting and Kayla’s escape from the crib. It goes beyond scientific explanation to far more important concerns. Thomas felt Jesus was locked in death. All that he had begun to believe was possible. All his faith, hope, and love were crushed. Once again hate had beaten love; once again evil proved more powerful than good. Once again peace had been overcome by violence; once again life had been smashed by death. Death, not God, had the last word in this world.
Thomas believed all he could do was cry over what might have happened, but had been lost. Gone was the laughter of enabling blind people to see, lame people to walk, deaf people to hear. Gone was the laughter of forgiving sinners, feeding the poor, turning water into wine. Gone was the laughter of hearing the Great Teacher tell people to live like children, like flowers, like birds, letting God worry about what they would eat or drink tomorrow. Now after Jesus’ execution, people no longer laughed with Jesus. They laughed at him.
Thomas had not yet experienced the effects of Easter. Remember, Easter did not come with flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. All the Gospel writers make clear it happened in a way that some believed and some questioned. Easter came in the silence of a new day dawning; when a loved one came calling, “Wake up. Wake up!” And people slowly, one by one, began to laugh again. Laughing angels asked mourning women, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead?” They surely did not ask with disapproving frowns as if the women were stupid, but with the smiles and laughter of those who bring good news. Mary must have laughed when she realized the stranger, the gardener, who she was questioning in anger, was her beloved Rabbi who called her by name. The two guys traveling to Emmaus surely laughed when they realized the fellow traveler on whom they were laying all their troubles was Jesus, who lovingly showed them a new way to handle them. The disciples hiding in fear must have laughed when Jesus came through their locked door to offer them peace again. And Thomas certainly laughed when his questions were answered.
Easter is always about God coming through locked doors and locked hearts. We should ponder over and over again the first pictures of the resurrection, the Greek icons in which Jesus batters down the door to hell. Satan lies vanquished under this smashed door as Jesus reaches out to pull lost souls from the hellish pit. The resurrection destroys Satan and hell.
Jesus still comes through our locked doors, our locked hearts, quietly, silently. We look across the Communion table and the person whom we have known as the grocery clerk appears to be Christ smiling at us. We fret about a God too far away to care about our problems, and then hear someone call us by our baptismal name. We feel trapped, utterly trapped, in a world of constant war, unending instances of the strong taking advantage of the weak, continual hatred, ignorance, hostility, and selfishness; and then a very ordinary guy or gal proclaims the good news in Church. We grow weary with cynics who claim the church has given us nothing but religious wars, anti-scientific nonsense, and silly sexuality for 2000 years. And right when we have had all we can take, one of them begs us to keep trying, because no other group in this society is offering him anything. “Teach me to throw my leg over the top bar of my crib, pull me from my pit, set me free to laugh again.