Text: John 20:19-29
The disciple we know as Doubting Thomas is referred to in John’s gospel as Thomas Didymus. Didymus is Greek for “twin.” Thomas the Twin is famous for having missed seeing the risen Jesus. He believes only after he is able to place his hand in the side of the wounded Christ, who appears a second time. With our Easter focus on Conversions, I wondered this week how Thomas’ life might have been different had he never gotten that second chance to touch, and thus believe. This is a story of that possible alternative path, starting with the biblical narrative, and soon veering off into pure fiction.
The conversion of Thomas: A fictional alternative OR A parable about doubt and doubles
Thomas the Twin, as we was called from birth, rested in his home on what would be the final day of his life. His body frail, but mind still sharp. As people tend to do when they know death is near, he began to mentally review his life.
He thought back to that day he had revisited so many times before. He was once again in the house with the shut doors in the holy city of Jerusalem. He was there with ten of his comrades, those who had given up everything to follow the man from Galilee, their Master. One of their own had betrayed the Master and now both of them were dead: one crucified, the other death by suicide.
Despite this grim turn of events, the tiny band of disciples were now overcome with excitement. A week ago, behind these same doors, the Master had appeared to them, still bearing the signs of his brutal death in his hands and side, but miraculously alive. Somewhere between human and angel, he had stood among them, blessed them with a greeting of peace, breathed on them, breathed into them, and given them a mission to spread his message throughout the land. Mary Magdalene and other female disciples had their own stories of seeing the Master alive.
But for Thomas the Twin, these remained just stories. He had not been there for Jesus’ public execution. He had not been there at the tomb. And Thomas was the only one who hadn’t been there when these supposed appearances took place. Why was it, again, he hadn’t been there? What was so important to have taken him away from his comrades at a time like that? As much as he tried to recall, that detail was lost to memory.
But now he was back with them, behind the shut doors, only a week after these events, and they declared to him with one voice, “We have seen the Lord.” As if waiting to say it all week, he responded, with equal conviction, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” It was spoken out of passion, out of sorrow, even out of anger that he had suddenly been separated from his friends by what seemed like a random occurrence of not being in the right place at the right time. Everyone heard him say it, but he said it again, louder and more deliberate this time, confident that he was justified in his demand: “Unless I see what you have seen and touch the Master, I will not believe.”
They all stayed together in the house that day, recalling the events of the past few years, making plans of what to do next.
But there was no reappearance of the Master that day or that evening. They gathered in the same place each day the following week, making sure Thomas the Twin was with them the whole time, hoping they could recreate the experience that had transformed the ten of them. But it never happened.
As he felt the gap widening between himself and his friends, Thomas turned down the next invitation to meet. When they eventually returned together to Galilee, he opted to not go fishing with them by the Sea of Tiberias. When they returned to him after that fishing outing, with the same glow they had back in that house in Jerusalem, declaring that now, once again, the Master had appeared to them, had orchestrated a massive catch of fish, had even broken bread and eaten with them on the shore, Thomas felt the gap widen to a chasm.
This was the last day the eleven of them were ever together in the same place.
As Peter and James and John and the others started speaking out in public about the Master’s teachings and his death and resurrection, returning to Jerusalem, Thomas the Twin stayed behind, mourning the loss not only of the Master, but also of his friends. Just as difficult was the loss of his own bearings, his sense of what was and wasn’t true, his sense of what he was to be about in life. What was once a statement of earnest desire, became a personal mantra of suspicion, “Unless I put my finger in the mark of his hands and the wound of his side, I will not believe.”
Soon word came back to Galilee that his former companions had spread out to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. As if matching the degree of their conviction of faith with his own conviction of doubt, Thomas gave up entirely on his hopes of seeing the Master alive, resolving to never think on it again.
Faced with the need to make a living, with no donors stepping forward to finance his gospel of doubt, no energized communities forming around his lack of faith, Thomas returned to what he knew. He sought out his brother and joined him in the trade they had been taught as boys: stone work. Building homes and structures throughout their small region in Galilee.
For two human beings who had started life so similar, been called each other’s names throughout childhood, even their parents having trouble telling them apart until their youth, Thomas and his twin brother had taken remarkably different paths. The twin had always been the pragmatic one, wanting nothing more than to continue in his father’s work of masonry and construction. He had married younger than most, had children soon thereafter, and spent his days content to work and care for his growing family.
Thomas had been the restless one, moody and frequently discontent, his mind always on something beyond what he was doing. When the Teacher, the Master, had come around to their village with a small band of followers, Thomas had dropped everything and followed him. He had scorned his twin, stuck in the drudgery of life, himself free and alive.
But now Thomas looked on his twin with a newfound respect. He admired his steady, modest life. He even admired that he had not been troubled by the incessant questions of God and redemption that had plagued Thomas for as long as he could remember. After working long days, as he spent evenings with his nieces and nephews, Thomas softened ever so slightly to the simple joy of being with children, to their lightness of being, to the responsibility that came with having others depend on you. He learned to accept the basic satisfaction of building something with his hands, something at the end of the day that he could see and, yes, touch. Something that may not save the world or open the eyes of the blind, but something concrete, something necessary, something that life demanded be done. He thought less and less of his days with the Master, speaking nothing of them to family or friends. And no one asked.
One day, years later, while working on a tall structure, Thomas’s twin fell from a great height. Thomas was there, and rushed to his aid, the body broken and bleeding. As Thomas comforted him, his life quickly ebbing away, he put his hand on his twin’s badly wounded side. And then, without forethought, he had visions of that room with the shut doors so many years ago. He heard again the declaration of his friends, that they had seen the Lord, he heard again himself declare that he would not believe unless he saw and touched the wounds of the Master, he felt again his bitterness and alienation that followed, and he looked, back in the present, at his twin, his body now still and lifeless.
Although entirely inappropriate given the tragedy of the moment, for the first time in decades, Thomas laughed out loud. He laughed as he looked at the one who was so different yet so like himself, now looking back at him, eyes gone dim. He laughed at the cosmic confusion of it all – randomness, accident. His laughter slid into sorrow as he wrapped his other arm around the limp body in front of him, his double. Thomas the Twin was both alive and dead, wounded and whole, in an embrace with life and death. His old forgotten prayer, neither answered nor unanswered.
Thomas called fellow workers over, led in carefully mounting the body on a cart to be carried back home, was the first to tell the news to the family, the first to give comfort. The family of his twin now fell under his care.
Although he was more alone than ever, having lost Master, friends, calling, and now his very flesh and blood, a sense of peace welled up within Thomas. And he breathed in a new thought. He began to doubt his doubt. Not that he fully believed what he could never bring himself to believe, but he started to let go of suspicion, he started to release his sense of being left out of some grand plan, his feeling that he had been the one who had been betrayed. He carried his doubt more loosely and began to be simply open to life, whatever that may be.
Over the years Thomas had heard reports coming in from distant lands of his former comrades being martyred for their faith and testimony. They had believed so strongly in their message that they had given their life for it, just like the Master. They had started new communities throughout the empire and beyond, those communities carrying the message even further beyond themselves. Although he had given little thought to these reports when he heard them, the names seeming like a distant dream, he recounted them now, and wondered if he was the only one remaining who had walked so closely with the Master, heard all his teachings, and witnessed the miracles and healings.
Another shift took place within Thomas. Not instantly, but noticeably. Rather than seeing his Master nowhere, he began to see him everywhere. He began to see him present in the wandering sojourners who came through the village, he began to see him in the poor and outcast. He saw him in the vitality of life he witnessed every day.
Much to his own surprise, Thomas began to open his home to guests. He began to tell the stories and parables he had sworn to forget to his nieces and nephews, themselves now grown with children of their own. He began to delight in the mystery and wonder of his own breath, knowing he wouldn’t have it forever. He continued to work as long as his body allowed him, but he also traveled to far off places. When he met strangers he would sometimes tell stories of the Master, and sometimes simply listen to the stories the other told. In time he learned to end each conversation with a blessing of peace, that it would go well with the other and their people. In doing this he felt his spirit expand, and felt something of the Master alive within him.
Thomas died an old man. He died at peace, but also with the rekindled sense of restlessness that had never really left him. He had never been certain of anything, wavering between doubt and belief, but he had learned to not be paralyzed by doubt, anger, betrayal, and loss. He had believed enough to learn how to love, and his love was felt and cherished by those near him.
When he died he was buried in a family tomb along with his ancestors. He started no churches, he wrote no gospels. He would have no cathedrals named after him and was never given the title of saint. Centuries later the family tomb was destroyed in one of the many military conquests of armies seeking to reclaim the Holy Land. There is no place to go to visit his remains. Thomas the Twin is nowhere and everywhere.