Tommy Boy and the Case of the Doubts

The disbelieving apostle who wanted proof.

In case there’s any doubt, Thomas — the guy who single-handedly probed Jesus’ wounds — is one of the finest sinners who ever lived. He’s the patron saint of me and every other inveterate bootstrap puller, free lunch rejecter, and proof demander.

In John’s gospel, the risen Jesus broke in on the disciples at the very moment they shook in their sandals and wondered if the religious leaders’ goons would get them like they did their crucified rabbi. Our Lord on that day (and still today) had to deal with the first two moves of a sinful heart: doubt and despair.

These guys had spent the previous three years with Jesus. They had witnessed the signs and wonders, from the jars of water turned into wine at the wedding feast at Cana to the raising of a putrid Lazarus from his four-day-old tomb. They’d seen the signs, but not even Mary Magdalene’s first sermon to them about Christ’s resurrection did them much good. They just couldn’t see it. “Okay, fine; he’s not dead. How’s that going to help us when we have the same folks who killed him breathing down our necks?”

At such a moment, it’s fairly typical behavior for sinners to be scared spitless. Even with a history of watching Jesus at work, the disciples despaired of any hope whatsoever. They could have hired some big goons or installed thicker doors or heavier hinges. At least then they would have looked to something in God’s creation for help. But they didn’t even go there. They simply succumbed to despair, thinking there was no hope, no future. They were paralyzed by fear.

Jesus knew that if he politely knocked on their door, there would have been a load of underwear to toss in the wash. So, he appeared in their midst at the same time that he spoke a fear-quelling word: “Relax, it’s me.” On the surface, that sounds like a command. But when you get a demand from your beloved, from the one who’s so outright bodacious in your eyes that you can’t turn away, even the greatest demand begins to sound like an invitation and promise.

“Peace be with you” is pure gospel for the fearful when it comes from the lips of Jesus. All world’s demands for propriety in its eyes come at some cost. They require that you give something up of yourself: your time, your energy, your money, your safety, your future. Whether those demands come from your work, your family, or even your play, a demand’s fulfillment depends solely on what you do. But Jesus came to a group of people who were hanging on to the knot at the end of their rope. They had nothing left they could pull together to do for themselves.

That’s sweet news for us sinners all these centuries later who know how little we can do about our futures. For those of us who recognize the disciples’ despair in themselves, Jesus comes with the same word: “Relax, it’s me. Peace be with you.”

It’s just like him, you know. Whenever Jesus showed up after the resurrection in the gospels, it was always to people wandering around in despair: Mary Magdalene at the tomb, Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, the disciples out in the boat catching a total of zero fish. Jesus searched out those who hadn’t an ounce left to give, and his first word was: “Peace. I’m in control now just as I was at the first moment of creation. I took what was formless and void and made something good out of it. Just so, I’m taking your chaos and turning it into the kingdom of God. Relax already!”

No sooner did Jesus quell the disciples’ fear and despair before he had to do it again. For as soon as Jesus begins creating his people anew, he also sends them out into the world they’re so scared of. He set the disciples and to the very task God sent him for. Jesus pushes them out into the world to do his work, the same exact stuff that got him nailed hand and foot to a couple of eight-by-eights.

The one guy who missed out on all this promising, commissioning and peace-giving was our beloved Tommy Boy. He probably occupied himself in the only things left he thought he could count on. Maybe he was slouched in front of his computer screen managing his finances. Maybe he was texting a pretty girl he’d met in Jericho back before Jesus had hooked him in. Maybe he’d gone to the library to study the Scriptures to wring some reason for this disaster out of it. Wherever he was off to, searching up a way to put the chaos of Jesus’ failure to rights, he never expected what he got when he slipped through the door where his friends were hiding.

He showed up hours later, and the disciples bombarded him with what happened. They gave him the world premiere of their new song of Jesus and forgiveness. They declared these promises of the risen Jesus to their friend, but it wasn’t enough for Thomas. And there we have the second move of the sinful heart. Isn’t it just like a sinner to demand more than what God offers in his promise? It’s not enough that Jesus merely declares it so, we want to have proof.

The Bible is a populated cover to cover by people who wanted more from God than his word of promise provides. Adam and Eve suspected God was holding something back and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so they could know what God knows. When Moses met the Lord himself on the mountaintop, he begged God to let him see God in his full glory. After much whining by Moses, God finally relented. Moses was told to hide himself in the cleft of the rock of ages. God said when, and Moses turned to look and discovered that even then God only allowed him to see his backside. Another time, Elijah prayed for God to put on a show for the prophets of the false god Baal. God sent down a little fire and smoke, but even that’s not enough. The Israelites wanted visible proof of God’s power over the Canaanites and decided what’ll suffice was the death of 40,000 of their enemies.

Luther called this move we sinners make “enthusiasm,” or God-within-ism. We don’t accept either God or his son Jesus Christ at their word. Proof is what we want and demand he give it. Some want to take God’s forgiving Word and add worldly success and prosperity as final proof of God’s good intentions. Others want the emotional kick of a spiritual gift like speaking in tongues. Still others think God’s Word isn’t really real unless they truly feel something in worship. Some won’t believe until there’s world peace or their kids listen to them, whichever comes first.

For Thomas, it was visual proof he imagined would do the trick: seeing Jesus standing right in front of him with a hole in his right hand, another in his left, and more in his feet and side. But when Jesus showed up, so that Thomas could poke his finger into the spear wound in his side, it was no longer a matter of proof. Those wounds and Christ’s beating heart and breathing lungs told the story.

“Proof-schmoof,” Jesus said, “I’ve already taken care of that. What’s been proven is that you and every other sinner will cling to your unbelief and doubt until it kills me. But I’m risen above all your doubts and despair. I’ve bundled them up and tucked them into the holes in my flesh. Poke around in there all you like. You’ll find your past with all its disasters, you present inability to conjure up something out of your life. It’s all death. But now look at the pulsing veins next to those holes and see your future.”

Once you’ve used your own flesh to probe the death encased in Jesus, the only thing that’ll do for you is forgiveness and the eternal life it brings. Jesus told Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus didn’t let Thomas waste much time on the picking and poking. Already he shifted the focus away, as far away as you sitting here today where you have this up on your screen. All that was left was for Thomas, the rest of the disciples, and those feisty women alongside them, to bring it, to preach it.

Even as Jesus sent out his disciples with his death and resurrection on their lips, so he has sent out generations of preachers (and not just pastors). Your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, your Sunday school teachers, the friends who came in your despair and loss, all who have given you the good news that draws you here to this place — they’re sent to you, so that you might believe.

I, too, am sent along with the church’s other public proclaimers to tell it to you, to deliver you the goods, so that doubt and despair are not the sum total of your identity. So, sit up. Read slowly and carefully: Peace be with you. For the sake of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, I declare to you the entire, yes, entire forgiveness of all, yes, all your sins. Peace be with you. No further proof necessary.

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One response to “Tommy Boy and the Case of the Doubts”

  1. Judy/Sam Palpant says:

    This was a great essay/article with such an inspiring message. Loved the title–Tommy Boy. I’ve rarely noticed typos and grammatical errors in other articles, but in this one I noticed several.

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