Brave and Inquiring Thomas

Alleluia! Rejoice and be glad! Today, we continue to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. As is the case every Easter Season, we’ll sing alleluia for several weeks to come. As for me, I’ve been immersed in Easter sentiments for quite some time. Our January stay in Israel inspired much reflection regarding the life and death of Jesus. Unlike Jesus’ contemporaries, I cannot contemplate these things without considering all that has happened since Mary Magdalene and the rest discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. Because we know these things, our perspective differs greatly from Jesus’ friends who could only wonder about what was in store. I do my best to keep all of this in mind. Still, like many who try to live as Jesus lived, I often find myself falling short. Though I know what is in store for us all after this earthly life, I stumble and fall along the way. Today, I realize once again that I’m not alone in my frailty.

When I read the gospel for this Second Sunday of Easter, I took a mental trip back to the Holy Land. This time, I was in the good company of the apostle Thomas. While considering this disciple whom John’s gospel portrays as the doubter, I found myself back in the pre-Sabbath hustle and bustle of Jerusalem. The crowds I encountered there seemed to have known exactly where they were going and what they had to do. Knowing what was coming next is a luxury Thomas and the others rarely enjoyed while they walked with Jesus. Most of the time, they were uncertain of what to expect.

A few weeks ago we listened to a passage from John’s gospel which chronicled one such occasion. Some time before Jesus and the disciples returned to Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus received word that his dear friend Lazarus was near death. You probably recall that Jesus delayed going to his friend’s side in spite of the urgency of this news. Most of the disciples likely breathed a sigh of relief because their inevitable demise was put off a little longer. When Jesus finally announced their departure for Lazarus’ home, his friends reminded him that the people had recently tried to stone him in that very place. When Jesus explained his timing, it was Thomas who spoke up. “Let us also go and die with him,” Thomas said, in spite of the fact that he had no idea of what was in store. As it happened, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the people were pleased. So it was that Jesus and the others were out of harm’s way for a little while longer. Still, I wonder. Did Thomas continue to worry about what was to come or did he simply give thanks that this new miracle would keep them safe a while longer? I just don’t know. What I do know is that Thomas’ devotion to Jesus was absolute. After all, it was Thomas who was willing to stay with his beloved teacher and perhaps to meet his end in Bethany where Lazarus lived.

It seems to me that today’s gospel (John 20:19-31) illustrates Thomas’ bravery once again. Thomas missed Jesus’ first post-resurrection visit. Because the gospel fails to explain Thomas’ absence, I wonder further. Did bravery counter Thomas’ fear of the authorities? Did Thomas leave the safety of their hideout to see firsthand the aftermath of Jesus’ death? Perhaps Thomas needed to separate fact from rumor for himself regarding the responses of the people to Jesus’ demise. Perhaps Thomas needed to experience the loss of Jesus outside of the others’ paralyzing fear. John’s is the only gospel which reports Thomas’ absence and doubt regarding Jesus’ first visit after he rose from the dead. Perhaps the other gospel writers saw something different in this disciple. As for me, I see Thomas as a man of thought and action whom Jesus wanted at his side. In the months and years afterward, scores of people heard the name of Jesus because Thomas spoke it to them. Many others came to understand forgiveness, compassion and mercy because Thomas shared his experience of these things with them. Thomas touched skeptical hearts because he once walked in their shoes. When Jesus returned to the disciples with Thomas among them, Jesus invited his friend to come closer. Thomas responded as only he could: “My Lord and my God!”

I have great affection for the Apostle Thomas because I walk in his shoes often. I understand his need to leave that upper room and to sort things out for himself because I often need to do the same. While in Israel, I often became lost in my own thoughts regarding all that Jesus means to me. I understand Thomas’ elation when Jesus reached out to him. Throughout those days in the Holy Land and all of my life, Jesus has invited me to come and to see his great love for myself. Jesus extends the same invitation to all of us on this Second Sunday of Easter and again and again throughout our lives. Like Thomas, it is up to us to recognize Jesus and to respond, “My Lord and my God.”

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Respond As Best We Can

When my husband and I traveled to Israel in mid-February, I didn’t realize that this trip would be the perfect preparation for Lent 2017. Every Lent, I do my best to revisit all that Jesus means to me. Like many who claim to live as Jesus lived, I often find myself falling short. While in Israel, I acquired much insight regarding life in Jesus’ day and in modern-day Israel. I discovered that I’m not alone in my human frailty.

Our guide Yossi consistently followed his commentaries regarding the sites we visited with anecdotes from Israeli life today. Each of Yossi’s stories betrayed his love for his people and his concern regarding their too-frequent inability to live peacefully with one another. Some who feel strongly regarding the old ways do their best to draw others to imitate their piety. Some have lost patience with these religious people and they respond by forsaking their faith and embracing more secular ways. Some have found Jesus to be their messiah and suffer isolation from intolerant neighbors. The various ethic quarters throughout Jerusalem and elsewhere greatly enrich Israeli life while sometimes adding to the discord. Because Israel is surrounded by its enemies, Yossi feels strongly that peace is a necessity within its borders. Yossi always ended his remarks with this request: “You must pray for Israel’s people, that we live in peace with one another.” Yossi always accompanied this request with his own attempts to build peace among his neighbors, just as Jesus did. Every time Yossi shared these things, I imagined Jesus shaking his head and responding with his own efforts in this regard.

It occurs to me that the unrest which sometimes plagues the people of Israel also plagues us in this country. It follows us into our workplaces, neighborhoods and schools and even into our own homes. Today’s gospel tells us that Thomas’ experienced the same…

After Jesus’ crucifixion, the once-scattered disciples huddled together for safety. By that time, Judas had hung himself in despair over having betrayed Jesus. Close as he was to our precious Lord, Judas didn’t realize that Jesus’ talk of mercy, forgiveness and love was meant for him as well. Had he made his way to the foot of the cross, I’m certain Jesus would have told him so. Had he made his way to that locked room, I can only hope that the others would have allowed him in. After all, they’d all deserted Jesus when the guards came to arrest him. Though Peter pulled out his sword in Jesus’ defense, he later denied Jesus three times. Only John eventually approached the cross where Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene and the other women stood in horror. The disciples’ fear intensified as they worried with good reason about their own eventual demise.

In spite of this collective fear, John’s gospel (20:19-31) tells us that Thomas left their hideout. Did he hope to learn for himself what the people were saying about Jesus’ death? Did he discover that the discord among the scribes and Pharisees continued as a few had expressed sympathy toward Jesus? Did Thomas hear rumblings from Pilate’s palace where his wife had warned him not to harm Jesus? Did he hear of uncertainly among the soldiers who crucified Jesus? One of their own had fallen to his knees before the cross to proclaim that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. After Jesus’ death, there was unrest among the people and in disciples’ hideout just as there is in Israel and just as there is among us. Thomas’s absence during Jesus first appearance only added to this unrest. Jesus returned a week later when Thomas was present. Jesus greeted them with, “Peace be with you!” Still, poor Thomas bore the brunt of all of our doubt and fear when Jesus added, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving.” When Thomas fell at Jesus’ feet, Jesus replied, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?” Jesus could have looked around at the others and at each one of us to ask the same.

You know, Jesus revealed God’s love in everything he said and did. Jesus revealed God’s forgiving mercy through every interaction with those he met along the way. Rumblings of uncertainty and discontent surrounded Jesus. They surrounded his closest friends as well. Why then was I surprised by Yossi’s experience in Israel? Why am I surprised by my own experiences? These things come with being human. Fortunately, two far more precious aspects of our humanity come as well: Our ability to make peace with one another and our ability to love, just as Jesus did, as best we can.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Thomas The Brave

This week after Easter, I find myself grateful that my Lenten to-do list has been recycled. In the interest of efficiency, I allowed myself a single sheet of paper which I eventually covered with scribbled notations and check marks. If I had not done so, half of what I needed to accomplish would have been forgotten. I neglected to ask myself if these omissions would actually have made a difference to anyone else. Of course, this was of no consequence. I’d determined what I needed to do and that was that! As a result, my journey through Lent 2016 was at best distracting and most often discouraging to me. Many things beyond my control disrupted “normalcy” as I know it. Though I tried to respond with some semblance of resignation, I found myself hapless and helpless much of the time. In the end, I attempted to repair what I could and to let the rest go. In the process, I realized that I was a little off. Though I’m usually well aware of the Almighty’s presence in my life, I lost sight of our benevolent God as I plodded along toward Easter.

When I read the gospel for this Second Sunday of Easter, it occurred to me that my Lenten experience wasn’t much different from that of poor Thomas. Some time before Jesus and the disciples returned to Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus received word that his dear friend Lazarus was near death. You probably recall that Jesus delayed going to his friend’s side in spite of the urgency of this news. The disciples likely breathed a sigh of relief because their inevitable demise was put off a little longer. When Jesus finally announced their departure for Lazarus’ home, his friends reminded him that the people recently tried to stone him in that very place. When Jesus explained his timing, it was Thomas who spoke up. Thomas told the others, “Let us also go and die with him.” Thomas said this in spite of the fact that he had no idea of what was in store for them. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the people were pleased. So it was that Jesus and the others were out of harm’s way for the moment. Still, I wonder. Did Thomas continue to worry about what was to come or did he simply give thanks that this new miracle would keep them safe a while longer? We will never know. What we do know is that Thomas’ devotion to Jesus is certain. After all, it was Thomas who invited the others to go to meet their end with their beloved teacher.

Today’s gospel (John 20:19-31) suggests Thomas’ bravery once again. Thomas missed Jesus’ first visit after rising from the dead. Though John’s gospel fails to explain Thomas’ absence, I wonder further. Could it be that bravery trumped Thomas’ fear of the authorities? Perhaps Thomas left the safety of their hideout to see firsthand the aftermath of Jesus’ death. Perhaps Thomas needed to separate fact from rumor for himself regarding the responses of the people. Perhaps Thomas needed to experience the loss of his friend without the distraction of the others who mourned in fear. You know, John’s is the only gospel which reports Thomas’ absence and doubt regarding Jesus’ first visit after he rose from the dead. Perhaps the other gospel writers saw something different in this disciple. As for me, I see Thomas as a man of thought and action whom Jesus wanted at his side. Scores of people would never have heard the name of Jesus if Thomas hadn’t spoken it to them. Many others would not have understood forgiveness, compassion and mercy if Thomas hadn’t shared his experience of these things with them. Thomas touched skeptical hearts because he once walked in their shoes. When Jesus returned to the disciples the second time, Thomas stood among them. When Jesus invited him to come closer, Thomas responded in a strong voice: “My Lord and my God!” Whatever Thomas questioned before this encounter became certainty the moment Thomas moved near enough to Jesus to touch him.

I have great affection for the Apostle Thomas because I walk in his shoes often. I understand his need to leave that upper room and to sort things out for himself because I often need to do the same. I also understand Thomas’ elation when Jesus reached out to him. Though my angst remained with me until the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper began on Holy Thursday Night, it disappeared the moment I settled into my pew to pray. Finally, I experienced God’s presence in those who had come to pray with me, at the altar we’d prepared for this special meal, in the hymns which encouraged me to sing from the depths of my heart, in the words of scripture which recounted Jesus’ last days among us. Finally, I set aside my to-do list and embraced my dear sweet Lord who had been with me all the while. Finally, I found Thomas’ wisdom and courage as I whispered with great gratitude, “My Lord and my God.”

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Brave Thomas

A few weeks before Easter, I referenced John’s account (11:1-45) of the raising of Lazarus. At the time, Jesus preached among the people until his final return to Jerusalem. Though word came that Lazarus neared death, Jesus remained where he was for a few more days. He told his disciples that Lazarus’ condition would eventually bring glory to God. The disciples likely breathed a sigh of relief in response, not so much because God would be glorified, but because their inevitable demise had been delayed a bit longer. When Jesus finally led them to visit Lazarus, the disciples quickly reminded Jesus that the people had attempted to stone him the last time he appeared there. When Jesus explained his timing once again, Thomas responded “Let us also go and die with him.” I have read this account numerous times, yet I failed appreciate Thomas’s remark until now.

As we know, Jesus and the rest arrived after Lazarus’ death and Jesus did glorify God with when he raised Lazarus. Though Jesus and his followers escaped harm’s way for the moment, I wonder if Thomas continued to worry about what lay ahead. Or, did he simply give thanks that this miracle pleased the people and ensured Jesus’ safety a while longer? In the depths of his heart, did Thomas believe Jesus would die and that he might join him on a cross or did Thomas hope that Jesus’ kingdom would indeed come? We will never know in this life. What we do know is that Thomas’s devotion to Jesus remained throughout all of this. Remember, it was Thomas whose courage prompted him to invite the others to “…go and die with him.”

After visiting Lazarus’ family, Jesus and the disciples traveled on to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Ecstatic over Jesus’ presence, the people gave him a royal welcome. Though the other disciples were caught up in this moment of glory, I wonder what Thomas was thinking. John’s gospel does not mention Thomas again until the last supper when Jesus told his friends that he would prepare a place for them and welcome them into his kingdom. It was then that Thomas exhibited his courage once again when he asked what the others were likely afraid to voice: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth and the life; you will come to the Father through me…” I wonder if this was enough to get Thomas through the next few days?

Nothing more is written of Thomas until John 20:19-31, when John tells us that Thomas was absent for Jesus’ first appearance among the disciples. Far removed from the throngs who a few days earlier demanded Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples felt certain that they would find themselves on crosses as well, so they hid. Thomas, however, was not among them. Did Thomas’s courage empower him to find out for himself what the people were saying about their crucified Teacher? When Thomas eventually returned to their hiding place, he refused to believe that Jesus had appeared. Thomas went so far as to challenge Jesus himself by insisting that he would believe only after he touched the nail holes in Jesus’ hands and the wound in Jesus’ side. When Jesus returned to show himself to Thomas, the poor man fell at Jesus’ feet and prayed, “My Lord and my God.”

I share my thoughts regarding Thomas because I have found myself walking in his troubled shoes more often than I have liked as of late. My Lenten Journey was at best distracting and most often discouraging. Many things beyond my control disrupted the lives of the people I love as well as my own. Though I tried to walk their journeys and “…to go and die” with them, I found myself hapless and helpless. Though I followed Thomas’s lead often, asking, “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” I failed to listen to the Lord’s answers. Rather, I went on my own way, attempting with all my might to repair whatever it was that had gone awry. It was as though I needed to put my fingers into the nail holes and my hand into his side before I would realize that our Lord was very much aware of what was occurring around me.

Fortunately, my experiences this past Lent paralleled those of Thomas in the most important way of all. Though I was absent to many of our dear Lord’s attempts to be present in my life, the Lord God was not absent from me. When I finally noticed God’s presence in the support of my family and friends, in the kindness of a stranger, in the words of scripture and in the strength that suddenly welled up from within when I needed it most, I realized that all would be well in the end.

In the face of whatever is lacking in our lives and in our hearts, we must echo the words of Thomas and pray, “My Lord and my God.” For, indeed, God is with us in everything!

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved