by Cara Strickland—
“Jesus said to her, Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord…” (John 20:17-18a).
Sometimes I think about what it would have been like to be a follower of Jesus in the days immediately following his death. Now we live with the full knowledge of the resurrection, but back then his disciples had no such reason to hope. For them, Sunday was just another day in the wake of the horrific murder of their leader and friend.
Although the death of someone close is wrenching by itself, this situation was further complicated because of why Jesus was killed. This wasn’t random or even senseless; this was a political choice. If I were among Jesus’ followers in those first days, I’m sure that I would have experienced grief, but perhaps more pressing, I would have wanted to lock myself away in a room as well, hoping that those who had killed Jesus would forget that I even existed.
It is in just such a position that Jesus finds his disciples the day after he rises. The disciples have locked themselves away against those seeking to do harm, but Jesus passes through the doors, offering peace.
This isn’t the first time they hear that Jesus is alive. He has already appeared to Mary Magdalene, and she has come to report about it. “I have seen the Lord,” she says (v. 18). In John’s Gospel, there is no mention of responses or reactions to this news. In Luke, it’s a different story: “These words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).
To be honest, I doubt that I would have reacted any differently. It would be impossible to think that Jesus hadn’t really died—not with the way he was killed. And Jesus could have left it at that. After all, he appears to Mary. He tells her the good news and asks her to pass it on. He could have ascended immediately. But he didn’t. Instead, he walked through locked doors, and said, “Peace be with you.” In Luke, he asks for something to eat, proving that he was not a ghost, but a corporeal being.
Jesus is intentional about allaying fears and doubts. This is the beauty of a God who is both fully human and fully divine: Jesus knows what fear feels like, what it is like to doubt your own eyes or words that seem too wonderful to be true. It seems to me that Jesus is choosing to be gentle with his followers here. He understands that this is a shock. He is patient with the ways the disciples need to shift their thinking.
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came…he said to them, “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” (John 20:24-25).
At least one disciple is not there when this happens. He hears that Jesus has appeared, this time not just from Mary, but from everyone. His reaction is the same as everyone else’s reaction to Mary: He doesn’t believe it.
It must have been lonely to be Thomas during that week. Perhaps the other disciples were beginning to emerge from fear and grief, buoyed by the hope Jesus brought with him. Thomas, on the other hand, had no such hope to grasp.
But the week passes, and Jesus comes again, through the tightly shut doors. “Peace be with you,” he says again, before speaking directly to Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe” (v. 26-27).
I grew up hearing sermons suggesting that I try to avoid Thomas’ example. “Doubting Thomas,” we called him, as if it was his name. He was painted as demanding, as someone with weak faith. Whenever I experienced any sort of doubt, I worried that I was like Thomas.
But when I come to this story freshly, without expectations about what I will find, I see something very different. Jesus seems to have made this visit solely for Thomas’ benefit. When he speaks, he is using the very words that Thomas used when he expressed his disbelief.
Jesus is letting Thomas know that he has been heard. He is removing all of the obstacles to belief that Thomas had—just as he did for those disciples who dismissed Mary Magdalene’s account as an “idle tale.” Jesus does not seem angry, nor does he appear to be scolding Thomas. He is simply meeting him where he needs to be met. No wonder Thomas responds to Jesus with: “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).
THE GIFT OF DOUBT
Even though I know the end of the story—that Easter always comes, that Jesus has promised to come again—sometimes I doubt the faith to which I have bound myself. Sometimes I sink a little further into whatever dark hole I’ve found to curl up in. There are moments in the middle of singing a hymn at church, or at the funeral of a friend who died tragically, or just in the everyday quotidian rhythms of my life, where I find myself thinking: What if none of this is true?
I used to be afraid of those thoughts, afraid that they meant that my faith wasn’t secure enough, that maybe it hadn’t quite stuck. But then I think about how Jesus came just to see Thomas, to place himself in plain view, to make sure Thomas had what he needed to believe. Maybe the doubts that crept into my mind weren’t something to fear. Maybe they were a gift, a way to get to Jesus.
It felt audacious at first; in fact, it still does, but I began to use my doubts as a cue. Make me aware of your presence today. I would pray. Let me experience your love. Let me feel held and seen. Show me how you are at work in the world.
Several years ago, I heard a speaker tell a story of one of her experiences with spiritual direction. Her director encouraged her to choose a color, and whenever she saw it, to use it as a reminder of God’s care for her—a little divine wink. She chose purple, hoping to make it difficult for God. But it was autumn, and she saw purple everywhere she went. She walked away from that season with a profound sense of God’s love for her.
Could it really be that simple? Could it really be that God welcomes my questions, my conversations, my doubts? That God is looking for ways to intersect with my life, to show the redemptive ways the Spirit is at work in the world? Could it be that, like Jesus, God is eager to give me the tools I need to believe?
One of my favorite verses in the Bible comes at the end of Matthew, just before Jesus ascends: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Here, at the beginning of the early church, doubt and worship go hand in hand, even in the presence of Jesus.
When I doubt, I join a host of saints, including Thomas, who have doubted before me, and who doubt even now. Along with them, I am asking for signs of that presence. My doubts are invitations for God to respond, to make the Spirit’s presence known, if I will only pay attention.
Cara Strickland writes about food, faith and life from her home in the Pacific Northwest. You can read more of her work at carastrickland.com.
This article is excerpted from the October 2017 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story and others like it, subscribe to Gather.