Thomas: longing for encounter with God

July 3, 2016

John 20:24-29

Do you have a favourite amongst the disciples? I think for me, it would be Thomas. As I watch Thomas in the gospels, I see a person who is exploring what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Thomas longs to be with Jesus, no matter what. As I watch him, I see his inner struggle as he tries to understand what such a journey would mean.

What do we know about Thomas? He was one of the disciples. We don’t know how he became a disciple, but he is named as one of the twelve in each of the first three Gospels.

However, it is John’s gospel that gives us insight into Thomas. We first hear of him (John 11) in the story of Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother, who dies. Jesus tells the disciples that he plans to visit the family in Bethany, a town near Jerusalem in Judea. The disciples are alarmed, because the last time Jesus was in Judea, the Jews tried to stone him. They do their best to persuade Jesus not to go. As Thomas listens to Jesus explain what had happened to Lazarus, something must have been stirred deep within him because when Jesus say again “Let us go to him”, Thomas encourages the other disciples, saying, “Let’s go too”, adding his own thinking – saying if Jesus dies, we will die with him.

I wonder what Thomas discovered as he journeyed with Jesus to the home of Mary and Martha. How did he feel as he drew closer to the area where he expected they would die? And what did he think as he watched Lazarus come forth from the grave? We don’t know. What we see is a person who wanted to be with Jesus, even if it meant he lost his life.

Flip over a few more chapters in John’s Gospel and Thomas is featured again. Jesus had been talking about death, this time his own death. It is an intimate conversation with his disciples as they share the Last Supper together. Judas disappears out into the night, and Jesus speaks of what will happen. He tells them that where he is going, they cannot follow just now+. Peter pipes up with his longing – “Why can’t I come, I will lay my life down for you”. Not such a different longing to that of Thomas when they had set out in the Lazarus story. Peter is told that before the cock crows he will have denied that he even knows Jesus. Then Jesus gives gentle words of comfort – that he is going away but he will return and he will take them with him. And Thomas, the disciple who is not afraid to voice his questions, his longings or his doubts, responds with “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answers, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. What will Thomas make those words. What will he discover as he journeys on to the crucifixion and as he watches the death of Jesus? How will he make sense of it all? What other questions will he have?

Let’s move to the third mention of Thomas in John’s gospel, a resurrection story and our Gospel reading today. The disciples are all gathered together behind locked doors – that is, all except Thomas. Where he was? Perhaps he was not as afraid of death as the others were. Perhaps he was out getting food and water for them all? Did he have other responsibilities to attend too? We are not told. What we are told, is that each of those gathered, saw Jesus when he appeared to them. Each one was filled with peace and saw the wounds in his hands and his side. And in the blessing and the seeing, the disciples were filled with joy because they had heard and seen the risen Jesus. And then Jesus left them.

Later Thomas returns. Of course the conversation would have been about the encounter with the risen Jesus. How did Thomas feel as he listened? How would you feel? Everyone had been gathered in fear behind locked doors and Jesus appears to them. Thomas is out somewhere else, and he misses the experience with Jesus. Would he be gutted that he had not been there? Would he have given himself a hard time with an “if only I had ………” type inner conversation? How he longed for an encounter with the risen Jesus. It would be our surely have been our longing. Again Thomas voices what is going on inside of him. He longs to see for himself. To know that the story the other disciples have told him is really real.

A week passes. I wonder what Thomas did during that week? Did he stick with the others in case Jesus returned? How did he make sense of why he had missed out? What would he do with his longing to see for himself? Could he be gentle with his inner self as he waited, not knowing whether he ever would meet the risen Jesus for himself?

Then it happens. Thomas is with the others in the room with all the doors locked. And Jesus returns. All that the other disciples had experienced, the blessing of peace and the experience to see for himself the wounds on Jesus’s hands and in his side was his. Why did Jesus do that just for Thomas? The others had seen, and maybe Thomas ought to have believed their story. However for Jesus, it was a deep longing in Thomas that he came to meet.

What was Thomas’s response? Thomas who had once voiced that if going to the house of Lazarus meant that Jesus would die, then he was prepared to die too, because he wanted to be with Jesus. Thomas who, as they had been together in that last supper in the Upper Room, had asked the question about how could he follow Jesus if he didn’t know where he was going? There is a rich thread of longing for relationship in Thomas. Of longing to be with Jesus.

As Thomas gazes at Jesus, peace fills him, as he sees the wounds that showed him resurrected life, his eyes lift to gaze at Jesus, “the Way, the Truth and the Life”. Thomas responds with “My Lord and my God”. For Thomas everything else had faded in the room – he was focussed on the Jesus, he had followed for three years. The man whom he had longed to follow, stood there before him. Eyes filled with compassion and love. And in that sacred encounter, Thomas voiced his knowing, “My Lord and my God”.

What has that to do with us? There is much that can encourage us from the glimpses of Thomas found in John’s gospel. We watch his journey of relationship with God. How he wrestles with thoughts. The questions he asks. The experience he longs for.

In the Gospel today, Thomas voices his longing: unless I see, unless I touch. How do we voice our longings within our journey? What is our own prayer for that which we long to see and to experience.

As I prepared for today, I thought of the longings and questions I have had over the years: longings to know I am really loved? Longings to know God. Questions about why God who is love doesn’t stop hard things happening. Questions about forgiveness.

What longings or questions do you have?

How might God answer our questions or meet us in our searching? Like Thomas we are invited to see and to notice. To feel and experience. As it was for Thomas, the response may not be instant – he waited a week. For us it might be longer or shorter. It might be a journey that grows over time. Or there may be a distinct encounter.

How might we encounter God? There are no rules about it. But there are things we can do to invite an encounter.

I know for me, the biggest barrier to encounter over this year has been busyness. Not only being physically busy with too many things on the “to do” list, but also mentally busy with things to remember, people to pray for, stuff to think about and so even when I stop to spend time with God, my mind races on with all the inner chatter. It is difficult to be still. And consequently there are times when I don’t notice God’s responses to me, or experience God meeting me.

I don’t know if Thomas was a busy person but it is possible he was. It is possible that it wasn’t until he had stilled himself in that locked room, that Jesus came. For me, not always but mostly it is as I slow down, as I let go of all the busyness, that I encounter God. To take time to lock myself away – not literally but figuratively – is to take deliberate time to listen, to watch and to experience. God often meets me through images, through quiet reflection on experience, through music or portions of Scripture. But I have to be still. Still enough to stop rushing, talking and being busy. Still enough to notice. Still enough to listen. Lately I have been wondering, if I stop more often, if I still myself more quickly, would God speak to me more. And I am discovering God does: for God is waiting, longing for me to notice and to listen.

So how about you? What are your questions this morning? What do you long for? How will you wait for God’s response? What will help you to notice? To see and experience?

This morning as you come to receive in the Eucharist, bring your questions and your longings. And having received of the body and blood of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, take time to be still and open so that God may continue the journey you are on together, in your relationship with him. Then as you take yourself out into the busy week, find ways that you too can be still enough to listen, to notice and see.

And in the words of Jesus, “May his Peace be with you”.

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