A Troublesome Ending to the Story

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

April 11, 2021
Second Sunday of Easter
Scripture reading: John 20: 19-31

There is a novel that I read many years ago called The Shadowman.  It is the story of a wicked Nazi who escaped Germany at the end of World War II and made his way to America.  Once here, he virtually disappeared into society and used the money and gold he had brought to establish a new identity for himself.  He lived in New York City and passed himself off as a refugee from Europe, another faceless survivor of that terrible war.  His life was comfortable but certainly not flashy or opulent; he wanted to remain safely in the shadows.

However, his life was shattered when he was standing in line at the neighborhood deli one day.  This particular deli was well known for their excellent breads and meats, which reminded the man of his home back in old Germany.  As he stood at the counter next to an old, heavy-set woman, he placed his order to the man behind the counter.  To his utter amazement, the woman turned and looked at him, then promptly fainted dead away.  In the confusion, the former Nazi slipped out of the deli and made good on his escape.

But he knew what had happened: she had recognized his face.  He didn’t remember her – after all, there were countless people he had tortured during the war – but he knew that she knew who he was.  He had to do something about it.

The woman woke up in the hospital raving that the Shadowman had returned to get her.  Her relatives and her rabbi arrived quickly at the hospital and tried repeatedly to calm her down.  Finally, she was able to explain what she had seen – and how she was positive she knew who he was.

Meanwhile, the Shadowman knew he had to eliminate that old woman quickly, or he could be found and arrested.  He looked around the neighborhood, but he didn’t question anyone; that would have drawn even more suspicion.  Finally, he hatched a brilliant plan: the neighborhood drug dealer watched everything, knew of everyone, and would be able to tell him where the old woman lived.

So the Shadowman captured the drug dealer when he was sleeping in his own bed – he still had many of his old skills from his days during the war – and tied him securely to a nearby chair.  Then he took out his tools of torture and asked the drug dealer to tell him what he wanted to know.

The drug dealer was not a good person; he didn’t like anyone or anything except making money and holding on to his power.  He had no reason at all to help or to do anything except tell the Shadowman what he wanted to know to save his own miserable skin.

Instead, the drug dealer said, “I don’t know about anyone else in this neighborhood…but I’m not telling you anything.”

If you were to closely examine the little that the author gave you about this character – and he was just a fictional character, after all – you would be hard pressed to come up with someone who could be heroic in this situation.  It made for a troublesome ending to that scene – but one that took the novel on a surprising and entertaining turn.

It’s almost unfair, isn’t it?  When characters in stories surprise us, it’s almost unfair.  You read and read and read, and you get a firm opinion in your mind of what this character or that character is really like.  Then you proceed with the story, only to find that what you know isn’t necessarily what is true.

In the Resurrection accounts, we have the timid Apostles hiding in a locked room “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19).  Jesus “came to them” somehow through that locked door and greeted them.  They were all startled and terrified, but he demonstrated it was he by showing them his hands and feet and side where the crucifixion injuries had occurred.  Then, according to Luke, he assured them he was not a ghost.  Then John tells us that Jesus breathed on them to again reassure them he was alive.  Then the joyous reunion could begin.  Perfect scene, perfect ending…nice and neat.

Except for one Apostle…it’s always one, isn’t it?  This time Thomas wasn’t there.  We don’t know where Thomas was – and John doesn’t tell us – we just know he wasn’t there for all this.  Thomas missed the proof; Thomas missed the witness; Thomas missed everything.  

But remember the start of this story?  We should examine Thomas to reassure ourselves and to predict what Thomas should have done.  Let’s remember that we just don’t have much on the Apostle Thomas.  We have lots and lots on Peter and John, but not so much on most of the other Apostles, including Thomas. So we must pay attention to what little we have.  Remember also: if we consider ourselves to be students of the Bible, then we should examine all parts of it, including those parts that trouble us greatly.  (and the Bible has PLENTY that troubles me.)

There is one quote from John, chapter 11, verse 16, in which Thomas demonstrated he was courageous and loved Jesus.  When Jesus found out that Lazarus was dead, the Apostles tried to talk him out of going anywhere near Jerusalem.  Yet Jesus was determined to go.  Then only Thomas spoke up and said what the others were probably thinking – but none had the courage or the love to say: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  

Does this sound like a man who deserved to be labeled “Doubting Thomas” for all eternity?  I say no.

According to the little info that we have on Thomas, what should have happened when he returned to the Apostles and heard that Jesus was alive was to wait expectantly for Jesus to reappear.  Instead, he stubbornly stuck to his statements of disbelief by saying he would NOT believe anything they said unless he could examine Jesus’ wounds for himself.  

That doesn’t take courage; that’s just pure stubbornness.

However, don’t forget the other character trait that Thomas demonstrated by his earlier statement to go with Jesus and die with him if necessary: Thomas also loved the Lord, as devotedly and as fiercely and a loyally as any of the other Apostles.  But perhaps Thomas was grieving more deeply than the others – for some unknown reason.  We picture Thomas arguing with the other Apostles when he is told the amazing news, but what if Thomas was so hurt by the murder of Jesus, so destroyed by the manner in which Jesus was sacrificed, so low in his grief that his responses were not spoken in brash defiant tones, but rather mumbled sadly to the rest.

For them to claim Jesus had returned was more than Thomas could believe.  Can you accept that?  Can you at least admit it might be true?

If so, then the rest of the story of Jesus’ reappearance to the Apostles adds to that troublesome ending of John’s Gospel.  Now we have one formerly courageous Apostle refusing to believe the amazing news of the Resurrection unless he receives proof; then Jesus showed up.

Proof was given; proof was seen and examined; proof was acknowledged with Thomas’ words, “My Lord and my God!”

And one more aspect to this whole troublesome story from the various Gospels.  Imagine the rest of the lives of the Apostles.

According to small accounts in the Acts of the Apostles and to larger portions of church history and tradition, each of the Apostles died martyr’s deaths, except for John, who was the only one to die an old man in his bed.  That meant the same courage and the same love that Thomas demonstrated on the day of Lazarus’ death was felt and demonstrated by all the other Apostles – even as they each went to their deaths for refusing to doubt in their Savior.

Faith and courage and love like that are not rare in the history of the Christian church.  Perhaps they are rare today, but that is for troublesome endings for other troublesome stories to come.

May each of us have the courage and faith and love that all the Apostles had – Thomas included.