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At least a couple times a week, they arrive in my inbox (or at least my spam folder!) They are the emails that announce good news to me! Apparently, I have won thousands of dollars in a lottery I never entered. All that’s required for me to claim the prize is to pay a “small processing fee”! Or, it’s the good news that someone I don’t know wants to donate $2 million to my church. All that they need to transfer the money is our banking info!
Of course, I recognize these things not as “good news” but as what they really are – scams! So often, what claims to be good news isn’t really good news but people preying on the hopes and wishes of vulnerable people.
And so I understand why Thomas didn’t buy into this good news that Jesus was alive. Now, I don’t think Thomas thought his friends were trying to scam him. But it is the case that sometimes people who are deep in grief are desperate and vulnerable. Denial is the first stage of grief. And lots of us, after having lost someone close to us, will in the weeks and months after that person’s death see people who bear an uncanny resemblance to the person we’ve lost, or hear a voice that sounds just like our departed loved one.
It’s understandable for Thomas to have decided that Mary Magdalene and the other disciples may have truly believed they saw Jesus, but it was just someone from a distance who looked and sounded like him. It happens all the time, almost as often as I get scam emails. And for that very reason, it was hard to believe the good news was real.
It also happens in my life, and maybe in yours, that I’m constantly inundated with bad news. I open my news feed, and there is a whole string of stories about the latest tragedy, disaster or outrage. I’m deeply affected by the pain and suffering of my own life and the lives of others I care about. And even when there seems to be hope on the vaccine front, the headlines tell us how bad things could still get before they get better.
There is, actually, good news out there. But the bad news seems overwhelming. It’s oppressive and soul crushing. And if I’m not careful, it can be so all-consuming that I have a hard time even noticing the good news.
It’s understandable why Thomas had a hard time appropriating good news in his life. After all, he’s the ONLY guy in the story who hadn’t had an opportunity to see Jesus. He’s been dealing with the personal pain of losing Jesus in his life. And he’s probably been busy trying to figure out how to dodge people who want to kill him while he’s one of the only ones brave enough to go out and run errands! And it’s hard to really appropriate good news in your life when you’re so consumed by the bad news of pain and loss.
And honestly, after living with so much bad news all the time, it’s sometimes hard to even expect good news. After all, much of life follows a pattern of death and decay. Stuff eventually wears out. People we love die. Relationships we had cherished drift apart or end. If enough of that stuff happens in a row, it’s hard for me to even look for a better future.
And of all the disciples, Thomas seems to have been particularly fatalistic in his outlook. He was, after all the guy who just a few weeks before encouraged his friends to go back to Jerusalem with Jesus, so that, as Thomas said, “we can die with him!” Thomas, at least, seemed to have paid attention to Jesus’ prediction that Jesus would die in Jerusalem, and Thomas just expected the end for himself and his friends as well. And it’s hard to even expect good news when you’ve grown to expect the worst.
On this second Sunday of Easter, we always read the story from John’s Gospel of those first two appearances of the Risen Jesus to the disciples in the locked room. It includes the story of Thomas refusing to believe the good news because he hadn’t seen Jesus.
But of course, nobody else believed until they saw either. And instead of wondering what’s wrong with Thomas (which is frequently how this story is read), I think it’s good to see in Thomas the reasons that believing good news is so hard. It’s not a modern problem that only we have. Ancient people had this problem, too. And as we celebrate Easter, it’s important to recognize how hard it often is for us to see, appropriate and expect God’s good news in our own lives as well.
So, rather than seeing Thomas as the guy who didn’t believe, maybe it’s helpful to look at Thomas as the guy who successfully dealt with all the hindrances to believing good news. And while we can’t know exactly what was going through Thomas’ heart and mind, it’s clear that Thomas was eventually able to believe the good news, not just because he saw Jesus, but because he:
- Kept listening for good news, even when all he was experiencing was bad news; he debated the news with the other disciples, but he kept listening and hoping for good news … (this is often the challenge for us, too, and it’s why sometimes I go through an entire news feed looking for one good thing and resisting the other click-bait…!)
- He didn’t give up and go home; after all, he was brave enough to venture out; he could have just gone back to Galilee and stewed in the bad experience of Jesus’ crucifixion; but somehow he struggled to not let the bad news define his life… (and this is often hard for us; it’s one of the reasons, especially when the bad news is oppressive, to look for three things each day to thank God for…)
- When he did finally see the Risen Jesus (the good news in the flesh), he was able to recognize good news as a life changing experience (he’s the only one who finally calls Jesus “my God”…) It wasn’t the “information” of the good news that changed Thomas’ life, but the realization that this good news meant that Thomas, who thought he only had death ahead with Jesus, now saw new life ahead with Jesus… (this is why it’s important for us, also, to actually expect God to give us new life, not just in heaven, but beyond whatever bad news we’re dealing with right now…)
Easter is about good news. But we’ve all been inundated and so often consumed by the bad news around us. And so it’s important to realize that in our lives, not just in the lives of the disciples, good news is often hard to see, appropriate and expect.
But like Thomas, even when we haven’t physically seen the Risen Jesus, God’s good news is actually present in our lives. And the Risen Jesus is working to show us new life whether we see it or not, whether we appreciate it or not, and whether we expect it or not.
That’s God’s promise to us, as well as to those first disciples. And since that’s the case, we should see hope in the story of Thomas. For Thomas shows us not only that the good news is real, but that it’s possible to hear the good news if we keep listening for it. It’s possible to experience the good news when we’re willing to struggle not to let the bad news consume and define us. And it’s possible to live into the good news when we have the boldness expect that the good news will actually change and transform our lives.