When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But 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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:19-31
There was a book published in England in the 1880s called “Flatland.” It was a social and cultural commentary of life in the Victorian Era, told in an allegorical style. In more recent times, the same story was updated, with the allegorical setting more resembling contemporary American culture, and made into a feature-length animated film in 2007. In either version of the story, the action took place in a world that exists in only two dimensions. Everything and everyone in this world existed in only length and width; there was third dimension, no height, no depth – hence the world’s name, Flatland. The residents of Flatland can’t even imagine the existence of a third dimension. In fact, an important part of the plot line is that anyone who does suggest that there might be more than just two dimensions is considered a subversive. It might be hard for us to imagine how they could exist in only two dimensions, but in the story, the people seemed to get along just fine – that is, until they get a visitor. A sphere – a fully three-dimensional sphere, from another world, a world with three dimensions, drops into Flatland for a visit. But given the physical constraints of Flatland, the people can’t quite comprehend the sphere. As it first breaks into the less-than-razor-thin plane of Flatland, the sphere appears to just be a dot, a point, that appears out of nowhere. Then, as the sphere continued to pass through that plane, it seemed to become a small circle that mysteriously grew for no apparent reason, getting bigger, and bigger, and then smaller and then back into a dot, until just as mysteriously as it first appeared, it vanished again, disappearing into thin air.
Except, of course, it really hadn’t. The sphere never changed at all, and even after it passed completely through Flatland, even though it was less than a millimeter away from them, the Flatlanders couldn’t perceive that the sphere was actually still right there beside them.
A number of people have suggested that maybe something like this is going on in the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, including today’s gospel text. Ever since Einstein published his Theory of Relativity, we’ve known through mathematics and physics that the universe does actually exist in more dimensions than just the three that our own senses perceive. And if we believe in a transcendent God, then God exists within and transcends all of these different dimensions. So for the resurrected, divine, now multi-dimensional Jesus to visit with the disciples, stepping back into just these three dimensions, it might just have looked like he appeared from out of nowhere. It would have looked like he just walked through the wall, or the locked door, or just magically materialized in the middle of the room, like the sphere visiting Flatland. I think that’s fascinating.
Something else that fascinates me about this particular story is the very fact that Thomas wasn’t there with the rest of the disciples, cowering behind locked doors in fear. Based on what little we know about Thomas from other scriptural references, I think he was just very strong-willed. When Jesus was making his final trip into Jerusalem, people were warning him not to go, that he’d be killed there, but still Jesus kept going on – and Thomas determined that he’d go along with him, he may as well die in Jerusalem with Jesus. So now, after the crucifixion, he wasn’t going to let fear consume him either. He was going to continue living his life, boldly, and whatever else may happen will happen. And then, when the others told him that they’d seen Jesus, his distrust of them certainly wasn’t distrust in Jesus. He’d seen the crucifixion. He’d seen the death in Jesus’ eyes. If he were going to accept that Jesus had risen from the dead, he was going to need more than just the ranting of a roomful of terrified people experiencing shock, whether they were his friends or not.
Of course, the truth is that Thomas is really a lot like us. We’d have undoubtedly reacted the same way. Contrary to the bad rap that Thomas has sometimes gotten over the years, let’s face it, his response to what the other disciples were claiming was perfectly logical and reasonable.
And that leads me to another thing that fascinates me about this story. When Thomas said he needed more data, more evidence, to accept that Jesus had risen, far from scolding or refusing him, Jesus gladly returned and gave it to him. “Here I am – see me; touch me.” Through his actions, Jesus was drawing Thomas into a larger view of God and the universe, into an expanded reality of life. He was allowing Thomas to catch a glimpse of, and marvel in, that expanded reality that isn’t based on superstition or tradition or ignorance, but rather, on increased knowledge and understanding.
Thomas’ desire for more knowledge, the desire that Jesus honored, is the exact same desire, the same curiosity, that drove people to develop quantum physics, and the Hubble Telescope, and the Large Hadron Collider. After all, when we do search for, and find, deeper understanding about the workings of the universe, at its smallest or largest scale, aren’t we, in essence catching a better glimpse of the face of God? Maybe we aren’t touching God, as Thomas did, but I think we’re doing something pretty close to it. God is honoring our desire for deeper understanding, and self-revealing through it – it’s God saying “Here I am – see me; touch me.”
Beyond what I see as God’s validation, God’s honoring of our continual search for more knowledge and understanding in this story, I think there’s an even more important thing going on; something more immediate and personal. If it’s really true that God exists in that multidimensional, all-dimensional way we’d mentioned earlier, sort of like the sphere in Flatland, then we have great reason for hope. If that’s true, then it means that whenever we’re going through our most difficult of times – maybe we’re facing problems at work or financial insecurity; we don’t know what to do about a child’s struggles with addiction; or we’re battling addiction ourselves; or we’re trying to help aging parents in ill health; we’re locked in a dead-end relationship that’s unraveled and we don’t know what to do and we don’t see any way out – whenever we’re going through these things, and we feel alone and isolated and it’s hard to feel God’s presence in any of it, we can take hope and have strength knowing that despite our immediate perceptions, we aren’t really going through it alone at all. We never were. God has always been, will always be, right within our very midst, right here… less than a millimeter away. The One who created us, and loves us, and accepts us; the One who walks with us and gives us the strength to navigate those difficulties, is now and always will be there for us, with us. We can have this great hope and confidence in our lives because we know and we trust in a God who would walk through walls for us – and that’s flat-out amazing.
Thanks be to God.