My Favorite Disciple

Who’s your fave disciple?

People seem to like having one, though I think “favorite” is shorthand for “relates the most to” or “identifies the most with.” Peter usually wins this particular competition. A lot of folks can relate to his think-before-speaking, half-cocked way of doing things, and I certainly can, as well.

We all like to think we have a lot in common with John, who was bosom buddies with Jesus, preached about him fearlessly in Acts and, tradition has it, was so plugged in to the Holy Spirit that he had the mother of all trippy dreams about how the world was going to end (or maybe not, but that’s another conversation). The truth is, John is probably the disciple most of us are least like.

Judas? Well, not many would admit to having him as our favorite, but I think most of us could relate to making a horrible mistake, immediately regretting it, and feeling at a loss about how to make things right.

I relate best to Thomas. The doubter. The guy who, when the other 10 living disciples told him after the first Easter, “We saw Jesus alive!” responded, “Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Thomas doesn’t get a lot of play in the Jesus narratives – just three speaking parts. But they say a lot.

In the more famous one, as we all know, he refuses to believe Jesus has risen from the dead. When Jesus returns, he invites Thomas to poke his fingers into his wounds (nasty!), Thomas immediately believes, and Jesus replies, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

A lot of people, previously including me, assume Jesus is issuing a light rebuke here. Maybe so, but these days I see Jesus saying something slightly different to Thomas and the rest of the disciples, and that is: “You guys have it easy! You believe because you see me standing here. But the people coming after you – 10 years from now, 50, 500, 2,000 – they’re going to do the hard work of faith. They won’t have me in physical appearance, and the world is going to be just as screwed up. I’ll send my Spirit, and that’ll help, but sometimes the Spirit will speak clearly, and sometimes it won’t. And when all seems silent and wrong, I’ll still be there, but they won’t be able to see me. Those are the people who are going to have it tough. But it means their faith will be the most rewarding.”

Anyway, maybe he didn’t mean that at all, but it’s what I hear in these dark days.

A woman I knew died early this morning. She was older, and if she’d had cancer or heart trouble, no one would ask any tough questions about God or death. But she was perfectly healthy until a couple of years ago. Her body simply started to fail, and no one could figure out why. Two years of visits to doctors and specialists, and zero explanations. She was a sweet, beautifully Christian woman; her family should at least know what happened to her. They do not. No answers.

So it’s a sad, frustrating day for a lot of people. And I think of the passage from which our preacher taught for his Easter sermon yesterday. It’s a passage in which Thomas appears in typical doubting form.

In John 11, Jesus hears that Lazarus is seriously ill, but waits where he is for two days. Then he tells the disciples he wants to return to Judea, and the disciples are like, “Bad idea, Lord. People there tried to stone you last time.”

The ensuing conversation is somewhat comical.

Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”

He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”

The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.

Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”

Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”

Yes, that’s Thomas being sarcastic. “Oh yeah, let’s all go to Judea. If Jesus has a death wish, we might as well get ourselves killed too.” Irreverent sarcasm. Another reason I relate to Thomas.

Jesus gets to Lazarus’ home in Bethany, and the man has been dead four days. His sisters, Mary and Martha, greet Jesus the same way:

Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.

This passage is for us doubters. We Thomases who don’t see why things have to be this way. If you had been here, Lord, none of this would have happened. Forget “had it not been the Lord who was on our side … ,” the opening line of the popular praise song based on Psalm 142. Rather, the question these women have is, “Why weren’t you on our side?” Why was this necessary?

When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?”

They replied, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus wept. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Not only does it tell us that Jesus empathized with his followers to the point of weeping over the loss of Lazarus – even as he knew he was about to raise him from the dead – but it asks, and leaves essentially unanswered, the question we all have: “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept this from happening?”

Early in the passage, Jesus gives his reason, but it’s frankly unsatisfying: “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” I have no idea what this means, and I’m not sure it’s applicable outside the physical life of Jesus as he moves toward the cross.

So we are left with no good answers, except of course the resurrection. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, as he will raise all of us into a world in which all is set right. Our preacher noted that until then hope drives us onward – not blind optimism, but hope, the difference, as he described it, between saying the cup is half full and waiting for the cup to be refilled.

So we hope, and we have faith, but we grope blindly, asking, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Thomas again. The doubter. The questioner. My favorite disciple.


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