(John 20, 19-31. Easter 2, Yr C)
How do you feel about the apostle Thomas, whose story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John?
Do you identify with him?
Or do you condemn him, as the Christian Church has tended to do for most of its history, as ‘Doubting Thomas’?
Jesus gave some of his disciples additional names: Simon became Peter, the Rock, and James and John were called Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder; but we don’t usually remember the meaning of these nowadays. We don’t remember any other of the disciples by a name that commemorates one incident in their lives. Simon Peter is not remembered as “the Denier” or James and John as “those who asked for the best positions”. The name of Judas has become a synonym for betrayal; but only slightly less reprehensible than being a ‘Judas’, it seems, is to be a ‘Doubting Thomas’.
The reading we had today contains was two of the four ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to John. Each of the four gospels has a very different record of the ‘appearances’ of Jesus after his death and burial, and St Paul gives yet another account in his letters.
This makes it clear that what we are dealing with here is not historical fact, but myth or parable – stories which are meant to convey meaning and truth. The truth of a parable does not depend on whether the story describes something that really happened. So we should leave aside the question of whether what John the Evangelist describes actually occurred. The question we need to ask is “What is he trying to convey through this story?”
In John’s account, the first appearance is to Mary Magdalene, in the garden beside the tomb. She doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her name. She is forbidden to touch him because ‘he has not yet ascended to the Father’. For John, resurrection, ascension and coming in glory are not events separated in calendar time; they all happen on Easter Day.
So, the appearances in the locked room in Jerusalem are of the ascended and glorified Jesus, although a Jesus who still bears the visible scars of crucifixion. He shows the disciples the marks on his hands and side. John’s resurrection parable tells us very strongly that it is the crucified Jesus who is raised to glory and whose life and death are vindicated by God. Resurrection does not cancel out the crucifixion.
Then Jesus commissions the disciples to continue his mission, to go to teach the world as he taught the world. As he was the agent of the Father in his earthly ministry, the disciples, and those who will come to belief through their witness, become the agents of God in their turn, speaking the message of new birth, new life and hope by the Spirit to those who are broken and fearful, hiding behind locked doors in their particular world.
Having revealed his glorified self to them, and commissioned them to continue his ministry, Jesus then empowers them for the task, by breathing the Holy Spirit on them. Again, the sequence of events in John’s account is very different from the synoptic gospel accounts, where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes later. John’s resurrection narrative has many echoes of the second creation narrative in Genesis: new life begins in a garden; God breathes into human beings to give them life.
In other places in the Old Testament, God gives life through breath or spirit, for instance in the valley of dry bones which represent Israel in Ezekiel. Although John’s Gospel speaks of several different ways of entering new life (through rebirth to Nicodemus and through living water, perhaps meaning baptism, at the Festival of Shelters), the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit is particularly significant. In his farewell discourses at the last supper, John’s Jesus says he will be away from the disciples and they will not see him for a little while. Then after a little while they will see him. He promises he will come again to them, and give them another advocate to replace himself, who will lead them into all truth. The gift of the Spirit fulfils these promises.
It is only after the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins. John teaches that is only those who are united by the Spirit with the God of love revealed through Jesus who know the truth, and can judge what is sinful and what is not. It is only those who are at one with God through the Spirit, as Jesus was, who have the authority to act in God’s name.
Sunday evening was time when Christian communities in the Apostolic Age gathered to share worship and eat a fellowship meal together. So the messages in these two appearances, a week apart, are clearly directed to the communities for which John is writing. The statement by Thomas that he will not believe until he has seen the marks of the nails and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’s side leads into the second appearance.
‘Believe’ is a very rich word in the gospels, and had quite a different meaning then from the way it is usually used in religious circles today. As Marcus Borg points out, it does not mean signing up to a whole lot of statements about God and Jesus, such as those contained in the creeds. It comes from the old English words ‘be love’ and is more about love, trust, faithfulness and commitment, than intellectual assent to a number of propositions. It is more about ‘believing in’ than ‘belief’.
Thomas is not prepared to make his commitment to the Risen Son at second hand. But note what he asks to see: the marks of the nails and the spear, the wounds. He is clear that ‘belief’ involves identifying with the crucified Lord in his suffering. He is not one of those disciples who wants the glory without the suffering, Easter without Good Friday.
Jesus grants Thomas his wish by appearing the next Sunday evening. John makes clear that the appearances in Jerusalem are not of a physical body: it can appear and disappear at will through solid walls. And although invited to touch, Thomas doesn’t need to. Once he has seen the wounds, he pronounces the standard Christian confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’.
Jesus’s response to his declaration is usually translated as a question, and as accusatory. “Have you believed because you have seen?” But the Greek in which the gospel was written does not reverse word order in order to indicate a question, nor did it have punctuation marks. Just as Jesus’s response to Pilate’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?” can be translated “I am” or “Am I?” so these words of Jesus can also be translated not as a question, but a statement. “You have believed because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.”
This combination of statements gives equal affirmation to those who believe because they have visions in which they see, hear or touch Christ, as the first apostles did, and several years later, Paul says he also did; and to those who believe because of the witness of others, as most of us will have done. The first witnesses have no privileged place over those who follow.
In John’s account, Thomas, like the other disciples, is now transformed: joyful where before he was fearful; and at peace, whereas before he was disturbed by the apparent failure of Jesus’s mission.
The final sentences of our reading (which most scholars believe was the original end of John’s Gospel) explain that the account of the signs has been written to inspire belief and commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. It implies that John’s communities of Christians will be ‘people of the book’. They will no longer rely on visions, nor on the oral tradition, but on John’s account of the signs and his explanations of their meaning to know the truth.
Thomas, the account shows us, was not a doubter. He knew what had happened to Jesus on the cross and that he was dead. He didn’t want a happy ending, but evidence that God had approved and glorified Jesus for the path of service and suffering he had followed. Once he was assured of that, he was a faithful disciple, passing on through word and his own example that the way to be at one with God was through the path of service to others, and non-violent resistance to the forces of domination and oppression.
John’s account of the resurrection challenges us in turn, people who have come to faith through the witness of those who wrote the gospel accounts and the other books of the New Testament, to have faith in that same path. It tells us that the opposite to faith, belief as commitment, is not doubt, but fear, cynicism and despair. It tells us we are called to be communities of hope, committed to Jesus and the way of life he taught.
We are called to bring that hope to places and people where it is absent – even to those who don’t share our particular way of commitment to God. We are called to move out of our comfort zones, out of the familiar and the safe, out from behind locked doors, to follow our Lord and God into the new life he promises, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter and Advocate.
May we hear and respond to this message of the Resurrection, as Thomas did.