Thomas the Believer

Week of Sunday April 11: Easter 2
Gospel: John 20:19-31

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.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.’

26 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.’ 27Then 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.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.

Jesus is risen. This reading was the first ending of the gospel. Here the church meets its Lord, and is commissioned and sent on its way.

We are given a strong hint about John’s understanding of the risen Lord: Jesus appears in the gathered congregation. He comes and stands among them. (This is an enormous challenge to our own congregations today, and perhaps a condemnation when so many appear not to find Christ among us!) In this story, Thomas does not see the risen Lord until he is gathered with the disciples.’

Note to self: The story is also a challenge to those of us who often prefer to be solitary Christians. What are we missing, or avoiding?

The message of Jesus was “Peace be with you.”

'Peace', 'Shalom' is a standard greeting, but here it probably echoes the promise of peace given in 14:27, just as the events to follow recall the promise of the Spirit given in the same chapter.” Loader

This appearance is fulfilment. Jesus is not merely saying, “Gooday.” He says “Peace be with you,” three times. In John 14 Jesus says “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” (18) surely words of comfort to a people needing to meet behind locked doors. Likewise, “I go to prepare a place for you... so that you may be there also.” It is Thomas who responds to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ (5-6) To we who may doubt, Jesus says, “I am the way....”

Jesus appears first of all at evening on the first day of the week. This, and the phrase A week later is a broad hint of the weekly worship of the gathered community. John Petty says

"A week later" is a tame--and wrong--translation of meth hemeras okto. It should be "after eight days." This is yet another reference to a Genesis theme. The Lord God created the universe in seven days. The resurrection of Jesus, the "new creation," is associated with the eighth day.

I recall that the eighth day was also known in some places as the early hours of the morning... an ‘eighth day for worship’ before the master’s household needed attention.

As Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrected body of Jesus is of a different order. He appears through locked doors.

I once asked my congregation what his appearance through locked doors meant, and was greeted with silence. An ever-helpful teenager’s hand went up, and I saw his mother flinch in anticipation. “I reckon it means he came in through the window,” said the boy! Resurrection is more than, and different from, resuscitation. What more it entails, we do not know.

I think the motif of locked doors is also a promise of presence to those congregations who are fearful and marginalised. Even here, even behind locked doors, Christ will be present.

Of course the story is also known as the story of Doubting Thomas. Can we ever understand Thomas outside this naming? Doubting Thomas is part of our cultural imagery. A lectionary list contributor says that in some Eastern churches he is called Thomas the Believer, which puts a different spin on the story!

Thomas the Believer makes the climactic statement of faith in the gospel: My Lord and my God! It was not a safe statement, as John Petty reminds us

Domitian, the Roman Emperor at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, was known as dominus et deus noster, "our lord and god." Thomas' confession of Jesus as "My Lord and My God" is both a statement of faith in Jesus and a polemic against the Emperor.

Bill Loader says

Thomas is not only a doubter; he is also a dubious figure. Some see him as a saint, once he reaches the point of acclaiming Jesus, Lord and God. I am more inclined to see typical ambiguity here, as with many other characters in John. They get it right, even though they are hardly exemplary (like Nathanael).

Bill is not necessarily downgrading Thomas’ status here. Indeed, this is a hopeful statement. We, like Thomas and other characters in John, are found wanting. Thomas’ final response of trust is something to admire and seek to emulate!

I notice that Jesus had shown the other disciples his hands and feet. Is Thomas being contrasted with them for lack of faith? He asks only for what the others have seen. Or is he being used by Jesus to ‘speak forwards’ to those who will not have that experience of being able to ‘touch the wounds’ as some kind of verification of Jesus’ resurrection.

In fact, Thomas seems to me to be a man for our time: he has hardnosed faith. We live in an age when anxious if not desperate churches claim all sorts of miracles. A hardnosed, evidence based faith is a healthy antidote to this. What kind of God do we have if our congregation is not loving as Jesus was, or maintains its fervour with emotional manipulation? What are we to make of claims about events and faith-effects which we would be sceptical about in other settings? A certain level of scepticism is a good thing!

To deny the Thomas-like part of ourselves in our belief is not healthy. Thomas could only believe by asking his questions. That actually applies even if we take belief in the shallow modern sense of assent to a proposition. It applies even more to the wholistic trusting of one’s life and actions to the call and model of Jesus’ life.

Brian Stoffregen makes the following comments about stages of faith, based on Westerhoff’s book Will our Children have Faith?

SEARCHING FAITH .... asking questions, "Is this what I believe?" Thomas is our example of this. He will not blindly accept what others have said, but needs to find certainty for himself. This stage of faith is adding the "head" to the "heart" of the earlier stages. Westerhoff comments:

It appears, regretfully, that many adults in the church have never had the benefit of an environment which encouraged searching faith. And so they are often frightened or disturbed by adolescents who are struggling to enlarge their affiliative faith to include searching faith. Some persons are forced out of the church during this state and, sadly, some never return; others remain in searching faith the rest of their lives. .... [p. 97]

In spite of his questions, Thomas remained with the disciples. There he discovered the answers to his questions. However, the questioning stage can lead into the two directions of v. 27 -- Will the questioner become unbelieving or move onto the next stage of faith? This age-level of "questioning faith" is also the age-level when most cult groups recruit their members and when many "drop-out" of church.

OWNED FAITH .... this stage comes only through the searching stage. After exploring the question, "Is this what I believe?" one, hopefully, discovers a Christian answer that declares: "This is what I believe." The Thomas scene ends with such a personal confession: "My Lord and my God" -- a confession we don't hear from any of the other disciples who did not go through the same questioning as Thomas. However, this is the strong, personal faith that one witnesses to and one is willing to die for -- the other disciples certainly ended up in this stage.

Although in the context of his book Westerhoff is talking about late adolescence and early adulthood for these two stages, I think the stages need not be restricted to these ages.

Stoffregen concludes

Rather than call him "Doubting Thomas" -- a person whose behaviors we should avoid; what if we call him "Confessing Thomas"? He was the only disciple in that room who uttered a confession of personal faith.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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