The Thomas Problem
Why did Thomas have trouble believing Jesus had risen from the dead? It was not that long ago that he had seen Jesus raise Lazarus. Given John's delight in double meanings, it is unlikely that this little puzzle is present by accident. Paul Nuechterlein brought the question to my attention and also alerted me to this:
There is an emphasis in both this story and the “doubting Thomas” story to follow on Jesus showing them his hands and his side. At the time of this Gospel we know of a drift toward gnosticism, or docetism, the tendency to say that Jesus just seemed to be human. This emphasis on the hands and side is a way of saying that the crucifixion was a real death of a real human being. Jesus wasn’t just shadow-playing. The disbelief in the Thomas story is more of a disbelief in the crucifixion than the resurrection, from this standpoint of answering gnosticism. It is the scandal of the crucifixion which makes the resurrection difficult for gnostics to believe. (Notes by Paul from a lecture by Gil Bailie.)
I've always read the story as Jesus showing his hands and sides to say, "See, it really is me, I really have risen" whereas this suggests he is saying, "It really was me on the cross. I really did suffer." In other words, they were in no doubt that it was him; they knew him. The showing of the wounds is for the folk of whom Verses 28 and 29 speak; the ones who were not there in the room to see, but who decide to trust Jesus as Lord and God. His Lordship is as a crucified Lord as much as it is as a Risen Lord. God makes the despised one, the victim, the Lord.
These two resurrection appearances have other things in common. On each occasion, Jesus says "Peace be with you." I like to contrast his appearances with another gospel story to highlight just how unexpected his words are. (He says them three times.) In Luke 19, "A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return… But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us." His response, after he returned "with royal power," was typical of those whose power is challenged: "As for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence."
Jesus' disciples have the door locked for fear of the Judeans, the power elite, but are then equally anxious about the sudden return of the "King of the Jews." How will he respond to those who abandoned him— in John, only the disciple whom Jesus loved seems to have been present at the cross— and the one who denied him? In life and death politics, the blessing and forgiveness of "Peace be with you" is hardly what people are expecting.
I was startled in my re-reading of Peter's time in the courtyard. I've always had a certain sympathy for this man who, on his own, had at least come this far before giving in to his fear and denying Jesus. And then I saw it:
You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you? (18:17)
You are not also one of his disciples, are you? (18:25)
The questioners knew the beloved disciple, who was there, was a disciple of Jesus, but Peter, who is us— me, could not, even then, own his Lord! We know that the vengeful returning king whose "country hated him and sent a delegation to Pilate saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us, we have no King but Caesar," would not be drawing fine distinctions between those who had merely fled, those who only denied him, and those who were Judas. Yet this returning King says "Peace be with you," even to Peter.
‘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.’
Which is to say: as the Father has sent me to forgive you, so I send you to forgive others.
Being Christian at this point of the gospel is not about intellectual assent to propositions about the nature of God. It is to do as Jesus did. It is to forgive. This is not about some "poor us, persecuted Christians that we are," posturing of forgiveness by middle class white folks wanting to maintain their social privileges. It's about that tiresome, you could almost think it trivial— but it's not, everyday living which treats all folk the same. A living which responds with the same respect, the same energy, the same care, and the same sacrifice towards the most enthusiastic and helpful member of the congregation, towards the passive-aggressive naysayer, and towards the noisy bogan neighbours whose engine revving and amplified "music" has been the backdrop to my entire Easter weekend. This is forgiveness. It has another name, too: compassion. It loves people where they are, despite whoever I think they are.
Gil Bailie (quoted here) says
“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.” The Holy Spirit is synonymous with the Paraclete. The Paraclete is the defender of victims.
He goes on to ask
How does the Paraclete defend victims? Forgiveness, even forgiveness of the victimizers. From our sacrificial point of view, we read this as a stern God who says, ‘You get to go out there and decide who’s going to go to hell and who’s not.’ Rather, the part about retaining sins is an urging to the disciples to get out there and get busy forgiving people’s sins, because if they don’t do it, it won’t get done. Unless people experience forgiveness from them, they won’t be forgiven. [If they don’t experience forgiveness at the hands of the Jesus’ disciples, where will they find it? And] if they don’t experience forgiveness at the hands of the Jesus’ disciples, then they will go on generating the kinds of rituals by which they will feel expiated. It’s not some pious thing that says, ‘Ah, you’re O.K.’ It’s tremendously dynamic – and hard to pull off. People today will pay hundreds of dollars an hour trying to be forgiven.
I wonder how much the Holy Spirit is a felt blessing for us only through this living. I begin to see that all my youthful frustration about "not feeling the reality of God," all that seeking of pentecostal blessing, had to do with a lack of forgiveness. Not the forgiveness that makes lofty pronouncements to people that I have forgiven them, and not the amazing discovery that something which really hurt has been let go or has let go of me, but the much simpler, and much harder beginning of forgiveness that effectively, says… anyway. That is, which says, anyway… regardless of what has happened between us Peace be with you, and refuses to seek revenge, does not badmouth the person, does not hold them forever distant, or write them off as a person and judge them as a lesser being. There is a forgiveness active even in the refusal to abide by the boundaries of class and tribe.
This accidental way of living— it really is a gift of Spirit— has been utterly transformative for me. I did not know I had learned a way of forgiving from my parents and mentors in the Faith. I was "just being polite." Yet forgiveness can be as little as being polite, instead of being aloof, much less scathing. It can be as little as allowing someone to make me late, instead of starting worship on time. It is the discovery that forgiveness does not begin with that astounding moment when we discover some hurt from the past, or even a deep trauma, no longer has a hold on us. Forgiveness begins small, and heals us of huge things. The stunning experience of discovering that I have forgiven deep hurt almost before I knew it, (also here) began in learning to be like the people, the disciples, who forgave me the small— and sometimes not so small— things of my being.
Ten disciples— a synagogue's worth? — met in what John clearly wants us to see as a church service, (the first day of the week, and, a week later.) They were dispirited, fearful, and lost. The doors were locked. John means more than that the key had been turned. He means defensive, shut down, defeated, impenetrable pain and grief. And in that place Jesus came to them in some way and taught them forgiveness, drowning them in Spirit.
But they do not tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus. That would be a statement of fact. They make a statement of faith: we have seen the Lord. (20:25) In John, this is a theological shorthand for all I have been saying. They are not "believing" they have seen Jesus; they are faithing, or trusting, that what Jesus has said about forgiveness is the deep reality of the universe in whose creation they can participate. And by which they can be healed. Trusting Jesus as Lord is to see God anew. The eyes of human culture always seek someone to blame. So that in Jesus, and the many like him
we see a blasphemer who is killed so as to satisfy the law of god that whosoever acts thus must die. However, if God raises up this man, then the first step is to recognize that the violence against that man was human and not divine — the separation of God from violence. The second step is to see that the disposition of that man to allow himself to be killed was not accidental, but a deliberate plan of self-giving to make it possible for us to believe in the utter vivacity of God, and thus to begin to live, ourselves, outside the dominion of death. That is to say, we can see a positive intention of love in the way in which Jesus gave himself up to death; and that positive intention of love is described by saying that God gave his only Son. (James Alison Raising Abel pp 45)
To forgive, even only to begin fitfully and partially to forgive, is to begin to live outside the dominion of death. It is to begin to understand that God only loves, and it is to become like God; to be, as the Orthodox might say, to be divinised.
And it is this that Thomas refuses to believe. This foolishness. How stupid to believe that my treating someone with undeserved respect would change the whole world! And how stupid to think that my betrayals and failures could be undone! How stupid to think that I will risk my life— for that is what it may come to— for the sake of some undeserving bastard who beats his wife, or to think that this will do anything for a world drowning in a rising sea of plastic. Or that holiness comes through someone so accursed that God allows them to be crucified. How can they be 'of God?'
Thomas is saying that whatever happened, they did not see Jesus. Kings whose people have hated them do not forgive, much less indulge in such foolishness. I will not believe, I will not trust and risk my life to such rubbish unless I see that this Jesus you have met bears the scars of crucifixion. If the crucified One tells me this, then I may believe and trust.
So the next Sunday at church, Thomas sees the crucified Jesus. Do you see that I am not saying, and that John does not say, that he sees the risen Jesus? He sees his crucified Lord and God. And then I see what John is saying to me:
You can talk all you like about resurrection, Andrew. Who will listen? It is a nonsense. But when they see the scars of the crucified One, the scars of their forgiveness in one who does not reject them, what then?
Andrew Prior (2018)
Also on One Man's Web
John 20:19-29 - Easter in the Anthropocene
John 20:10-31 - Mary my sister, Thomas my twin
John 20:19-31 - Life in all its fullness
John 20:19-31 - That you may have life!
John 20:19-31 - Sacramental Coffee
John 20:19-31 - Thomas the Believer
John 20:19-31 - Reflections on The Community of Forgiveness
John 20:19-31 - Sin and Doubt on the Eighth Day
John 20:19-31 - The Forgiveness of Twins