Truthful Thomas

Gospel: John 20:19-31

19 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.

Truthful Thomas

In an early revision the reading this week reading was at the end of the Gospel of John. The reading sounds like the end, the final summing up, and I remember that I was a little surprised, on turning the page in my very first reading of John, to find that there was another chapter! It means that John puts here the things he thinks are of vital importance for understanding Jesus.

Key among such things is that we meet the risen Christ in worship.  Jesus appears to the disciples on the first day of the week, and then a week later. This is the sign that points to weekly worship, and doors shut or not, there Christ appears.  We should note that there is an almost word for word repetition in the description of the two weeks:

19:1 the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Ioudaioi, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.

19:26 Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’

On the second occasion, the fact of the shut doors is slightly less pronounced, but the resurrection Gospel is identical; Jesus comes to the disciples; Jesus stands among them; Jesus says, "Peace be with you."

Repetition is important. It means: Listen! This is essential. 

In Jesus' first appearance, the Holy Spirit is given to the disciples. We recall John 14:15-17:

 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you...

The appearance of Jesus among them is the fulfilment of the promise of John 14. He breathes the Spirit upon on them. John will write no 'adjunct gospel,' no Acts of the Apostles with its Pentecost story. The appearance of John 20 is John's 'Pentecost moment.'

Peace be with you is repeated again in Verse 21, and given that John has just reminded us of Chapter 14, it is not only that peace be with you is a blessing of Shalom— a blessing far richer than our peace = not war, it is likely that John means Jesus is speaking of the peace of John 14:

27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

What I give you is the way to live freely, at last. To begin being set free of fear, to begin to find freedom from the burdens of the world, to begin to grow into my promise of John 10:10 that I have come to give you life in all its fullness.  

What we can miss in this glorious good news is that there is another repetition in the text this week, which is equally important. Yes, "Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you,’" but then:

20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (John 20:10)

Looking only at this first instance for a moment, do you see that the convincing factor in their response to Jesus— what leads to their response— is to see the wounds in his hands and side? It is by his wounds that we know the risen Christ.

Now Thomas was not there, and for generations we have seen Thomas as being recalcitrant. He won't believe when they tell him what has happened. He needs proof. He is forever characterised as Doubting Thomas which has terrible consequences, for doubt is a normal and vital human emotion and response; those who never doubt are in the grip of something pathological but, in much theology, doubt has been demonised.

We are all like Thomas. We will never be there in the room with the original disciples on that first day of the week. And so Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

But here is the problem. We are all like Thomas: We are human. We have a brain. We can doubt. Doubt protects us; it is a critical and protective faculty, for we can wonder what is driving us, what is leading our interpretations. It is not always a welcome gift: I once had an experience of God which blew my mind. I was manic for weeks. And now... I wonder. What did I see? What need drove all that that happened; indeed exactly what did happen? What fed and magnified all the tension in me? Was I manipulated— albeit innocently— by the needs of the disciples around me who were meeting each week? You could doubt the experience, for you were not there. But I can doubt it, too, even though I was there at the event, and that's not always welcome.

We don't like such a line of questioning because we suspect it will lead us to wonder how can we know... anything. If there is anything I have realised in the last year or two, it is how utterly manipulable we are, how suggestible, and how self-serving are our interpretations of our experience. And all our experience is interpreted. All of it. Even the things we touch. Indeed, James Alison's book On Being Liked begins with the words, "we always learn to see through the eyes of another." (pp1, my emphasis)

So, like Thomas, in the end, we can only believe. We can only trust. All of us. I smile as my atheist friend preaches his greater wisdom about evidence and reason. He has no understanding, yet, that he has made choices, arbitrarily chosen to elevate certain interpretations against others, because "some values have to be taken as non-negotiable, axiomatic givens... Everyone, theists and humanists, are engaged in some axiomatic evaluation of the world. Some values are taken to be non-negotiable givens." (Richard Beck) All of us, in the end, have to trust. We can, in the end, only "make an offering" to what we take to be "the life force" (Earnest Becker The Denial of Death pp285) behind our interpretation of where we find ourselves. There is no final objective experience upon which we can stand. We cannot assess the whole world, for we are inescapably within it, too small, too subjective — too subject, too driven, too afraid.

Let us, for the moment, allow that among our Christian axioms is John's claim that we meet the risen Christ in worship, in the gathering. (It is in Luke, too. There, the Lord appears in the breaking of the bread; see here for an exposition.) This would imply that worship— right worship— is critical for meeting Christ. Worship is not the songs and prayers and preaching. Worship is the gathering and the trusting. How we gather, who gathers, who is allowed to gather, what is celebrated is the basis of our worship. And all this will influence and determine our other choices. Do you notice a certain circularity in the argument here? It cannot be otherwise, for there is no final objective experience upon which we can stand. We can only circle around that in which we place our trust, in which we believe, and doubt, and critique, and go on. This is called faith; it trusts, even though it cannot prove.

There is another axiomatic value for we who are 'Thomas.' It is found in the second repetition in the text this week which I have already mentioned, and now we come back to it:

19:20 After [Jesus] said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

19:25 ‘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.’

19: 27 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.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’

In the beautiful layered writing of John, this text of Thomas, does double duty. We have to trust without the privilege of seeing and touching. But with Thomas, we must also say, I will not trust a Christ without these wounds...

The Christ who appears to us is always an interpretation. Christ is always mediated to us. I have met the Christ of my mother and father; the Christ of Rev Brian Ashdown, of Rev Des Ivens, of Ervyn and Rev John Whitehead, and of  Rev Nairn Kerr, and Geoff Boyce, and Prue and David Sidey: these people (and others I did not even recognise) taught me to read the Christ. But even with all this, how will I, how can I, a fearful, suggestible, damaged and needy sinner, ever know I am not simply manufacturing my own convenient Christ who will plaster over my wounds saying Peace, Peace, when there is no peace? 

This is not overstated rhetoric. There are Christs, even in so small a denomination as the Uniting Church, which are in utter contradiction of each other, and which are anathema to each other, and yet they are Christs to whom people give themselves with all the integrity they can muster. Which one is true? Which one can I trust?

John's axiomatic response—also present in Luke on Easter Day— is that we believe in the Risen Christ who bears the wounds. Thomas only believes and makes a confession of faith— he makes the most fulsome confession of faith in John— he only believes when he sees the wounds. He knew this was Jesus the Christ because he saw the wounds. This begs a question about any preacher: can we see their wounds, or do they pretend to have none?

In short, Christ is "Semper occisus... for ever slain.” Is the Christ being preached, and is the Christ we are following, a wounded Christ? We betray which Christ we follow by the way we live. If we pretend to be unwounded, if we claim only triumphant life, if we deny and hide our doubts and fears, we are denying the risen Christ. If we live in this way we are, in fact, afraid of the fact of wounding. We are not trusting the one who is forever wounded, and forever slain, yet forever raised to life...

When Jesus rose, it was not a simple continuation of his life (as if he were simply a few days older), with his wounds cured by God, but rather that he was given back to the disciples as simultaneously dead and alive. In the Risen Lord there is no chronological distance between the death and the life, rather the complete "otherness" of the resurrection life is that it is not on the same level as either human life, or human death, and is thus able to give back both simultaneously. The risen Lord is thus always the crucified-and-risen Lord....   

For Jesus merely to have been cured of death, would mean that the resurrection life was on the same level as death, merely its contrary, and stronger than it.  However more is shown: the resurrection life has emptied death of its power, by showing the form of death (the marks of crucifixion) without its content. What is given back is not only the particular act of God in the case of Jesus, of loving him through and beyond the barrier of death, but the permanent way in which God has made of death an empty threat: his gratuitous, loving presence, is always present as overcoming death at any given moment. (James Alison The Joy of Being Wrong pp76 Paul Nuechterlein has a lengthy quotation from this book here.)

We cannot live an unwounded Christianity, for resurrection life is lived in the presence of death emptied of its power; we are called to live wounded, even slain, yet raised to life, for this is how the risen Christ appears to us. It is this Christ we are to follow; if we are not wounded we are not following. Life is lived wounded. All people are wounded. My pastoral experience is that many disciples— and many clergy— live teetered on the edge of death. To deny this, to model as preacher and leader that this does not happen, is to ask people to live within a deep dissonance and is an abuse. But Christ lets us be free in this struggle, free to be wounded and yet free to be healed and raised to something else.

Yet so much of what I hear preached is a triumphal life which is not life lived with wounds, or with scars which itch and break open, but is more like a life which denies the wounds. The wounded Christ shows us that we can live with terrible wounds which are slowly healed... and we can live with wounds which are never fully healed, and which always weep.

If we reject those for whom the wounding is especially grievous, then  we are rejecting the Christ. For what we are really saying is that we are afraid of the wounds of such a person; we are saying these wounds cannot be healed, therefore you must leave because you distract us from the Christ, you fill us with fear, and you are too hard. And when we do that, we reject the Christ just as those found amongst the goats in Matthew 25 left Jesus to go hungry and thirsty.

The wounded stranger among us, far from being our problem, is in fact our reminder of the Christ, just as the stranger on the Emmaus Road proves to be the Christ. The wounded sister or brother among us show us how Christ was: wounded unto death. And their slow healing shows us that we too may being healed. And the places where they are not healed show us that resurrection life is lived despite wounding and death; it is lived "crucified-and-risen," and it is lived 'in death' but without its content. Christ shows us where we must live. And the grievously wounded show us the Christ. And when we live with him and them I think we find, sometimes very slowly and imperfectly, that we are all being healed, and are moving to a life where wounds become the scars of the past, reminders of what has been and of what has been healed, and also, promises of more healing. In all our doubts and self-deception, it is living with the rawness of the wounds which finally betrays their powerlessness and confirms for us the reality of the Christ.

Andrew Prior (2019)

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!

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



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