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The following is an excerpt from Steve's Easter book from the Pilgrim Year book series.

‘DOUBTING’ THOMAS

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.

Thomas Didymus (John 20:25)

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Jesus (John 20:29)

The biblical account of doubting Thomas (always retold on the Second Sunday of Easter) plays a surprisingly significant role in the Church’s rehearsal of the Easter story, given how little press Thomas otherwise gets in the scriptures. But it is a gift, after telling a rather fantastic tale of resurrection, that the Church mercifully offers up a tender story of divine love’s response to incredulity.

incredulity-of-saint-thomas-1602
Incredulity of Saint Thomas-1602 Source: https://www.caravaggio.org/the-incredulity-of-saint-thomas.jsp#prettyPhoto

The first three gospels say nothing of Thomas, other than listing him as one of the twelve disciples. It’s only in the Gospel of John that some of Thomas’ story is told. The story is worth revisiting, given that poor Thomas has been unfortunately reduced to a doubter whereas, on a closer look, the scriptures portray him in a more nuanced manner.

We first encounter Thomas in John 11:16. Jesus and his disciples have recently been in Jerusalem, but have just retreated some distance across the Jordan to escape violent persecution at the hands of the religious authorities in Jerusalem (John10:40). When Jesus receives word that his friend Lazarus, living near Jerusalem, has become seriously ill, Jesus decides to return to the danger zone. The disciples are gobsmacked: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (11:8). But Jesus insists, and curiously, none of the super-apostles (Peter, James or John), who were the closest to Jesus, offer their support. Thomas alone offers his courageous fealty: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). This part of his story alone should have inspired Sunday school songs about Brave Thomas, or True Thomas.

We next encounter our anti-hero at the Last Supper (13:1–14:6). After returning to Jerusalem against the advice of his closest friends, Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead and consequently raised the ire of his powerful enemies, who will not countenance resurrections. After all, what power do these enemies have except the power of death over others? The only real threat to the structures of death is the power of life, and Jesus has now revealed what they feared all along – that their gig is up, and their power is really no power at all.

At the Last Supper, Jesus scandalizes his friends with what seems to them to be a display of unbecoming humility, but what the scriptures alternately call “the full extent of his love” (13:1). As the meal is served, Jesus gets up, takes off his robe and wraps a servant’s towel around his waist. He then washes the disciples’ feet, revealing what his cross would confirm: that the power of God is servant power: power for others, not power over others. He then further confuses his friends with incomprehensible teachings about his mission, destiny and God’s future.

It is Thomas, and Thomas alone, who is not too proud to say what all the other blinkering disciples are thinking: that they had no idea what Jesus was talking about.

At one point, Jesus says, “You know the way….” Thomas responds, “How can we know the way?” which elicits the most astonishing self-revelation of Jesus’ divinity yet: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (14:4-6).

Any observant Jew would know that “I AM” is a reference to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Here Jesus speaks of himself as the revealer of the essence of who “I Am” actually is: servant king, not overlord or indiscriminate power.

Again, where are the Sunday school songs about Thomas the Honest? For it was this honest question that occasioned a revelation of the truth of God in Jesus.

Thomas’ last appearance in John’s Gospel is the one that gave him the unfortunate moniker ‘doubting’ Thomas (20:19-28). As the story goes, after Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples were timorously huddled behind locked doors for fear of the authorities. The resurrected Jesus suddenly appears to them with the words “Peace be with you.” As proof that he is the one they know to have been crucified, he shows them the wounds that his resurrected body bears. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. However, Thomas wasn’t there.  

The scriptures don’t tell us why Thomas was absent. However, many a sermon since has surmised that because he was a doubter, Thomas had faithlessly abandoned the communion. However, given his courageous fealty and open honesty on earlier display, should it surprise us that it was only Thomas who was not huddling fearfully behind locked doors when all the others were? Thomas was a realist. What’s done is done. Perhaps he was merely, and bravely, getting on with his life.

But the disciples told him they had seen Jesus, and Thomas doesn’t have doubts as much as conditions for believing. He wants nothing more than what they had been given: a flesh-and-blood experience of Jesus and his wounds.

Notice that it is a week later before Jesus appears again. The disciples, although they had seen the risen Christ, were still cowering behind locked doors. This time Thomas is with them, and Jesus invites him to touch his wounds. Thomas needs no further proof, and in his immediate response, he becomes the first to perceive and utter the mystery of Christ’s twofold nature, fully human and fully divine, with his cry “My Lord and my God!”

Where are the songs about Thomas the Prophet? Thomas the Seer?

At last we come to the words of Jesus that many have interpreted as a rebuke to Thomas’ incredulity: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29).

Jesus’ words do not rebuke Thomas; they only state a fact. If we don’t see this, we miss the gift. Of course, Thomas believed when he saw. Who wouldn’t? He responded, after only one encounter, with deeper understanding than the others who had seen him more than once and had been given time to process what the resurrection could mean.

But here’s the gift… and it’s for you and it’s for me. Jesus blesses those who were not there and have not received the same grace of seeing what those first followers saw. We need to pause and absorb what is going on. Jesus, very God, is turning towards us and blessing us. We are the point of this story – those who haven’t seen and whose faith is sometimes infinitesimal. We might jealously think the disciples are the blessed ones for having “seen” what we haven’t seen. Yet, the experience didn’t immediately overcome their fearful huddling with divine courage or understanding as we assume it should have. Nor would it have given us such courage had we been there.

The scriptures don’t name Thomas a doubter. The name recorded is Thomas Didymus, which the text curiously records two of the three times Thomas is mentioned. Didymus simply means twin: Thomas the twin. We have no textual indication of who Thomas’ twin might be unless, of course, it might be you, or me. In reality, isn’t he very much like us? For who lives by blind faith? Certainly not me, and likely not you, either. I suspect Jesus is as comfortable with our incredulity as he was with that of Thomas. But – and we need to hear this – in our understandable doubts, we don’t have Jesus’ rebuke; we have his blessing.

My father blessed me when I was a young man. It was at a time when I was about as mixed up and unsure of myself as I have ever been. I was coming to understand the adult world as a frightening place, and I couldn’t see how I would possibly manage my way in it. But I couldn’t check out, either. Something in me wanted to believe in goodness, meaning, hope, purpose, and so on. It was then, one memorable night, that my father placed his hands on my shoulders and blessed me.

Years later, I asked him how he could have done so. I’ve spared you the details, but I was a mess. How can a father bless that? My dad smiled and gave me a quick lesson on blessing. Blessing, he said, is not something you give because another has done well. That’s an award or reward. Blessing, rather, is what you give so that the other can do well. The blesser places one hand in God’s hand and the other on the one to be blessed, and confers blessing, which is the power of God for life and love and witness. You, dear reader, may or may not have been blessed by your father or mother, or by any significant adult. But Jesus has blessed you, with your tiniest seed of faith, in the state you find yourself right now, not because it has grown, but so that it may grow.

I’d like to offer one more observation from the story. Thomas insisted not only on seeing Jesus, but on touching his wounds. That’s a curious thing. The marks of Jesus’ love would be the proof of his resurrection. And we are the Church; the body of Christ in an age of mass confusion, cynicism and incredulity. In the end, convincing arguments will not draw people to the faith. Rather, when the Church bears the marks of the broken and suffering world in solidarity and servant-hearted love, the world will see him, the humble servant, paradoxically, “high and lofty” (Isaiah 6:1).

But before we will ever be a blessing, we must first know ourselves blessed. That, I suspect, is a central point of this story.

FOR THE JOURNEY
music and lyrics by Steve Bell

May the Lord bless and keep you
May his face shine upon you
May his graciousness be like an endless stream
May the Lord show his favour
To your house and your neighbour
Till the last remaining strains of striving cease
May he grant you peace

In my heart there’s a sadness building up
Every turn adds to the cup
As the losses match the measure of my (our) gains
In the shadow of this curse
Where the best implies the worst
If you’re like me, you need to hear somebody say…

May the Lord bless and keep you
May his face shine upon you
May his graciousness be like an endless stream
May the Lord show his favour
To your house and your neighbour
Till the last remaining strains of striving cease
May he grant you peace

Appears on the 2000 CD release: Steve Bell / Simple Songs

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