3 July 2013John 20:24-29
“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.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (vv. 27-28)
Today, the Church commemorates St Thomas, traditionally the first Christian evangelist to reach India, and founder of the Mar Thoma church, which still flourishes today. He is characterised as 'doubting Thomas', but his story is more about emotional involvement than the wish for rational certainty. Earlier in the Gospel, it is Thomas who says to the other disciples "Let us also go [to Bethany], that we may die with him" (John 11:16). It is Thomas who challenges Jesus "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" (John 14:5). John's Gospel uses these few phrases to depict someone whose relationship with Jesus can be critical, and who then denies the evidence of his fellow-disciples vehemently, even angrily, when they claim to have seen Jesus.
The sense of touch was widely regarded as the most reliable of the senses, and so Thomas emphasises his demand in this graphic, gruesome way. But what will he "not believe" (v. 25)? He doesn't say, 'I will not believe you'. The meaning of the sentence must range wider. He will not believe that the figure they have seen is identical with the crucified Christ. Unless this mysterious resurrected person has this specific continuity with the broken body of Jesus, Thomas will not believe - and will not let his life be changed by the event the disciples describe.
Jesus' gift of the Spirit to his disciples (verse 22) did not have the same dramatic impact as Luke describes at Pentecost (Acts 2:4). When he returns, eight days later, they are still hiding in a closed room. Do they share some of Thomas' uncertainty? Jesus makes himself physically available for Thomas's inspection, and perhaps Thomas speaks for them all when he acclaims Jesus "My Lord and my God!" Even though Jesus distinguishes between himself and God (John 20:17), for Thomas, at this moment, God is fully present to him in Jesus. These words combine the spiritual and political - Roman emperors claimed to be 'Master and God' - and Thomas proclaims an alternative, life-changing allegiance.
Like us, John's audience had not seen Jesus for themselves. The story ends with Jesus' affirmation that their belief, and ours, is equally valid as a source of God's blessing. The witness of the disciple community (1 John 1:1) is enough to assure us that the crucified Jesus is indeed alive.
- How far is Thomas a helpful role model for Christian disciples?
- Is there anything about being a Christian that makes you cry out "I will not believe" (v. 25)?
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