Seeing is Believing: Sunday of St. Thomas

John 20:19-31; 1 John 1:1-7
Genesis 2; Exodus 3

The Lord is risen! Truly, he is risen! This Sunday we hear about the response of that little group in the upper room: “When they saw the risen Lord, they were glad.” And we also hear the words of the elder John, who draws us, in the twenty-first century, into that gladness—“we are writing this that our joy may be complete.” But then there is the apostle Thomas.

What to do with Thomas? Thomas was an ESTP on the Myers Briggs profile if there ever was one. “An ESTP’s primary mode of living is external, and he or she takes things in via the five senses in a literal, concrete fashion. His secondary mode is internal, where he deals with things rationally and logically. ESTPs are outgoing, straight-shooting types. Enthusiastic and excitable, ESTPs are ‘doers’ who live in the world of action. Blunt, straight-forward risk-takers, they are willing to plunge right into things and get their hands dirty. They live in the here-and-now, and place little importance on introspection or theory. They look at the facts of a situation, quickly decide what should be done, execute the action, and move on to the next thing. They have extraordinary talents for getting things started. They are not usually so good at following through, and might leave those tasks to others.”
Sure sounds like the apostle Thomas—Thomas, the one who encourages the others to go to Jerusalem with Jesus to die, since his master seems determined to go. Thomas, who interrupts Jesus’ words of comfort regarding dwelling places in his Father’s house: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. And how can we know the way?” Thomas, who for some reason was on his own and not with the others on the first Lord’s Day —perhaps he was dispirited; perhaps he assumed that this phase of his life was over?

Actually, St. Thomas’s personality type is quite rare—only 2.8 of the population, they say. But probably some of you, my friends, “get” this disciple immediately: there must be enough people like Thomas out there to justify that saying “Seeing is believing.” Some have called him doubting Thomas. We might as easily call him “touching” Thomas. “Unless I touch his hands and side, I will not believe.” I must admit, to me, the apostle is completely mystifying, because I am an ENFJ, his polar opposite in everything but our common extroversion—but that is good, because the gospels show me how God meets the needs of ALL his children, not just folks like me. And indeed, the witness of Thomas is absolutely crucial to the Christian faith, because it keeps folks like me honest: those of us who are imaginative, idealistic and ever hopeful might want too much to believe in a happy ending. C. S. Lewis’s children in the Narnia tales needed their skeptical dwarf, the “dear little friend” Trumpkin. Thomas’s skepticism, and that fact that Jesus responded to it, reminds us that the resurrection is not a product of our wishful thinking. Rather, it is God’s decisive answer to sin and death. It is God’s very own and concrete act, an act that brings about a new beginning for our sad and decaying world.

So it is that the concluding chapters of the gospel of John, as well as the letters of John, are all about the mighty acts of the Holy Spirit. They are about the risen Jesus, and about how the Holy Spirit forges us, who belong to Jesus, into the community of God, with all our strengths, failures, and idiosyncrasies. We get to listen and look as the Lord deals with Mary Magdalene, the twelve, Thomas, Peter, and the beloved disciple. We are invited to eavesdrop in on their stories so that we may come to understand what it is to believe and to have life together.

We are talking about real life: not just an airy-fairy spiritual life, but life in all its dimensions, including the physical. For this resurrection story is thoroughly based in the world of the five senses. It involves walls, doors, bodies, sounds, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching. In fact, the story uses language that makes us flash back to those primordial days recorded in Genesis when God brought to life this fresh new world that is our home. The character of our God is ever the same: in the beginning, his Spirit brooded over the waters, he “spoke” the dynamic word “let there be”, and it was the first day. Then our creating God somehow fashioned the first human beings with his own intimate touch; he mysteriously breathed into them the breath of life; he entrusted them with a task of partnership over his own creation; he “walked” with them in the garden; he called after them after they had tried to hide from his all-seeing gaze.

Now, in John’s story, at the end of a century’s long and involved drama, the Lord comes fresh from his victory over death. He seeks his own again. It is the first day of the week, the beginning of a new chapter, but they do not know it, for they are hiding in the dark out of fear. So the Lord comes among them, and this time he has a human and glorious face. He comes into their dark room, gracing it with his risen body, right into their very midst, and speaks to them a different word– “Peace be with you!” And as he speaks, no doubt it was for them even brighter than on that very first day when God uttered his “Let there be light.” For among them stood the Light of Light, showing to them his hands, his side, his feet, marks of his recent triumph over death and the powers of darkness. Quite literally, the One who is the Peace of the world, was there with them, reassuring them that all things were being put right, being brought back into wholeness, order and peace. The great work of healing and mending was assured, because Jesus had trampled down death by death with those wounded feet, had struck down the enemy of life with those nailed hands, had poured out God’s cleansing, love and life from his pierced side.

Here, in their very midst was the author of Life, bringing to them the word of his peace. And that is not all: not just a mending, but something greater than they could ever think or imagine was about to happen. He gives to them a new commission. Adam and Eve had been told to govern and protect the created order as God’s custodians. But this one true human being, this Jesus, this One who is truly God, truly the Son of Man, calls a new family into his service: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” From now on the job would be not simply to care for creation, not just a work of maintenance. Rather, his disciples are enfolded, made part of the Father’s work of restoration. They are to go, to heal, to restore what has been lost, to seek those who have been lost.

Such a role may seem too great for humankind. After all, it is God himself who is the shepherd of the sheep. But here we are at the dawn of a new creation, a new era in which God’s people are being called no longer simply servants—though servants we are—but FRIENDS. Who is up for this task? The answer is, of course, not one of us. That is why Jesus does not simply give his disciples instructions. He also gives them his very life.

Think again about the Narnia chronicles. What is it that Aslan does as soon as he has won, with the stone table cracked, the bonds broken and the deep magic accomplished? Why, he visits the dungeon of the White Witch, and begins to breathe upon those who have been petrified, frozen by her evil. He breathes, and they are restored back to life. What Jesus does here on that first Easter evening is even greater: not only does he breathe to restore the disciples back to life. No, he does more. He says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Back at Eden, God gave to humankind the breath of life. Now God the Son hands over to his disciples the One who is in Himself the Breath of new life, the very Spirit of God. Not merely a life force, but the Lord of Life comes to be with these frightened disciples: and they will never be the same. It is as though Aslan had breathed upon a stone cat and made him not merely a living creature but a little lion, bursting with the same vigor of the great Aslan himself, ready to do the work of freeing and bringing joy to those in darkness and in prison.

St. Paul puts it this way: “May you come to know what is the hope to which he has called you, what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might, which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead…We are God’s very own work of art,” (Eph 1:17-20, 2:10), his poiema. Imagine that! Jesus speaks a word to them—speaks it twice! “Peace be with you.” Jesus acts, showing his hands and feet. And he breathes into them new life, life that promises what they can hardly imagine. With that inbreathing, Jesus’ disciples are drenched with the anointing that belongs to Jesus himself: they are made little anointed ones, little Christs, in anticipation of the day of Pentecost when all believers would be enlivened to live a new life.

It seems, however, as though the enlivening of the apostles had a particular purpose: they are told by the Lord that they will be given the power to speak words concerning forgiveness of sins, or judgment. These are, of course, words that belong properly to Jesus, the Son of God who has the power to forgive sins, but he gives them the office to step in for him. For the Church is like a body, and different members have different roles—indeed, some will be “sent” especially to evangelize, and perhaps others will be “sent” specifically to speak God’s prophetic word of forgiveness or judgment. But it is also very clear that the gift of the Holy Spirit is for the whole family of God, and offered to each of us. For the Spirit whom Jesus breathed out upon the disciples in the upper room later will come strongly upon the whole community, on that day of Pentecost—young and old, men and women, youth and girl. And it is God’s promise that all who belong to Jesus are empowered with the Spirit of truth, freedom, and unity, and called to speak God’s word and show God’s life. The apostles have a particular role; yet all believers will be enlivened by the Spirit.

But what about Thomas? Thomas wasn’t there that first Easter Sunday. His ears didn’t hear the word of peace, his eyes did not see the scars, his heart was not stirred by the commission of Jesus. And he was not the kind to easily believe on the word of somebody else. So Jesus, a whole week later, comes again, condescending to Thomas’s demands, showing clearly what Thomas cannot believe by the report of his friends. Again, for the third time, Jesus speaks to the whole group, “Peace be with you!” And he addresses Thomas directly, inviting him to touch and see. At the dawn of our world, in the darkness our Creating God said, “Be light!” and there was light. In the upper room, the faithful Lord of life says, “Be not faithless, but be faithful.” Thomas responds immediately. Jesus has come to him, and so Thomas himself comes out of his comfort zone. He renounces the conditions that he has made. Some traditions say that Thomas touched Jesus’ wounds, and that the apostles’ handicapped hand, with two twinned fingers, was immediately healed. But the gospel story does not tell us that Thomas actually touched. In one way, with the risen Jesus before him, his need has been met. For Jesus has taken his need to SEE and TOUCH seriously, and has also spoken a word of encouragement to him. As St. John Chrysostom marvels, “when you see the unbelief of the disciple, consider the loving-kindness of the Lord, how for the sake of a single soul He showed Himself with His wounds, and comes in order to save even the one.” So to Thomas, the Lord appears, and says, “Be a believer.” And so it is. Thomas forgets himself, and cries out in prophecy and in ecstasy, and names Jesus, “My Lord and My God.”

Here is a remarkable cry of faith. Thomas uses both of the titles used for the Jewish deity—Elohim (God) and Yahweh (Lord) and attributes them both to Jesus. Jesus is the same God who created, the same one who said to Moses, “I AM who I am.” He is the One who has brought all things into existence, and the One who IS, the existing One. Thomas realizes, in that instance, that when Jesus is given the title “Lord,” this is no mere polite form of address, but it describes who he truly is—King of Kings and Lord of Lords. For he has conquered death, and is both with the Father and amidst those who believe in him.

What an amazing thing that the One who made and molded humanity, who breathed life into us, should come among us and subject himself to the likes of Thomas, to the likes of us. How remarkable that the One who commands all should meet the demands of a skeptic. How unthinkable that he should invite us creatures—us fallen creatures!— to touch his body, and allow us to dignify him with a name. It is for the Lord to name us, to touch us, to command us.
Yet Holy Week has already shown the extent of his love—he allowed rough soldiers to drive nails into his hands. The One who suspended the heavens over the earth was willing to be suspended upon a cross. And his love is so great that he even respects our requirements for faith: he invites us to question, to wrestle, to ask to see. He desires that we should be on a first name basis with him. Indeed, both Greek and older English prayers address God with the familiar “you,” not the form used formally in those languages—thee, or “tu” in French, not ye, or “vous.” God does not yearn for us to simply believe that he is Lord; he yearns for us to believe him, to trust him, to love him. It is not simply that we should stop having doubts, but that we should be with him: this is his invitation to us. Not just Lord and God, but “my Lord and my God” are the terms of endearment that please his heart.

And so, we should rejoice that Thomas wasn’t there with the others that first Sunday, for from his absence we benefit! God the Son arranged a special meeting for the apostle—though it took place, notice, in the company of the others! I find it reassuring to know that Jesus took Thomas seriously, and takes us seriously, too. We are served by Thomas’s story, and by that of all the apostles, who have, in the words of the elder John, testified of the resurrection to us, so that we might enter the fellowship of the Church. The Lord, then, is in the business of calming our fears, of quelling our doubts, of answering our questions, and of wooing us. In the end, this story is not only for the benefit of Thomas. It is for you and for me. As soon as we hear of Thomas’s response of faith, John’s gospel breaks out of its frame and embraces those of us who are reading it. No sooner has Jesus addressed this one awkward sheep, and pulled Thomas back into his company, than he pulls us into the story as well. What is his last word to Thomas? “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

With these words, he warns Thomas not to get too carried away that he has had a special revelation, a special visitation from Jesus. That visit does not make him more blessed, more special, more privileged. Rather, it gives him a responsibility—to act as an apostle, an eye witness, caring for those who will come to believe through the ministry of the apostles. We’re told that St. Thomas took the word about Jesus to India, and was martyred there: certainly the apostle Thomas is NOT responsible for the so-called gospel that has his name attached to it, in which there is supposed to be “secret” teaching that Jesus gave only to a few. Christianity knows nothing of privileged classes, and the Lord gives his Spirit to all who believe. As Paul said, the gospel is an open revelation: “For God who said, let light shine in darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:6). Indeed, St. Gregory of Palamas says that, as we wait upon the Lord, cleansing our hearts and minds, and practicing quietude, each one of us will eventually see the LORD for ourselves—maybe even in this life, but certainly in the resurrection.

Jesus’ last words to Thomas are about all of us, the whole community of believers, all those who are called blessed by the Father. Jesus here confirms the prayer that he prayed on the night before his death, “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be made holy in the truth. And I am praying not only for these, but for those who will believe in me because of their word, that they may all be one. Even as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory which you have given me I give to them that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” God’s very Word has spoken to us, and continues to speak, “Peace.” God’s very Son has died for us, showing us his love in pierced hands and feet, doing battle for us in death, and coming back into the light victorious. God’s very Spirit has been set in our midst, helping us to understand, making us more and more like Him, preparing us for battle and for life. Through the eyes of the apostles, through the Scriptures, in the breaking of bread, in the prayers, we SEE God’s light—and look forward to the time when we shall be like him wholly, and see him as he is.

We might be tempted to be annoyed that we were born today, and not among those first ones who saw the Lord with physical eyes. But remember we have things the earliest community didn’t have. They did not have the wealth of God’s word, the whole New Testament, and the experience of God’s people for twenty centuries. We have the encouragement of the martyrs, the wisdom and wonder of God’s people, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. We have, as it were, many sets of eyes and hearts and minds by which we can “see” our Lord, and learn to be more like him. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have communion with one another.”

2 comments:

  1. Thank you very much. I, as a fellow ENFJ, really appreciate the insights regarding Thomas and the comfort your words of encouragement concerning our Lord and Savior’s love for us, as individuals, bring. <
    PS – I'm reading your insightful "Scripture and Tradition-What the Bible Really Says."

    1. Ron, I am glad that the post was helpful. It is amazing to me that Christ’s love is both for each person, and for the entire cosmos. Please let me know what you think of my Scripture/Tradition book! My email is easy to find on line–I work for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A blessed Bright Week to you/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *