Saturday, 11 April 2015

Thomas: who voiced what others dared not ask

"Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails..." So said Thomas.

I have always warmed to Thomas the apostle. I like the way he asked questions and wanted to discover things for himself rather than rely on 2nd hand evidence, even from trusted people in his own group. Any new movement or ancient institution needs people who have the courage to ask honest questions, even when that disturbs accepted truth. Sometimes such people voice the questions that others also have but dare not voice.

In Malcolm Guite's sonnet St Thomas the Apostle he describes he describes Thomas as:

"Courageous master of the awkward question,
you spoke the words that others dare not say
and cut through their evasion and abstraction."


You can read the text or listen to Malcolm's reading of the whole sonnet here.

Today's Gospel reading is John 20: 19 – 31. It begins with the risen Jesus meeting his disciples in an upper room, breathing the Holy Spirit on them and commissioning them for mission. Thomas was not there when that happened. He was left out. Was he perhaps the one with the courage not to stay in hiding like the others? When Thomas returned and heard the others had seen Jesus, he wanted the same experience. And this came a week later. It’s interesting that a week after the disciples met the risen Jesus, they were still locked away, still not living as “Easter people” even after seeing Jesus risen. They were still reacting by hiding. In contrast, Thomas' reaction to his 1st encounter was to recognize Jesus as "My Lord and my God!" An amazing statement of faith!

People have nicknamed Thomas, 'doubting Thomas' which I think is most unfair. Thomas wanted to experience the Resurrection, to put his finger and his hand on the marks of Jesus' suffering. His faith was no weaker than that of the others. He was simply the 1 sheep that the good shepherd came back for. The story of Thomas is a message for the people in John's community when his Gospel was written. Their faith was based not on what they’d seen but on what they heard. Jesus is talking to them (and to us) when he says to Thomas the words that Eugene Peterson paraphrases as, 


"Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing" (The Message, John 20: 29).


There's an ancient Chinese proverb which says:
“I hear and I forget. 
I see and I remember. 
I do and I understand.”

Can we apply this well-known aphorism to the gospel? Yes and no. Especially in John’s gospel to ‘hear’ or to ‘see’ means more than hearing with the ears or seeing with the eyes. It means believing in a way that changes what you do. The understanding at heart level comes in the doing what Jesus tells us to do.

‘I hear and I forget’.

Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples had heard Jesus speaking of his dying and rising. They did not understand the bit about resurrection, so did they forget it or simply not believe that such a thing was possible? So when Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead they were totally unprepared.

I see and I remember’.

Once the disciples saw with their own eyes Jesus calling Lazarus out of his tomb they could not forget that, even if they did not understand what was going on.

‘I do and I understand’.

What did Thomas do? He sensibly asked for evidence. He wanted to see and feel the nail and spear marks for himself. He had heard what the others told him, that they had ‘seen the Lord’, but did not believe them. Why should he? He knew Jesus had died and been buried. Then when Jesus again appeared when Thomas was present and Jesus invited him to touch and see the wounds, what did Thomas do?

Much Christian art, like the famous painting ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas’ by Caravaggio shows Thomas putting his finger in the wound in Jesus’ side. The gospel writer does not tell us Thomas did that. It only tells us that Jesus invited him to do so. What we know Thomas did was to make a remarkable declaration of faith. As Tom Wright expresses it,

“Thomas leap-frogs over all the others, from radical doubt to robust faith”. (N.T. Wright, Lent for Everyone)

Thomas said to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God’. Now he understood the Living Word of God lived in human form in Jesus.

Hearing, Seeing and Doing

I think doubt is a close companion to faith. People come to faith in different ways, but the route usually includes hearing, seeing and doing. We might think if we could have Thomas’s experience, to see and hear Jesus for ourselves – then we’d be able to believe with absolute certainty. But certainty, along with fear, is the opposite of faith. Jesus said,

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20: 29 NRSV)

Believing is more about doing what we say we believe, than assenting to a set of propositions.

It means living the life of faith in Jesus, receiving from him through the Holy Spirit and being sent out in mission. And that is what Thomas did. 
Doubting Thomas? I don't think so. Courageous Thomas, faithful Thomas, thinking Thomas, honest Thomas - yes.


Image Credit: Pixaby, public domain


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