Thought for the day
How did any of us make the journey towards faith in Christ? No doubt a great part of it is simply what we received—usually from family. At some point, did I make a conscious choice? Perhaps at other times, I felt like walking away the faith project? What kept me going? Did a more personal ownership of faith result? Perhaps I can identify with the intuition of John O’Donahue, “Faith is helpless attraction to the divine.” In spite of everything, in spite of myself, somehow it is part of who I am.
Mysterious God, we are those who have seen and at the same time not seen. Help to look beyond the simple gifts of each day to see you the giver behind—and in—every gift. Help us embrace the grace that we may know true blessedness in believing.
John 20:19 Late that same day, the first day of the week, when the disciples were together behind locked doors for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them. ‘Peace be with you!’ he said; 20 then he showed them his hands and his side. On seeing the Lord the disciples were overjoyed. 21 Jesus said again, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ 22 Then he breathed on them, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit! 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain.’
John 20:24 One of the Twelve, Thomas the Twin, was not with the rest when Jesus came. 25 So the others kept telling him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails on his hands, unless I put my finger into the place where the nails were, and my hand into his side, I will never believe it.’
John 20:26 A week later his disciples were once again in the room, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them, saying, ‘Peace be with you!’ 27 Then he said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here; look at my hands. Reach your hand here and put it into my side. Be unbelieving no longer, but believe.’ 28 Thomas said, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29 Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are they who find faith without seeing me.’
John 20:30 There were indeed many other signs that Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 Those written here have been recorded in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may have life by his name.
Today we hear one of the most widely remembered stories from the New Testament: the story of doubting Thomas. It is interesting that the title has stuck, even though the point of the story is that Thomas actually arrives at faith!
Whereas the Empty Tomb Proclamation Narratives resemble each other in all four Gospels, the Resurrection Appearance Narratives are particular to each Gospel. The Fourth Gospel is always a bit special. Even in the Empty Tomb Proclamation Narrative, it has significant features unique to itself—Mary Magdalene comes alone and there is the race between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The appearances of the Risen Lord are also unique to this Gospel. In this excerpt, we hear the substantial story of Thomas, in two parts, followed by the first conclusion of the Gospel. (Scholars usually hold that chapter 21, while not original was added very early and offers in the closing verses a second ending.)
Kind of writing
This symbolic narrative explores several dimensions of Easter faith: (1) the gifts of the Risen Lord—peace, joy and forgiveness; (2) the identity of the Risen One with the Crucified One; (3) the blessedness of all who believe, elimination any distinction between later Christians and the very first generation of Christ-believers. All three are important. Later generations may have been felt that earlier Christians, who actually encountered the Risen Lord were somehow more fortunate. Even more important, a later Christian heresy Docetism—which denied the reality of Jesus’ humanity and its continued significance after the Resurrection—is countered by the overt realism of the body of the resurrected Jesus. Cf. 1 Cor 15.
Old Testament background
Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
Because they failed to know the one who formed them and inspired them with active souls and breathed a living spirit into them. (Wisdom 15:11)
Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defence, for my cause, my God and my Lord! (Psalms 35:23)
New Testament foreground
(1) New creation in Christ is reflected in the lay-out of this Gospel, which starts with an echo of Gen 1:1. Jesus’ last words on the cross are an echo of Gen 2:2. John 20:1 explicitly recalls Gen 1:1 again and in the breathing Gen 2:7 is echoed.
(2) Holy Spirit / Advocate: in the Fourth Gospel, there is a wonderful and deep presentation of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. A single verse gives an idea of what is at stake: Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:39). It simply is not true that “as yet there was no Spirit”! Yet, the function of the Holy Spirit, in the light of the Paschal Mystery, is now so new, so different that it is as if there had been no Spirit before.
Cf. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)
(3) Peace: “Peace 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.” (John 14:27)
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)
Verse 19 That is, the day of creation. Jesus’ self-presentation is not limited by their fear. Peace here is the Easter Good News of victory over death and over even the fear of death.
Verse 20 That is, the Risen One is the Crucified and the Crucified is the Risen One. Jesus is both the same and utterly transformed. The first gift was peace, the second gift is joy.
Verse 21 Repetition for emphasis. “As” should read “just as” and means more than a formal similarity: Jesus’ very own mission from the Father continues in the mission of the disciples.
Verse 22 We hear another echo of creation. The third gift is the Holy Spirit, in the new role of Advocate and reminder. A new creation in Christ is a strong early Christian experience and proclamation.
Cf. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Galatians 6:15) So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3)
Verse 23 The fourth gift—to all believers—is forgiveness of sins. This is a little unexpected, because the Fourth Gospel has very little interest in sins as such. It relates to the community, entrusted with the gift of forgiveness.
Verse 24 Thomas featured earlier in the Gospel: John 11:16; 14:5.
Verse 25 Believe what? That he is risen? That it is the same Jesus? Believing is hugely important, pointing to a person rather than to a belief or doctrine.
Verse 26 That is, the eighth day, today. The same gift of peace is underlined.
Verse 27 The Risen Lord takes the initiative, by meeting the heart-felt questions and doubts of Thomas.
Verse 28 This is the highest proclamation of Jesus’ identity in this Gospel. Thus, deepest doubt can be the direct road to deepest faith. The words also counter the propaganda of the Roman emperors, one of whom — Domitian — wished to be addressed as “our lord and our God”, no less!
Verse 29 This is a beatitude, one of the twenty-seven such beatitudes in the New Testament. Most likely, the writer is meeting an anxiety at the time of writing when the third and fourth generations of Christians felt that the difference in time from the events of salvation put them at something of a disadvantage. As RS Thomas puts it,
It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
Verse 30 This is the first ending of the Gospel and is a frank admission that the writer has selected his stories. The second ending is in the same vein: But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25)
Verse 31 This is a key text for understanding the nature of Gospels and in particular the kind of text which the Fourth Gospel is. The goal is a true understanding of the identity of Jesus so that believers may have life in him.
Pointers for prayer
1. “Peace be with you” was the greeting of Jesus on meeting his frightened apostles. Who has come to you bringing peace at times when you were afraid? To whom have you been able to bring peace?
2. Thomas, doubting and questioning, is possibly a person with whom we can identify. What part have doubting and questioning played on your faith journey? How has your faith been strengthened by such moments?
3. Note the way that Jesus dealt with Thomas. He did not give out because he doubted. He accepted how he felt and led him along to see the truth of his resurrection. Who has been that kind of teacher for you, gently taking you where you were and leading you to a deeper knowledge about some truth about life? For whom have you been that kind of teacher?
4. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believed”. That requires great trust. Perhaps you have had the experience of being trusted without having to justify every step along the way. What was it like to be trusted in that way? Who have you been able to trust in a similar manner?
God of life, source of all faith, through the waters of baptism you have raised us up in Christ and given us life that endures.
Day by day, refine our faith that we who have not seen the Christ, may truly confess him as our Lord and God, and share the blessedness of those who believe. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.