Doubting Thomas

A Sermon for Easter 2A [John 20.19-31] (Common Lectionary, Unrevised)

Copyright (C) 1998 by Abigail Ann Young

The disciples seem to have been very scattered on that first Easter morning (as you might expect) but by that evening, when the first of the two encounters with the risen Jesus in today's gospel took place, they had begun to gather at the house which had been taken for them to meet. This was no doubt the house where they had met on Thursday night to prepare for the Passover, where they had probably planned to meet with Jesus day by day during the feast. Having reached rock bottom after Jesus' arrest and trial, having mostly abandoned him to his fate, they are slowly and shamefacedly gathering together again on the first day of the week, little knowing what strange news Peter, the beloved disciple, and Mary Magdalen have to tell them and never imagin ing that in that house they will meet Jesus again and again hear his voice. We don't know who exactly was there that evening, but we certainly know who was late!

Thomas Didymos, or Thomas the twin, missed Jesus' appearance and his first gift of the Holy Spirit that night. And his initial reaction is about what you might expect. Already filled (as they all were) with grief, loss, and shame of the past three days, he has not even managed to arrive at their common place in time. Everyone is full of stories, about what Mary saw, about what Peter and John saw, about what Jesus said and did that evening and he missed it all. So in a very familiar sort of reaction, he scornfully challenges their words: he won't believe in any sightings of Jesus unless he has tangible proof that what he is seeing is the Crucified One himself.

At first, this may strike us as another one of those hasty or over-confident remarks which the apostles are so prone to make, and with which Jesus is often so short. Peter's confident claim that he will never forsake Jesus is turned about to bring him up quite short. Philip's ingenuous suggestion, 'Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied', was met with near incredulity by Jesus: 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?' So when Thomas says to the other disciples that he just will not believe their story about seeing Jesus again without tangible evidence, we might expect that Thomas is, as his fellows were earlier, in line for a rebuke.

Far from it! Instead, when the disciples gather again a week later, Jesus responds not just to Thomas's doubt but to the sense of grief and loss which prompted it. By offering Thomas the proof that he demands, the risen Christ respects his need for proof he can understand. But the really important thing about this story for us now is, I think, not that Jesus did give Thomas proof, but that he could do so.

This is important for two reasons. First of all, this story of Thomas and the risen Christ was clearly remembered and retold, just as was Luke's story of Jesus' eating with the disciples after the resurrection, because it demonstrated that what the disciples saw was not an apparition or a ghost. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his hands and his side; it must in fact have been possible to do so. The early Christians obviously understood no better than we do how this was possible, what exactly the resurrection body of Jesus was or was like, but those who saw the risen Lord affirmed his reality in accounts which it was natural to tell and retell, passing them on to later generations of Christians.

But that was not Thomas' concern: in his first disbelief, he is not saying to his friends that what they saw was an apparition, he is saying in effect that what they saw wasn't Jesus. His demand is to see not proof of the reality of a ghost but proof that the man Jesus lives. The proof for which he asks is proof of continuity. His response to Jesus, 'My Lord and my God!' is not a statement of belief or faith, it is a cry of recognition. So the second reason it is important that Jesus can offer Thomas that proof is that it shows that the risen Lord was recognisably the same man who had been crucified on Calvary only a little over a week before, the same man with whom Thomas had lived as a friend and intimate for three years.

These two points, of reality and continuity, may be even more important for us than for the early Church: not only is it harder for us to perceive them (since we are more remote in time and space from the events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection) but the very possibility of resurrection, and so of continuity, has come under attack from within the church. There are schools of modern theology which make the so- called Easter Event (not the resurrection, for that is ruled out of court in advance as impossible) a sort of chasm between history and faith. They place an unbridgeable gap (though not expressed so crudely) between the so-called historical Jesus, whose public ministry, passion, and death are chronicled in the gospels, and the Christ of faith, object of the church's theology and belief. According to such thinking, we cannot know what it was, psychologically or emotionally, that made the apostles think that Jesus had risen.

What comes before that gap is the raw material for theological and historical investigation, like the so-called 'Jesus Seminar'; what comes after is a beautiful story which only the ignorant, credulous, or superstitious can believe in as it is told, however much one might want to. It would be impossible to over-emphasise how destructive and corrosive such a theology is. Its insidiousness is its appeal to one of the greatest fears of modern people, to be thought stupid, irrational, or naive! But even in the first century, St Paul knew it for a danger, for he had to combat an earlier version of the same rejection of resurrection, from the Saducean sect within Judaism, which denied the possibility of resurrection from the dead. In his letter to the Corinthians, he wrote 'If there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresent ing God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ ... If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.' While continuing to see the alternative clearly, Paul in his letters and sermons affirmed, as do all the gospel writers, the reality of the resurrection and the continuity between Jesus whose teaching and preaching were well-known in Galilee and Jerusalem and the risen Lord.

Paul put the case for faith in the reality and contiunuity of our risen saviour in a negative way by saying that if the resurrection were not true, then we of all people were most to be pitied. In John's gospel and in the letter of St Peter which we also read today, the case is put in a far more positive light: since the resurrection is true, as we are assured by the disciples' experiences, blessed are those who accept it and all it entails by faith. This faith is not to be taken for granted: it needs both a foundation and an object. The object, of course, is the risen Christ himself, whom we continue to experience and encounter even now in the sacraments (especially our baptism and the Eucharist) and in prayer. The foundation is the witness, mediated to us through the scriptures, of men and women like Mary Magdalen and Thomas which provides a middle term to link the Jesus of gospel history and all that he taught and revealed through himself about God with the Christ of our own personal histories. As Peter puts it, speaking not just to his original readers but to all of us who have been baptised into an Easter faith, 'Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy...'. May that love and Easter joy sustain us in our faith in the risen Lord. Amen.