Jesus and Thomas

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This page is part of the Lectionary project: especially Easter2B

Jesus and Thomas

The Gospel for Easter2B includes the famous scene of Thomas initially missing the Easter Day appearance by Jesus to the gathered disciples, refusing to believe until he sees the Risen One for himself (and can actually touch his resurrected body), and then subsequently being granted a chance to do just that.

At first glance this story seems to be the very model of an Easter appearance story.

  • We have fearful disciples hidden away in a secure place for fear of the Judeans.
  • We have a miraculous appearance as Jesus appears in their midst and reassures them they are not seeing a ghost.
  • We have words of commissioning, as Jesus both bestows the Spirit on them that very day (rather than some 50 days later as Luke-Acts will one day tell the tale) and empowers the disciples to forgive/retain sins.
  • We have a missing disciple who refuses to accept the testimony of his fellow followers, and demands to have that same experience (and more) himself.
  • We then get a return appearance by Jesus, with no explanation of his intervening absence and for no apparent reason other than to meet Thomas' demands.
  • Once again Jesus miraculously appears inside a secure place, but this time Thomas is present. His wishes are granted.Thomas both sees Jesus and has the opportunity to touch his (presumably physical) body.

But is this really a standard example of an Appearance story?

Note that Thomas is hardly commended for his belated discovery of faith. There is no beatitude for Thomas; only for those who, unlike Thomas, believe despite never seeing Jesus for themselves!

"Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Jesus does not renew the gift of the Spirit (for Thomas), nor does he repeat the apostolic ordination ceremony so that Thomas can now share in the commissioning previously given to his friends. In the end, Thomas becomes the very model of the kind of disciple Jesus does not need. Far from serving as an exemplar of faith, Thomas is belittled by the narrative. He has come to faith, but he has not received the blessing.

The summary statement that follows this incident (vss. 30-31) makes it clear that the faith which marks a true disciple relies on the witness of others rather than a personal experience of the Risen Lord.

The Gospel of John almost seems embarassed by the appearance tradition here. A visitation by the Risen One might be the basis for ministry by the disciples, but it is neither a necessary nor sufficient basis for faith. Faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a personal miracle that removes all opportunity for doubt.

What might be the current equivalent of Thomas' inappropriate and unwelcome desire for some tangible proof of the resurrection? Might it be the continued insistence by some Christians that authentic Easter faith necessarily involves belief in the empty tomb? Has an insistence on the literal historicity of the biblical texts become a Thomas-like retreat from Johannine faith in its quest for some quasi-tangible miracle to serve as a prop for faith?