In the Gospel of John, especially in the latter chapters, we can see how clearly the point is made that it is the very work of God and the Holy Spirit – the Advocate – to engender love and trust in the community of faith. Jesus prays that his disciples might be one – united (John 17). The story of the “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-31) is placed in contrast to this general theme of the Spirit’s work to create trust, unity and love among believers.
When I read again the assigned Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter about the “Doubting Thomas”, I wonder: Why wasn’t Thomas with the group of disciples when Jesus first appeared to them? You would think he could find comfort and strength in numbers; you would think he could find needed support and solace from his group of co-religionists – so to speak – especially after the death and burial of Jesus, after their hopes were dashed, and they were afraid for their lives.
Why wasn’t Thomas with them? Did he finally just throw in the towel with disgust over something someone said to him? Was there a “personality conflict” brewing? Was he offended by what someone did? Was Thomas harboring resentment and bitterness over something that happened in the group? And was just looking for the first excuse to jump ship? Whatever the case may be, he had already removed himself from the community of faith before Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time.
Then, when his cohorts share the news of Jesus’ resurrection with him, Thomas rejects their witness. He doesn’t believe them. Thomas rebuffs the very friends with whom he had shared a couple of wonderful, wild, inspiring years with Jesus. Is this his way of getting back at them?
It is important to note here that Thomas not only expresses disbelief in the claim or proposed idea of Jesus’ resurrection; he also rejects his community’s witness to that claim. That is important to distinguish. We’re not just talking about doctrine per se here – you know, whether you believe the resurrection or not as Thomas did and did not. We are also and just as importantly talking about believing in the words and witness of those making that claim.
Unfortunately, by his rejection of the witness of his faith community, Thomas undermines the community Jesus prayed for and tries to build. But I don’t want to join the ranks of Christians over the centuries who have interpreted Thomas exclusively in a bad light.
Because he went back. And he was blown away to see Jesus again. What do you think Thomas learned from his encounter with the risen Christ? From that point on, did Thomas start trusting the words and witness of his friends? I hope so. I hope his encounter with Jesus changed him so that he could come to trust again.
Thomas gave his community of faith a second chance. Can we? Can we give one another a chance? Can we give the Church a chance? After all, that is what Easter is about: a new beginning, a fresh start, a new chance at life in the Body of Christ – the Church.
We can take a helpful cue from this story. Perhaps we need to carefully consider how Thomas can reflect current realities and challenges in the Church.
What do you think about the radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief projected against the Church today – admittedly some for very good reason. And yet, I wonder if such detraction is not a general sign of the times. Don’t we live in a distrusting, suspicious society, to begin with? Aren’t we told, even by our fathers and mothers growing up, “not to trust anyone” as if this is a value – a life-skill – for successful living? How grievous.
Perhaps we can think of individuals who project a radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief about the world, the church, the government. Perhaps we think of individuals who will not trust others in the church, the disparager, the cynic, the one who refuses to believe. Perhaps we can think of those who look for any excuse to leave the Church and point accusatory fingers at believers who are as sinful and in need of God’s grace as the next person. Perhaps we can think of those who react to the slightest offense. We are Thomas, to be sure, each and every one of us.
Can we learn to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another, and our witness to God’s work in our lives and the world?
I paid particular attention a few years’ back listening and watching Justin Trudeau give the eulogy at his father’s funeral service. His father, the former Prime Minister of Canada, was a controversial figure in Canadian political history who had many enemies. And Justin remembered an incident when he was a very young boy, when his father taught him a very valuable lesson in how to relate to those with whom you differ: He said:
“As on previous visits this particular occasion included a lunch at the parliamentary restaurant which always seemed to be terribly important and full of serious people that I didn’t recognize.
“But …. I recognized one whom I knew to be one of my father’s chief rivals.
“Thinking of pleasing my father, I told a joke about him — a generic, silly little grade school thing.
“My father looked at me sternly …and said: `Justin, Never attack the individual. We can be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence.’
“Saying that, he stood up and took me by the hand and brought me over to introduce me to this man. He was a nice man who was eating there with his daughter ….
“He spoke to me in a friendly manner for a bit and it was at that point that I understood that having opinions that are different from those of another does not preclude one being deserving of respect as an individual.”
I have considered these words in light of Jesus’ prayer that his disciples be one. To experience this unity, do we not, as I said, have to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another? Because we are part of the body of the living Lord. The presence of God’s Spirit in Christ lives in us. What would it be like in the Church if every time we met we would try to see Christ in each other’s faces and lives. What difference could that make?
You might notice that in most of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, he is revealed among believers gathered together – rarely alone. The revelation of the living God in Jesus Christ is received in the community of faith, not apart from it.
When Thomas gives his disciple friends another chance, when he finds it in his heart finally to re-enter the community, to begin relating again with them, to face the music, to engage the sometimes messy and challenging relational realities there, to deal with his disappointments and frustrations of the community, and to come out of his isolation, that is when the risen Jesus breaks into their midst and is revealed in all truth and love to the doubting Thomas. The invitation is always open for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation within the Body of Christ.
God will not stop breaking into our midst – amid our fears and doubts and conflicts. The living Lord Jesus will continue to surprise us by his presence among us. He will be revealed in all truth, grace and love, and bring us peace – this is the promise of the Gospel today.
I believe God must be so happy when members of Christ’s Church on earth are reconciled to one another after being divided and conflicted. I believe God, our heavenly parent, must rejoice when brothers and sisters in Christ work towards greater unity amongst themselves.
After all, we are the children of God. God loves us. And God, our heavenly Father, wants us to live in unity, mutual respect and harmony.