The Taser's Edge

Doubting Thomas, Doubting All, or, Death and Ascension, Resurrection and Return
St. Thomas the Apostle

Detail of "The Incredulity of St. Thomas the Apostle" by Caravaggio

If a feast day falls in a forest between the final Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day, then the communion of saints which handed down the tradition of the church calendar (or calendars) probably thought it was important.  But why Thomas?  It’s worth quoting the entire famous passage about him (John 20:24-29):

Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Sermons on Thomas invariably go like this: “Thomas didn’t believe, and he said he wouldn’t until he put his finger in Jesus’ nail holes.  Then Jesus showed up and Thomas looked really bad.  We don’t see Jesus, but we believe.  Jesus says we’re blessed because we’re not like Doubting Thomas, so let’s be happy Christians.”

But what does the passage actually say?

In the whole of John 20, not a single person believes without seeing.  He’s not Doubting Thomas; he’s The-Only-One-Who-Wasn’t-There-When-Jesus-Showed-Up Thomas.  In vv. 1-10, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John were all three confused by the empty tomb, but while at least John believed something (vv. 8-9 obscure what that might be), what Mary, Peter, and John didn’t think was “Jesus must have been raised from the dead!  Everything makes perfect sense now!”

Jesus showed up to Mary and then she believed (vv.15-16), showed up to the disciples and then they believed (vv. 19-20), before finally showing up to Thomas and then seeing him believe.  The reason that each person or group believes is that Jesus has shown himself.  In v. 20, we even see that Jesus “showed [the disciples] his hands and his side” to help them believe, just like he later did to Thomas.  All this to say, Thomas was not special for better or for worse.  He was like all the rest.

When we read this brief passage about the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection, we need to recognize that John has been making an argument for a specific purpose for 20 chapters by the time we hear about ‘Doubting’ Thomas.  Much of John’s argument has been that even among those who have ‘seen,’ most have not believed.  People followed Jesus because he filled 5,000 men’s stomachs, not because they believed that he was the Son of God and Giver of Life.

Jesus’ miracles are called ‘signs’ in John because they evidence the coming of the Reign of God in Christ, but John shows and tells us again and again that the signs are open to interpretation, and that most of the people miss them.  Now, at the end of his account, John is not making a new point, but the same one.  Even the disciples who believed all those signs before now have trouble believing the ultimate sign, which is the resurrected body of Jesus.

So why talk about this now?  Why Advent?  Why a mere four days before Christmas?  Because our late Advent (days shorter and shorter and darkness longer and longer, at least in this hemisphere) questions are the same as Thomas’ were in those dark days after the Light of the World seemed to be extinguished forever: Where is Jesus?  Why do others seem to have seen, when I’ve been trying to believe for just as long as them, but I haven’t seen and I don’t see?  How am I supposed to believe based on other people’s experiences?  Will there ever be anything to hope for again?

Like Thomas and the other frightened disciples, we know we have no hope outside of the Light of Christ, and yet at times we fear that Jesus Christ is no Light either, and thus that there may be no Hope at all.  Waiting between death and resurrection is a whole lot like waiting between ascension and return.  But 2,000 years of waiting at least seems to me to be harder than 3 days (or a couple days short of 2 weeks in Thomas’ case).

As for Jesus’ “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” I know plenty of people and consider myself one of those who has seen something “as through a glass dimly” and has believed, but I know of no one who has seen nothing and yet has believed.  Actually I’m not sure I can imagine the person Jesus describes.

And now, to close, an incredibly ambitious prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (p. 237):

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Ya, I do tend to feel bad for poor Thomas. He gets singled out quite unfairly.

Another thought: Jesus doesn’t leave Thomas in the doubting. Jesus doesn’t say “whoops, Maybe you’ll get it next time.” Jesus reaches out his hands, offering to Thomas, again, the thing he needs in order to believe: the touch of something holy, something seen and felt and not quite lining up with how we assumed things would be.

I love that picture included, because, even as the wound is touched, it looks incredible that someone is walking around with such a gaping hole…

Lastly, LOVE the song.

Comment by Kplester523

1.) Yeah, definitely love the song.

2.) If it were at all relate-able to the post, I would have mentioned that the text itself doesn’t make it sound like Thomas actually went through with it, unlike Caravaggio’s vision of the scene. Jesus says, “Put my finger here,” and Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God!”, and the response seems semi-instantaneous. At least if I were Thomas, I would suddenly be fine with just seeing the wounds with my eyes.

3.) Regardless of that reading, I did choose this particular rendition because it’s a nice and shocking, turn-your-stomach, crap!-Jesus-actually-has-a-body! view.

Comment by tasersedge

I think the first time I understood that part of the Gospel this way was when we did Lectio with these verses a few months ago.

Comment by bouquetofparentheses

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: