By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, Commentary for April 3 (John 20.19-31)
Today, as we continue through the season of Uprising, we encounter a character often known as “doubting Thomas.” Looking closely at the scene, though, we hear no doubt in Thomas at all. Having missed the other disciples’ encounter with the Risen One, he proclaims: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not [Gk, ou me] believe” (John 20.25). Put a bit more colloquially, one could render his words, “No way I’m going to believe!”
His stance is sometimes presented as the perennial struggle between “proof” and “faith.” But engaged within the narrative context of John’s gospel, there is something much more radical—and more relevant—to Thomas’ resistance.
Thomas is one of few named disciples in John’s gospel to make a repeat appearance. In John 11, Jesus has been sent a message from his beloved friends, Mary and Martha of Bethany, that their brother Lazarus is sick. The other disciples are understandably terrified at the prospect of leaving their safehouse on the other side of the Jordan to go see their ill friend, as we hear in this exchange:
…after having heard that Lazarus was ill, [Jesus] stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Judeans were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (John 11.6-8)
Jesus repeats the invitation that the disciples seek to duck and Thomas bursts in:
Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11.14-16).
Is Thomas being brave? Foolhardy? Perhaps even sarcastic, as in “Let’s just go die and get it over with”? We can’t say for sure what was in his mind at the moment. But whatever he was thinking, he is the only disciple to propose both accompanying Jesus and facing into the presence of death in the air.
Thomas has another moment that precedes the encounter behind locked doors. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells them that he is going to “prepare a place” for his disciples. We then hear this exchange:
[Jesus says] “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14.4-5)
In both situations, Thomas seeks to maintain solidarity with Jesus by staying with him where he is.
But now, Jesus has been brutally dispatched by the conspiracy of Roman and Judean leadership. All of Jesus’ promises of joy and peace, love and intimacy, seem to have gone up in smoke. Grim, imperial reality seems to have dashed hopes for the inbreaking of divine justice and the dawning messianic era of shalom. The Way of Jesus seems to have come to a dead end.
Yet here is Mary Magdalene, with her wild proclamation, “I have seen the Lord!” (20.18). And on that same day, the other disciples have experienced the Risen Jesus in their midst, despite their fearful hiding behind locked doors. Thomas, though, was not among them to share in this experience. His adamant resistance to their proclamation seems to us to be more than a demand for physical “proof.” Could it be that Thomas, having put everything on the line in the hope that Jesus was truly the One sent from God, doesn’t want the resurrection to be true? Because if it is true, then all of what Jesus has said must also be true. And the Last Supper Discourse, which we’ll be exploring throughout this season, promises not only peace and joy, but also persecution, rejection and even death (15.18-16.4). If Jesus is risen, then Thomas can no longer be resigned to his bitter disappointment. If Jesus is risen, then Thomas must join the other disciples in the Lord’s commission: “As [Gk, kathos] the Father has sent me, so I [Gk, kagō] send you” (20.21).
Note the precise parallelism of this commission. Jesus sends the disciples out as God has sent him out. With this, the Last Supper Discourse comes crashing back down on Thomas and the others in its complete, terrifying, glorious truth. Jesus had warned them that, before their experience of his death and resurrection, they could not handle the whole truth (16.12). But now, with the presence of the Paraclete, aka “Holy Spirit” and “Spirit of Truth,” the time has come for the disciples to continue Jesus’ mission of being God’s own Light in the midst of imperial darkness. They—we—like the Lord and Master, must come fully to trust that God’s power of Life is infinitely stronger than the forces of death.
A week after the first appearance behind locked doors, Jesus appears again, with Thomas present. And now, with the physical reality of the Uprising there before him, Thomas does not hesitate to offer his powerful confession: “My Lord and My God!” (29.28). The Roman historian Suetonius reports that the emperor Domitian, reigning 81-96 CE when our gospel was likely written,
when he dictated the form of a letter to be used by his procurators, he began it thus: “Our lord and god commands so and so;” whence it became a rule that no one should style him otherwise either in writing or speaking. (Suetonius, Twelve Caesars, 490-91)
Thus, Thomas’ confession proclaims Jesus, not the emperor, as the true source of power and the one to whom he is obedient. In his experience of the truth of Jesus’ Uprising, Thomas both knows “the way” and is truly ready to follow to death and beyond.
We know many disciples today who struggle with the reality of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Such an event seems to run against all reason. In our own lives, though, we, like Paul of Tarsus (Acts 9; Gal 2; Phil 3), have come not simply to “believe” in the sense of a creedal affirmation, but to know the tangible, palpable truth of the Uprising in our own bodies. It is this knowing—biblical knowing (see Gen 4.1)—that empowers us to the trust that stakes all on the truth and joy of the Way. As Paul wrote to the discipleship community in Corinth,
My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor 2.4-8)
It is this power, fueled by the presence of the Spirit of the Risen Christ in our very bodies, that compels us forward, without counting the cost of discipleship. May we all come to know that power coursing through our very cells, filling us with life in abundance and with the true peace which the world can neither give nor take away. As we continue day by day through the Easter season, may we be unafraid to proclaim that Jesus is truly both Lord and God.