Wild Lectionary: Thomas, Bodies, Touch, and Violence

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John 20:19-31

By Laurel Dykstra

“Doubting Thomas” it’s the name we call someone who demands hard evidence, who won’t accept what we say or who doesn’t share our beliefs.

There are all kinds opportunities in the church use that name against someone. All sorts of differences in the beliefs of faithful Christians: angels, auras, miracles, marriage, dinosaurs, women disciples, Adam and Eve, Noah, what prayer is, what happens during a sacrament, what salvation means, what parts of the creeds we say with confidence and, perhaps most pertinent here, how we understand the resurrection.

Thomas has served different purposes through the history of the church

The Gospel of John was written for a community two generations after Jesus. There was no one alive who had actually seen and touched Jesus –so as it became apparent that Jesus was not coming back anytime soon, reassurance for those “not seen and yet come to believe” was vitally important.

In the early church there were great controversies over Thomas:
whether he in fact put his hand in Jesus side
just what kind of body the resurrected Jesus had
and what kind of evidence a doubter is granted (or perhaps what a doubter deserves).

During the Reformation and after, Catholics used Thomas to argued for those of us who need physical symbols and aids to our faith—such as pilgrimages, relics, rosaries. Protestants used the same story to argue for the superiority of belief without such aids, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe”

But I think Thomas gets a bum rap

Immediately preceding today’s reading Mary meets Jesus alive in the garden, when she tells the disciples “I have seen the Lord” they hide behind locked doors. –hardly a believing response.

And really, the day after a funeral who here would respond with joy and belief to a breathless friend, claiming they had seen our loved one alive?

Denial, anger, pity are the more likely responses.

After Jesus appears to the disciples they give Thomas the same message they received from Mary, “we have seen the Lord.” But Thomas is labeled the doubter, despite the fact that eight days after being “sent as Jesus was sent” the rest of them are still hiding behind locked doors!

Thomas is credited with his own gospel, a collection of the sayings of Jesus. He is believed to have brought the message of Jesus India—where he is known as “Thomas the apostle.” He died a martyr. But we remember him as Doubting Thomas, reducing him to a single episode.

Seeing is believing
Some of us say this with confidence that we are not going to be fooled,
some have a sense of superiority that unlike those Doubting Thomases we believe without seeing.

But it is not Thomas who came up with the idea-–every gospel writer uses a blind man who receives sight as a metaphor for understanding or accepting Jesus.

Nor is it Thomas who initiates this gruesome show and tell. Verse 20 says that Jesus, unprompted, showed the disciples his hands and side.

I think Thomas gets a bum rap, but that doesn’t mean I think he was easy to be around. The language about bodies in John is quite graphic—the institution of the Eucharist talks about chewing flesh.

We are used to thinking of the bible as holy, sacred and beautiful—well, it is all of those things, but here it is also shocking and quite gross. Thomas’ refusal of the disciples’ witness is aggressive and it escalates—while the NRSV says ‘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.” Johanine scholar Wes Howard-Brook translates the verbs as “thrust my finger in the mark, throw my hand into his side,” saying, “Thomas insists that his belief requires violent touch in the places where Jesus has been most violently touched by empire.”

Comedian George Carlin says: “In the heart of every cynic there lives a deeply disappointed idealist.” I think this applies to Thomas, because Thomas “gets it” in a way that the other disciples do not.

In the gospel of John, we hear about Thomas twice before today’s six verses.

After the death of Lazarus, (a passage that some scholars say prefigures the crucifixion and resurrection) Jesus announces his intention to return to Judea where he has just escaped stoning and arrest at the hands of the religious authorities. The other disciples try to dissuade him, but Thomas announces—in what might be courage or might be sarcasm, but certainly includes insight, “Let us go also that we might die with him” (Ch 11)

When Jesus alludes to his own death, Thomas is even more abrasive, challenging Jesus. ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ (Ch 14)

In today’s gospel Thomas is outraged and impotent over the death of Jesus, at the power of Empire to crush the innocent and the weak but I think his refusal is so strong because he knows that the truth of Jesus risen is more beautiful and terrible and more demanding than Jesus crucified.

If Jesus is dead, we grieve and go home, maybe try to be good and take care of our loved ones, but we keep our heads down. Death, after all has the last word.

But if death doesn’t have the last word, if Jesus is risen,
then the kingdom’s not a dream or a reward for the virtuous dead,
then love of Jesus and of a life that defeats death, demands that we build that kingdom. And that puts us, like Jesus, on a collision course with Empire.

Thomas understands that the Discipleship Way, is both the Way of Life the Way of the Cross, not just for Jesus (a long time ago, instead of us, with lilies and beautifully draped cloth) but for himself and each of us as well.

Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails I will not believe

Thomas doesn’t try to be good or make nice, he makes public the whole of his fear, his pain and his doubting.
And he is met.
He insists that his faith means touching Jesus where he has been wounded
And Jesus assents.

This brings us to one of the most joyful and solemn moments in the Gospel.
Invited to touch Jesus—wounded and alive
Thomas exclaims in recognition, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas means twin in Aramaic, and in case we didn’t get that, the Gospel writers tell us he is called Didymus, twin in Greek. But who is Thomas’ twin? No one knows but is there anyone who doesn’t resemble him? Who hasn’t doubted? Who hasn’t felt left out of the inner circle? Who doesn’t live sometimes behind locked doors, inside a locked mind or hearts?

Yet the Gospel assures us that if we bring the whole of ourselves, our pain, our fear our doubts, we will be met, and we will be sent out bearing good news.

Doubt is not the opposite of belief but an inseparable part of it.

 

Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.

 

 

Photo caption: Hold Fast by Thor (Creative Commons License)

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