Then [Jesus] 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.” (John 20:27-29 ESV)
What sort of sceptic do you see Thomas to be? I don’t think we can call him an atheist because he is not challenging the Old Testament God and the hope for a Messiah but he is definitely pushing back at the news from the other ten disciples – Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!)
That’s not what he is saying but instead he wants so-called proof – proof on his terms – a bit grisly and gory – finger in wounds sort of thing – and then he declares he will believe. Big of him, eh? But we can understand him because we’ve either been him or we live with or know other Thomases all too well. It can be genuinely meant, flippant, or not-thought-through to say, ‘I’ll believe if I see’ and it can have the immediate effect of stopping the conversation because it throws down a challenge, ‘Get Jesus here and now and I’ll believe’ – it’s the Thomas challenge.
Our text today, in one sense, doesn’t help us because Jesus does show up to Thomas! However it is written by John who in chapter 20 is giving us three resurrection scenes – at the tomb (v.1-9), with Mary (v.10-18), and then with the disciples with and without Thomas (v.19-29) which all have the same goal that you don’t have to see to believe! John gives the reason why he writes chapter 20 – indeed his gospel account – and John is very clear: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30,31 ESV)
So what is going on with Thomas and with many other people who have indicated that given the right conditions they, too, would be followers of Jesus? Aside from everyone’s personality and story – there maybe great hurt or disappointment in the past where people feel that God ‘let them down’ – or there may be a deep – even unconscious – fear that religion or God or maybe specifically Jesus is duping them and they will be made to look fools for trusting Jesus – or maybe they fear that following Jesus means that they lose control of their lives – I think it is interesting to see and hear Jesus’ approach to Thomas. And I would suggest also that Jesus did something similar with Judas and with Peter – reaching out to them personally in their situation with the goal of two things – firstly, that they know that Jesus is always for them and not against them; and secondly, giving them either strength to amend their behaviour or hope that forgiveness is there and they can still amend their behaviour.
So Thomas has made his stand and it is today – 8 days later from the Resurrection – Jewish counting includes the day you’re in – so for us it’s a week later, and we can imagine that the disciples have talked to Thomas on more than one occasion, ‘Thomas, Christ is risen!’ (‘He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!’ say the other 9.) But Thomas is sticking to his line in the sand. We have no idea whether he is now unsure or more determined but he has been making choices in this past week, every time he’s heard about Jesus. But now Jesus is there and he targets Thomas – go for it, get your proof.
We hear Jesus say in the ESV, ‘Do not disbelieve but believe’.
In the NIV Jesus says, ‘Stop doubting and believe’.
The King James has ‘and be not faithless, but believing’.
The Good News Bible says, ‘Stop your doubting, and believe!’.
The CEV says, ‘Stop doubting and have faith!’.
The Jerusalem Bible has ‘doubt no longer but believe!’.
And we can understand that there is a choice between doubt or struggle or faithlessness and certainty, belief and faithfulness and I wonder if we see them as choices – he’s standing at a crossroads to make a choice about which path he is to follow.
The Greek literally says, ‘And do not become unbelieving or faithless but believing or having faith or faithful’ and it is in the present tense so it is something Jesus wants him to do then and there but the Greek emphasises not the fork in the road but the person himself. The choice is not an abstract one where you can remain your own person on either path but it is about what type of person you are becoming. And the command to not become something means that Thomas is making choices about what he is becoming.
Now we all do that – make choices about how we live each day. Make choices within parameters – what I have received and what I have chosen already. I didn’t choose my family, my nationality, my DNA, my name and the like which are all gifts to me but I do have choices which shape my becoming – what I eat, what I read, and so much more. I did choose to be married and I did choose one person – and she chose me – and that action shapes my subsequent choices as well – and also affects what I become. I am both a gift and a choice which combined becomes me – George Samiec (and even though the current Lutheran bishop of Poland is called George Samiec – he is not me and I am not him). I read John 20 and this scene with Thomas as Jesus reaching out to Thomas – who had been with Jesus 3 years, who had all those experiences of Jesus – his take on them of course – and was calling Thomas to become a person who trusts Jesus – not because Thomas saw Jesus but because Jesus is trustworthy.
We have no record of Thomas critically listening to Jesus and then saying, ‘Hold out your hands, Jesus’. There is no account of Thomas carrying out the very proofs he said were necessary for him to believe because, in my view, Thomas realised that firstly, they weren’t necessary; and secondly, I wonder whether he felt somewhat sheepish or foolish at this point.
And I wonder whether Jesus’ question and comment then to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’ to which the answer is ‘yes’ isn’t said with some irony because Thomas is realising that he really didn’t need to see to believe – but in fact the opposite is true – just like it is with miracles – that it is through believing that we see – the truth, reality, and we reject what is fake news – and on this occasion we are talking about the person of Jesus – who he is and what he has done and what he is still doing.
Jesus will go on to say to those in the locked room but John writes it for us – for all the generations who have lived before us and for all the generations who will come after us – ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’. We are blessed to receive the gift of Jesus – the gift of faith – the gift of God’s love in Jesus – and yes, we can make choices about whether we grow in this faith, this relationship, or not. Of course I am not talking about something easy. There are challenges that come with any relationship and Jesus doesn’t promise an ‘easy street’ following him but he does promise himself that he will not abandon us, desert us, destroy us, but will always serve us so that we might live and discover in him an amazing life no matter the doubts, the fears, the lines in the sand, and the choices we make.
I think it is good for us to think about how Jesus approached Mary earlier that day, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, Thomas, the disciples and earlier Judas and Peter to see in Jesus a very definite and personal care – that he reaches out to people where they are at. His words of peace or not being afraid hang in the air and offer people choices related to whether Jesus is speaking the truth or not, is abusive or not, manipulative or not, caring or not. And that is what all the Thomases need to hear – that there are answers to all their questions or their demands for proofs. But be warned – this is not just an intellectual exercise – all those answers and discussions however are not just presenting two pathways for an individual to choose – but rather they will become subversive and go inside and ask again and again to each individual, ‘Who are you? Who and what are you becoming?’.
And in answering those questions – which people often don’t want to answer – what individuals find again and again is that Jesus can help with those answers, that he is faithful, and people still retain their identity and they still get to choose how to behave each day – only now those trusting Jesus have discovered that they are not looking for Jesus 2,000 years ago in the past, peering through all the good and bad history of the Church but that really Jesus is next to them now, in the room now, and I think refraining from say playfully ‘Boo!’ but with a loving smile saying, ‘Peace be with you. Come on, follow me’ which people still do each day. That’s how Christians live – receiving Jesus as a gift to us – and following him one day at a time.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
- John 20:27 - 29