Being and Doing
27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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)
The story this Sunday revolves particularly around Jesus and Thomas. We know it well and the description of Thomas has gone into our lexicon – ‘doubting Thomas’.
We have Thomas and his behaviour – his doubting. He is imprisoned by his reason it seems. He is the victim here of being rational. That is how I think many people think about the situation.
Bible translations present Jesus’ instruction in various ways …
Stop doubting and believe (NIV)
Do not disbelieve but believe (ESV)
Stop doubting and have faith (CEV)
Stop your doubting and believe (GNB)
Don’t give in to your doubts any longer, just believe (TPT – The Passion Translation) Do not be unbelieving anymore but believe (The New Jerusalem Bible)
I am no Greek scholar but my translation of this section is ‘Do not be / become faithless but [be / become] faithful’. You see, I think, Jesus is addressing Thomas as a person more than his behaviour. And so the KJV gets my nod with ‘Be not faithless but believing’.
What does it mean to have faith? In the Old Testament faith was in the words of the story of the rescue – of God’s rescue in the Exodus – of the message of the prophets and priests about God – and faith was evident in how one behaved (especially as a group) – there is a trust and obey quality here.
When Jesus came along, he is the Word of God and so the rescue is personalised because there is a specific rescuer and thus the relationship becomes more intense and there is now an added or deeper dimension as people are aware of the landscape between what is inside our heads/ hearts and our behaviour. We can behave religiously but not trust or rely on Jesus. We can say we trust and rely on Jesus but not behave as if we do. Neither the internal (belief or trust) or the external (how we behave) can be guarantees of reality anymore – but everyone agrees that there needs to be congruence between internal and external.
If this was any other issue to do with personal identity, mental health, behaviours, psychology what the goal would be is some form of integration between what is going on inside of us and how we behave on the outside. Jesus has the same goal – that we – and whether you think of yourself as body and soul, or body, mind, and spirit or in psychological terms eg. id, ego, and superego or in any other terms – Jesus’ goal is that we live and live well free from ignorance, guilt, burdens, fear, shame – and so people discover that they have to react to Jesus – not to create a relationship but to respond to him and what he says and what he has done and also the fact that he isn’t going away.
And that’s the situation each person deals with – meeting or hearing about Jesus, engaging with him in some way, relating to him all on the inside – and then there is our response – do we rely on who Jesus is and what Jesus has done or not? – the ‘outside’ stuff.
And Thomas is often portrayed as doubting, struggling, coping with the impossible but he just couldn’t. ‘It is impossible to believe the impossible’, we say. And there is value in saying that if we don’t want to trust or rely on Jesus as well. I’m not saying that trusting or relying on something seemingly impossible is easy – there have to be reasons why the impossible might be considered possible – what I am saying is that we can stubbornly stick to our views – even if we are proved wrong or we sense we are on the ‘wrong side’ of reality – and we can resist the truth, we can push away trusting, and we can resolutely refuse to rely on
something or someone because that is our choice. We know people like this. We know it in ourselves. And I think that is more Thomas than we often are prepared to admit.
Do not be faithless but faithful.
My version of Thomas is that I don’t know why Thomas made his macabre proof test and yes, the impossibility of what the disciples were saying is a genuine factor here but we are talking about Thomas, the guy who had the courage to get the others to go with Jesus to raise Lazarus and back into the lion’s den of Jerusalem where something bad was going to happen – Thomas expected them to die (John 11:16). He was there at Lazarus’ raising. He had been with Jesus for a long time – heard him teach, heard Jesus make claims that only make sense if Jesus is God, experienced miracles from this Jesus – healings, exorcisms, and telling the storm to ‘shut up’ as if it was a yapping dog – and I, personally, do find it hard to think he now says that Jesus raised to life again is absolutely impossible. To my way of thinking, he’s got to have a niggle that Jesus is alive and I wonder whether maybe more so, he is disappointed that he didn’t see Jesus. So he chooses to be this way, to make his stand – his unbelieving stand, his faithless position, and he is now sticking to it.
In my version of what has happened there is a missing week and I simply don’t conceive of the other ten disciples saying nothing during the week. ‘Leave, Thomas, he’s made up his mind and there’s nothing we can do because faith is a gift and he hasn’t received it!’ Again, I imagine the disciples talking to him – pointing out what Jesus had said, what Jesus had done that Thomas couldn’t reject, and I imagine they also talk about their integrity – that Thomas knows them and they’re not lying to him – and so for a week, we have Thomas still doubting or saying he is sticking to his guns – fingers in holes, hands in sides – but on the inside, I wonder what is going on with him?! I don’t know of course.
Jesus gets straight to the point when he appears and challenges Thomas. Now comes the weird part for me. Why does Thomas believe? You see I don’t think it is because Thomas sees Jesus – because Thomas could have claimed someone spiked his drink, it was an hallucination, I don’t know what else – but instead he makes the confession that has been percolating in him for the week, ‘My Lord and my God’ because the words had created faith and Thomas stopped resisting.
Why do people say that something is untrue or unreliable? There are many reasons – and sometimes the reason is that it is untrue or it is unreliable – but not all the time! Some of the reasons people make the claims of untrue or unreliable are because it meets their needs, their pride, their agenda. People who go down rabbit holes of conspiracies who might believe in secret world orders, global abuse of children, aliens, whatever all have reasons why they believe and reasons why the argumentation used to counter them is wrong. No one believes or not believes in a vacuum.
I think Jesus’ reply to Thomas has a gentle rebuke in it – that’s how I’d direct the stage or film version of this scene for when Jesus says, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’ Brackets [you didn’t have to see me to believe – and you know it deep down] – which is why the next part makes sense to me, because I haven’t seen Jesus and like Thomas, yes, it’d be nice to do, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’. And that’s me – and you – who for all our personal experiences and reasons why we believe or have faith knowing that living our life – struggling to do so, we’ve never perfect at this – but relying on Jesus, trusting Jesus because he is faithful and gracious and kind and with us – with Jesus is called ‘blessed’ not because of our effort but because our truth is that God in Jesus loves us.
This means that believing, having faith, trusting, relying on Jesus can have the ‘leap in the dark’ quality, accepting the impossible is possible quality but it also has the stopping being stubborn dimension, the swallowing of pride aspect, and honest reflecting on what we say here. ‘I’d love to have faith and the story of Jesus to be true’ or versions of this have been said when I’ve asked ‘What’s stopping you from saying it is true and from trusting Jesus?’ I invariably get the answer ‘I don’t know’. Well, we should know why we do and think and say and believe the things we do and think and say and believe! ‘I don’t know’ is an answer but it isn’t a good one for living.
The message of Jesus – his death and resurrection – his presence and promises are true – they are objectively supported because the world has not been able to prove them untrue, untrustworthy, unreliable – and Jesus is still standing there in front of Thomas no matter what he says and does. It’s the same for people today. The
accounts of Jesus – the little tests and bargains that people make (often the so-called coincidences) – when they present Jesus to us rather than focusing on what we have to do – have ways of drawing us to Jesus – that he can be trusted, that he gives us hope, that he is solid, reliable, dependable, and probably best of all, that no matter how we behave he is faithful to us. That’s what his cross proclaims all the time.
Thomas didn’t fit Jesus into his world view. It was the other way round. Jesus crashed Thomas’ world view – as he still does time and time again to people who put up all sorts of reasons and obstacles for their keeping Jesus at a distance – and yet Jesus is still standing in locked rooms and locked minds – he gets in – and finally the best response is Thomas’ “My Lord and my God”.
What happens next? Well, that’s between you and Jesus!
- John 20:27 - 29