It’s Not About Thomas

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I don’t know about you, but I think Thomas gets a bad rap.

We don’t know him as “the Twin” as John describes him. No, for us he is forever, “doubting Thomas.” But think about it: He doesn’t ask for anything more than the other disciples have already received. Sure, it’s easy for them to believe — they actually saw Jesus. But he didn’t, and given the emotional torment of the last week no wonder he refuses to enter into what must have seemed like a severe case of denial.

Where was Thomas when Jesus first appeared? John doesn’t tell us. My own guess was that he was out and about getting on with his life. Why do I think that? Because Thomas was a realist. Let’s not forget: in chapter 11, it’s Thomas who recognizes that for Jesus to return to Judea is to face the threat of death, and it’s Thomas who urges the other disciples to go with Jesus. So while we don’t know where Thomas was when Jesus first appeared, we do know where he wasn’t — locked in the upper room for fear of the religious authorities.

When Thomas does see Jesus, of course, he makes the climatic confession of John’s Gospel, addressing Jesus as, “My Lord and my God!” Strikingly, no one else in John’s Gospel — or the other three for that matter — ascribes divinity so directly to Jesus. In doing so, Thomas affirms what the readers were told at the beginning, as he echoes the confession made in the first verse of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

In doing so, Thomas also offers those same readers a model for faithful response to an encounter with Jesus — belief, belief that leads to confession. Much of John’s gospel can be understood as portraying for readers a variety of responses: the confusion of Nicodemus the religious teacher, the trust of the Samaritan women, the stubborn fidelity of the man born blind, the disdain of Pilate, the denial of Peter. John offers a panoply of possible responses to Jesus, saving Thomas’ bold confession for last.

If this is true, we might wonder why Jesus rebukes Thomas. Except that I don’t think Jesus is talking to Thomas anymore. Instead, I think Jesus has turned his attention to us. Who, after all, are those who will believe even though we have not seen? Not the disciples, and not Thomas. It’s John’s readers — then and now — which means that Jesus is talking to — Jesus is blessing! — us. Little wonder then that John offers his formal conclusion to the gospel immediately after this blessing by saying, “Jesus did many other things…not written in this book. These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and believing have life in his name.”

Here, near the end of his story, John comes clean — this is no neutral account he’s writing, no objective history. John is carefully considering what to tell and what not to tell, how to order his narrative, what words to us. Why? In order to encounter us with a claim about Jesus in the hope that we, like Thomas, will be persuaded that Jesus is worthy of our attention, loyalty, and devotion. And so here, near the very end, John turns his attention fully to us, as through Jesus’ words he invites, persuades, even cajoles us toward faith in Christ. But more than that, here near the end, Jesus — through John’s gospel — blesses us, and so establishes us in faith.

What would it be like for your hearers to understand themselves as addressed directly by Jesus in this passage, to feel themselves blessed by the Lord? What would it be like, that is, if the words John records Jesus speaking nearly two thousand years ago leapt up off the page, reached across the centuries, to touch and transform us?

I suspect that, whatever else it would be, Thomas and John would hope that it would be, well, believable. So do that, Working Preacher, do just that — tell us of Thomas the Realist who, like us, longed for something he could see and feel. And tell us of John the Evangelist who wrote all those years ago with us in mind. And tell us of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, who died and was raised for our sake and who, even now, is blessing us all. You don’t have to tell us everything, just enough so that we may believe and, believing, have life in his name.

Thanks for all that you do.