“…so that you may come to believe…”
It is a particular tragedy of the modern church that the Sunday after the Resurrection (Easter) has come to be known as “Doubting Thomas Sunday,” or even worse “Low Sunday” due to the fact that just a week ago churches around the world were filled to overflowing with people, and just a week later comes what is recorded in most church registers as the lowest attended Sunday of the year. It is as if the Easter proclamation was either so astoundingly fantastic that people are now fully engaged in the word and life of Jesus that there is no time to be wasted by “going to church,” or that the proclamation was so incredibly dreadful that there simply seems to be no reason to return let alone engage in the word and life of the Risen Jesus. Of course it could simply be that after the activities of Lent, Holy Week, and the big-scale production of Easter liturgies, has just exhausted the faithful who need a week off to catch their breath and begin again.
The misunderstandings of this passage which is read every Sunday after Easter, and often again some part of it on Pentecost some fifty days later, abound. Poor Thomas takes the worst of it. In the Fourth Gospel there may be no disciple more loyal than Thomas. For it is he and he alone who, when Jesus finally says they are to go visit Lazarus and raise him from his four days in the tomb, and the others begin to whine saying, “But Lord, there are those in and around Bethany who want to kill you, please do not make us go!” It is Thomas and Thomas alone who says, “Let us also go that we may die with Him.” (John 11:6)
And as no less a scholar and priest who understood clearly what the implications of belief really are than William Temple observes, Thomas’ demand to have the same experience of the Risen Jesus as the disciples had experienced the day of Resurrection is evidence of ‘a stong urge to believe, held down by commonsense and its habitual dread of disillusionment.’ (Readings In St. John’s Gospel, p. 390)
Demanding to “see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I shall in nowise believe,” is what Temple calls Thomas’ “strong negative,” a sign of just how deep is his grief over the events of the previous week is, and a profound desire to continue his relationship with the Jesus for whom he personally was willing to give up his own life. Are we really ready to dispense with him so easily by mockingly calling him Doubting Thomas? The life of the church has sadly produced relatively few persons of such character as Thomas from the St. Stephens, St. Pauls and St. Peters, Perpetua and Felicity, all the way forward to the Sojourner Truths, Harriet Tubmans, Dietrich Bonhoffers, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutus, and Dorothy Days. He who is believed to have travelled to India and to have baptized the first Christians in that part of the ancient world, we dare to think of him as Doubting Thomas, a name which has entered the vernacular as a description for anyone anywhere who expresses doubts about anything whatsoever? It confirms what Kurt Vonnegut said once in a Palm Sunday sermon, “Leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time!”
Much of our confusion about Thomas comes from our confusion about the way in which the narrator of the Fourth Gospel uses the word pisteu which in modern day English gets translated as believe. First, it is crucial to understanding John’s unique use of this word over 100 times in his Gospel, a word that is not found in the other three gospels, is a verb. He never uses the noun form of the word. That is “belief” in John’s gospel is not some thing or some idea that one possesses. It is rather something we are and do. In what is arguably the most incarnational of the four gospels, John urges the reader and hearer of the Word to embody the Risen Jesus. That is, pisteu, believing, is something we are to become, it is what we are to Be. And as Gordon Cosby, late of the Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C. used to say often, “Being must precede doing.”
Indeed, it is in the Fourth Gospel that the Risen Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach of the Sea of Galilee queries Peter about his Love and insists that the kind of Love and Believing Jesus is looking for revolve around feeding and tending the lambs and sheep of His flock, that is the people Jesus cares about and loves the most: widows, orphans, resident aliens, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, those in prison, strangers, and all those people everywhere who exist as outcasts on the margins of “civilized society.” (Matthew 25, etc)
Believing is an action that we are to do, not something we possess. It involves a relationship of trusting or entrusting oneself to Jesus, or God, or quite simply to doing those things God and Jesus call us to do (see above). It means something more like the Jesus in John calls us to do which is to abide in him and with him. Abide in the sense of to remain or stay with someone, to continue with, or even to live with or dwell with someone, which is how John’s gospel begins: we are told that the Word (Logos) is God, and that the Word becomes “flesh” and “dwells among us.” In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, and throughout the Hebrew and Greek Bible, “to dwell” means to pitch one’s tent among us.
So that when Thomas, without touching the wounds at all, makes the first proclamation in John, “My Lord and my God,” he is the first to affirm exactly the claim John makes at the very outset of this gospel, that Jesus is God who becomes one of us, who sets up residence in our midst, and who calls us to a life of believing as a verb, abiding in the Word and the very work God in Christ comes to do – which as even the girls in my World Religions class can see is to show us what it means and how to be human – imago Dei, created in the image of God.
This Sunday after the Resurrection ought to be called Fiercely Loyal Thomas Sunday, and no doubt (no pun intended) ought to cause some degree of fear and trembling to enter our hearts and souls asking ourselves: Am I even in some tiny place in the heart of my very Being able to embody some small aspect of who Jesus is in my life the way in which Thomas is so very loyal and trusting of his Lord and his God?
We can abide with Jesus. We can dwell with Jesus. Our belief can be an active part of who we are and whose we are, and lead us to do those things God in Christ calls us to do. As John concludes, this story, and all the stories in John, are written so that we might entrust ourselves unto the God who offers his Peace, his Shalom, his unfolding reign of justice, peace and dignity for all persons – not some, not a few, not lots and lots of people, but all persons.
“Jesus came among them and said, ‘Peace, Shalom, be with you.” We are to become Peace so, we are to become Shalom, so that like Thomas we may live lives of Peace and Shalom for all people. This is what “to believe” as a verb is all about.