John 20:19-31 (NRSV)
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt 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 come to believe.”
The Purpose of This Book
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
I feel like it’s hard to resonate with just how scared the disciples were, locked away in that room most likely fearing for their lives. They had seen Jesus led away, some had seen him crucified and Peter and John had seen an empty tomb. We must not assume they thought something hopeful was coming. They most likely thought the body was stolen and that they perhaps would be the ones held to account. Whatever was going on for them; they were scared.
Sometimes when I hear the Easter story told, it feels like it goes too fast. When Jesus dies, most stories or productions have him raised very quickly. The lights go dark for maybe 10 seconds and then ‘lights’ - he’s alive, hallelujah! But it just wasn’t quite like that. We forget Saturday. The sadness, the fear, the despondency and the guttural grief. Two of their close friends were dead, one took his own life and the other had his life taken from him. And they were in fear of their own lives now.
The first part of the story has the disciples in the room, apart from Thomas. Thomas, the one who is called the ‘doubter’. His name actually means ‘twin’, we have no idea if he was a twin or whether more likely it was a nickname for him. It seems like when he is called ‘doubting Thomas’ that it is a slur. It’s as if he is frowned upon for his questioning. Doubting gets a bad name in Christianity. Often Christians seem to set it up that certainty is the opposite of unbelief, when in fact it is faith or belief, not certainty that we are called to. A doubt in the form of a question seems like an invitation to discovery; it’s not something to be afraid of. It’s something to be commended.
John is the only gospel with some vignettes of Thomas. His first introduction is in chapter 11 after Lazarus died. Some of the disciples are very hesitant of Jesus travelling to Bethany as it’s too dangerous. Thomas is the one who says to his fellow disciples “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” I wonder did Thomas realise that there are worse things than death? Not truly living being one of them. Thomas seems brave and fearless here, and loyal.
Where is Thomas in the first part of this story when the disciples were locked in the room? Perhaps he was out continuing the work of Christ, perhaps he was hiding somewhere else. We don’t know. What we do know is that Thomas didn’t believe the disciples when they told him they had seen Jesus. I wonder was this due to the disciples apparently still being afraid so they weren't fully convincing. Maybe he doubted his friends instead of his Lord. Richard Rohr talks about how it is the willingness to live with bewilderment that characterises the true person. Bewilderment can lead us to fear or can move us towards wildness and life. I wonder was Thomas in this space, wanting the life that Jesus so often promised them. I love the response of Jesus to Thomas. He doesn’t chastise him for ‘not believing’ or shame him for it. He offers his wounded flesh. It is in this wounded flesh that Thomas receives the revelation that Jesus is God. The rising of Jesus doesn’t remove his wounds. They are still there and they are an invitation to who he is. The honesty and vulnerability of Thomas is responded to with vulnerability from Jesus; an offering of his wounds. Peace be with you. This is how Jesus comes to us in our doubts, he comes in peace and not vengeance. When we did our very worst to God, his response was forgiveness & redemption. His love is bigger than human violence and death and systems and beliefs that harm other people. We are called in turn to be a part of that movement of non-judgemental redemptive love. Will we leave the metaphorical upstairs room of fear and move towards the messiness and wildness of life and death around us with the message of Christ?
Ferg Breen is married with two kids and is a counsellor, psychotherapist, lecturer and pastor in Dublin. He also performs motivational seminars inspired solely by the work of David Brent.