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.
This passage offers us a great deal of comfort as well as a command. Jesus’ compassion towards Thomas is evident in his showing up a second time to give Thomas the chance to see him. He also assures us that if we forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. And if we retain the sins of any, they are retained. This is a description of the role of the Church, not just the disciples present. The importance of this cannot be understated. We, as the global Church, have the power to forgive everyone if we so choose.
To me, this says that God probably forgives a lot more easily than we do. God is placing a great deal of trust in us. It is paired with a mission, too. It comes after Jesus says ‘as the Father has sent me so I send you’. We are not simply given the power to forgive people, but we are given the responsibility to find people to forgive. This is not evangelism in the form of telling people about their sins and their Saviour – which strikes me as similar to advertising, which tells us we have a problem we didn’t know existed, and in the same breath tells us the solution. This command is deeper. This command tells us that people’s sin (separation from God) is our responsibility. This is not about how people are living their lives or what they believe – this is much more radical. This command is about loving people with the force of God behind us. In so doing, we show people that they have always been loved. And that love is the answer.
I don’t mean this to sound simplistic or un-rooted, but I do believe it could change how the Church is viewed globally. People are more complicated than the stories we create for them. “Doubting Thomas” did more than doubt. Jesus knew that, but in the centuries since he lived we have turned poor Thomas into a caricature of unbelief, when all he asked for was the proof everyone else had received the previous week.
Jesus showed up for Thomas, so let’s be open to Jesus arriving at the place we find ourselves, and let’s expect to be surprised. Thomas’ story is more complex than “the one who doubts”. Your story is more complex than any label someone gives you or experience you have had. And the people the Church is trying to “reach” are more complex than any label we can come up with. Ironically, this leads me to believe that the Church’s responsibility to forgive sins (again, separation from God) is simply to love people well. Exactly where you find them. Not with doctrine or answers or religion but with radical love. Is this not what God does for us? Jesus showed up twice, knowing that Thomas needed to see him, touch the hands of his friend-turned-saviour, and say out loud ‘my Lord and my God’. Jesus knows what people need far better than the Church does. It’s scary to trust God with people we might not agree with, people we want to control. But the division of the Church and the damage it has done is surely proof that we don’t have all the answers.
By opening our hands with what we’ve got and asking God to show up, we are opening ourselves up to the power of the Spirit in ways that the Church is often afraid to do. We might have written one story, and we cling to it for fear of judgement or embarrassment if it turns out to be more complicated. But Jesus is always showing up. He arrived at the locked door not once but twice. He knew that Thomas needed to see for himself. Jesus is still showing up. My fear is that we may not recognise him, having made religion more complicated than it needs to be. Let’s go back to radical love and leave the rest up to God.
Katie is an aspiring writer, an eternal intern, and a passionate Jesus-Feminist. With a Master’s in International Development and a Bachelors in Sociology and French, she is qualified for ... making lattes and pulling pints (skills that she has put to great use). She recently returned to Ireland after working in New York and studying in Edinburgh.