Today’s Gospel reading narrates three different scenes; let’s take them one by one.
In the first, Easter evening (vv.19-23), Jesus appears to the disciples. (In this Gospel he had previously appeared only to Mary Magdalene.) It’s this Gospel’s version of both Matthew’s Great Commission and Luke’s Day of Pentecost, with a replay of the Garden of Eden! As in Genesis 2, “he breathed on them;” Creation 2.0 starts here. He sends them out—as he himself was sent—with the authority to forgive sins. It rather looks like Jesus has completed the hand-off and has no reason to show up again.
The second scene covers the following week (vv.24-25): an entire week in which almost all the disciples are rejoicing and Thomas, who wasn’t present when Jesus appeared, is demanding some evidence. Thomas, channeling Eeyore, and the others channeling Tigger. Those would have been some interesting conversations (arguments?).
The third scene, the following Sunday (vv.26-31). Two extraordinary elements to notice: Jesus shows up again, and Thomas is present. Let’s take the second one first. After a full week of “Jesus is risen!” vs. “Where’s the evidence?” Thomas is still present. We Christians divide over so many issues, and whether Jesus is alive or dead sounds like it’s on the serious end of the scale. Looks like Jesus’ “Receive the Holy Spirit” had some effect! And notice how much might have been lost had they divided: would Thomas have encountered the risen Christ? Would the other disciples have heard Thomas’ decisive confession that gave them—and us—these crucial words: “My Lord and my God!”? But there they are, together.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall to have overheard that week’s conversations. Judging by Paul’s letters I’d guess something like the following was going on. The ten disciples were in a position of strength: they were the clear majority, and they’d seen Jesus. Thomas was in the obviously weak position. But the ten use their strength for Thomas. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it re 2 Corinthians “’Life for others’ demands not overt displays of power (“OK, Thomas, shape up or ship out!”) but the willingness to be exposed and vulnerable, ‘foolish’ and ‘sinful’ and ‘weak’ in the eyes of others” (Interpreting Paul p.155). Or, as Jesus had put it “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:11).
Jesus—yes, that other extraordinary element—Jesus shows up, apparently specifically for Thomas. I wonder about that. “I will not believe” Thomas had said, and ‘believe’ is a word—an action—that’s really important particularly in this Gospel. So it’s lights out for Thomas? Is it Jesus’ love that’s at work here (“does [the shepherd] not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?”)? Is it the disciples’ tenacity, enacting—in a loose sense— “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them”? A combination of both? In any case, Jesus shows up.
At the end of the conversation with Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Well, how does one come to believe? The text offers, I think, two complementary answers. The first is in the following verses: “But these are written [in this book] so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” There’s a reason our Gospel book is encased in gold and receives special honor: God uses it to awaken and nourish our faith.
Let me digress briefly here. While God has many ways of speaking to us (that would be another sermon!), in the cumulative experience of the people of God Scripture is central. And it’s never been more accessible: various apps for our smartphones let us read the Daily Office without having to flip any pages (like the Daily Office from Mission St. Clare) or listen to texts (like WordProject). We take in information from sources of such varied reliability during the day; what space do we allocate to Scripture in that mix? But, you say, these days the Scripture might as well be in Cantonese. Well, that’s not a new problem; corner a priest to explore ways to work around it.
The second answer to how we come to believe is in the whole story we’ve heard: guided by the Holy Spirit, the community has used this authority to forgive sins in a way that’s live-giving, so that Thomas is still around when Jesus shows up. This authority: we know that it can be used destructively, used in ways that has anyone with half a brain looking for the nearest exit. Here the text has shown us how it’s used well. Our choices make it easier or harder for those around us to believe. God wants us, I think, to pay attention to that.
Back on Maundy Thursday: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” I doubt that the disciples could have guessed where that would need to kick in. A week of “Jesus is risen!” vs. “Where’s the evidence?” But after that week they were still together, and together encountered the risen Christ. May we go and do likewise.