A question of doubt

Easter 2
John 20:19-30
Marian Free

In the name of God – never changing, always new. Amen

Given the extraordinary nature of the event, there is remarkable congruity in the gospels when it comes to accounts of the resurrection. All four report that the women were first to the tomb, all four include an appearance to the gathered disciples and all include a commission to spread the gospel to the entire world. As you might expect there are variations. Mary Magdalene is a consistent figure among the women who go to the tomb, but in John’s gospel she is alone. The appearance to the gathered disciples is associated with Jesus’ ascension in Matthew and Acts. Jesus appears to the disciples in on a mountain in Galilee.  In Mark, Luke and John the disciples are gathered in a room. Mark and Matthew specifically mention that all 11 disciples are present.

Interestingly, in all four accounts of the resurrection there is also an element of doubt – at the tomb, while the disciples are walking together and when the disciples are gathered.  In Mark, the disciples are upbraided by Jesus for their,  “lack of faith and stubbornness because they did not believe in those who saw him”. In Matthew the gathered disciples worship Jesus, but “some doubted”. The Jesus of Luke’s gospel says: “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” In Luke and John, Jesus invites all the disciples to touch and see to allay their doubt.

It is only in John’s gospel that Thomas is singled out as the disciple who doubts the resurrection. According to John, only 10 of the disciples are present when Jesus appears behind locked doors. We are not told why Thomas is not there, just that he adamantly refuses to believe the other disciples and will only be convinced when he, like them has an opportunity to see and to touch. When doubt is a common reaction, why is Thomas separated for mention here?

It has long been recognised that Gospel of John is interrupted in a number of places by editorial additions which do not make sense in their context. For example, in chapter when the official asks Jesus to heal his son,  Jesus bursts out “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you refuse to believe!” The modern reader can see no reason for Jesus’ outburst – the official was not asking for a sign and his request indicates that he does believe. We might also notice that Jesus’ response addresses “people”, when the official is only one. The interruption does not seem to fit the story.

Fortna argues that the original gospel was compiled by one person and later after the rift between the Christians and the Jews, another person added a commentary . The original gospel, written when the Christians were still attached to the synagogue had become obsolete. Unlike us, the people  for whom the changes were added would have known the original gospel and would have understood what the commentator was trying to do. Centuries later, we only notice the interruptions and the contradictions.

In the case of today’s gospel, the story of Thomas’ is appended to the account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples who in this instance do not appear to have any doubt. All the doubt is concentrated in the figure of Thomas who appears to illustrate a theme running throughout this chapter – the relationship between seeing and believing. At the beginning of the chapter the beloved disciple believes when he looks into the empty tomb in contrast with Peter and the other disciples – notably Thomas -who wait to see Jesus before they believe.

A couple of points support the view that the commentator has elaborated on the original story. In the first instance v 18 begins, “when it was evening on the first day of the week.” We already know that it is the first day of the week – that is how the chapter began. The repetition is unnecessary but may prepare for Jesus’ second appearance – to Thomas – which occurs a week later, presumably on the first day of the week.  Second, and more compelling, the author does not seem to consider it odd that the ten are not required to believe without seeing.  Jesus appears to them and shows them his hands and side. The requirement to believe without seeing is made only of Thomas.

Scholars such as Fortna do not take our texts apart in order to confront us or to challenge our faith. Just the opposite, they are seeking to make sense of the gospels, to understand why they were written and how they were heard. When flow of the gospel doesn’t seem smooth, or when there are obvious contradictions, repetitions or omissions, scholars try to explain them. It is not their intention to shock us, but rather to help us to come to a deeper understanding of our faith.

In this instance, we are better placed when we understand that Thomas is used by the commentator to make a point and that in John’s gospel Thomas’s doubt encapsulates the doubt expressed by all the disciples in the other gospels. It may helpful to some to understand that the contrast between believing without seeing belongs to John’s gospel alone, that doubt is not an unusual reaction to such an unusual situation.

The reaction to Jesus’ resurrection was mixed – there was joy and fear, worship and doubt, belief and disbelief – sometimes a mixture of all.  Our faith journeys do not always run smooth. There may be times of absolute clarity and times of questioning, moments of certainty and moments of confusion. It is comforting to know that in this we are not alone, that the experience of the first disciples was much the same, even though Jesus was there with them.

Unlike the first disciples, we are convinced that Jesus has risen. Without seeing, we have come to believe. With certainty and faith comes responsibility. As the risen Christ commissioned the disciples to bear witness to him, so we too are entrusted with a mission to share the message of Jesus with the world. In order to do that, we must first try to understand the stories as they have come down to us and, having understood, we like the commentator in John, must find new ways to share the gospel in our time and place.

Our questions must be put to good purpose and the questions and doubts of those around us must be treated with respect. Together we must seek anew the truth of the gospel and proclaim the risen Christ.


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