One of the frustrations I find in the Gospel of John is that he refers to all the stories he could have written about Jesus but didn’t. I really want to read all those stories; I wish so much that John had written more. However, John seems content what he has chosen to record is enough to allow his readers to come to belief in Jesus as the Son of God and so have life in his name. One of those stories, a very famous one, is that of the apostle Thomas and the doubts he had about Jesus’ resurrection. Some of us will be like Thomas, needing our own evidence before we can believe who Jesus is and what he has done.
The readings on Sunday were Psalm 150, Acts 5:27-32 and John 20:19-31. My reflection follows:
One of my favourite books is ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by Tolkein. It is in fact not one book but six and may be found published with all six gathered into one volume or in three separate volumes, each containing two books. It is a fantasy adventure story which tells the story of the fight of good against evil in a world populated with orcs, wizards, hobbits, goblins, people, elves, dwarves, trolls and probably my favourite – ents, treeherds which look like walking, talking trees. It’s a very complex story but, as you might imagine, it culminates in a great battle and heroic deeds by the hobbits who are the focus of the story.
It’s some time since I last read the book. Most of my reading has been of theology in the past few years. However, when I do read it, it becomes a really important part of my life. Somehow I enter into the story in a personal way, though I can’t say that I see myself as any particular character. Imagine if I was reading the Lord of the Rings and found that the last part of the story had disappeared or someone had ripped it out of my copy! I want the whole book, right to the last word; every detail of how things unfold; who says what to whom; what some mysterious saying earlier in the story really meant, and so on. I know I would be very frustrated if I couldn’t read some part of it.
I feel much the same when I read the words of John in his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” John even says it later at the very end of his Gospel: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” I read these words and I wonder why John didn’t at least give the task a try. How can he tantalise us like this, saying that there’s a whole lot more to the story and then keeping it to himself? I want to read the missing bits, I want to know all the extra things that Jesus did, I want a blow by blow account of every miracle, every piece of teaching, every confrontation, every journey of Jesus. But I am denied that. However, John says that what he has written is there to allow us, his readers, to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and to have life in his name as a result.
Despite my frustrations, which you may share, John obviously thinks he has given enough of the story of Jesus to have the desired effect, to bring our individual stories to a happy ending. John’s gospel seems to be the one that has been the most carefully structured to bring about the desired teaching. It’s John who builds much of what he writes around the seven ‘I am’ statements of Jesus. In these Jesus effectively uses the name that God uses for himself and so declares that he is the Son of God. John is a careful and thoughtful editor of the vast amount of material at his disposal. He chose to include this story about the disciples meeting Jesus in a locked house on two occasions. These are among the signs that are written so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
Jesus arrived in a house that was locked up to keep out all that the disciples feared. No doubt they expected at any moment to be found by the authorities and arrested, perhaps suffering the same fate as Jesus. In the midst of this fear Jesus offered his disciples peace. He also offered them evidence of who he was – the marks of crucifixion in his hands and his side. That was enough to turn the disheartened and fearful band of disciples into a rejoicing group. They were so full of joy that they were bursting to share their news when Thomas, who for some reason had been absent, returned. “We have seen the Lord!” I imagine they told Thomas all the details, how Jesus had appeared and what he had said and done, including showing his hands and side. Thomas wasn’t so easily convinced. Perhaps he thought this group had gone mad with grief. Or maybe he was just saying that he wanted that same opportunity to check that Jesus had truly risen by seeing the evidence. If the others could have it, why couldn’t he?
A whole week passed. I imagine it could have been very uncomfortable for Thomas being in the company of the other disciples who were absolutely sure that Jesus had risen while he resolutely refused to believe without evidence. It seems that nevertheless Thomas continued to be in the company of the others. In the same house, with the doors still locked, Jesus appeared again and repeated what he had done the week before. He came and stood among them and wished them peace. Thomas was able to witness exactly what the other disciples had already seen. Then he received his own special showing of the marks of crucifixion. He had demanded to touch these marks, though we are not told that the other disciples did so. For them it seemed to be a case of seeing and believing. Perhaps it was the same for Thomas also, once faced with the reality of the risen Christ. John doesn’t tell us that Thomas actually accepted the invitation to touch. What we are told is that immediately he worshipped Jesus as Lord and God. Whatever Thomas had asked for had been more than adequately fulfilled and he responded with belief.
John has recounted this event as he considers it to be among those which will help his readers to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. For many believers around the world that is indeed the truth. Reading the words of the Gospels has been enough to bring them to faith. For others it has been the hearing of the experiences of other Christians which has brought them to faith. Unlike Thomas, the faithful recounting of personal experience of Jesus has been enough for them to have faith. Such Christians are blessed indeed as they “have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
For others nothing short of personal experience will be enough to convince them, just like Thomas. Maybe Thomas should have believed the testimony of the other disciples, maybe he shouldn’t have challenged Jesus to turn up and prove himself, but Jesus still answered Thomas’ need. He seems to have gently chided him for not believing, but Thomas still got his opportunity to know the risen Christ first hand. I’m convinced that Jesus even today finds ways to answer the needs of those who long for faith but can’t get past the fact that, like Thomas, unless they see they will not believe. There is a breath-taking humility about Jesus that means he will come to us in whatever way we need him to, even though in challenging him to do so we are challenging the creator of the universe, our Lord and our God.
Once you’ve got the faith, however you get the faith, you can expect to be like Peter and the other apostles. Filled with the Holy Spirit they had to share what they knew was true, even if that annoyed human authorities, even if it led to conflict and in some cases death. Each of us is called to be “witnesses to these things”, to Jesus’ death and resurrection and to the offer of life in his name to those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. How can we keep such good news to ourselves?
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor