Reflection: The Bravery of Thomas
Dear Beloved Community of St. John’s,
Over the years, I have had trouble with both the text and the common understanding that relates to the “doubting” Thomas passage in John’s gospel. So long have we encountered this passage, and its dichotomy of doubt versus belief. Through over familiarity, it’s too easy to tune this story out.
When John’s gospel was written, the newborn Jewish Christian community had been banished from synagogues as being heretical and disruptive. Everyone involved knew the Jesus story by then—both those fledging Christians and their landlords who were sweeping them out the door and into the streets. For Jesus’ followers, this passage was a blessing on Christian faithfulness. On the other hand, for skeptics and disbelievers, it dispensed judgement and even condemnation. For early Christians and even for us, now, the passage congratulates our getting it right. Kudos for all of us, as it were.
The political—and not the theological—environment at the time was a large part of the implicit criticism revealed in this passage from John. Two-thousand years later, we have lost a context well known among early Christians. There are actually two congregations of early Christians involved: those who followed John and his group, and those whose allegiance was to Thomas and his adherents. They were competing for new members from among the same Jewish population. The story lifted up the community of John, and condemned the community of Thomas. Christians have repeated that indictment ever since.
In our increasingly secular age, for those of us who do believe, we are in actuality followers of Thomas and his grasp of common sense and the world order of things. When Jesus’ disciples attested to the resurrection, Thomas wondered how reliable their witness was. We accept as fact that people don’t rise from the dead and materialize out of thin air. Thomas is a spokesman for all of us down through the centuries. Thomas gives voice to what we know to be true in every other instance down through time immemorial—except for this singular occasion.
I think Thomas is a hero and brave. Would any of the rest of us have the courage to put our fingers directly into Jesus’ wounds? I know that I wouldn’t. But Thomas does, and thereby, he has a conversion experience, and is able to say with conviction, “My Lord and my God.” I think giving recognition to Thomas’ courage to see clearly and change his mind based on a new set of facts are virtues we all should emulate. God grants faith as a divine blessing, but too many of us are inclined to keep our hands to ourselves and our eyes closed. We are familiar in the present age what happens when people refuse to believe all manner of truth because they’ve convinced themselves that truth is false. There are examples almost too numerous to chronicle, but the changing climate comes first to mind.