Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
"Doubting Thomas." What a bum rap. All on the basis of one persistently pernicious misreading of today's Gospel from the next to the last chapter of John's Gospel. Persistent because "doubting" has been applied to Thomas for two millennia. Pernicious because that description ignores everything else we see in Thomas in the preceding 19 chapters. Far from being a doubter in those 19 chapters, Thomas appears to be a totally committed believer. He does ask questions, but usually for clarification. He makes only one declarative statement in the Gospel. It is addressed to Jesus' other, and more fearful, disciples, summoned by Jesus to go near to Jerusalem; to the village of Bethany, where their friend Lazarus has just died. They are afraid; but Thomas, far from doubting, encourages them: "Let us also go [with him]," Thomas tells his colleagues, "that we may die with him." No fear or doubter there. More telling, however, is the way Thomas regularly addresses Jesus. From the very beginning, Thomas insists on using a bold and dangerous title. Thomas calls Jesus "Lord."
Far from being a doubter or, like the others, a nervous nelly, Thomas had, in one of Watson
Bosler's more felicitous phrases, "drunk the Koolaid." Thomas seems to have decided early on that he was not simply going to follow Jesus, he was going to stake his life on the notion that Jesus was his Lord; that Jesus was the kind of God he could give full allegiance too.
Thomas was well acquainted with alternative lords and alternative gods; the ones who ruled by fiat; the ones who rendered summary judgment; the ones who meted out punishment β who meted out death β at the slightest offense. Just throwing an eye at one of those ever-present Roman soldiers confirmed that; just tilting an ear toward the pronouncements of Jesus' opponents confirmed the kind of legalistic disciplinarian and inflexible judge they thought the LORD God to be. But in Jesus Thomas saw a different kind of Lord, one who did not shame the imperfect but forgave them; one who did not expel the impure but embraced them; one who did not rule by death but offered life. One who replaced a life constricted by fear with life enlivened by hope.
Thomas bet his life on Jesus' kind of Lord. In the days following Jesus' crucifix, Thomas was convinced that he had lost that bet. The empty tomb and the stories of resurrection didn't help
him one bit.
Here's where this story's mis-interpretation becomes pernicious and the Gospel becomes useless.
Most of us have been led to believe that what Thomas doubted was resurrections in general. But that wasn't Thomas' real problem. Thomas had questions about this resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus. And what he questioned about Jesus was not his resurrection but his lordship, and his lordship not just over death, over Jesus' death, but over Thomas' death as well. What Thomas doubted was something about himself, namely, who his Lord β his "Lord" and his "God" β really was. If his Lord was not Jesus after all, then he, Thomas, had staked his life on the wrong lord. In that case, what was left was not no lord, but another, very different lord β a lord and god of death and of judgment. In that case the disciples would indeed be justified in hiding behind locked doors for fear. For if the law of Moses, if the crucifying of forgiving messiahs, is the last word after all, then "fear" is the only appropriate response. For then "my Lord and my God," whoever he or she is, is not on the side of the sinner but on the side of the righteous, not on the side of forgiveness but on
the side of deservedness, not on the side of this messianic pretender but on the side of those conscientious authorities who punish such pretenders for blasphemy.
If it is that sort of God who is the Lord after all, then anyone who had dared to hope for life in spite of everything, who had naively cast his lot with this disappointing Jesus, is bound to turn cynical, as Thomas did. In other words, when Thomas demanded proof he was not doing so in a vacuum.
Thomas disbelieved Jesus' resurrection not just because there was an absence of evidence in favor of it, but because there was overwhelming evidence against it β not just empirical evidence but theological evidence. Moreover, what Thomas was out to establish was not merely whether the risen one really was Jesus, the same friend and Rabbi Jesus he had known before. Thomas was not just interested in determining the identity of this resurrected person. For that, he could simply have insisted on Jesus' fingerprints or some birthmark on his neck or the familiar sound of His voice. But no, what Thomas demands to see are the death-marks, the scars of Jesus' execution. That is what offended Thomas about Jesus, and offended him about
Jesus' having let him down. Understandably so. For anyone to qualify as "my Lord and my God," the least thing he has to be able to offer is "life." But how can any lord promise life who himself winds up in death? What could be more unlordly, more defeated, than a dead lord? What needs overcoming in Thomas' doubt is not just his loss of a friend, an acquaintance, but his loss of his own whole hope for life. That, as we all know from experience, is a doubt of heroic proportions, and it is a travesty to blame such doubt on questions of mere "facticity." But sure enough, when Jesus does appear to Thomas he presents him with β of all things! β the death-marks. You would think Christ might have said instead, "Why are you so hung up on my death? That's past now, over and gone; forget it." But no, Jesus makes a deliberate point of these signs of defeat, as though he is anything but embarrassed by them, as though they are essential to His very lordship. As though that is the only way to be "Lord and God" for sinners like Thomas, namely, by dying and then rising. As though that was what Jesus had been sent for. As though that kind of sending, namely sending one to die and then raising that one, is what makes God a "Father" at all, rather than only a sender of law and judgement and death. As though it was only through death that the
now risen Jesus could meaningfully greet the disciples with "Peace," Shalom a'lechem. As though only this kind of Jesus could be "the Christ, the Son of God." And as though the only proper "use" of Christ and Christ's story is to believe for one purpose and one purpose alone, namely, that, "you may have life in his name." And that, come to think of it, is the one reason this was ever (as John says) "written" into Scripture in the first place. Alleluia, indeed!
The church, the city, the world and, more often than not, our minds are filled with Thomases and we deceive them and ourselves and we make the Gospel useless when we act as is the chief problem is their doubt β our ours β about resurrection. That, frankly, is not a matter of faith or fact.
What is a matter of faith, what makes the Gospel useful for daily life, is where or not we can bet our lives on Jesus' way of being Lord. On Jesus' kind of Lord, one who does not shame the imperfect but forgives them; does not expel the impure but embraces them; does not rule by death but gives us life, life enlivened by hope and not constricted by fear.
It is precisely because the Church, the city and
the world need that kind of lord; it is precisely because we need that kind of Lord; it is precisely because we are all faced daily with a whole slew of other lords β lords of death and judgment β that Jesus, crucified and risen β regularly shows up among us to be our Lord and our Godβ¦not to show us that he is alive, but that we are!
And for that all we can say is "thanks!"
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
in the City of New York