Second Sunday of Easter; 11 April 2021; Easter 2B (RCL); Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19-31.
We call him “Doubting Thomas” but he doesn’t doubt; he refuses to believe. And when, at last, he sees (and touches?) the wounds, Jesus doesn’t say (as our translation has it), “Do not doubt, but believe;” he says instead (a better translation of the Greek), “Do not be untrusty, but trusty.” And that after Thomas has ascribed to Jesus the ‘highest’ title so far in John’s Gospel: My Lord and my God.
The wounds of Jesus elicit this response from Thomas. The Emperor Domitian (ca 85 CE) was insisting on being addressed as Lord and God. This fits the time frame of John’s Gospel. To address Jesus as Lord and God would have been considered seditious in Domitian’s reign. Didymus Thomas was seen as the spokesperson for the gnostic (cf the Gospel of Thomas). The gnostic Christians (especially the docetists) believed that Jesus did not really suffer; instead he came as a revealer figure to awaken those of us who are trapped in this material world to our true, spiritual nature. For such Christians, there would have been not need to suffer martyrdom. Thomas refuses to believe that any Jesus without wounds could be the Christ.
In our day and age, there are Christians who believe that we too need to escape this material world of suffering, and that true Christianity means all should be well with us (I’ll date myself, but I remember the fascination many Christians had with the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull — spirituality as an escape from the mundane — I sat through the movie once, only to flee the discussion session after the movie — imagine!). If we pray aright, we need never be sick or suffer.
Gnostic Christians would have been revolted by Thomas touching the wounds of Christ. I wonder if that is why we want the story to be about Thomas’ doubt, rather than his insistence on seeing the wounds. How many families, how many parishes insist that everything is great, even while conflict is causing great harm. The refusal to touch the wounds stymies resurrection.
All of the readings this week direct our attention to the material world. In the first epistle of John, the author insists that he is only declaring what he has heard and seen and handled. The reading from Acts shows us that the resurrection had economic consequences for those first believers. It led them to liquidate their assets and share with others. American Gnostic Christianity wants us to believe that we can be forgiven of our sins, and made worthy to escape this material world to “heaven” when the time comes, without the resurrection having any real, serious impact on our material lives. Thomas won’t have it.