I think that the first version of John’s Gospel ended after the appearance to Mary Magdalene. Jesus had ascended to his Father and our Father, his God and our God — what was left to say? We knew that the way was now open to God through the tomb, into the Holy of holies, and the garden had been restored.
But, then things changed. John’s community got itself thrown out of the synagogue, and closed in on itself. Jesus had to show up to authorize a change in the life of the community. In each of the string of appearances after the first end of the Gospel, Jesus authorizes some shift in the community. In today’s reading, we learn of two shifts.
First, the community had closed in on itself out of fear, after being thrown out of the synagogue. The doors were locked. Jesus shows up and says “peace.” Then he breathes holy breath on them and tells them that the sins of any they forgive are forgiven, and the sins of any they retain are retained. Time to move on — quit blaming the folks who threw you out and get on with life.
Thomas, however, wasn’t there. John’s community was tempted to veer into gnosticism. Jesus hadn’t really suffered, only appeared to. If that were true, then none of us need to suffer when asked to sacrifice to the Emperor. Just cross your fingers behind your back, burn a little incense, and know that it doesn’t count. Thomas doesn’t doubt. He refuses to believe, without seeing the wounds. Any community of christians, he is saying, that doesn’t have wounds is not the Body of Christ. Only when I see the wounds. When he sees them, he calls Jesus “Dominus et Deus”, just what the emperor was insisting on being called, when receiving cult. Thomas is saying, not Caesar, but Christ. You can’t cross your fingers behind your back. This costs something.
In the first letter of John, the author tells us he is proclaiming to us things that we have seen and heard and handled. Our faith is not strictly a mental attitude, not an opinion we have, but a way of living in the real world. And again, it’s about forgiveness of sin. If we say we have no sin, we’re fooling ourselves. Living in the real world means we are going to wound the Body of Christ. Putting gas in our cars, drinking coffee farmed on land stolen from peasants, eating bananas grown on plantations bought below market value from Central American nations, eating strawberries harvested by underpaid migrant workers, the list could go on. If we say we have no sin, we’re fooling ourselves. But, that’s no excuse for giving up in despair; we have an advocate with the Father, who propitiates not just our sins, but the sins of the whole cosmos (others sins against us?). The Body of Christ is tangible, real and present. How are we living in it? Are we looking for it? Listening to it? Touching it? Strawberries are sweet, and we should enjoy them. But they are sweeter when we see and touch the Body of Christ, and see its wounds transformed, revealing our God to us.