Suddenly, Jesus is in the room with the disciples. “Peace be with you,” he says. At once their hope is awakened – Jesus is with them once again! He shows them his pierced hands, and the place where the soldiers pierced his side with a spear. Once again he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you.” And breathing on them as a sign, he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is John’s account of how the disciples were “commissioned” to continue the work of Jesus and to be witnesses to his continuing presence in the world.
Then John introduces Thomas into the scene. It is clear that Thomas was not present when Jesus appeared to the disciples; he only comes in later and hears the earth-shaking news second-hand. But Thomas is not convinced by the excitement of the others; he will not join in their jubilation. Rather he demands hard evidence: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and place my finger in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
So Thomas is cast in the role of the doubter; and even to this day, we use the term “Doubting Thomas” as one of ridicule and derision. But the story goes on: a week later the risen Lord appears to his disciples once again, and this time Thomas is with them. Jesus greets them again with the same words: “Peace be with you.” And then, as if having heard Thomas’ words as a challenge, he addresses him directly: “Put your finger here and see my hands; reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Then Thomas gives voice to his faith in what becomes for the church the ultimateconfession concerning Jesus: “My Lord and my God.” It is no wonder that in what scholars believe was the original form of the gospel, Thomas’ confession is the very last thing spoken by a disciple; for these words, “My Lord and my God,” are the supreme statement about Jesus.
But it’s not really such an outlandish request that Thomas makes, is it? Don’t we see ourselves in him? Thomas is used by the Gospel writer to personify an attitude, to dramatize what I might call “Apostolic doubt.” The story focuses on Thomas in order to draw attention to the importance of each individual’s attitude toward the risen Jesus.
Thomas is important because he exemplifies that kind of person who always asks for evidence, who has to struggle with belief. Thomas demands that his faith be his own, that it be based on his own experience and not simply be what we sometimes speak of as “blind faith.” Thomas is very important for you and me because we do not live in first century Palestine: we cannot confirm our faith by gazing upon the Risen Lord Jesus.
And yet, in this very passage, Christ tells us that there is a faith that is not dependent upon tangible proofs and visible evidence, a faith that is strong and vital even when there is no obvious and immediate confirmation. The words which Jesus speaks to the now-believing Thomas are intended for all of us to hear: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Clearly, there must be some basis for belief in the Risen Christ other than the visible manifestation of Jesus’ resurrected body. John is using the figure of Thomas in his gospel to point all of us to a new type of faith, to another “post-Apostolic” kind of belief, the type of faith already required by those in his own community at the beginning of the second century.
But how is faith possible without confirmation, without evidence, without hard data? Is it not simply an illusion or wishful thinking if it cannot be proven empirically? Is there any basis for our faith in Jesus as “Lord and God” within our experience? Look back in the story to where Jesus breathes on his disciples as a sign of their commissioning, for it is there that we recognized the gift of the Spirit of God that enlivens all those who follow the Risen One.
It is true that we cannot see the nail-prints and the spear wound any longer, but we cansee the marks of the Spirit in our lives. So in speaking to Thomas, Jesus praises the vast number of believers who, although they have not seen him with their eyes, through the power of the Spirit, they truly know him. And it is through that experience that those believers are able to make the confession that Jesus is “Lord and God.”
The reality is that a cold, calculating eye simply is not adequate to perceive the reality of Christ’s resurrection; what is needed is something more comprehensive: “the eyes of faith.” Those who demand empirical evidence will be unable to see in Jesus the Lord of history, the One who has made the whole creation new. This is not because the knowledge of resurrected life is opposed to our empirical knowledge, but rather, because the knowledge of resurrected life is on a deeper level than either science or history.
For what Thomas confesses—what we confess—is not what is seen with human eyes, but what is brought to light by faith. I think it’s interesting that Thomas isn’t dismissed for his doubting. On the contrary, Jesus encourages him to face his doubts and move forward. And Jesus’ willingness to be questioned and touched leads to one of the simplest and most profound statements of faith in the Bible. Thomas says much more than eyes can ever see: “My Lord and my God.”
For some of us, there will always have to be a courageous struggle for faith: a desire to see the nail prints and touch the pierced side of the risen Lord. It is comforting to know that Jesus will not send us away when we are honest enough to share our doubts and confusion, when we begin to ask honest, open questions about who God is in our lives. And for many of us, perhaps this is the only way in which faith can become one’s own.
But ultimately, even this is not enough: we have to look to a deeper level of experience for confirmation of our belief. We must ask for our vision to be renewed: we must learn to see with the eyes of faith. Then, within the created order itself, we may see an intimation of the One who is the new creation, and with Saint Thomas be able to exclaim: “My Lord and my God.”