Doubting Thomas

Doubting Thomas, they call him. He wasn't satisfied with hearing about it from the apostles, he wasn't satisfied seeing the risen Christ from across the table, he hadda have real proof.

But lemme ask you, What would you have said, Hunh? What kind of evidence would you have asked for, in order to believe that someone you knew and loved was risen from the dead. The disciples had trouble with his being raised in the flesh at all. Jesus needed to demonstrate that he was not a spirit, some shadowy figure from the world of the dead. That they could imagine, that was part of the conceptual furniture of their culture. So, in his first appearance, when Thomas was absent, he pointedly showed them his hands and his side. It was the same Jesus that they knew, the one who was crucified. When Luke tells this story, he reports that they thought he was a spirit, and that Jesus said, 'look at my hands and my feet, touch me and see, a spirit doesn't have flesh and bones as you see I have.' Then, just to clinch it, he asks for food and eats it in front of them. Finally, he says he will send them the promise of the Father, and tells them to wait in the city til it comes.

Now in the story in John, after he demonstrates that he is not a spirit, he breathes on them and says, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.' The risen Jesus is not a spirit, he gives the Spirit. The one who returns in the very flesh of his wounds is the source of Spirit. Spirit does not come from a spirit, only the Risen one can give it.

Thomas has appeared twice before in this Gospel. At the time of Lazarus' death, Jesus decides to visit the family in Judea. The disciple say, 'Master, the Judeans were just now seeking to stone you.' But Thomas closes the discussion by saying, 'Let us also go up to die with him.' The word, I would think, of a person who is fully committed, not a coward or doubter. Thomas appears again when Jesus give his many mansions speech, which is, to be fair, a little vague, a little cosmic. He says, 'I am going to prepare a place for you, and you know the way to where I am going.' Thomas stops him at that point to say, 'Lord, we don't know where you are going, how can we know the way?' Not the question of a shirker or a doubter, but of a person who will follow if only he has the road map.

So maybe we can give Thomas credit for good sense. Or maybe we can say that he had this need for concrete experience that required him to ask to actually touch the proof that it was Jesus. Then he too could receive the Spirit. And maybe lots of us have his same need for concreteness in our experience of God. We all have different personalities, with different needs and different ways of perceiving and relating, and maybe they apply to perceiving and relating to God as well as each other.

Furthermore, these needs are shown to be legitimate, in that God has met our Thomas-like needs. What are these needs? They are the needs for concrete experience, for the input and information we need in order to follow the Risen Christ, in order to be infectious carriers of the Spirit given by the risen Christ. As Jesus gave himself to Thomas to be touched, he gives himself, God's own self, to us to be touched. As he says, he is the way, both truth and life.

God shows our need to be legitimate by meeting it in the Incarnation. No one, John says, has ever seen God, but the only-begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father has made God known. The life of God in flesh was the first meeting of our need for concrete input and information. We find it enshrined for us today in the Gospels and other writings of the early Church. Its very concreteness is grace upon grace. In order to come to Jesus through it, we are required to engage it concretely. In order to understand it, we must translate it from another language and another culture. The scripture engages us in hard work, and the hard work, such as learning Greek or using commentaries, is a work of true devotion to the Incarnate person of God. If we did not have that hard work to do, we could make the Scriptures mean what we want them to mean. Then we would be constructing God in our own image.

The Incarnate person also meets our need in continuing his Incarnation in the Sacraments. Jesus Christ is risen and ascended, and no longer present as a tangible human being. But the Spirit he has left us is given us in concrete ways in the sacraments. We are given freedom of entry and access to Jesus by the washing with water and the anointing with oil. We are fed day in, day out, with the actual flesh and blood of God. Beyond these two necessary sacraments, we have many other ways of access. When we mate, we have vows and the exchange of rings to set that mating permanently in the context of Christ, and we have the actual hand of God blessing us in the hand of the priest. When we are sick, we have the hand of God again in the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. When we fall into sin, we can hear the voice of God forgiving us with a human voice when we come to the church for Reconciliation. And we have the hand of God setting up these human hands and voices for us to feel and hear, in the hand of a succession of Bishops and Ministers that may well in fact go all the way back to the Incarnate God.

Furthermore, there is here also a grace like that of needing to study the scriptures. The sacraments call us into concrete relationship, into committing definite acts. By this I mean the grace of liturgy. For it is sheer grace to have to worship in concrete ways, to have to sing and move around in concrete ways. Liturgy is not some nicety of Christianity. How often have we heard it said that one goes to a given church because they like the liturgy? The speaker has not grasped the depth at which he or she has been grasped by God. Liturgy is not an item we choose from a series of spiritual boutiques or a series of choices we assemble into an artistic unity. It is demanded of us in concrete ways by what is given in the Sacraments. He said, 'Do this,' and not some other act.

Where would we be without this concrete stuff? Our actual daily lives would be entirely untouched by God. That would actually be quite pleasant and utterly safe, for we would be entirely in charge of our own lives. It would be as if there were no God, and we would have to invent one. But that is why God gave and gives Godself in concrete ways. That is why God became incarnate, why he had to die in a bloody and cruel way on a cross, why he had to rise with a flesh still wounded, to make the connection, to give us an objective experience of God as well as a subjective, and in the sacraments, in the liturgy, in all the daily necessities of Christian life, the objective presence of God as well as the subjective.

Thomas wouldn't believe unless he could touch the wounds. We can't really and truly believe unless we too touch and participate in the concreteness of a woundable God. And we can't have our true need met without an objectively real God. Only when we see that God offer us his wounds to touch can we, dare we, say with Thomas, 'My Lord and my God!'