In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. These men had run away when Jesus was arrested and they were still frightened, even if no one was looking for them. It looks as if Thomas was not so scared as the others, because he had gone out – we know not where. Perhaps he wanted to hear what people were saying, to find out what was going on.
During his absence, Jesus appeared to the other disciples. He greeted them in the oriental manner: Shalom / peace be with you! – and they were filled with joy. Now this wasn’t a simple courtesy call, nor a desire to see and reassure his friends. He had come to give them a mission. From this time onwards, Jesus was going to behave differently from the way he had done previously. Time was short; soon he would ascend to the Father; he needed to get everyone and everything ready for his departure. As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.
In the course of the three years he’d spent with these men, he had taught them many things, but now he was about to give them a very special gift. He breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained’.
Maybe we should pause for a moment to consider the breath of God. You will recall that the opening words of the Book of Genesis are: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water. God’s spirit, or breath, is going to bring about the creation. A little further on, in the second chapter of Genesis, we read: God fashioned man of dust, from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being. Just one last example from the Old Testament, which we find in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of bones: The Lord God says this to these bones: ‘I am now going to make the breath enter you, and you will live’ – which is exactly what happened. So you see that in each of these cases, God’s breath is life-giving. And that is the effect of Jesus’ gift to the disciples on Easter evening: henceforth they will be able to give new life to those bound by sin; the disciples will be able to pardon sins as only Jesus had done until that time.
Despite having received this precious gift, the disciples stayed where they were. When Thomas returned, they naturally told him what had happened, but he couldn’t believe them, thought they were hallucinating. Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe. We all know about the doubts of Thomas and maybe we share them at times. The gospels don’t tell us a lot about Thomas, but it’s interesting to recall two incidents mentioned in St John’s gospel. The first was when they learned of the death of Lazarus. Jesus wanted to go to Bethany but the disciples tried to talk him out of it because they knew that the Jewish authorities were scheming to kill him. Nevertheless, Jesus insisted, so Thomas said to the others: Well let’s all go, and die with him. You can see he was courageous, and devoted to his Master. Later, at the Last Supper, when Jesus started speaking of his ‘departure’ in terms which are clear to us but not to the disciples, it was Thomas who expressed the incomprehension of the others when he said: Lord we don’t even know where you are going, so how can we possibly know the way? That gives Jesus the opportunity to announce: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one can go to the Father except through me. They probably found the answer enigmatic; let’s just keep in mind that it was Thomas who asked the question; he wanted to understand.
Anyway, today’s gospel tells us that Jesus made another apparition a week later, and this time Thomas was present, so Jesus spoke directly to him: Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe. You can imagine his emotion! Now that he can see Jesus with his own eyes he thinks no more about hallucinations or illusions; the man in front of him is most definitely a man of flesh. And he knows what Thomas had said the other day. Thomas doesn’t want to touch his Master’s wounds. They’re still swollen, tender; he doesn’t want to revive the pain. There’s a pause; Jesus keeps looking at him; very slowly Thomas puts out his hand; he touches the wounds – and exclaims: My Lord and my God.
Remember that Jesus had only ever spoken of himself as the Son of Man. He never introduced himself as Son of God, or Messiah. He wanted people to listen to his teaching, to observe his behaviour and to draw their own conclusions. We do know that quite a few people thought of him as a prophet, but none had any idea of his divine sonship. True, there were a couple of occasions where he used the words I AM in a way that evoked God’s self-manifestation on Sinai – and that didn’t win him any friends. So it was Thomas, ‘doubting’ Thomas, who was the first of those who were destined to be called ‘Christians’ to greet him as God.
Jesus had a word of encouragement for the rest of us when he said to Thomas: You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe. Yes, you and I accept the witness of the Apostles and their witness is the kernel of our faith: Jesus Christ is the Son of God; he was put to death – and now he lives!
Today’s passage concludes with these words: There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life through his name. That sounds like a conclusion – which it is – but there is in fact one more chapter to St John’s gospel, and another conclusion which does not in any way invalidate what I have said about this one.
Let me make just one observation about this morning’s first reading. It presents a beautiful picture: The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul … everything they owned was held in common. The apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power … None of their members was ever in want … I think it’s an idealized picture. But I will add that we should never lose sight of our ideals. So the primitive Christian community is presented as a place of sharing. It is healthy to think of all that we have as a gift from God; it is something to share with others for the building up of community. I would stress that sharing is not concerned only with material possessions. We can and should share our faith, the breath of God which brings life into the world! (Quentin Howard)