A reflection for Low Sunday by Judy Wedderspoon Lay Reader

John 20: 19-31                                        Low Sunday

Jesus said to Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas has come down through Christian history as the disciple who was unwilling to believe in the resurrection of Jesus until he had visible and tangible proof. 

There is more to Thomas than that.

We do not know where he came from, although it is likely that he came from Galilee. Nor do we know how he came to be a follower of Jesus. Nor do we know what he did before becoming a disciple. But all three synoptic evangelists, Mark, Matthew and Luke, include him in their lists of the disciples who, early in Jesus’ ministry, were commissioned by him as apostles and sent out to spread the word in Galilee. Luke also includes him in the list of disciples who after Jesus’ resurrection, before Pentecost, were assembled at prayer, awaiting further instructions.

There are many legends associated with Thomas. Because he is described as “Didymus”, meaning “the Twin”, some early Christians believed that he was the twin brother of Jesus. That is not a belief which I can share!

Another legend says that after Pentecost Thomas travelled East to spread the Gospel, and finally ended up in India, where eventually he was martyred. There does not seem to be any concrete evidence of this, but the Internet tells me that in parts of India he is still regarded as their patron saint.

Finally, there is the Gospel of Thomas, one of a number of Gospels which were in circulation in the early church. (Other such Gospels include for instance the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of James.) None of these was eventually included in what we know as the New Testament. They were lost to Christianity until old manuscripts were discovered in the last century. But they were very influential in their time. The short Gospel of Thomas is a collection of so-called “secret writings” which sometimes repeat and sometimes purport to amplify the teachings of Jesus as they have come down to us. Just to give you a flavour: when recounting Jesus’ saying that no man can serve two masters, the Gospel of Thomas prefaces Jesus’ words by adding: “It is impossible for a man to mount two horses or to stretch two bows.” Both analogies are very unlike the type of analogies normally used by Jesus. So one has to ask, did these sayings really come from Jesus? Or, indeed, did they really come from Thomas? We will probably never know.

That’s a lot of negatives! Why do I think Thomas matters? What have we to learn from him?

I like Thomas. I do think that we can learn from him. He appears three times in St John’s gospel. Each time he has something important to tell us.

In John chapter 11, Jesus has left Jerusalem, having angered the Pharisees and the elders of the Jewish community by the cleansing of the Temple and by his teaching and healing in defiance of their dictates. With his disciples Jesus has continued to heal and teach beyond the river Jordan. Then the news comes to him that his dear friend Lazarus has died. Jesus at first delays, but then makes clear his intention to return to Judaea, to Bethany. The other disciples fuss around him. They do not want to go so near to Jerusalem. They are afraid for him, because the Jews have been trying to stone him. It is also rather obvious that they are afraid for themselves. Will they be stoned by the Jews? And what will happen to them if they lose their beloved leader? 

Thomas simply cuts through the cackle. He says: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” [Jn 11: 16] That apparently ends the matter. Thomas is ready to follow the Master to whom he has given his allegiance, no matter what the cost, even unto death. Doubting Thomas must also be recognised and honoured as loyal and courageous Thomas. It is not easy at times to cut through the cackle and tell your fellow disciples where duty lies.

John then again brings Thomas to our attention in his account of Jesus’ discourse in the Upper Room after the Last Supper:  

 From John chapter 14: Jesus said to his disciples “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Thomas was honest. He was prepared, as I mostly am, to admit ignorance and to ask for an explanation when he didn’t understand. I’ve often wondered how he felt about Jesus’ reply: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Theological experts in the succeeding centuries have written volumes about those words. I suspect that Thomas may still have been puzzled, but he didn’t press the point. But when he was puzzled, he admitted it and asked. I believe that to be an example for all of us. We can admit that we don’t understand, and ask – even though we may find the reply beyond our understanding.

And lastly, in chapter 20 of John’s gospel, Thomas appears in the familiar reading which we have just heard. He could not accept without question the excited report of the disciples to whom Jesus had appeared earlier in the Upper Room. Nor could he accept Mary Magdalene’s account of our Lord’s appearance to her in the garden at the empty tomb, nor the account of the two disciples who had returned from Emmaus. All those accounts seemed to be tainted with emotional hysteria, understandable but unsatisfactory as far as Thomas was concerned. So he stood firm. “I’ve got to see for myself.”

And he did. Jesus appeared again to his disciples. Jesus understood Thomas. He understood Thomas’ need to really know. He showed Thomas his terrible wounds. So Thomas then uttered the words which have come down to be a beacon for us and for all believers. “My Lord and my God.” Thomas was the first to recognise unequivocally the divinity of Jesus not only for himself, but for all of us, for us who have not seen and yet have believed.

So let us thank God for Thomas, and for John the evangelist who has brought his memories and insights to us. Doubting Thomas, yes, but also loyal and courageous Thomas, and honest Thomas. Thank God for such as him.