There is a word that is used to describe Christians, a word that sets them apart from others and captures the essence of who and what they are. It is a word that has been with us from the very beginnings of the Church, when those who identified themselves as followers of Jesus began to gather together to worship and to share their lives with one another. The word is “believers.”
Christians became known as “believers” because they believed and trusted
that Jesus was the Son of God,
that he had come into the world to reveal to us the true nature of God,
that after his death on a Cross he had been raised from the dead,
and that he was with us still, and would be to the end of time.
“Believing” is one of the principle themes of the Gospel of John, from which our gospel lesson today is taken. John begins his telling of the Good News by revealing to us, his readers, who Jesus is and why he came into the world. It is as if he is drawing aside the curtain, letting us in on the secret, true identity of this humble teacher from Galilee, letting us glimpse what he and others have come to know over time. John begins his account by telling us that Jesus is “the Word” who was “with God” and who “was God” from the very beginning of time (John 1:1). He tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14), bringing “light” and “life,” in order to reveal to us the nature and purposes of God. “No one has ever seen God,” he tells us, “it is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). And “to all who receivedhim, who believedin his name,” he proclaims, “he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).
The rest of the Gospel tells the stories of some of those who came to belief. Having been let in on the secret of his identity and mission, we watch them make their way towards faith, sometimes stumbling in darkness and confusion, sometimes aglow with confidence and understanding. In today’s lesson we get a glimpse of one of those disciples coming to belief: his name is Thomas, and he is one of the twelve whom Jesus chose to keep company with him.
We’ve encountered him before in the Gospel, first as Jesus is preparing to travel to Bethany, a village just outside of Jerusalem, because he had received word that his friend Lazarus was ill, and understood now that he had died. The disciples recognize the extreme danger of making this trip, given that Jesus’ opponents in Jerusalem were looking for a way to kill him. It is Thomas who bravely steps forward to declare, “Let us also go, that we may die with him!” (11:16).
We encounter Thomas a second time at the “Last Supper” when Jesus is explaining to the disciples that though he is going away, they “know the way to the place where [he is] going” (14:4). Thomas interrupts with a protest, saying, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5), to which Jesus replies, “I amthe Way” (14:6).]
We find Thomas gathered with the other disciples a week after the Resurrection. The Risen Christ had already appeared to the disciples on the actual day of resurrection, but Thomas had not been with them, and furthermore, he had not been willing to receive their testimony. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25). Thomas is not yet a “believer.” He is awaiting further evidence, insisting he must see and touch Jesus before he can believe.
We don’t know why Thomas was reluctant to receive the witness of the other disciples. It may be because he was well aware of their tendency to vacillate between belief and unbelief. He had witnessed their confusion, their lack of understanding, on the way, and he simply could not bring himself to trust their conclusions. Before we condemn him, we should ask ourselves whether we would have believed their message.
Or it may be that because Thomas was a twin, he knew a lot about mistaken identities, and just assumed that this was another example of someone mistaking a person for someone else. It may well be that he had had a lifetime of experience around this, being confused with his twin brother, which might explain his doubt.
Whatever the reason, Thomas does not yet believe, cannot believe, and insists that he will need further proof before he can accept that Christ is alive.
What is interesting to me in this story is that Jesus satisfies his request. When he appears this second time with all of the disciples present, Jesus does not criticize or condemn Thomas for his reluctance to believe, or for insistence on further evidence. There is no shame in questioning or in doubting. No, Jesus welcomes him and holds him in this place of uncertainty, patiently letting him come to faith in his own way and in his own time.
The journey to faith isn’t always an easy one. Few of us come to believe immediately upon hearing the message. Most of us have to struggle with questions, uncertainties, and contradictions along the way. Eventually our experience of Jesus brings us to faith, but not without starts and stops, and for some, a long and painful struggle. And even after believing, we can be plunged again into doubt and uncertainty by the “changes and chances of life,” some of which will challenge our ability to trust and to believe.
Thomas’ story gives us hope. Instead of labeling him as a “doubter” we might consider him a hero, because he was bold enough to admit his uncertainty, and to embrace his doubts. He won’t be swayed by the word of others; he wants to see for himself, to understand for himself. He wants to come to faith as a result of his own experience, and not just because of the testimony of others. This could be a path of avoidance and denial, but it could also be a path of integrity, an authentic search for the truth.
The Fourth Gospel makes it clear that the road to belief often takes time and that it usually requires some kind of first-hand experience, a real encounter with the living Christ.
Take, for example, the story of Nathaniel in John chapter one: When Phillip finds him and declares, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth,” Nathaniel responds with doubt and skepticism: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Phillip says, “Come and see.” (1:45-46). When Nathaniel does “come and see” he quickly comes to faith, declaring Jesus to be the “Son of God” and “the King of Israel” (1:49).
Or take the example of the Samaritan woman in John chapter four, who is gradually converted over the course of her conversation with Jesus. She leaves the well to return to her village, telling others of her experience and wondering aloud whether he might be the long-awaited Messiah (4:29). Later we read that others in her village also came to faith, not only because of her testimony, but because of their own encounter with Jesus: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe,” they tell the woman, “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (4:42).
Or ponder the journey to faith of “the man born blind” in John chapter nine. It is only after he has been healed by Jesus and has entered into a back-and-forth discussion of this event with Jesus’ opponents that he gradually comes to believe. When he is first asked who has healed him, his answer is simply “the man called Jesus” (9:11). Later, after further consideration, he acknowledges, “He is a prophet” (9:17). When Jesus’ opponents push him, he argues, “If this man were not of God, he could do nothing” (9:31). Finally, he encounters Jesus a second time. Jesus asks him, “Do you believein the Son of Man?” – to which the man answers, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believein him.” Jesus says to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” “Lord, I believe,” the man at last replies, and he worships Jesus (9:35-38).
Or consider the path to faith of the disciples, who do not know whether to believe the testimony of Mary Magdalene when she tells them, “I have seen the Lord!” (20:18).[i] They must have their own experience of him, appearing to them in the upper room that evening, before they too can say, “We have seen the Lord!” (20:25)
The examples of these early believers are important for John’s audience of would-be disciples.[ii] John has set out to write an account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for the benefit of all who will read it. He makes very clear that his purpose in writing the Gospel is to bring his readers to faith. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book,” he admits, “but these are written that you may come to believethat Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).
Maybe you have had the experience of listening to a friend who has just seen a particular movie, or attended a show, or visited a special place, and who says, “You have got to see this!!” You listen with interest, but you’re not sure whether what is reported to you is real or whether it is “hyped.” It’s not to say that you don’t believe your friend. It’s more that you don’t have any experience of what they are reporting. You will have to see the movie or attend the show or visit the special place before you can offer your own testimony. You need to have your own experience.
This is the way it is on the path to faith. We can receive the testimony of others who have encountered and known Jesus, but we will not come to believe until we too have encountered him and known him. Those who come to put their trust in him can often look back on a series of “encounters” with him – through the words of scripture, through the convincing testimony of others or through their exemplary actions, through our own experiences of prayer, through the worship of the Church and its sacraments, through sacred music or art or poetry, through the beauty of the natural world, or simply by considering the mystery of life. There are a hostof ways in which we may encounter him daily, and it is through these we gradually come to believe him and know him and love him.
If you are not there yet, or if you are not there just now, know that he holds you even in your doubt and confusion, and that he will continue to hold you until you come to faith. And even then, he will not let you go. For there will be times of testing, times of uncertainty, times when your faith is challenged by the evil that is in the world or by the pain of suffering and loss. Do not despair. He knows you and loves you and will neverlet himself be separated from you. He loves it that you care enough to ask difficult questions or to confront your uncertainty and confusion.
We are believers, but at times we will know doubt. He promises always to be with us, holding us close until we can trust again.
[i]John doesn’t specifically state that the disciples disbelieved her report, though that is what Luke reports (cf. Luke 24:11).
[ii]Biblical scholar Raymond Brown, commenting on John chapter 20, writes: “Whether or not he intended to do so, the evangelist has given us in the four episodes of chapter 20 four slightly different examples of faith in the risen Jesus. The Beloved Disciple comes to faith after having seen the burial wrappings but without having seen Jesus himself. Mary Magdalene sees Jesus but does not recognize him until he calls her by name. The disciples see him and believe. Thomas also sees him and believes, but only after having been over insistent on the marvelous aspect of the appearance. All four are examples of those who saw and believed; the evangelist will close the Gospel in verse 29b by turning his attention to those who have believed without seeing.” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Volume 2, p. 1046).
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