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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Reconciliation—John 20:19-31 (Mark Davis)

That Thomas’ absence when Jesus first appeared to the Twelve after his resurrection was due to his withdrawing from the other disciples following Christ’s crucifixion is an intriguing exegetical possibility. It also frames the events that follow in a manner that may be instructive for the Church in its witness to those who are doubting and agnostic.

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The story of John 20:19-31 is a familiar one to folks who read the Bible as well as to those who have simply heard the colloquial phrase “doubting Thomas” and have explored its meaning. One detail in the story seems to get scant attention, far less than it deserves, especially if one reads this story as more than just one person’s insistence that “only seeing is believing.”

Consider the following details of the story. First, the disciples had heard Mary’s testimony, “I have seen the Lord!” but do not seem to have responded with their own faith until Jesus appeared to them. By the time they tell Thomas “We have seen the Lord,” they had already experienced what Thomas requires in order to believe—a face-to-face encounter with the risen Christ. None of them had already figured out from their readings of the Scriptures that Jesus would rise and none of them was altogether willing to burst forward with faith simply on the word of someone else who had seen the Lord. Thomas is more of a typical than a unique case when he insists on some kind of evidence in order to believe that the one he saw die was alive again.

Second, a question worth asking is, “Why was Thomas not with them when Jesus first visited the disciples?” This question and its possible answers are half-speculation, of course, since the story does not go down this path of inquiry. But, I would suggest that the story does invite this path of inquiry. While the story is typically translated, “But Thomas … was not with them when Jesus came,” the imperfect tense of the verb suggests an ongoing action, not a one-time event. While we often imagine that Thomas was out getting bagels or returning a library book or something routine, the possibility is that he was no longer gathering with the other disciples. It could be that Thomas’ faith was so completely shattered by the events of Friday that he no longer was living as a disciple.

Third, the same kind of verb tense appears in the statement that “the other disciples told [Thomas], ‘We have seen the Lord.’” It could be translated, “the other disciples were telling Thomas….” That week between Jesus’ first and second visit to the disciples may well have been a week of intense negotiations to reconcile Thomas to the community. And it worked. By the time of the second visit, Thomas was with the disciples—something that the narrator notes with a simple preposition.

My point is that the community of the disciples might be far more important to this story than meets the eye. That Thomas was present during the second visit with Jesus may well be due to the community taking on the role of reconciling themselves with Thomas and Thomas with themselves. It is even conceivable that when Thomas is with them again, he is there with all of his doubts intact. That would suggest that the disciples’ manner of reconciliation was not simply, “Believe like us and you can be part of us.” It would be more in the form of “This is what we believe and you are welcomed here however you believe.” To that extent, the disciples’ task is not to convince others to believe, and certainly not to coerce some signal of faith, but to joyfully embrace their faith while making community with others. The point is not to convince Thomas, but to maintain the integrity of their experience and belief while inviting him to be part of them.

This way of reading the story of Thomas challenges familiar practices of evangelism—which seem to put the work of convincing others on the church—by calling the church to become a reconciling community. If an agnostic person accompanies a spouse to worship, is the church’s role to convert the person or to make her/him feel welcome? When the church is outside of the holy huddle and exists as a minority in many places, is our faithful call to make the others believe as we believe, or to walk with them in their journeys of pain as an expression of what we believe? When reconciliation is the church’s disposition, it creates opportunities for others—even those whose ability to believe has been shattered—to meet Christ anew.

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