2 Easter April 11, 2021 St. Michael’s (Zoom) by Suzanne G. Bowles, Ph.D.
Today we have the story – probably familiar to most of you – of Thomas, so-called Doubting Thomas. The basics of the story are pretty simple and straightforward. Jesus made a post-Resurrection appearance to the disciples in the house where they were staying, but Thomas wasn’t there. When they later told him about it he was skeptical, saying he wouldn’t believe it unless he saw Jesus’s physical wounds. A week later they’re all, including Thomas, at the same house and Jesus appears again. He says 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.” Thomas does believe and addresses him as “My Lord and my God.”
What always strikes me about this passage (this event appears only in John) is that Thomas did not do anything wrong. All he did was ask for evidence, the same evidence the other apostles saw, and Jesus did not condemn him for it. He showed him the evidence. When Jesus says “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he is not criticizing Thomas. After all, the other disciples in the room saw the same evidence. When Jesus “blessed are those who have not seen” he is referring to other believers who after his Ascension have no opportunity to see the physically resurrected Jesus. To repeat: there is nothing wrong with wanting to see evidence and that’s what Jesus is showing in his post-Resurrection appearances of which we have a number of accounts. As soon as Jesus is resurrected he doesn’t just scoot off to heaven right away, although he could have. He stays for forty days and makes numerous documented appearances. Did you ever wonder why? He needs to be seen to be believed, at least by contemporaries, and to provide that evidence. That’s why we can read about it today.
Let’s also step back for a moment and consider what is happening in Jerusalem and environs. The Passover has just been celebrated and it is estimated that the city had so many visitors its population was about four times its normal size. No wonder Pilate was nervous. And, of course, Jesus has just been crucified. The crowds had probably dispersed by this point, but the city was rife with rumors about what had happened to Jesus and why was the tomb empty. Some rumors claim that his followers had stolen the body and hidden it. Pilate had been warned about this and had taken steps to prevent it, sending guards and sealing the entrance to the tomb. There were also rumors that maybe he didn’t die, but was just unconscious and then had been resuscitated in the tomb. Added to these two false rumors were the true ones, namely sightings of Jesus around town. And this brings us back to Thomas. He wants to see the evidence.
As a historian I find it fascinating the lengths people – yeah, scholars, too -- will go to debunk the Bible and claim it’s all myths and legends. I can speak only for myself but I find the gospel accounts and other historical sections of the Bible reliable, based on their own internal evidence as well as evidence from non-biblical sources, e.g. ancient historians such as the Jewish Josephus and the Roman Tacitus. Believe me, scholars accept at face value other sources with much less evidence than the Bible provides. Here’s another point to consider: when the four gospel accounts were written and began to circulate (even before being compiled into the Bible as we know it) there were still plenty of people alive who knew Jesus personally. Some of these would have been eyewitnesses to these events. Luke tells us that that is how he got his information. He interviewed eyewitnesses. If the gospel accounts were filled with errors or exaggerations would not people who were there have disputed these stories? Of course they would. In this regard Paul makes an interesting comment in First Corinthians. First Corinthians can, in fact, be dated fairly precisely to the year 55 And Paul tells us that Jesus after his Resurrection appeared to over 500 people and “most of them are still alive.” Where are the eyewitness debunkers?
Let’s conclude by returning to the gospel lesson. John ends the Thomas episode by saying, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples. 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.” In other words, there’s even more material. Not all of it was written down, but Jesus’s contemporaries would have been well aware of it. In his first epistle John reiterates this point with the words what we have heard, what we have seen.
There is nothing wrong with asking to see evidence of Jesus’s claims. He will show you. He is risen. Alleluia! Amen.