The Rev. Irina Dubinski

St Thomas by Diego Velasquez, c. 1620

St Thomas and other first witnesses to the Resurrection

Over the Eastertide we stay with the spirit of celebration for 50 days, and ponder the nature of our faith – how it emerges, becomes shared and causes us to act. Over the first half of the season, we look at the examples of those who were first to believe in Christ’s resurrection: on Easter day – the men and women at the grave; on the Sunday after – Thomas; and on the third Sunday - the other disciples. Now, the actual order of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances in the NT depends on who is writing.

As Paul wrote to his followers in Corinth, Jesus “appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me” (1 Cor 15:5-8). But from the author of Mark, who wrote next, we hear a truly unsatisfactory account which has no post-resurrection appearances at all, and in which even the women fled from the empty grave failing to tell anyone about it (despite what the longer, but inauthentic endings tries to show). Matthew improved on Mark by having the women talk to the angel at the tomb, and disciples meeting Jesus in Galilee. Luke also had women converse with now two angels, and disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. And as usual, John’s gospel stands apart from the others, showing that Mary Magdalene spoke to Jesus-the-Gardener, then Jesus appeared to all the disciples first without and then with Thomas; and finally, fed seven of them a breakfast on the shore, this time, including Thomas. Interesting! And significant, I think.

Each evangelist wrote to the audience of his time and place, hoping, perhaps, to give them the message that would strengthen their faith. Mark wrote for those who lived through the Jewish-Roman war in the 70s, heard of the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, and James, and needed the assurance that all this suffering was not in vain, but rather a proof that they truly were one with Jesus in both his pain and victory. So in Mark, Jesus’ close followers actually never fully understood who Jesus was. They called Jesus the Messiah once or twice, but they didn’t understand what according to Mark was most important – that the true Messiah was to suffer before he was glorified, which is something that his minor characters did know. Only Mark makes a daring move to indicate that the Roman centurion (the enemy!) obtained access to God through the torn veil of the Temple - a portent of things to come. Now, it is said that Mark was an admirer of Paul, so it could also be that he intentionally discredited the disciples, with whom Paul eventually became at odds, and alluded to Paul’s converts in the character of the centurion. Be that as it may, his readers would know by then, as we know now, that the reason the disciples were martyred was that they eventually became very worthy followers of the Lord.

And so, Matthew and Luke present a much more favorable picture of the gradual development of the disciples’ faith, even if they faltered occasionally, as Peter did while walking on water in Matthew. Note that Matthew alone of all the evangelists mentions the Church (hence the Great Commission rather than a breakfast or walk to Emmaus as the ending), which is why maybe his gospel appears first in the canon, though written after Mark. If Mark wrote during the war, Matthew wrote in the era that followed the destruction of the Temple, when synagogue worship flourished to fill the gap and competed with the early churches. We say that the first Chrsitians were Jews, which is true of the Apostles, but by the time Matthew wrote, the gentiles outnumbered the Jews among the followers of Jesus. So the author hoped to attract more Jewish believers by simultaneously presenting their tradition as that which culminated in Jesus, and by discrediting it in his Passion account and ending, in which the Jews believed that Jesus’ body was stolen. (Giving some basis to the anti-semitism of the subsequent centuries.) It is mainly Luke-Acts that emphasizes the full inclusivity of God’s love, and traces the spread of The Way as the belief, rather than institution.

And, there is the Fourth Gospel, of John, from which we read today. Presumed to be written last, it came out of the community of people who shared a very specific iteration of beliefs in Jesus, and likely followed someone called the Beloved Disciple, who came to be associated with the disciple John. In this account, of course, it is he who wins the race to the grave and believes in the Resurrection first. This is also the account that mentions Thomas. I’m not sure what he meant to John and his followers, but maybe, his nickname, translated Twin, referred to that he emulated John in faith most closely. For instance, when Jesus went to Judea because of Lazarus’ death (a dangerous area to be in at that point in his ministry), Thomas said he was willing to die with him there, while the other disciples were holding Jesus back. Or maybe, he simply had a brother who overshadowed him so much that our Thomas was only known as the other sibling, one of less importance. What we do know is that he was intellectually honest. Upon hearing the lessons of the Last Supper, he said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Similarly, he remained skeptical upon hearing the disciples' news; though not for lack of trust in Jesus – only in the disciples. Afterall, they were just like him, merely human; asserting their readiness to follow Jesus to his death, then fleeing in the shadow of the cross.

Yet, regardless of the order and details of their stories, they - and many others mentioned by Paul - eventually got their chance to see the risen Lord, believe, and die for him, as they first professed. In iconography, Thomas’ spear is that which both inflicted the wound he touched, and his death in India. It is to the sacrifices, work, and preaching (vide today’s Acts) of these first believers that we owe the fulfillment of Jesus’ words to Thomas: “those who will believe without seeing for themselves will be uniquely blessed”. If faith is “evidence of things unseen” (Heb 11), then may it enable us to witness and reflect on all the manifestations of new life in us - some shared, and some unique to each person. We are no different from the early believers, gospel writers and those to whom they wrote, in that our faith arises out of our own circumstances, upbringing, and personality. We, too, speak with the risen Lord, albeit in prayer and visions. So like them, let us respond to God’s gift of faith by offering our sacrifices – of praise and thanksgiving, of love and following him, so that one day he might say to us also, “well done, good and faithful servant”. Amen.