We form impressions of other people more quickly than we care to admit. For all we say about the importance of substance over image, image wins time after time in our judgments. It has been said that interviewers unconsciously make their decisions about a candidate within thirty seconds of seeing them.
For all the complexity of a human character, we sum people up in just a few words: He’s unreliable; she’s high maintenance; they’re like Tom and Jerry. And we make the same calculations of the disciples of Jesus. Peter? Impetuous.John? Closest to Jesus. Judas? Back-stabber.
There is so much more to each character, but we are hindered by the lack of back-story. To this list of one
dimensional personalities can be added Thomas. Thomas? Doubter.
Thomas is recorded in three conversations. The first (John 11:16) is when Jesus decides the moment has come to visit Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead.
Walking into the Jerusalem area was fraught with danger; there had already been threats and botched attempts on Jesus’ life. Here is Jesus, about to demonstrate his power over death; there is Thomas, convinced Jesus was about to die. Thomas is gloomy, predisposed to expect the worst. But turn the story on its head and here is a brave and loyal man, aware of the imminent physical threat to a friend and prepared to walk with them right into the danger. Pessimist? Perhaps; certainly not the kind of man to get the BBQ out on a Bank oliday.Courageous? For sure. Most of us would find compelling reasons not to walk unarmed into the middle of a riot.
The second conversation happens on the night before Jesus eventually died. Jesus, increasingly distressed by what he knows is about to take place, seems to be talking in apocalyptic terms about betrayal, denial, death and heaven. Having symbolically washed their feet and set the example of servant leadership and identified Judas and Peter for the ways they would disown him that night, he explains the purpose of his death: ‘My Father’s house has many rooms…I am going there to prepare a place for you…You know the way to the place where I am going’. To which Thomas says: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way?’
I have some instinctive sympathy with Thomas; perhaps you do also. From time to time I find myself in conversations where I haven’t the faintest idea what the other person is talking about. Sometimes it’s because I haven’t the brain power. Other times it’s because the person loves speaking in riddles or leaving sentences unfinished, confident you know exactly what they mean. I find these conversations a nightmare, and I usually just huh, umm and yes my way through them, all the while thinking of an exit strategy.
I doubt Thomas was alone in not understanding Jesus; there is evidence none of them really got it until around the time of Pentecost. Yet no-one was saying anything. They were just umming their way through. All except Thomas, who had the confidence and the poise to challenge Jesus. He was not intimidated by either the man or the net that seemed to be closing round them that night. He was eager to understand Jesus; it was important to him and he was prepared to ask direct, unambiguous, pertinent questions of the rabbi he followed.
The words that followed Thomas’ intervention are some of the best known and most important ones for understanding Jesus: I am the way, the truth and the life’, he says, ‘no-one comes to the Father except through me’ - for which we can thank Thomas. We need more honesty and directness like this as we explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus today. It is easy to represent Thomas’ interjection as slow and ponderous like Homer Simpson trying to understand nuclear science: Lord, we do not know what you are saying. But I think these are the words of a critical reflector, eager to make sense of the things that really matter in life.
The third and most famous story is his encounter with the risen Jesus. Thomas is not around when Jesus appears to his followers in different settings in those early hours on Sunday; perhaps he is the kind of man who has the gift of being in the wrong place when it matters. It might, though, be evidence of defeatism.
Thomas, like others, scarpered when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. He was not present at the crucifixion. Perhaps he had given up. There is a hint of disillusionment as well as doubt in the statement that he would not believe until he had put his fingers in the nail marks on Jesus’ hands. It was an invasive test, quite disrespectful in its breach of privacy. Imagine saying you wouldn’t believe someone had been tortured unless you touched the marks on their body.
Thomas loved Jesus and trusted him, but like others, he was utterly disenchanted by the sudden turn of events and the passivity of Jesus’ demise. He lived with this sense for a full week before Jesus chose to appear to him. Thomas has been held up as a model of unbelief but there were several other followers who couldn’t bring themselves to believe the evidence of resurrection either, including some who had met Jesus. His response is telling: My Lord and my God. For a practising Jew to refer to another human being as God in any other context would be idolatrous. Here it shows the leap of faith Thomas is able to make, way beyond the practical doubts he had voiced. He must have calculated in that week: if he is alive again, he really must be divine. Yes, he was pragmatic, empirical in method, but he had the honesty and the courage to arrive at the conclusion the evidence led him to and to live by it. If he is doubting Thomas, we could do with more doubting Thomas’ who search for truth and prize it when they find it.
So, from the limited copy we have, we get the picture of a man who is gloomy and prone to expecting the worst. He is brave and fiercely loyal; able to look danger in the face. He is confident and values plain speaking, being tenacious in getting to the bottom of things. And he is pragmatic, an empiricist who wants to weigh up the evidence before coming to conclusions.
Oddly enough it sounds a bit English to me – or at least what we like to think of as the essence of Englishness. Perhaps we have a second patron saint who can deputise for St. George when he’s on holiday. Who wouldn’t value another day off in July?
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