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Today’s passage is divided into two parts corresponding to the appearances of the Risen One. In the first (vv. 19-23) Jesus communicates his Spirit to his disciples. With that he gives them the power to overcome the forces of evil. It is the same passage that we will find and comment on Pentecost. In the second (vv. 24-31), the famous episode of Thomas is told.
The doubt of this apostle became proverbial. It is often said of one who shows some distrust “You’re unbelieving as Thomas.” Yet, in hindsight, he seems to have done nothing wrong: he only asked to see what others had seen. Why demand only from him a faith based on word?
But was Thomas really the only one to have doubts, while the other disciples would have easily and immediately believed in the Risen One? It does not seem that things went that way.
The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus appeared to the eleven “and reproached them for their unbelief and stubbornness, in refusing to believe those who had seen him after he had risen” (Mk 16:14). In Luke’s gospel the risen Christ addresses the amazed and frightened apostles and asks: “Why are you upset, and how does such an idea cross your minds?” (Lk 24:38). In the last page of the Matthew’s Gospel it even says that when Jesus appeared to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee (therefore long after the apparitions in Jerusalem), some still doubted (Mt 28:17).
All therefore doubted, not only the poor Thomas. How is it then that the evangelist John seems to want to focus on him the doubts that have gripped the others? Let us try to understand.
When John writes (about the year A.D. 95) Thomas was already dead for some time. The episode, therefore, is certainly reported not to put this apostle in a bad light. If his problems of faith were highlighted, the reason is another. The evangelist wants to respond to the questions and objections that Christians of his communities insistently raised. It is the third generation Christians, people who have not seen the Lord Jesus. Many of them do not even know any of the apostles. They find it hard to believe; they are struggling in the midst of many doubts; they would like to see, touch, and verify if the Lord is truly risen. They wonder: what are the reasons that may lead one to believe? Is it still possible for us to have the experience of the Risen Lord? Are there evidences that he is alive? How is it that he no longer appears? These are the questions that we ourselves ask today.
To them, Mark, Luke and Matthew respond by saying that all the apostles had hesitations. They have not got it right away nor with ease to believe in the Risen One. The path of faith was long and tiring also for them, even though Jesus had given many signs that he was alive and entered into the glory of the Father.
The answer of John is different: he takes Thomas as a symbol of the difficulty that every disciple meets to come to believe. It is hard to know the reason why he chose this apostle, perhaps because he had more difficulty or took more time than others to have faith.
That which John wants to teach the Christians of his communities (and us) is that the Risen One has a life that escapes our senses; a life that cannot be touched with bare hands or seen with the eyes. It can only be achieved through faith. This also applies to the apostles, who also have made a unique experience of the Risen Lord. One cannot have faith in what is seen. You cannot have demonstrations, scientific evidences of the resurrection. If anyone wants to see, observe, touch, one must renounce his faith.
We say, “Blessed are those who have seen.” For Jesus, however, blessed are those who have not seen, not because it costs them more to believe and thus have greater merits; they are blessed because their faith is most genuine, and purest, indeed, is the only pure faith. The one who sees has the certainty of the evidence, has irrefutable proof of a fact.
Thomas appears two more times in John’s Gospel and never cuts—we would say—a good figure. He always has difficulty in understanding, equivocating, misinterpreting the words and choices of the Master.
He speaks for the first time when he received the news of Lazarus’ death. Jesus decides to go to Judea. Thomas thinks that following the Master means losing one’s life. He does not understand that Jesus is the Lord of life. Dejected and disappointed, he exclaims: “Let us also go that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16).
During the last supper, Jesus talks about the path he is treading, a path that passes through death to be introduced into life. Thomas intervenes again: “Lord, we do not know where you’re going and how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5). He is full of perplexity, hesitation and doubt, unable to accept what he does not understand. This is demonstrated for a third time in the episode narrated in today’s passage.
It seems that John enjoys outlining the figure of Thomas in this way. In the end he does him justice. He puts on his mouth the highest, the most sublime profession of faith. His words reflect the conclusion of the disciples’ itinerary of faith.
At the beginning of the gospel, the first two apostles come to Jesus calling him Rabbi (Jn 1:38). It’s the first step towards the understanding of the Master’s identity. After a short time, Andrew, who has already figured out a lot more, says to his brother Simon: “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41). Nathaniel intuits immediately with whom he deals and says to Jesus: “You are the Son of God” (Jn 1:49). The Samaritans recognize him as the Savior of the world (Jn 4:43), the people acknowledge him as the prophet (Jn 6:14), the man born blind proclaims him the Lord (Jn 9:38) and for Pilate he is the King of the Jews (Jn 19:19). But it’s Thomas who says the last word about the identity of Jesus. He calls him: “My Lord and my God.” It is an expression that the Bible refers to YHWH (Ps 35:23). Thomas is therefore the first to recognize the divinity of Christ, the first who comes to understand what Jesus meant when he said: “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30).
The end of the passage (vv. 30-31) presents the reason why John wrote his book. He told of the “signs”—not all, but sufficient ones—for two reasons: to arouse or confirm the faith in Christ and why, through this faith, one comes to life.
The fourth evangelist calls miracles signs. Jesus did not perform them to impress whoever was there. He even had words of condemnation against anyone who did not believe unless he saw miracles (Jn 4:48). John does not tell them to impress his readers, to “show” the divine power of Jesus.
The signs are not evidences, but revelations about the person, nature and mission of Jesus. One comes to believe in a robust and long-lasting way, from the material fact, and rises to the reality that it indicates. He does not understand the sign which, in the distribution of the loaves, does not capture that Jesus is the bread of life, or in the healing of the man born blind, does not recognize that Jesus is the light of the world, or in the resuscitation of Lazarus, does not see in Jesus the Lord of life.
In the epilogue of the gospel, John uses the word “signs” in a broad sense: it means all the revelation of the person of Jesus, his acts of mercy (the healing, the multiplication of the loaves) and his words (Jn 12:37). The one who reads his book and understands these signs clearly confronts the person of Jesus and is invited to make a choice. Those who recognize in him the Lord will opt for life and adhere to him.
Here is the only evidence offered to one who looks for reasons to believe: the same gospel. There the word of Christ resounds, and his person shines. There are no other proofs outside this same Word.
To understand, it is worthwhile to refer to what Jesus said in the parable of the Good Shepherd: “My sheep know my voice” (Jn 10:4-5,27). Apparitions are not necessary. In the gospel the voice of the shepherd resonates. For the sheep that belongs to him, his unmistakable voice is enough to recognize and to draw it to him.
But where can one listen to this voice? Where does this word echo? Is it possible to repeat today the apostles’ experience on Easter day and “eight days later”? How?
We definitely have noticed that both apparitions take place on Sunday. We also have noticed that those who make the experience of the Risen One are the same (…one more, one less), that the Lord presents himself with the same words: “Peace be with you” and that, in both encounters, Jesus shows the marks of his passion. There would be other details, but these four are enough to help us answer the questions we posed.
The disciples are gathered in the house. The meeting to which John alludes is clearly that which happens on the day of the Lord. It’s the one in which every eighth day, the whole community is called for the celebration of the Eucharist. When all believers are gathered together, there appears the Risen One. He, by the mouth of the celebrant, greets the disciples and wishes, as on the evening of Easter, and eight days later: “Peace be with you.”
It is the time when Jesus manifests himself alive to the disciples. Those who, like Thomas, desert the meetings of the community cannot make the experience of the Risen Lord (vv. 24-25). They cannot hear his greeting and his Word; they cannot accept his forgiveness and his peace (vv. 19,26,23), nor experience his joy (v. 20) and receive his Spirit (v. 22). Those who in the day of the Lord stay home, maybe to pray alone, can experience God, but not the Risen One, because he makes himself present where the community is gathered.
What does one, who does not meet the Risen One, do? Like Thomas, he will have need of evidences to believe, but he will never obtain evidences.
Contrary to what one sees depicted in the paintings of the artists, not even Thomas has put his hands into the wounds of the Lord. From the text it does not appear that he has touched the Risen One. He also gets to pronounce his profession of faith after hearing the voice of the Risen One, along with his brothers and sisters of the community. And the ability to make this experience is offered to Christians of all times… every eight days.
Fr. Fernando Armellini