Thirty or so years ago, I still pretty much cared what people thought about me in that post-adolescent sort of way. I secretly pondered in my heart the awful question if I really had many friends. I could go for months without thinking about these matters until I was in a group of friends. At the time I belonged to a rather large diocese with hundreds of clergy. When we would be together, vested, waiting for a diocesan convention to begin or an ordination or some other grand affair, I would find myself talking with a gaggle of clergy. The signal would be given for us to get in line. Suddenly, everyone in the group would have a partner to walk with but me. I got a little self-conscious about that. I started surreptitiously staying quite near to someone—anyone—thinking that I would have a natural partner to walk with when time came. Never once did it help. Later I would simply come through the front door and ask, “Would you walk with me in procession?” a question that raised eyebrows and furrowed foreheads.
At some point the issue vanished from my awareness, but not quite. It came to embody for me what I suspect all the energy around the symbol of “heaven” is about. It was my deep craving to be included, not to be left out. It was no big thing, indeed nothing anyone else would have paid any attention to. I just needed to be included. Simply included.
So I have great sympathy for Thomas the disciple who happened not to be with the others when Jesus made his first appearance to the Eleven. I suspect that he was out of the room tending to personal needs as people are wont to do, or on an errand for this bunch locked behind closed doors, such as fetching some pita bread or olives for the evening meal. Whatever the case, Thomas, I fancy, felt a little on the left-out side when he returned. Most folks are preoccupied with his hesitation to believe what the others report, which is, of course, John’s point in telling the story. When we want to be included but find that we are not or were not, the most natural reaction is to replay our favorite response to stress or threat. “You guys are putting me on, right? He never came. You’re just trying to fool me.” Or, “C’mon. I know Jesus better than that. He and I were tight. He’d never show up just when I was out.” Or, “Well, he may have shown up, but what’s it to me? I had other things to do. Next subject.” Thomas had his own defenses, which are on full display in Chapter 19 of John’s gospel. And I have mine and you have yours.
The interesting thing about this story is that it reverberates far beyond the Easter evening scene itself, far even beyond the issue of Jesus’ appearance and the consequent challenge of believing in him without having seen him. It touches on something that we only rarely seem to look at, and that is how human beings are always looking for a community to be a part of. On no level is that search more apparent than when we feel suddenly like outsiders looking in on those who already belong to what we feel detached from. They know the scoop, the news, the story. We don’t. And that poses a crisis for us.
I saw just this week a photograph of young Filipino boys carrying weapons in the service of the Taliban. I wondered what the appeal of the Taliban was to them. I suspect that few of them could discuss many of the political or religious notions of the Taliban beyond parroting what they might have been told or taught. But I can promise one thing: a deep need to belong to something important is answered for them by that group. One can say the same thing about many movements, groups, and configurations in human societies the world over. We need to belong. We are communal animals.
Now the interesting thing is that there are far more options for belonging to a group with an old story than there are options for inventing or discovering new stories. Did you never wonder how it is that the same animosities, the same rivalries, the same partisan politics, the same religious divisions maintain their power and their hold on people decade after decade, century after century, age after age? Look at how many folks identify with a story, let’s say Protestant Christianity, for example, or Roman Catholicism, for that matter, simply because that is the story of their tribe. Many of these folk could tell you nothing much about the religious battles of the sixteenth century, but they are fiercely attached to a tradition that keeps old arguments alive. Not long ago I heard from a neighborhood boy I grew up with in Conway, South Carolina. His family, like mine, were just average middle-middle class people, with no pretension whatsoever to money or prestige. But he has become a dedicated Confederate participant in Civil War battle re-enactments, and appears on Facebook with a bearded face in a Confederate cap, the Stars and Bars waving behind him. I wonder how he imagines that the powers that started the Civil War ever had anything much to offer him. But I’ll bet he could tell you plenty of reasons why that particular story has become the one that he most passionately identifies with. And so it goes.
By the end of the first century when, in all probability, the Gospel of John appeared, this crisis had penetrated the Christian community. On the one hand, there were folks who had come to be Christian because their parents were or because it was the thing to do. Christian instruction being what it was in those days, it is unlikely that people would have been ignorant about the general story of Jesus, his death and resurrection; but knowing the story line, even identifying with it, was a good deal different from being deeply invested in it. Bear in mind that the external pressure upon the young Church was enormous. Persecutions came in waves. And persecution always presents the inevitable result that a great many people would rather renounce their faith than die for it. But there were other issues as well. The first and perhaps even the second generation of witnesses had died out. There were lots more Thomases around, people who had not been there when it all happened. Other communities with stories more credible, more dazzling perhaps, less risky maybe, were available to those Thomases. With more power, pull, and punch, those stories, even some that were corruptions of the Jesus story, proved fierce competitors with the apostolic tradition.
Now you can begin to see how it is that the Church was caught in a double bind. Not only was its story under attack from without and in danger of irrelevancy within, it had not only to convince the Thomases that they could in fact believe without having actually seen, but that the story of the Christianity was indeed true, and that those Thomases could not only believe it but give their lives to it and for it. That is what we see going on in Chapter 19 of John. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And believing, such a central issue for this gospel, is not giving intellectual assent alone, but giving one’s heart, falling in love with, giving one’s allegiance to the crucified and risen Lord.
Yet it is not simply believing that is a problem for the Thomases. It is belonging as well. So this story about the resurrected Jesus is a story about the founding and charging of the beloved community. Jesus appears to the disciples and breathes on them. This is John’s account of what, following Luke-Acts, we call “Pentecost.” Jesus gives the spirit to his community, empowering them with the life that he lives as the risen Christ. They, in effect, share his own priestly vocation, forgiving sins (or not). But what does all this do for Thomas and his misfortune of missing the first appearance? The story shows that Thomas stands in contrast to “the Beloved Disciple,” the model disciple in John’s account, who, when looking into the empty tomb earlier that morning, had “seen and believed.” Thomas’ insistence sets him apart not only from the Beloved Disciple but sets him apart from the community as well.
Since our own age has more than its share of problems with believing without physical evidence, we would very much like for Thomas to be excused. I would. Were I writing the story, I would definitely cut Thomas some slack. John will have none of that. Jesus very clearly criticizes Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And yet, even before he says that, he invites Thomas to examine his wounds. Thomas apparently does not need to go quite that far, as he exclaims (first among the disciples to do so!) “My Lord and my God!” There is no doubt that there is a place for Thomas in this community. And there is not the slightest suggestion that there needs to be a remedial breathing of the Holy Spirit for Thomas because he missed the first go-round. He belongs fully.
It is not too much of a stretch to see that, of all stories in the gospel, this one has your name on it. John says as much. “These things 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.” You get to decide, as always, exactly what you will do with that. Two things are nearly always at stake for us humans. One is that we are so constructed to be creators and tellers of stories that we will always be seeking one that gives our lives meaning. It may be political or philosophical or just a simple collection of family folk tales. It may even be a story that justifies our addictive or self-destructive behavior or rationalizes our guilt or self-absorption. But the story of the Risen Lord breathing his New Life into a community that dares to live as he lived, serve as he served, a liberating, healing, forgiving life stands as a beacon to all who would find their way by losing their lives and who save their lives by giving them away. You have that option. The other thing that you need on some level is what I was jittery about as I awaited the great processions wondering who would walk beside me. And that is a way of belonging to a community in which you are unquestionably valued. You are welcome in this community of Christ not in spite of who you are but precisely because of who you are. There are no outcasts, not even those who miss the point or the Spirit or the resurrection appearance when it happens. Just stay connected. Be a part of the fellowship. Live in community. For in this same gospel, the Jesus who was raised from the dead promises to you and to all his disciples that you need have no fear of abandonment, for “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013