Today’s Gospel for Divine Mercy Sunday (offered elsewhere in Lectionary Readings Year A, so, 2011) features Thomas the Apostle who needs to investigate Christ’s wounds to see if they are real. It is a story of the human condition.  I have some empathy for Thomas, although at the same time, why was he the only one to want to touch them in order to believe?  The Caravaggio painting above, The Incredulity of St Thomas, expresses this well, although it should be made clear that the Bible never states that Thomas actually touched Christ’s wounds.  Nonetheless, it is a dramatic illustration of this encounter and poses an interesting thought — what if?

Today’s reading comes from the New American Standard Bible.

John 20:19-31

Jesus among His Disciples

 19So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ” Peace be with you.”

 20And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

 21So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”

 22And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

 23“If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

 24But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

 25So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

 26After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”

 27Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

 28Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

 29Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Why This Gospel Was Written

 30Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;

 31but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

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The beginning of this chapter recounts the events of Easter morning: the empty sepulchre, two angels greeting a weeping Mary Magdalene at its entrance, followed by Christ’s appearing before this faithful woman. He instructs her to tell the disciples what she has seen. This account ties with the Gospel of Mark (16:9).  Christ has cast out seven demons from this lady as a reward for her faith and constancy.  Through this act He was also sending a message to the disciples, as if to say, ‘Why is it that Mary Magdalene was there at the tomb and you were not?’

Christ is no longer the daily companion to His friends as he was prior to the Resurrection.  Mary Magdalene reaches out to grasp His hand and He tells her not to.  He wants her to understand that He is not the same Jesus that He was a few days ago.  To touch His hand would now be a familiar gesture.  He permits some contact but in a reverential context. Women touch His feet in worship. He allows the disciples to touch Him to confirm their faith and understand that He is alive again in human, not spirit, form.  However, He will no longer appear to them regularly.  He needs to wean them off seeing Him every day, for He will soon be joining His Father in Heaven. 

Our passage begins that evening, when 10 of the 11 remaining disciples gather together in a secluded room. (Remember that Judas, the betrayer, committed suicide on Good Friday.) For some unspecified reason Thomas (or Didymus, ‘the Twin’) is not among them (verse 24).  Verse 19 indicates the characteristics of our churches today:

– This event took place on the first day of the week — Sunday

– The disciples assembled solemnly to remember our Lord as well as experience His presence (Matthew 18:20) and fellowship

– Even though they feared being arrested and persecuted, they made sure they were together, albeit in secret under those circumstances

What did the disciples fear?  The Jews could have arrested them as being guilty by association with the crucified Jesus.  They, too, may have been sought in connection with His ‘crimes’. 

Note that Our Lord greets them with a benediction, ‘Peace be with you’, meaning being at peace within themselves and at peace with one another through the peace of Christ Jesus. 

He then shows them His wounds.  How happy they must have been. ‘Christ has risen! Christ is Lord!’   Now they believe Mary Magdalene’s account.  Jesus’s prophecies have come true. 

In verse 21, Christ again says, ‘Peace be with you’ — the same benediction that Gideon received in his own commission from God (Judges 6:22-23). Our Lord then tells them they must now go and preach The Word.  They have experienced His life, watched Him die and now they have seen Him risen.  They must now tell the world, take His peace to the people in His name and under His authority. A commission from Jesus Christ has the same authority as one from God the Father. And the disciples are to begin immediately.  Christ breathes upon them (verse 22), and they are filled with the Holy Spirit.  By doing this, Christ is conferring upon them full ability and grace to carry out His work.  They would have realised that no one before had ever been able to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit, even Moses.  But, because the Holy Spirit is Christ’s own gift, He is able to give it to the disciples directly.  Today’s believers in Christ are also to receive and use His gift of the Holy Spirit.  This is why Confirmation is so important.   

In verse 23, Christ gives His disciples instructions on forgiving and retaining (not forgiving) sins.  In other words, if the disciples forgive a sin, Christ will consider that sin forgiven when the person dies and is judged by God.  If the disciples do not forgive a sin, Christ and God the Father will hold that sin against the person who committed it.  Even today, our own ordained ministers and priests accomplish this by preaching sound doctrine and by exerting church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).

Afterward, the disciples tell Thomas, who had been absent, about their encounter with the Risen Christ (verse 25).  Thomas says he doesn’t believe it.  Hence, the expression ‘doubting Thomas’.  Thomas says he must see and touch all of Christ’s wounds.

I mentioned earlier that Christ’s appearances to His apostles would become less frequent.  They would have to learn to carry on His work without Him.  Christ appears to all the assembled disciples again eight days later (verse 26).  He targets Thomas immediately, asking him to investigate His wounds for himself (verse 27).  Note that Thomas is the only one who said he would not only need to see but place his finger in the wounds.  Christ is, in effect, saying, ‘Your friends didn’t need to touch Me in order to believe, yet you do.  Don’t insist on conducting your own proof, just have faith!’  Thomas was guilty of a) not believing Jesus’s prophecies, b) mistrusting what the disciples told him and c) placing himself above Our Lord by challenging Him.  This isn’t too far removed from asking God and His Son for ‘signs’ or ‘wonders’.  We saw the High Priests do this in Matthew 16:1-12, but some churchgoers and ordained today are also guilty of this.  Indeed, the other disciples recognise Thomas’s sin; they are ashamed for him and somewhat discouraged by his open scepticism.  Remember, they are still absorbing the significance of what has happened over the past few weeks.                      

But, in the end, Thomas doesn’t need to touch Christ’s wounds.  He simply and sincerely exclaims (verse 28), ‘My Lord and my God!’  This must come as a relief to the disciples.  If Thomas had been forever doubting, they would have had problems preaching the Word.  In verse 29, Jesus gently rebukes him by essentially saying, ‘Now are you happy that you have seen and feel able to believe?  What about those who have not seen and yet believed?’   

In his Commentary, Matthew Henry says that Thomas’s open belief could only serve to strengthen the disciples’ faith: ‘Thus out of the eater came forth meat.’  Their ‘milk’ days were over now.  Furthermore, Christ establishes His authority and Himself as our mediator and advocate with God the Father: He is Lord!  Therefore, we, too, must believe. 

With regard to the last two verses, many people wonder why the New Testament doesn’t have more records of Christ’s miracles. If they weren’t divinely inspired, that is, if it had been up to man to write them of his own power, the Gospels would have been filled with marvels and testimonies.  As it was, God did not want signs and wonders to overshadow the bringing of men and women to believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ.  If we refuse to believe one of His miracles, why then would we believe in more of them?  The authors of these divinely-inspired accounts made sure they were credible, true and persuasive.  Yet, as Jesus quoted Abraham in the story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ 

The final verse (31) is a beautiful one:

these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. 

What a wonderful thought for the week ahead!

For further reading see:

Matthew Henry’s Commentary

Thomas the Apostle

Biography of St Thomas the Apostle

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