Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Many of us like this gospel (John 20:19-31) at a superficial level. We feel comforted by Thomas’ incredulity and can identify with it; but a more thoughtful and careful reading of the text and the readings chosen to accompany it points to a different message.
We have already been told that Jesus instructed the disciples to look at the marks of crucifixion on his body and thus affirms his bodily resurrection to a group of his followers, and also Jesus himself breathes the Holy Spirit upon them for the forgiveness and retention of sins. This means that as a community of believers they are immediately entrusted with a special task; that of keeping the growing community of believers firm in the faith; sent out as bearers of the gospel of redemption. This is a special and unique moment, made clear by the choice of the rare Greek word for ‘breathed’, akin to that in Greek Old Testament translations of Genesis 1 at the moment of creation. For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, this then is not a time of doubt or dissension but of absolute certainty and knowledge of what one was doing.
However this account of the doubt and double redemption of Thomas by a very bodily risen Jesus seems to serve a number of needs. Jesus now invites Thomas to have a good old feel of his wounds, so leaving everyone in no doubt at to the reality of his resurrected body. It appears that even then there were those who suggested that the ‘resurrection’ was merely some psychological event, and not to be taken too seriously. Thomas’s turn-about acts to dispel such suggestions, and also acts as a thorough ticking off to this rather unwilling follower. It also emphasises the absolute centrality of the Christian community – we are worshippers of the risen and glorified Christ not in solitary isolation or in the cosiness of our own homes or even in the closet of our own believing, but fundamentally as a community – here, the Community of the Beloved Disciple – and it brooks no ‘doing of one’s own thing’.
But why is this so important? Perhaps the answer lies in the accompanying two readings which serve to direct us in a very particular direction. Firstly, our reading – significantly from the Johannine letters, (1 John 5:1-6). What struck me here was the plurality of things – the constant use of ‘we’…. This is a message, as is the case throughout this series of letters, to a community of believers; people held together even over considerable distances by their common faith and their conviction of the special relationship this created for each believer in God the Father, and through that with every other follower of Christ. We get the impression of tightly knit communities of believers joined together against the ‘world’. Not that the communities of Johannine Christians were revolutionaries, but, by the 80’s-90’s when he was writing, they were increasingly groups under pressure. It was their unity and solidarity over the Mediterranean which kept them going and allowed them to spread their faith in Jesus. Community was, and continued to be, fundamental to their faith.
This message is backed up by our first reading from Acts – written at about the same time as both John’s gospel and his Letters. (Acts 4:32-35). “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul…” It is precisely because of this unity in faith and practice, this commonly held understanding of what Jesus’ life and death and resurrection had achieved, that they were able to be the great sharing and caring communities that they were. Acts goes on to speak of their financial and no doubt other forms of care exercised by each group, and this can only really be made sense of when we understand Jesus’ great prayer in John 17 that we be one precisely as He and the Father are one.
Some of you may be asking why it is that we no longer seem to have this near communistic understanding of the Christian life, and I do wonder if this somewhat idealistic picture was common everywhere even in the earliest days. What we do know is that Christians from very early on emphasised their worship together and their mutual care for each other, expressed in works of charity and almsgiving. To be a follower of Christ, it is absolutely essential that we meet together regularly for our corporate worship of the risen Lord in the Eucharist, and to meet as the community of carers and healers moulded in his image. To say we are Christians and not to go regularly to church is not merely an anachronism, it defies the reason for which he died.