Today is the Second Sunday of Easter, the Sunday within the Octave of Easter, also known as Mercy Sunday. On this particular Sunday, we hear the familiar story of Jesus’ appearance to the apostles and disciples gathered in the Upper Room. Someone is absent. Thomas is not among them. A week later, again on the first day of the week, Jesus appears to the apostles and disciples. This time Thomas is among them.
Because of Thomas’ reaction to the news that they had seen Jesus, we have come to call him “doubting Thomas.” Why does Thomas doubt? What does he doubt? A knee jerk reaction to this question might lead us to answer that Thomas doubts that Jesus is alive. However, the question of why is far more telling. Perhaps Thomas reasoned that if Jesus was alive and if the apostles and disciples had seen him, why would they still be hiding in the Upper Room a week later? After all, the Gospel tells us that during the first appearance, Jesus had said: “As the Father has sent me, I send you. . .” (John 20:21b) Jesus had sent them to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. Why are they still sitting in that locked room a week later? Yes, Thomas doubted the news. However, his doubts were raised by their own reaction to the news, by the fact that they had not done what they were supposedly told to do.
When Jesus does appear again and invites Thomas to put his finger into the nail marks in his hands and his hand into his pierced side, Thomas says: “My Lord and My God.” (John 20:28b) These are not the words of someone who doubts. These are words of faith. In fact, Thomas is the only character in the entire Gospel to make such a statement. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus has been called many things. He has been addressed as Rabbi, Master, Lord, Teacher, Messiah, the Anointed One. However, Thomas is the only person in the whole Gospel who fulfills the evangelist’s purpose in writing this Gospel. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
Thomas will never lose his nickname. He will always be known as “doubting Thomas.” Truth is, he did doubt. Who wouldn’t? The apostles told him a fantastic story that apparently even they did not believe. If they had believed that Jesus had appeared to them, if they did hear him wish them peace and send them to extend that peace to others through the remission of sin, then they should have been out and about doing just that. Perhaps if they had been, Thomas would have believed them from the outset.
However, there is an important reason for the evangelist to include this story. By the time this Gospel was written, most of the eyewitnesses had themselves perished. The community would now number far more people who had never seen Jesus in the flesh. This community had come to believe not because they had seen, but because they had heard. Jesus’ answer to Thomas’ doubts are words of encouragement for you and me. We are numbered in this lot. We have not seen, but we have believed. Our faith gains us Jesus’ high praise: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” (John 20:29b)
Of course, the story also carries with it an admonition. If we believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, if we believe that Jesus has commissioned us to preach the Good News of the remission of sins, then we had better not be found in locked rooms telling stories about the Lord. We have been sent just as the first disciples of Jesus were sent. Jesus has breathed on us just as he breathed on them. Jesus has told us to forgive the sins of others just as surely as he told the crowd in the Upper Room to do so. If there are people who still doubt that Jesus is risen, perhaps we need to reexamine whether we have done as we have been bidden. Just as Thomas’s doubts were born of the inactivity of his fellow apostles, perhaps the world doubts because of our inactivity.
As I said at the outset, this Sunday has been called Mercy Sunday. Our Holy Father Francis has used this particular Sunday to proclaim a Holy Year of Mercy beginning this coming December 8. I wonder whether that proclamation would have been necessary if we had heeded the commission of Jesus in the first place. If God’s mercy were the content of our message, perhaps there would be fewer “doubting Thomases” in our world today.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator