There are two resurrection appearances by Jesus recorded in today’s Gospel. The first occurs on the very day of the resurrection itself. Jesus has already appeared in the morning to Mary Magdalene who mistook him for a gardener and then in the evening of that same day he appears to the Apostles who are hiding in a room somewhere. We are not sure if this is the same room in which they celebrated the Last Supper although it is popularly thought to be one and the same room. However, John does not actually specify which room he is talking about.
The narrative centres around Thomas who is not present when Jesus appears to his fellow Apostles. When they tell him how Jesus appeared to them in the room, he quite flatly doesn’t believe them. Now in the text there is a little phrase that gives us a clue as to why he was so disbelieving. The little phrase is this: 'Thomas, called the twin, was not with them when Jesus came.' We need to ask why Thomas was called ‘the twin’. If he was an actual twin then the text would simply read: ‘Thomas the twin.’ But it says that he was ‘called the twin.’
Now the name Thomas literally means twin. But if a couple actually had twins they would be very unlikely to call one of them ‘twin’ as their given name. So, it is very likely that this is a nickname. There is an old theory that Thomas looked very like Jesus and was often mistaken for him. If this theory is right it might explain Thomas’ doubt. He would most likely have thought that the other Apostles had mistaken someone else for Jesus because the very same thing was happening to him all the time. This gives us a plausible explanation for Thomas’ doubt.
Actually, when Jesus appears again eight days later Thomas makes one of the most profound statements of belief to be found in the New Testament when he says ‘My Lord and my God.’ He is the first person to attest to Jesus’ divinity and he does so long before anyone else.
St Thomas is often regarded as the patron saint of doubters. Doubt is something that afflicts a lot of people. I’m not talking here about uncertainty which is the common or garden type of doubt. What I am talking about is doubt as a spiritual affliction. Many people go on for years very firm in their faith and then out of the blue start to experience serious doubts about their faith. They start to question the existence of God and worry whether religion is perhaps a gigantic deception put about by priests and other people with vested interests.
Doubt as a spiritual affliction is not easy to deal with because those who suffer from them start to worry that their doubts might be held against them when they face divine judgement. It is hard for them to untangle their doubts and come to the realisation that they are actually experiencing what is known as a spiritual attack. The fact they are sure that they will face judgement is confirmation that their actual faith is still strong. What needs to be realised is that these spiritual doubts come in fact from the Evil One who loves to disturb and undermine faith wherever he finds it.
When a person experiences such doubts the best thing that they can do is to talk to a priest about them. He may be able to give then the perspective that they are lacking at that moment. Another good thing to do is to turn to St Thomas and to ask him to ease these doubts that trouble them so much.
We know that Thomas travelled widely and that he brought Christianity to the people of India. In Kerala they are known as St Thomas Christians. He was martyred in Madras, or Chennai as it is now called. So, we are dealing with a vigorous Apostle; one who was strong in his faith, one with the ability to convert many others to Christianity.
We should not overlook the first appearance of the Risen Jesus to the Apostles. He says to them: ‘As the Father sent me, so am I sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’
These words imply two things firstly that the Apostles are now Christ’s representatives. They are to act just as he would in the world. As he was sent by the Father so now the Apostles are sent by Jesus to fulfil his mission in the world.
And in order to be effective in this task he then gives them a most extraordinary weapon; he gives them the power to forgive sins. The forgiveness of sins, salvation in other words, is the reason why Jesus came into our world and he now bestows this power on the Apostles so that they can pursue their ministry of making people aware of the salvation that Christ won for them.
Their task is to be one of teaching and healing. They are to tell people about the Good News of Jesus Christ and to heal people from their afflictions which are primarily their sins. Theirs then is a very powerful ministry and it continues today in the ministry of Bishops and priests to the People of God.
It is not just knowledge of salvation that the Apostles are to give to the people but also the experience of salvation. And this is best expressed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation where we experience the forgiveness of our sins. It is hard to underestimate the importance of this most wonderful sacrament.
The main role of the Apostles is to bring people to faith. The way to do this is not to convince others by force of argument but simply to tell the story of Jesus and let people draw their own conclusions. Tricky arguments won’t win anyone over. What people want is exactly the same as what Thomas wanted that is an encounter with the Risen Lord. We cannot do this directly since Jesus has ascended to the Father but we can do it indirectly by hearing the stories of Jesus and the people he associated with.
Learning how Thomas came to express such a profound act of faith is exactly the sort of thing that inspires faith others. Seeing how Thomas moved from total disbelief in the resurrection to a high level of faith help us to realise that we can do the same. We too can join with Thomas and say those same words, ‘My Lord and my God.’
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket