Only John’s Gospel makes Thomas a significant character. The other three Gospels merely list him as one of the disciples. In John’s version of the life and teachings of Jesus, Thomas figures in three episodes. In the Lazarus episode, when Jesus decides to go to raise Lazarus, Thomas says, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) A strange saying. Did he say it sarcastically?
At the last supper, Jesus tells his disciples that he goes to prepare a place for them, so that they might be with him. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:4-7)
And then there is the episode we read today, on this Sunday of Thomas. Thomas stands apart from the other disciples, because of his disbelief. Perhaps that is the reason why he went in the opposite direction from the other disciples. While they went north and west and south, church tradition tells us that he went east, to India. Most Christian churches in India claim Thomas as their founder. Maybe he even traveled as far as Missouri, the “Show Me State” – because Thomas is a show-me kind of person.
He refuses to accept resurrection on hearsay, he wants to experience it directly. He is very modern. And indeed, we the modern followers of Jesus, are blessed because we believe though we have not seen. Remember the Beatitudes in Matthew? Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…? Add another beatitude from today’s Gospel reading: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Belief is the central message. Note how John ends the narrative: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
Believe in order to have life. Jesus did not come so that we would believe in certain statements about God and Jesus. Yes, the Creed is important and is valuable as a community statement of commitment – as we do at every Liturgy. But Jesus came with a message – and we are not called to believe the message, but rather to live the message! And that is why Jesus gave a new commandment: that we love one another, that we love as Christ loved us, that we love as the Father loves the Son!
When Jesus or the Gospel said “Believe” it meant “Trust”. Do you trust the Lord enough to do what he commands? That’s the key question for us today.
He breathed on them, Receive the holy spirit. This is not Pentecost, or a preview of Pentecost! This is an echo of Genesis, when God breathed into Adam, and Adam became a living being (Genesis 2:7). It was the breath of life in Genesis – it is the breath of new life here! Both in Hebrew (rûaḥ) and in Greek (pneuma), the word translated as spirit also means breath, wind.
Receive holy spirit (pneuma aghion) – receive the spirit that allows you to forgive one another. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. This is is not a granting of power to the disciples! This is a responsibility, a heavy responsibility! Think how serious it is if you don’t forgive! The spiritual damage that can result from an unforgiving heart – both to the person who is not forgiven and to the person who refuses to forgive. The consequences could very well be eternal. Human spirit cannot fathom this, only a spirit of holiness, a spirit of new life, a spirit of divine grace, can understand the meaning of forgiveness! This is powerful stuff, that has been turned into priestly authority by the church. “Sad” – as our President might tweet.
All translations use capitals: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” But the Greek text of the New Testament never uses capitals, even for God. We add the capitals. And perhaps we miss the real weight of Jesus’ words and action. He breathed on them and said, “Receive holy spirit.” Only by a spirit that is holy can we truly live, truly love and forgive. Do we trust enough to live in holiness? May the breath of Christ give us life today!