Ancient Answers

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Do you trust?

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!

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A Mother’s Day Answer to Thomas

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you…

Thus begins the first letter of John – the same John who wrote the Gospel in which we read about the doubting Thomas. Can you hear echoes of Thomas’ challenge in the opening of the letter?

“Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.”


A week later Jesus appears to Thomas and satisfies his need to touch and see. If the story ended there it would be just another incident in the Gospels of little relevance to us. But Jesus doesn’t let the story end there, as he says to Thomas and to us:

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” We are those who have not seen and yet believe!

John continues in his first letter:

… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that your joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.

We touch Jesus through each other. The legacy of the light that Jesus brought into the world lives on through us when we walk in the light instead of the darkness.

Eg-NagHamadi-mapIn 1945, a sealed jar was discovered in Egypt near the town of Nag Hammadi. Inside were 12 leather-bound papyrus codices containing 52 books in the Coptic language. These are the famous Gnostic books, of which the most famous is the so-called Gospel of Thomas (full text in English translation here). Whether this was actually written by the disciple Thomas or by someone else claiming to be him is not very important. What is important that this so-called Gospel of Thomas contains 114 sayings of Jesus, without any narrative super-structure, nothing about crucifixion or resurrection – just a series of sayings and bits of dialogue. Some are similar to the sayings we have in our four Gospels, others are totally unique.

Portion of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas with English interlinear translation.

Portion of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas with English interlinear translation. Notice the similarity of Coptic to Greek.

The first page of the Gospel of Thomas in the Nag Hammadi Codex 2 (click to enlarge). The title in large letters refers to the Apokryphon of John which concludes on the top of this page.

The first page of the Gospel of Thomas in the Nag Hammadi Codex 2 (click to enlarge, click a second time to enlarge to full size). The title in large letters refers to the Apokryphon of John which concludes on the top of this page.

In contrast to the doubting Thomas who wanted bodily, physical proof of the resurrection, the Gospel named after him talks only about spiritual resurrection. Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas speaks in language of light and darkness: “There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world.” (Saying 24)

“I am the light over all things. I am all.

From me all things have come and all things have reached me.

Split a piece of wood. I am there.

Lift up the stone and you will find me there.” (Saying 77)

In other words, we are blessed not to have seen and touched the resurrected Jesus – because we can see him everywhere. We see his traces, his presence in every moment of our lives, in everything we see and touch!

Isn’t this also true of us? Isn’t this especially true of mothers? Today is Mother’s Day, and we remember our mothers, whether they are still with us or have gone on to eternal life. My mother lives on in my memories, but also in the things that I associate with her. Someone gave me young dandelions the other day, picked in her garden, and as I ate those dandelions they brought back memories of my mother in Montréal going into the fields every spring to pick young dandelion greens. The memory of those dandelion greens is more precious than a thousand other pleasures in life. My mother-in-law lives on, not only in her children, but also in the all the grandchildren, who have somehow inherited all the goodness and brightness of spirit that I remember in her.

That’s the glory of mothers, and that is also how faith and knowledge of Christ continues down through the ages. Just as our mothers come alive in everything that we associate with our mothers, so also Jesus lives on. Blessed are we how have not seen him and yet believe. Blessed are you, every one of you, who are light and who bring the light of Christ to anyone who will believe because of you!