Who Says We're not All Doubters?: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 1 May 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 1 May 2011 (Second Sunday of Easter, Year A)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32Psalm 161 Peter 1:3-9John 20:19-31

Thomas wasn’t there, and that matters.

Too often, when I’ve heard people talk about the “doubting Thomas” story, the verses immediately leading up to his most famous ultimatum (“Unless I see…”) never figure into the account, and the whole encounter becomes an allegory for modern atheists and modern believers, as if Thomas, though he had been among Jesus’s friends just as any of the others had been, had remained a sort of Enlightenment-style skeptic, one unwilling to entertain the possibility of “miracles” where the rest of those called friends of the master simply did not have the intellectual reservations that Thomas did.

Nonsense.

A slightly closer look and a bit of imagination reveal a different sort of story, one in which Thomas is away from the locked place (perhaps to get supplies, or perhaps to investigate how close the Judeans, the regional authorities, were to closing in on the followers of the recently-executed subversive), then returns no doubt to meet a room full of people who claim that their dead teacher had appeared to them bodily, breathed on them, and granted to them (but not to Thomas, because Thomas wasn’t there, and that matters) authority to bind and forgive sins, the temple-authority that made Jesus both such a danger to the Temple faction and an insult to those whose lives were ordered around living holy lives for the sake of God’s coming kingdom.  In short, as Jesus acted on earth as a Davidic king, Thomas’s fellow disciples were claiming that they were now the same kingly figures.  Thomas was not some proto-David-Hume so much as he was a faithful follower, a bit slow to grant that the followers of Jesus could themselves act as agents of Jesus now that Jesus was gone.

Knowing this casts a slightly different light on the words of Christ when he appears in the room: the faithfulness that Christ commends in those “who do not see” certainly involves the modern sense of “belief,” but another part of that faithfulness is faithfulness to the apostles, those who were there (now including Thomas) and whose authority and testimony now govern the Church.  Certainly one too readily given to suspicion (not unlike Thomas) could see such a move on the written gospel’s part as a sort of power grab, a legitimizing move, and certainly there’s been no shortage of scholars in the last couple hundred years who have made just that move, preferring to set themselves up as the authoritative Jesus-story-tellers by casting suspicion about the centuries-long authoritative texts.  My point here is not that this text dispels the possibility of such a move but that it boldly sets the possibility forth, anticipating the central rhetorical move of the Jesus Seminar and their less-famous compatriots, noting that even Jesus’s disciples were given to suspect that their fellow-apostles might not be trustworthy.

Thus right before the Gospel of John affirms its own purpose, to write the signs so that faithfulness might ensue, the mysterious fourth gospel poses the first hermeneutics-of-suspicion reading of the Gospel of John.  Derrida could not hope for a better example of a text that asks for its own deconstruction.  But in a book where the final teaching of Jesus before the crucifixion is the dizzying prayer of mystical unity in John 17, such a move is fitting.  I only wish that it would give us moderns, who tend to take the written as already suspicious, something more to go on.  Perhaps our own souls need some adjusting.

As Eastertide continues, may God grant us faithfulness to what stands written, even when our pride would put to the test the most holy text.

 

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