Note: It turns out that this essay is part two of an earlier essay about the Gospel of Mark. I wrote that essay as a stand-alone, but after the essay was done, my mind kept working.
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I’ve been pondering Thomas, who doesn’t come off too well in John’s gospel. He’s presented as the guy who never quite puts all the pieces together. He ultimately believes but in the process shows himself to be a day late and dollar short (which is why Thomas Sunday is a week after Resurrection Sunday).
When Jesus says he’s going to the Jerusalem suburbs to visit Lazarus (and ultimately raise him from the dead) … in spite of the fact that the Jerusalem religious leaders are trying to kill Jesus … Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). When Jesus says “You know where I’m going” (ie, back to his Father), Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5).
And of course there’s the most famous Thomas story … or actually an absence of Thomas story. Jesus appears to the apostles right after his resurrection (Jn 20) but Thomas is absent. He says he will not believe that Jesus is risen from the dead unless he can see him for himself and examine the wounds. The next Sunday (what we now observe as Thomas Sunday) Jesus appears to the apostles again with Thomas present. Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not be faithless, but believing. … Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:26f).
Thomas’s doubt and lack of insight point to an important characteristic of the Church that wouldn’t be obvious and probably wouldn’t be celebrated if it weren’t for his bumbling. Part of the strength of the Church is that certain members are weak. I think it’s safe to say that Thomas wasn’t a cynic, just a slow learner. He did finally confess Jesus as “my Lord and my God,” after all. But unlike certain other apostles who seemed to grasp the truth of the matter immediately, Thomas required both time and help to work things through before arriving at the truth of the matter that others grasped immediately.
This dynamic of struggling with the truth, of being seemingly dense to ultimate reality, balances out the dynamic of immediate insight and flashes of brilliance. The quick learners are there to bring everyone else along while the slow learners are there to keep the Church from running ahead of itself.
A similar example is the community at Corinth. They failed to understand many fundamental Christian principles and Paul’s corrections of their failure now serve as the basis for our own sorting out of these difficult questions. If Paul never would have written those letters, the Church would be poorer and weaker for it.
In this sense the Apostle Thomas and John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, are quite similar. They both fall short of completion or perfection; they are still on the Way toward the final Truth. And precisely because of their imperfections the Church is far more rich and complete (dare I say, because of their imperfections the Church can be perfect?). Even though the Gospel of Mark isn’t the last word on the Good News of Jesus (as I wrote about in the previous post), his perspective of terror and failure have provided great comfort and understanding to countless generations of Christians who might have otherwise thought they were spineless and thus unworthy to be part of the Church. Similarly, Thomas’s doubts have given strength to countless generations whose faith has been weak in the face of uncertainty.
A perfect church, aside from being totally annoying to be around, would be a weak and ineffectual church. It would have little ability to empathize with the larger community because it wouldn’t face the same troubles. Likewise, when true persecution or trouble come along it would not be prepared for such unexpected things. Our greatest strength, as the Body of Christ, is the fact that more often than not we don’t get it right the first time. Mark’s Gospel isn’t complete without Luke and Matthew; the flip side is that the struggle that leads to the joy of Luke and Matthew wouldn’t be very clear without Mark.
Similarly, the Easter joy of the apostles could possibly be written off. (In today’s psychologically driven world we might blame the strain of the day or lack of sleep … or, if we dip into Mark … the sheer terror of events.) But when the whole scene is repeated a week later, after the immediacy has worn off a bit, the resurrection is reaffirmed by the hold-out, Thomas. Just as Matthew and Luke need Mark, so Easter needs Thomas Sunday in order for its glory to be grasped.
Christ is risen! Indeed, he is risen! … except, now we can say it without sleep deprivation. It’s no longer just an excited verbal ejaculation. It has become an article of authentic faith.