When a gifted former student of mine in worship and preaching, Pastor Mark Rigg––now serving a Lutheran (ELCA) church in Pennsylvania––preached this Gospel text one spring, he turned our attention away from Thomas’s inability to believe and toward noticing that Thomas receives faith from the Risen One. The story is told in such a way that Christ appears already knowing Thomas’s announcement that he wants to see and feel the marks of Jesus’ suffering.
Jesus invites Thomas into exactly what Thomas needs.
The visceral nature of this faith-creation is one way we can come to think of the meal of bread and wine. It is as if, in the meal of Jesus’ body and blood, we become Thomas, again and again being given what we, perhaps, did not even know we needed.
Fritz West’s approach to the story of Jesus and Thomas (in Homily Service 2006) extends the image by connecting it with other narratives in our tradition.
How do persons come to believe? Through the gift of the Holy Spirit. John 20:19–31 fulfills promises concerning the Holy Spirit that Jesus made in the Farewell Discourses (John 14:15–31). The two passages may be read in parallel. Above all, the promise of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26) is fulfilled in its bestowal (John 20:22). This makes of the church a new creation, for the verb to breathe echoes God’s breathing life into the first human (Genesis 2:7).
Further, the Holy Spirit brings gifts: peace (John 20:21, 26; cf. 14:27), sight (John 20:24–29; cf. 14:17), and presence (John 20:19–29; cf. 14:18). This last is Jesus’ gift to Thomas, who asks for his presence and receives it—graphically.
What about us, who have no opportunity to see Jesus in the flesh with our very own eyes? How can we believe? This passage assures us that Jesus will give us what we need. Thomas did not believe because he had the opportunity to stick his intact finger in Jesus’ open wound, but because Jesus gave him what he needed to believe, a pattern found throughout John’s gospel (John 4:1–26; 5:1–9; 9:35–38; 11:1–44). Thomas’ declaration of faith “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) shows that he truly saw the Father in the Son (John 14:7).
Jesus gives us what we need to believe as well: the witness of the disciples on the wings of the Spirit. In another tie with creation, the disciples’ testimony moves beyond the word of an eyewitness to become the Word of God. In breathing the Holy Spirit into the disciples, Jesus empowered the church to witness to him as he had witnessed to the Father. As his revelation gave sight to believers, so can their testimony. – Fritz West
“To each according to need,” central to communist ideology, is also here in the Acts account of how the followers of the risen one first lived together. Those with property sold it, “laid it at the apostles’ feet…” and distributed it.
Instead of merely handing out charity to the poorest, they invited everyone to own everything together, share everything, and no one, as a consequence, was poor any longer. “There was not a needy person among them.”
This is an image of church that ought to utterly scare us who live in the competitive, individualistic, economy-worshipping First World. Share?!!! Everything?!!! What would that be like?
To believe so strongly in the resurrection that all trust is thrown into reliance on God’s Spirit moving in the community is an unbelievable prospect. As G. K. Chesterton is known to have said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and left untried.”
1 John 1:1––2:2
“…[I]f we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have communion with one another…”
Let the preaching on this day offer countless possibilities for surprise and delight that could come to us were we, in our homes and churches, to follow in the ways of our ancestors, to ask for the faith we long to have. This might be a Sunday for dreaming about impossible answers to intractable problems––like poverty. Faith in a resurrected truth can lead to . . . What?!
Fritz West is pastor of St. John's United Church of Christ, Fountain City, Wisconsin, and liturgical writer and author of Scripture and Memory: the Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionary (The Liturgical Press, 1997).
Homily Service 39, no. 5 (2006): 46-55.