Clocks, in particular analog clocks, are curious things. Now, when I was growing up, we only had analog clocks; if digital clocks had been invented, then they were only for the “wealthy.” So I grew up with analog clocks. Most kids today have only seen digital clocks. [Wednesday night – going “clockwise.”]
Consider the journey that a clock makes from midnight to midday. The hands start together at 12. Then they take their time making their separate way around the clock face. Finally they come back together again. It’s the same time as it was when we started, except that it is a half-day later. It is a different time because of all that has happened in between, but for the clock it’s the same time.
That feeling of same-yet-different, of coming full circle & ending up where we started, is what John intends us to have as his Gospel comes to its original ending. (Most scholars believe that chapter 21 may have been added sometime later.) With this story of Thomas, & with chapter 20 as a whole, what John sets out to tell us in his Gospel, from those unforgettable opening lines onward, has been completed. The story has taken its time, going this way & then that. We’ve met many interesting characters & watched them interact with Jesus. Some have misunderstood him. Some have been downright hostile. Some – often to their own surprise – have come to believe in him. And today we have another such character to add to John’s vivid collection of characters. Thomas brings the book around to where we started, with his breathtaking statement of new-found faith.
My Lord & my God, he says. He is the first person in this book to look at Jesus of Nazareth & address him as “God.” Yet this is what John has been working to from the beginning. In the beginning was the Word… & the Word was God. No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. What does that mean? What does it look like when it is actually happening? Well, says John, it looks like this… & off we go, through Galilee & Jerusalem, back & forth, moments of glory & doom woven together until they meet on the cross. Now, a week after Easter, it looks like this: a confused, discouraged disciple, determined not to be taken in, standing on his rights not to believe anything until he has solid evidence. Then he is confronted by a smiling Jesus who has just walked, as he did the previous week, through a locked door. This, according to John, is what the Gospel looks like.
And of course it baffles Thomas just as it baffles us. What sort of a person – what sort of an object – are we dealing with here? The whole point of the story is that it is the same Jesus. The marks of the nails in his hands. The wound in his side, big enough to put your hand into. This isn’t a ghost. Nor is it someone else pretending to be Jesus. This is him. This is the body that the grave cloths couldn’t contain any longer.
But he has not only escaped death, the grave, the cloths & the spices. He comes & goes as though he belongs both in our world & in a different world, one that intersects with ours at various points but doesn’t use the same geography. If this is fiction, it is the strangest fiction ever written. And John certainly doesn’t intend it as fiction!
Thomas, God bless him, acts as we would expect. John usually presents his characters as more 3-dimensional & real than the other gospel writers. The dour, discouraged disciple who suggested they might as well go with Jesus, if only to die with him, who complained that Jesus hadn’t made things clear enough about where he was going, just happened to be the one who was somewhere else on the first Easter day. He sees the others excited, elated, unable to contain their joy. But he’s not going to be taken in.
That’s fair enough. At the end, Jesus issues a gentle rebuke to Thomas for needing to see before he would believe; but notice that the beloved disciple who got to the tomb first arrived at faith in the same way. He saw & believed. This isn’t, then, so much a rebuke to Thomas; it is more an encouragement to those who come later, to people of subsequent generations. We are all blessed when, without having seen the risen Lord for ourselves, we nevertheless believe in him.
If the Word who was God has now made the invisible God visible, so also, as in chapter 1, this chapter has described how he has brought life & light to the world. The resurrection is not an alien power breaking into God’s world; it is what happens when the Creator himself comes to heal & restore his world, & bring it to its appointed purpose. The resurrection is not only new creation; it is new creation.
We must understand this to have a healthy Christian faith. Any sense that Jesus starts a movement which is somehow opposed to, or can leave behind, the world God made in the first place is excluded from this Gospel from start to finish. The wheel has come full circle. The clock has returned to where it began. We have, as TS Eliot said, arrived at the place where we started, to discover that now we know it for the first time.
The rest of chapter 1 after the Prologue – verses 19-51 – have as their central theme the surprising discovery that the Messiah, the Son of God, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, so John concludes chapter 20 by insisting that, out of the great mass of material he could have selected, he has chosen these miraculous signs so that we, his readers, may come to that faith for ourselves. The first half of verse 31 states it clearly: So that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son.
The early disciples, first-century Jews as they were, were looking for a Messiah, & were surprised to discover that it was Jesus.
Jesus wasn’t the Messiah they were expecting. He wasn’t a warrior-king who would free them from the Romans. Instead he was the humble King who delivered them from sin. That is what John’s Gospel is all about. And the point is to believe in Jesus, & so, through this faith, to have life in his name. Through the Word was life, John said at the beginning; & that life can be in you too. As it was for Thomas, so it is for us. It is a matter of faith.