Saturday, April 27, 2019

Saint Thomas the Human

Of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Thomas, to me, is the most intriguing. There’s the mystical Thomas, of the Secret Gospel of Thomas, to whom Jesus chooses to divulge his secrets:(1)   Jesus said to his disciples: "Compare me, and tell me whom I am like."
(2) Simon Peter said to him: "You are like a just messenger."
(3) Matthew said to him: "You are like an (especially) wise philosopher."
(4) Thomas said to him:
"Teacher, my mouth will not bear at all to say whom you are like."
(5) Jesus said: "I am not your teacher. For you have drunk, you have
become intoxicated at the bubbling spring that I have measured out."
(6) And he took him, (and) withdrew, (and) he said three words to him.
(7) But when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him:
"What did Jesus say to you?"
(8) Thomas said to them: "If I tell you one of the words he said to me,
you will pick up stones and throw them at me,
and fire will come out of the stones (and) burn you up."

-Saying 13 Patterson/Robinson translation 

And then there’s the other mystical Thomas, of The Book of Thomas  the Contender, who is portrayed as the twin brother of Jesus:  

The savior said, "Brother Thomas while you have time in the world, listen to me, and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered in your mind.

"Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are, in what way you exist, and how you will come to be. Since you will be called my brother, it is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself. And I know that you have understood, because you had already understood that I am the knowledge of the truth. So while you accompany me, although you are uncomprehending, you have (in fact) already come to know, and you will be called 'the one who knows himself'. For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the all. So then, you, my brother Thomas, have beheld what is obscure to men, that is, what they ignorantly stumble against."  

-from the John D. Turner translation 

The Acts of Thomas, a third-century writing, portrays Thomas as a missionary to India, as well as a twin brother of Jesus, who performs miracles and admonishes a newly-married couple to abstain from sex. This Thomas makes the Puritans look like free love advocates. 

But, of course, the Thomas we know best is the Thomas of John’s Gospel, the disciple who was not present in the Upper Room when the risen Christ first appeared to the other apostles. When told of this miracle, he took the disciples’ tales with more than a grain of salt: 

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

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

(John 20:25b-29 (NRSV) 

Thomas does not go so far as to put his hand in Jesus’ side, but he got the point. It’s always seemed unfair that Thomas is singled out and admonished by Jesus because of his doubt, while the other disciples were never so tested. Professor Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003), argues that the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with the Gospel of Thomas, and used the story to discredit the disciple as insufficiently trusting. 

The theologian Marcus Borg made a distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus, with the Gospel of John portrait of Jesus being very much a post-Easter one. John does not follow the narrative of the three synoptic Gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but presents us with a mystical Jesus who says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” -John 14:6 (NRSV) John’s Christ puts a premium on belief, as opposed to, say, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, or Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, where actions and attitudes are the focus.  

Perhaps Pagels is right—that the author of John wanted to discredit the Thomas of the Gnostic Gospel. But even if he did the Thomas portrayed in John’s Gospel is a sympathetic character because he’s so human—of course he’s unwilling to believe a dead man could come back to life. (In the synoptic Gospels, the male disciples don’t believe Mary Magdalene when she announces the Resurrection, but Jesus never admonishes them for unbelief.) Yet for someone raised as an agnostic and still having a difficult time with belief, I identify with this Thomas. I was confirmed at Trinity, Iowa City, in 1979, which was not Anglo-Catholic enough at the time to require confirmation names. If it had, mine would have been Thomas. 

In the Anglican Communion, the feast of St. Thomas is December 21, so he’s lost in the pre-Christmas anxiety. The Roman Catholics celebrate him on July 3, which means he loses out to Independence Day in the United States. So the most reliable celebration of St. Thomas is the Second Sunday of Easter, when the Gospel reading is the story of Thomas’s doubt and belief. And, of course, the service ought to include the singing of “O Sons and Daughters, Let Us Sing!” 

I’m still fascinated with the mystical Thomas of the Gnostic Gospels and curious about the Acts of Thomas. But the all-too-human Thomas of John’s Gospel resonates with me.

Image: St. Thomas by El Greco (Wikimedia Commons)