A reflection on the readings for Easter 2A: Acts 2:14-41, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31 by
Janine Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.
Everything in this week’s readings is about the assurance of faith, the certainty of belief in a God who has done certain things and can be trusted completely.
Everything except the Gospel.
I love that.
I love it because the Gospels are not the stories of perfect people getting it about God on the first try, but of misunderstandings and blunders and the whooshing sound that the point makes going over everyone’s heads. (Ever notice how often Jesus hears that sound? His physical presence was no guarantee that anyone would get what he was saying.) I love it because the stories in the Gospels show that faith is not a course we take for a grade, but a life we live. I love it because stories like this one show conclusively that we are not required to be perfect disciples—there are no perfect disciples. I love it because the story of Thomas, and the story of Mary Magdalene at the beginning of this chapter, are about people struggling with their faith, misunderstanding what they see and hear, and going on in faith anyhow. On a personal note, I love it because despite a lifetime of faith and throughout a lot of attempts to be more certain than I am capable of being, I’ve never stopped doubting and struggling. I’ve come to believe that those attempts to be certain were a waste of time—time that could have been better used asking the tough questions aloud.
The story of Thomas is part of a larger story. Chapter 20 begins with Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb and meeting Jesus, a story some of us heard last Sunday; its center is Jesus’ appearing to the disciples and breathing out the Spirit upon them in the first part of today’s reading; then comes the story of Thomas. Thomas seems not to have believed Mary Magdalene, and he certainly isn’t impressed by the story of a whole group of disciples. Thomas wants his answer his way. Unlike most of us, he gets his answer his way.
No one in these stories is perfect. The beloved disciple, extolled by many commentators as the perfect example of faith and as superior to Mary Magdalene and Thomas, misses seeing Jesus at the tomb because he has run away, leaving his sister disciple weeping alone; he believes, but the text gives no evidence that he shared his belief with others. It’s not clear that Peter believes anything at the tomb. Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, and he has to tell her not to cling to him. The disciples see Jesus in the room with them because they are, despite Mary’s witness, hiding from the world outside. And then there’s Thomas, the kind of difficult person who says what others won’t admit they are thinking.
Many of us have been taught, over the years, to hear “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” as a rebuke to Thomas—and, by extension, a rebuke to us if we have trouble believing. It need not be read that way. It could be, instead, a way of acknowledging our doubts and our difficulties, our imperfect faith. It could be Jesus’ way of allowing us space to doubt like Thomas, to misunderstand Jesus’ appearance like Mary Magdalene, to remain silent when we could speak like the beloved disciple—and still to be present when Jesus is among us offering the Spirit.
Thomas and Mary do the one most important thing: they keep trying. Their faith and their perceptions are limited, but they keep seeking Jesus. They do so imperfectly, and Jesus comes to them anyway. They trust enough to keep going. Their struggles are ours, and we need not fear our own. Even in John, the gospel with an insistence on the divinity and pre-existence of Jesus, the gospel with the most exalted view of Jesus, the gospel in which Jesus is shown as foreseeing everything and predicting everything, shows the disciples as people with faith as imperfect as ours. Jesus works with that. He wants to be with people who ask questions, get it wrong, and even give him attitude.
Thomas and Magdalene have moments of certainty, as do all the followers of Jesus, and they tell each other about them. For many of them, their faith will lead to death; for all of them, it will last through their lives. It will not always be certain. It will not always be free of doubt. It will be enough.
Before I read theology, I read a lot of devotional books on how to have complete, joyous, permanent faith that wouldn’t take a stain or sustain a dent. They always produced considerable despair in me because I never had that kind of faith. Perhaps that is behind my uneasy response to the passages that are all about certainty and are the reason I like this Gospel better. Perhaps, having seen that neither doubt and certainty are the final word about one’s faith, I will be able to embrace certainty more.
Yes, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia. No, we aren’t always sure of that. No, that doesn’t settle everything. Yes, we still doubt and make mistakes and persist in looking for Jesus. Jesus is still with us and still offering the Spirit, which gives not omniscience, but hope. Faith is a conversation between believers, but not a competition: it’s not about who has more faith or less faith, but about what we can learn from each other’s faith and each other’s stories.
I love that.
This reflection owes much to two excellent academic articles by women theologians:
Lee, Dorothy A., “Partnership in Easter Faith: The Role of Mary Magdalene and Thomas,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 58 (1995) 37-49
O’Brien, Kelli S., “Written That You May Believe: John 20 and Narrative Rhetoric,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67, 2005
The work of committed scholars is a great gift to the faith community.