Progressive reflections on the lectionary #11

John 20:19-31 The trouble with doubting Thomas

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #11

There are some passages which just seem to deliberately create problems. Passages which contradict or at least ‘muddy the waters’ of other passages. This is one of them.

There are a number of approaches which might be taken when looking at John’s story of Jesus appearing to the disciples. The thinnest is also the most memorable. Doubting Thomas: so good a nickname that it’s stuck around for about 2000 years. People love to preach about doubt and faith as if they’re demonstrably opposite - even when the truth is much more complex, without room, or cause, for doubt there is clearly no need for faith. But I digress, because the faith vs doubt angle is, ultimately, the thinner reading.

A thicker reading might be to consider whether the author is setting up people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as a top class of disciple, as they follow Jesus despite never seeing him, whereas others - including his closest companions - rely on seeing to believe. There’s something meaningful to pick away at there in terms of what the author is trying to get across.

But thicker still, and more challenging for people who want to take the Bible seriously as a cohesive or coherent text, is the reading that says the passage offers an alternative narration of the imparting of the Holy Spirit. The Church celebrates the ‘gift of the Spirit’ at the festival of Pentecost. That, of course, is the famous story of people talking in strange languages, and having tongues of fire on their heads (attributed to ‘Luke’). I’ll try and write some notes on that when it comes around.

But here we have what could be seen as a rival account - as Jesus breathes on his disciples and tells them to ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.

Cue lots of exegetical freaking out: is it a case of ‘John’ vs. ‘Luke’? Or is this a different kind of impartation? A different amount of Holy Spirit, perhaps? Augustine reckoned it was a case of two different kinds of impartation - one earthly and one heavenly… Perhaps we should just ignore the whole issue and preach a sermon about doubt?

What actually happens is that the approach one takes depends heavily on the core message you want to get across. Of course. Famously most preachers only have a handful of sermons, many only really have one. The same thing said week in, week out, just with different words.

So, of course, Martin Luther found that the passage spoke to him of the ability of all Christians to forgive sins, not just the clerical class. A good interpretation, sure, but no coincidence, surely, that his mission was one of moving the Church on from its reliance on the priests.

And funnily enough that brings me round to one of my own core messages, that there are a multitude of ways of reading and understanding these extraordinary texts. Because they are, often, very difficult to reconcile with each other. They don’t play nicely. We are heavily reliant on work that was done thousands of years ago for the wording, order and so on of the stories we read. We don’t know, for sure, the intent of the authors. We don’t know if they were aware of each other’s work.

In this passage we find a case study of complexity, yet another reason why we can’t just offer a ‘simple’ reading of the Bible. To do so is disingenuous, and dangerous. it licenses all kinds of evil. And this allows us an opportunity for some helpful self reflection.

As we, consciously, approach the text we find that our own responses actually mirror back to us the way that we think. What we find in the passage has a lot to do with what we put there. ‘I read it this way because I think this way.’ In this way the text offers us the opportunity to hold a mirror up to our minds. ‘John’ is a self conscious ‘writer’ - he describes what he is writing as a ‘book’ in this passage, perhaps one of the greatest gifts his book gives us is an opportunity to get an insight into our own perspective.

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Image: Ingeborg Psalter, Public Domain


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