A literary genre that became fashionable when I was growing up was the substitution of a hero for an anti-hero. Of course an anti-hero is not just the opposite of a hero – an anti-hero is not just a villain – the anti-hero is the flawed human being who acts out of mixed motives – somebody who maybe starts out acting on the level of pure self-interest but along the way finds their humanity challenged by a moral dilemma – maybe somebody who ends up doing something good for the wrong reason, or who makes a moral trade-off to achieve something good by acting in a questionable way. Anti-heroes are dubious people – and it is that which makes them of enduring interest to readers who have a sneaking suspicion that their own motivations might also be somewhat mixed.
Thomas – the one we’ve always referred to as the Doubter – is also dubious in just this way. Thomas is a classic anti-hero – like so many other characters in John’s gospel. I’m in two minds about Thomas. On the one hand, I think he gets a raw deal in Church tradition. On the other hand, I think maybe he gets away too easily.
Now for us, a whole week has gone past since Easter Day – a really good thing for me, I’ve had a chance to catch up on some sleep and have a bit of a think about where we’re up to. But for the men and women that first Easter, the ones who’d loved Jesus and who saw him die, the ones who have just been startled awake and scared out of their wits all over again by the ambiguous news that the tomb is empty and that Peter and some of the women claim they have seen Jesus alive and well – we’re still in the evening of that very first day.
John tells us the disciples are in a locked room, gathered together secretly ‘for fear of the Jews’. We need to be careful here, on two counts – firstly to understand this term, ‘the Jews’ as meaning, the Jewish authorities who in collusion with the Roman occupation government have conspired to get rid of a minor troublemaker. We can also read into this some nervousness on the part of country folk from Galilee, up north past Samaria – people who have followed Jesus down to Jerusalem just this once only to see everything fall apart, Jesus taken and executed for political reasons that probably they barely understand – Galilean men and women who maybe feel afraid of everything Judean – but 2000 years later, we who have had too much experience of anti-Semitism need to be very careful how we understand John’s easy shorthand expression – ‘the Jews’.
The second thing we need to unpack a bit carefully is this – John isn’t just talking here about the 11 disciples who become the earliest apostles of the church – instead I think we need to have a mental picture of the whole community that has formed around Jesus – a community that has gradually grown as he has travelled through the villages of Galilee and then made his way down to Jerusalem and this fatal encounter. The reason it’s important is because it’s not just the apostles but the whole community that is about to be charged with a new purpose – the whole community that’s about to be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit which empowers them as Jesus has been empowered – but right now they are in hiding, sitting behind locked doors probably waiting to hear the sound of soldiers outside.
This passage in chapter 20 of John’s gospel is sometimes called the Johannine Pentecost, because where in Luke’s more picturesque account it takes a full 40 days after the ascension for the Holy Spirit to come down on the apostles in tongues of fire, in John’s gospel the gift of the Spirit comes immediately when Jesus has been glorified – for John there is no time lag between Jesus’ suffering and his glorification and so it is right on that first day that Jesus empowers the community of faith and sends them, just as he has been sent. The way John writes it directs our minds better, I think, to what it means to be a disciple – the agenda for discipleship is set by Jesus’ own relationship with the Father, which has been opened up to include those who believe in him – Jesus’ offer of life to those who believe in him becomes the template for the Christian community which is also about living out of a new sort of relationship with God. The Spirit that empowers Jesus to offer the sort of relationship that gives life is transferred to the community of faith when Jesus breathes on them – this is a play on words in Greek that always reminds me of learning to give CPR, mouth to mouth resuscitation – because this breath is literally as well as symbolically Jesus’ life that is passed on to reanimate those who love him. This scene gives us the hint that what is happening in resurrection is that it is we who are being brought to life, and the resurrection life of Jesus is inseparable from what the Church does in continuing to proclaim and demonstrate what that new life is about.
But Thomas is not with them when all this happens. Neither, as it happens, are we. Neither are any of the Christian community that John is writing his gospel for. Thomas in a sense stands as a kind of link between the first generation of disciples who believe because they see, and later disciples who can only come to faith because they believe what they hear. The reason I think Thomas gets a raw deal is that he isn’t the only one who has refused to believe the good news that has been told to him. In fact nobody in the gospel account believes until Jesus appears to them personally, not the women, not Peter or the other male disciples, not Thomas. And the whole point is that Jesus does appear to them, Jesus gives them what they need to come to faith.
But where Thomas is different is that he was not there that first Sunday evening. There’s not much point speculating where he was – the point is that those hiding in the room had, in seeing Jesus there, experienced Jesus' presence in a way that Thomas had missed out on. When Thomas hears the story from the others he maybe thinks that, if he really wanted to touch Jesus, he'd been in the wrong place. This is Thomas’s biggest mistake - thinking that the body he really needs to touch is the body that was nailed to the cross. Yet when Jesus meets Thomas’s conditions for belief, he comes out with the fullest confession of faith in the whole gospel – my Lord and my God! – and if tradition is right St Thomas ultimately travels a long way indeed, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ as far as India.
Maybe the reason I end up in two minds about Thomas is that John, the writer of the gospel, is also in two minds about him. At any rate, John tries to make the story demonstrate two very different points. You see, part of what the gospel writer is emphasising with this story, is that the resurrection life of Christ is not something you need to be able to see or touch at all – that those who have come to faith a century – or twenty centuries – later have had just as real and just as life-changing an encounter with the resurrection life of Christ as the community of faith did that first Easter Day. The resurrection life of Christ is what we see at work in the church, it’s what takes tangible shape right here in our own community when we commit ourselves to loving one another and encouraging one another to grow in faith and love, and when we work together to invite others into the life-giving relationship that ultimately grows out of the relationship that Jesus has with his Father. Thomas is a negative example of that.
But the other part of what the gospel writer wants to emphasise at first glance seems almost the exact opposite – and that’s the real, physical presence of the risen Christ that Thomas can touch – the same sort of thing that Luke emphasises when he talks about the risen Jesus eating a piece of fish – because at the end of the first century, when John is writing his gospel, he needs to argue that the risen Christ is really real - no ghost, not just a figment of the imagination or even a reality that’s only spiritual and not physical. That the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth is continuous with the risen Christ and the source of the resurrection life the Church proclaims after Easter.
Thomas ultimately gets it right, even if his motives are mixed – he gets it right for the wrong reasons but he ends up as evidence of the truth that what matters is not proof of the resurrection, but encounter with the risen Christ. That makes him an anti-hero worth taking seriously – an anti-hero for dubious Christians.