This morning’s Gospel reading is John 20:19–31:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
What is faith? Faith is trust, freely given, that cannot be explained away by certainty. Our readings today get to the heart of our challenges and obstacles as disciples of Christ in a world so assured of its own science-focused perspective, and reminds us that nothing much has changed in that sense for 2000 years.
Quite a few years ago, I acted as a confirmation sponsor for a teenager I’d known all his life. He had dutifully gone through the requirements of the process, and even with some engagement and enthusiasm, more so than some other teenagers might exhibit, anyway. He was — and is, by the way! — an intelligent and inquisitive young man, but one question he asked me toward the end of the process floored me.
Why, he wondered, is faith important? He meant this in a number of different ways; in part, he wondered why the Lord left Himself a mystery rather than a scientific and proven certainty. In another way, he wondered why faith is important when we can just concentrate on the here and now and deal in material reality, which seems overwhelming enough at times (especially now). He was sincere in this question; he wasn’t looking for a way out of the process or to start an argument with me. It was such a good question that it has stuck with me for a couple of decades.
At the time, I explained to him that no one lives completely by scientific certainties and apparent physical realities alone. We have to have faith in order to live our lives — faith in our friends, faith in our families, faith that people will follow the law rather than ignore it, faith that civilization won’t simply collapse and people go insane in a crisis. Those are qualities that cannot be measured or determined to a scientific certainty, but without some faith in those around us, we simply could not operate within any society at all.
In today’s readings, we see the before-and-after picture of faith, both in Christ and in the community of Christ’s followers. In our Gospel reading, we have the all-too-applicable story of Doubting Thomas, a passage that convicts us all at one time or another. It’s too easy to put this entirely on Thomas, however. Just the week before this took place, Peter denied Jesus three times in the public square rather than stand up for him. All of the disciples fled, except for John, who stood with Mary at the crucifixion. Until they themselves saw Jesus, all of them had been skeptical when the two women came back to tell them of the empty tomb. They came together not so much out of faith but out of fear of what the temple authorities might do to them next, although friendship was a large part of that impulse too, of course.
When Thomas arrives at first, he is the only disciple not to have had the privilege of seeing the Risen Christ. He falls back on what he knows rather than what he believes — his trust in his own senses to interpret the world around him. Thomas is simply a day behind everyone else in that impulse, however. He will not trust the Lord nor his friends until Christ appears in physical form, just as He did with His other disciples, and only then believes in Christ’s resurrection.
In our first reading, however, we see this same community of believers — now a church — immediately after Pentecost. Not only are they living lives of faith in terms of spreading the Gospel, they are demonstrating that faith in their free choice to live communally. They put their trust in the Lord for their daily bread and their faith in one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. With the Holy Spirit, they no longer rely solely on just the limits of their five senses and the natural material impulse to reject anything outside of it.
This is the transformative power of faith, as enabled by the welcoming of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. It reminds us that we are meant for more than just this world, which is a path mankind chose in creation but is not our destination. If we accept that as true — if we put our faith in the Gospel — then it changes us from material-focused beings to true spiritual individuals created in God’s image. And most importantly, it changes our perspective from a self-focused idea of being the center of the universe to a much more humble truth of God at the center of everything.
This is why we need faith, why we crave faith in the core of our beings. We were built for faith; we were formed to seek beyond science — not to ignore it or deny it, but to see it for what it truly is. Science and our senses help us to navigate God’s creation, but it does not mean that it covers the entire breadth of His work. When we realize that and put our trust in the Lord, we see His creation and our brothers and sisters very differently — as companions along the journey, eventually to be adopted siblings in God’s family.
Faith is what keeps us on the path, even if at times we stumble on it. Thomas speaks for all of us at times, but that does not mean we can’t recognize the truth in the long run.
The front-page image is a detail from “Doubting Thomas” by Giovanni Serodine, c.1620s. Currently on display at the National Museum in Warsaw. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.