Lectionary Commentary

April 19, 2009
2nd Sunday of Easter

Commentary by Russell Pregeant

See also: [Year B Archive]

Creation Sunday liturgical resources


Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-22
John 20:19-31

Christian faith should not be reduced to mere belief, whether in doctrinal propositions or in the factuality of reports of miraculous events. However, belief is an essential component of faith, and the question of the basis of faith is an important (and tantalizing!) theological issue. The Gospel of John is nothing like a systematic theology, but in its own imaginative blend of story and discourse it wrestles mightily with this question; and the story of so-called “Doubting Thomas” in 20:19-31 is a focal point of reflection on this matter.

In The People’s New Testament Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, pp. 358-59), M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock challenge the standard appraisal of Thomas, pointing to the “subtlety of the Johannine interplay between seeing and believing.” Seeing is sometimes a legitimate prelude to believing as, for example, in 2:23, 11:45, 20:8, and even the “Doubting Thomas” story itself (20:27).  In other instances, however—such as 4:48 and 6:30—belief based on seeing is treated negatively. In sum, then John…has a dialectic of seeing and believing. There are those who see and do not believe, who see and believe, who do not see and do not believe, who do not see and yet believe. Thomas’ problem is not that he is a tough-minded skeptic who will not believe until he has seen with his own eyes, but that he insists on submitting the revelation that has come in Christ to his own criteria.

The most interesting aspect of John’s complex view may be the expectation regarding those “who do not see and yet believe.” The climactic statement in the Thomas story is Jesus’ pronouncement, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (20:29b). The instances (including the present story) in which seeing is accepted as a legitimate basis of belief caution us against thinking that the belief that is expected of those not privileged to see is merely arbitrary, without any rhyme or reason whatsoever. But if that is so, then it is legitimate to ask what the basis of such belief might be.

The Johannine answer seems to be the testimony of witnesses. Throughout the story, those who have seen Jesus testify to others; and this testimony becomes a basis for the others’ belief. In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (4:42), it is the witness of the woman, based on her encounter with Jesus, that leads the Samaritans of the city to believe him. She invites them to come and see for themselves, but they believe on the basis of her testimony alone (4:39), although their own encounter with Jesus provides a new basis for that belief (4:42). Likewise, in 19:35 a narrator’s intrusion invites the reader of the gospel to belief on the basis of one who watched the crucifixion. In 17:20, moreover, Jesus himself refers to the belief to be engendered in the future; and 20:29b seems clearly to imply such testimony also. So it would appear that the ongoing witness of the church somehow conveys the same basis for faith that the actual “seeing” of the first witnesses provides. And that is precisely what is meant in the opening words of the First Letter of John: the “word of life” there echoes the Logos of John 1, but its primary reference is to the living testimony of the church. And when the author describes the community’s experience with that word as “what we have looked at and touched with our hands,” the meaning is primarily metaphorical. The Logos indeed became flesh, but it is the witness of the ongoing community that is the basis of belief in the present. And if this is so, then the net result is that sight as the basis of faith is finally de-centered. It can serve this function, but in the end it is not necessary.

The Gospel of John does not offer a systematic resolution of the problem of believing and seeing. But it suggests parameters for such a resolution by both accepting and de-centering the role of seeing. To believe on the basis of others’ testimony can hardly consist in simple credulity. There are many witnesses in the world, and one cannot consistently believe all of them. Faith-belief that is arbitrary is of no real value, since it provides no basis for accepting one testimony over another. Why not accept the Roman emperors’ claims to divine status rather than the witness to Jesus? On the other hand, seeing is not always believing: the senses can deceive, and evidence is almost always ambiguous.

So, where, then, does this leave us? In the end, it seems that the Gospel of John is sensitive to the attitude one brings to both actual seeing on the one hand and hearing a testimony on the other. Jesus’ criticism of those who insist upon “signs and wonders” as a basis of belief (4:48) is a criticism of an attitude, which is paralleled in Thomas’ insistence on his own criteria. What happens in the gospel reading is not that Thomas is convinced on the basis of those prior criteria, but that he undergoes a change in attitude,

Because the story does not tell us precisely how the change in Thomas takes place, we are apt to miss the point and think that it is the mere fact of seeing that does the trick. But to read the story this way is to miss the point, which lies in the fact that in the end he does not have to touch Jesus’ wounds in order to believe. We should not overlook the fact that Jesus speaks to him, nor should we forget that the gospel has given us insight into Thomas on earlier occasions. In 11:16, when Jesus insists on going to Lazarus’s home in Bethany, despite the danger from his opponents, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And in 14:5, he responds to Jesus’ declaration in a farewell discourse that they can be with him where he is going with these words: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In both instances, Thomas is a tool in the narrator’s frequently-used device of having the characters state misunderstandings as a way of setting the reader up for a contrary truth. But beyond their contributions to the gospel’s theological perspective, the two scenes also create a particular image of Thomas. In the first, he shows a measure of faith in his willingness to die, but also a misapprehension. When Jesus is about to restore life, he is focused on death. In the second instance, he is thinking in early-material terms, whereas Jesus speaks in heavenly-spiritual terms. And if we come to the scene in chapter 20 with this ambiguous portrait of Thomas in mind, we can see it as the culmination of a journey in faith-development. It is not simply the sight of Jesus’ wounds that changes him but rather his total encounter with Jesus, capped off by Jesus’ invitation not only to see but to touch. In the moment of decision, face to face with Jesus and confronted with the opportunity to have material proof, he finds that he no longer needs it.

In our scientifically-oriented world, both belief and faith have become problematic. But they are not impossible, except for those who insist upon the rigid criteria laid down by a materialist philosophical perspective that has in fact been called into question by developments in science that have played major roles in the emergence of process thought. The testimony of the church can be a valid basis for belief, but not in the sense of “evidence” that certain events happened in the past. As Whitehead famously wrote, “The sole appeal is to intuition.” So the point is not that we believe because we have witnesses that can provide “evidence” to be analyzed from a rationalistic perspective. It is rather that, if we do come to faith, we find their witness credible because it is verified in the laboratory of our lives.

The reading from Acts 4 might seem to have very little to do with the themes present in the gospel and epistle lessons, but one way of making a connection might be to focus on the role of community in all these texts. If the Johannine readings stress the role of community in engendering faith, the Acts passage illustrates in a concrete way what Christian community means with respect to material goods and thus confronts us with the demands that faith makes of us when we understand it as embracing our total lives rather than as an act of the intellect alone.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana Univesity (B.A., 1960).