12 April 2015: Second Sunday of Easter
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Christopher Armstrong
Acts 4. 32-35; John 20. 19-end
Today’s account of Christ’s second appearance to the disciples follows from and is intimately linked to his first appearances after the resurrection which were brought to life for us in last Sunday’s Gospel.. We have lived a whole week of our work-a-day usual sort of lives in-between. And presumably, Thomas, likewise, who experienced an indefinite number of days in his lack of belief until the Sunday following Easter Day. He must have heard, if not shared, the general scepticism recorded in Luke’s gospel, and thought hard about what he had or hadn’t missed. How on earth, he may have thought, could I have spent such an important time on the trivialities of my daily life, wanting the appearances of Jesus to Mary and the rest of them, to be true, but actually doubting whether it happened at all.
Nothing in the record suggests that his refusal to believe was anything but obdurate. Perhaps along the lines of :“They’re just sentimentalists. They’ve dug up some dark words of Jesus, rather off the cuff, to support their fantasy.”
Yet we may ask if he joined the rest on the following Sunday in the half-believing hope that the unimaginable return of Jesus might be realized again, if not just for him, at least when he was present ?
The way John presents Jesus’s meeting with his doubting apostle is calculated, as usual, to reinforce the marvel by underlining the strangeness, the wonderful improbability, of the mysteriously significant event of his, as it were, “imposing” the fact of his resurrection on Thomas. As with the unforeseen supply of wine at the wedding in Cana: wine which is pronounced by an expert as of surpassing excellence; as with the restoration of his sight to the man born blind; as with the feeding of the multitudes with bread, and much to spare; in all that Jesus does for anyone, including the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, so here, it is apparent that Jesus does not bestow in half measures, but in abundance. For Thomas has emphatically mentioned his conditions for believing. So now, Jesus, having, it seems, fully taken them to heart, offers their literal fulfilment: “Put your finger here . . . Reach out your hand . . .”And Thomas is thus blown up with his own petard. He capitulates with an expression of faith which unhesitatingly meets all requirements.
I hear today this account of the dialogue between Jesus and Thomas. I then read it. But I find there is something missing. The word I am looking for is in fact Thomas’s name. Nearly all my life, until around thirty, when I have listened to and heard this story in the gospel, I have heard it with Jesus speaking: not as in our text today, but addressing Thomas by name: “Thomas, because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed.”
Some will say that the evidence is against Jesus having addressed Thomas by name at this point. And the strong reason they can allege, is that the name “Thomas” is not in the Greek text, the original, and, therefore, the text meant and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
How then could I have heard every Eastertide from at least the 1940s, that Jesus addressed Thomas by name? The reason is simple and it is that the text of the Latin bible used in my youth and closely followed by the then current English Catholic translations, introduced the naming of Thomas in this text, despite its not being in the Greek at this point.
St Jerome is reckoned to have translated the Bible in the 4t- 5thh century. His work was whole-heartedly accepted by the church I belonged to. Is it of any importance that Jesus’s words at such an important moment were effectively falsified by the saintly translator? Wrong for centuries, well over a millennium, shouldn’t we just hush the whole thing up; and never dream of devoting a whole sermon to the subject?
But I plead that I find the matter of personal interest, if not of great importance for the church as a whole. Because the words of Jesus to Thomas may after all be there for a reason. Why otherwise should they have been preserved also, following the old Latin text of St Jerome, in the English Authorized Version of the Bible of 1611? This, we know, was the work, of the most learned Anglican experts in ancient languages who would not lightly have allowed a word, not in the Greek, not inspired, into their text of the definitive English version of the Bible. The name, “Thomas”, is only banished at this point in the definitive revision of the Greek text for Anglicans, in 1881.
If we ask whether the mention of Thomas by name is important here, we should compare this mention with the other undoubtedly important mention by Jesus of a personal name, when Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Lord for a local gardener. Jesus then simply addresses her by her name: “Mary”, and she responds with what one must assume is her usual or favourite acknowledgement of her teacher: “Rabboni!” A marvellous compound of wonder and recognition.
The translator who introduced Thomas’s name into the dialogue between him and Jesus must, I think, have been aware of the dialogue between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. We don’t know why he put Thomas’s name onto Jesus’s lips; a single word expressing friendship? or forgiveness? But he did. And it stayed there for centuries.
I am happy that Jesus should have easily addressed his friends by their names. I am still more pleased that somehow the Crucifixion, the Tomb, the New Life of the resurgent Christ, make absolutely no difference to this easy familiarity. The friends whom Jesus addresses in his new life stand in for us. We surely believe that Jesus now addresses us, in ways best known to each of us personally, by our given names. The baptism liturgy supposes this. Beyond any sentimentality, if we believe in our personal calling as members of Christ’s society and family, then we too are enrolled in these resurrection scenes: greeted by Christ by name; greeting him with joy, doubting and wrestling with incredulity, needing fresh encouragement, like Peter, to feed Christ’s lambs. Content to receive his Spirit and in that Spirit to worship his, and now our, Father.