Editorial: Sceptics can be true followers
There’s an odd little story at the beginning of John’s Gospel, where a fellow called Nathanael hears about Jesus of Nazereth and makes a rude comment about the town. When they meet, Jesus drily commends Nathanael’s honesty.
‘What?’ says Nathanael. ‘How do you know me?
‘I saw you sitting under that tree.’
‘You are the Son of God!’ cries Nathanael. ‘You are the King of Israel!’
‘Because I saw you sitting under a tree?’ laughs Jesus. ‘I tell you, you’re going to see greater things than that.’
And so he does. The Sunday evening after Jesus is killed, John says, his former followers are hiding out, for fear of being arrested, when Jesus appears in the room with them. He shows them his disfigurement from his execution, blesses them, conveys the Holy Spirit to them, and tells them to continue his mission. He is alive, and taking his broken body back to his father. One day they will have to work out what it all means but for now it means that Jesus and his mission continue after all. This was indeed a greater experience than being spotted under a tree.
One disciple is missing from this scene, though: Thomas. He doesn’t believe their story, but continues to hang out with them. A week later, Jesus appears again, and once more displays the disfigurement of his execution. This time, it is Thomas’s turn, like Nathanael, to have his dubiousness blown away in a moment and to proclaim his realisation of who Jesus is: ‘My Lord and my God.’
That’s quite a spectrum of religious personality that spreads across the length of John’s Gospel. The man who believes on the slightest excuse, leaping into faith after seeing the smallest hint of who Jesus might be. And the man who after three years with Jesus, after the seven signs, and now after hearing about the resurrection, is still saying: ‘I will not believe.’
I think I’m made out of the same stuff as Thomas. A natural sceptic. It’s a trait that gets a bit in the way of religious faith, I think, but perhaps also holds it to account.
Thomas speaks on two other occasions in the Gospel story. When Jesus talks about going to his Father’s house, Thomas says: ‘We have no idea where that is. How are we supposed to get there?’ Jesus says: ‘I am the way.’ And when Jesus decides to make his fateful last journey to Jerusalem, Thomas says: ‘Let’s go with Jesus and die with him.’
Thomas didn’t die with Jesus, but he followed him all the way, without fully knowing where he was going. He didn’t know Jesus’s destination, but he trusted in him as the way. And it was Thomas who, for all his scepticism, reached perhaps the profoundest grasp of who Jesus is in all the Gospels: ‘My Lord and my God.’ For John, it seems, the sceptics can be true followers of the way too. Happy Easter.
This article was published in the April 2021 edition of Reform