The insightful and dynamic reflection/sermon behind this LINK is based on John’s Gospel, chapter 20:19-31, which was the Gospel used on Sunday, April 8, from the Revised Common Lectionary, and deals with the “doubting Thomas” story and conspiracy theories. The author urges us to rethink the meaning of “doubting Thomas.”
NOTE: Although this reflection dates back to 2016, it remains relevant today. It is written by Tommy Airey, a retired teacher in Detroit and co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.net. He works with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and We the People of Detroit, an organization struggling for water justice.
An excerpt: “The week after Easter, the lectionary assures radical disciples that faith is a process. It is an inherent struggle over time to believe that life does conquer death, that love will trump fear. The disciples are huddled together inside on a Sunday for fear of the Jews—specifically the Judean leaders, the elite coalition of religious and political leaders who had killed their leader in a mockery of justice. This is a highly volatile and political situation. The followers of the renegade Jesus (a Jew from the Galilean countryside) feared that they too would be arrested, tortured and publicly executed. Crucifixion itself was a powerfully effective instrument of violence and intimidation, the ultimate imperial weapon to keep disgruntled masses in check.
This morning’s text about doubting Thomas is familiar to most of us, but its inherently political nature is something First World churches, by and large, have not considered. In the late 1st century, 50-60 years after the death of Jesus, when the Gospel of John was written, Emperor Domitian was referred to as ‘the Son of God,’ ‘the Lord,’ and the ultimate: ‘my Lord and my God.’ After all, imperial propagandists claimed: it was Domitian who brought peace to the world.
Belief was not just mental assent to certain religious doctrines, it was about loyalty, an everyday socio-political choice with profound consequences. If Jesus was Lord and the Son of God, then the Emperor was not. This kind of ‘belief’ was a threat to imperial order. Earlier in John’s Gospel, as the chief priests pressed Pilate to crucify Jesus they wanted to make their belief plain: ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the Emperor,’ they testified. ‘We have no king but Emperor!’
The peace of the Lord Jesus created a tense rivalry to the privilege and power of Judean elites who pledged allegiance to the Emperor’s Pax Romana. In our Gospel episode, the risen Jesus bestows the power to forgive on to his followers, hijacking that role from the priests. Jesus’ critique concerned the fundamental social valuing of his society, always questioning the current distribution of economic & political power: exposing the injustice of taxes and Temple, at table with sinners & tax collectors, with women, breaking boundaries that segregated the unclean, the diseased, the cast aside.
The powerful establishment, then as now, steered the Empire towards the status quo by scripting the masses into a conventional wisdom. When the disciples tell the absent Thomas that they had seen ‘the Lord,’ he naturally sides with Roman conventional wisdom: crucified rebels have lost the battle, are guilty, are cursed by God and obviously cannot be raised from the dead. If Jesus was the real Lord, he would have conquered and dethroned the ruling elites, not be crucified by them. Thomas’ cadres are spinning conspiracy theories and he isn’t buying it. The only way he’s going to believe that Jesus is the true Lord (to pledge allegiance to him over the Emperor) is if he can see it and feel it for himself.”