Why was Thomas not with the other disciples when Jesus came to them on that first day of the week? The group had gathered out of fear and had locked the door. The author of the Gospel does not tell us why Thomas was not present.
We can speculate that Thomas was simply away making purchases. Or, perhaps he felt like the two disciples who had left to return home feeling that all their hopes had been dashed by Jesus’ passion and death. Or, maybe Thomas feared being associated with a faction that could be branded as rebels by the Roman authorities. In any event we do know that he was apart from the community.
When one reads this story, it is easy to focus solely on Thomas’ disappointment and doubt surrounding the appearance of the risen Lord. If one focuses on the community context of both appearances by Jesus in this Gospel narrative, one begins to understand the importance of community life in Christian existence. Since Thomas was separated from the others he did not have their support, and he did not realize that his discipleship cannot be a work of personal endeavor. In both of Jesus’ appearances in this Gospel story the disciples are joined together as a single unit. This grouping is a concrete manifestation of Jesus’ own saying, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).
Once Thomas joins the others, he makes himself available to the presence of the risen Lord as he exists within the community of disciples. It is only when Thomas is part of the community that Jesus can heal his disappointment and fear. Death and political power cannot overcome true Christian community because the Lord is always present in such a people. In our present age it is easy to forget the promise of the Lord and to feel that we can and will go it alone.
One can now look to Jesus and understand how he treats Thomas with gentleness and care. He allays fear and disappointment by inviting Thomas to explore the nail holes in his hands and the spear wound in his side. In other words, he calls Thomas to a renewed belief showing him that many who have not seen will believe.
This Gospel story is as much about community belief as it is about an individual coming to personal belief. Two commitments are necessary for a truly Christian existence. First, one must individually believe and the community supports that belief. Second, the community belief supports an individual belief by encouraging and supporting each member of the community. The story of Thomas and the risen Jesus captures both aspects of a truly Christian life. It also affirms that Jesus always remains in our midst.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.