As a general rule, in the gospels Jesus does not usually respond with great enthusiasm when people confess their faith in him. Most striking, of course, is the habit in Mark’s Gospel of telling people to keep it a secret until the appropriate time.
However, there are exceptions to this, and I would like us to consider a couple:
Firstly, in Matthew’s Gospel, when St Peter declares to Jesus “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. Jesus responds with a blessing – a beatitude, of sorts – “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah.”
But, crucially, for our consideration in this generation, Jesus continues;
“Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah… for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.”
Jesus is stood right in-front of Peter. Peter has been witness to miracles and yet we are told explicitly that it is not merely because Peter had physically seen with his eyes that he recognised Jesus for who he truly is. No, this has been revealed to him by God the Father.
Secondly, in way of comparison, we find a similar (ish) beatitude in this morning’s reading.
St Thomas – Doubting Thomas, as he is often known – is presented with the physical reality of the risen Jesus before his very eyes. Thomas is able to verify that it really is Jesus standing before him by testing the wounds in his hands and side.
“My Lord and my God”, Thomas responds. But the beatitude – the blessing – is not necessarily for him on this occasion; “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now, we should not imagine that this is primarily a rebuke of Thomas, because there are plenty of accounts of people who are said to believe in Jesus because they saw him in the flesh – the Gospels are full of them and many are hailed as insightful, faithful, even heroic.
In John’s Gospel alone we can list John the Baptist, the Beloved Disciple, the witnesses of the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and others.
The emphasis here is not on Thomas’ failure to believe without tangible evidence; that is hardly unreasonable and there are plenty of others who have relied on such evidence before him.
Rather, the emphasis is on celebrating those who have believed – who have seen Jesus in faith – but were not witnesses to the actual events the Gospels record, as they happened.
And consider even the tense of Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Why the past tense? Why not “those who will come to believe”? Would that not make more sense of the narrative?
It is because Jesus’ words, whilst they are addressed to Thomas, are aimed at the readers of the Gospel. And not any old reader, but especially the believers who read it. We are the blessed who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Jesus is speaking about us, here, today. Reaching from the pages of history to speak to us in our generation.
And so it is in this vein that the final verses of our Gospel reading tell us why the Gospel has been written for us to read; It has been “written so that you may come to (or continue to) believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.”
In our generation we may not have the luxury of Doubting Thomas’ historic vantage point, we were not there to see these things happen. But then, Thomas and others were there and even they often failed to truly see Jesus for who he is. And those who did see were never commended simply for having been witnesses to a miraculous event.
Light and seeing are key themes within the Gospel of John. Famously, chapter 9 tells the story of the blindman given his sight. It has little to do with his eyes and much more to do with his ability to see Jesus for who he truly is, compared with the dogged unbelief, the spiritual blindness, of the Pharisees.
Brothers and sisters. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And he can be seen among us; in our community life, in acts of charity, in times of prayer, in the inspiration of Scripture, in the bread & wine of the eucharist. But if we are waiting for him to walk though that door and show us his wounds – if we are like Thomas – then how likely is it really that we would believe in him even if he did? Could we ever truly say that we see Jesus for who he is; our Lord and God?