There is a very entertaining weekly broadcast on public radio called “A Prairie Home Companion.” It’s modeled after the radio variety shows that were popular before the introduction of television. One of the regular segments on the show is a sketch about an aspiring writer named Bob. Bob moved out of his parents’ basement, and into a small apartment, in order to encounter the gritty reality of life that makes for good writing.
Bob’s mother calls on a regular basis to check up on her only child, her forty-year old ‘baby.’ The telephone dialogues between mother and son are hilarious. On the weekend after Valentine’s Day the radio show included a segment about Bob. His mother called to see how he was doing. She began in a very casual tone of voice, but quickly shifted to complaint and recrimination. Before Bob knew what was going on, his mother was sobbing uncontrollably.
As it turned out, she had cooked a huge meal (all of Bob’s favorite foods), in the expectation that he was coming over for dinner on Valentine’s Day. She had never spoken to him about it; she assumed that he would anticipate her plans, and show up without having been invited. When he didn’t show up, she played the part of the neglected parent of an ungrateful child. She was deeply wounded, and tried to be gracious about it – not because she was gracious, but because she wanted her son to feel guilty for failing to do what he never knew he was expected to do.
It’s funny because it’s true to life. We routinely do this to one another. We place expectations on others, without informing them of our expectations. Husbands and wives do this; parents and children do so, as well. On a regular basis the parish office receives phone calls from people who want to perform some helpful, needed service for the parish. They fail to disclose that they are telephone solicitors, and the helpful service will come at a premium price.
The failure to disclose one’s desires and intentions is always a formula for discord and disappointment. It’s true in our relationships with one another, and it’s true in our relationship with God. Thomas, the doubter, is a very good illustration of the danger of failing to maintain an open and honest relationship with God.
It wasn’t random chance that Thomas’ unbelief coincided with his absence from the assembly of disciples. In fact, his absence was both the cause and the symbol of his unbelief. Thomas had chosen not to be in communion with his fellow disciples; as it turned out, this was also a choice not to be in communion with the Risen Lord. (John 20:24) The Gospel wants us to understand, beyond a shadow of doubt, that our lack of mutuality with fellow believers is equivalent to a lack of mutuality with Jesus.
Things changed for Thomas, for the better, when he admitted his lack faith to his fellow disciples. His statement was a confession as well as a complaint. He said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) This act of self-disclosure was the necessary prelude to Jesus’ self-disclosure to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” (John 20:27)
It might seem odd that God requires our willing self-disclosure. We might merely assume that, as God knows all things, God necessarily knows everything about each of us. This assumption, however, rests on the false identification between “knowing” and “knowing about.” It is one thing to know about God; it is quite another to know God on an inter-personal basis.
The same dynamic applies to both sides of the relationship called faith; God certainly knows about us, but God knows us on an inter-personal basis only when we intend this to happen. God doesn’t force our intellect any more than God forces our will. We are free to choose to obey God’s will, or not. In just the same way we are free to invite God into our lives, or not.
Thomas knew about Jesus’ resurrection because of the witness of the other disciples, but Thomas remained an unbeliever until he came to know personally the Risen Lord. As I said above, the Gospel intends for us to understand this clearly: estrangement from the Church is estrangement from Jesus, and presence is something that happens only as a result of conscious intent.
To know God, and be known by God, requires our conscious effort. The required effort takes place on two fronts, both of which entail inter-personal knowledge. Our daily prayer, whatever form it takes, must always be prayer of self-disclosure. Thomas’ confession of unbelief was less than flattering to himself, and probably uncomfortable for his fellow disciples to hear, but it was honest self-disclosure on Thomas’ part. Our prayer does not need to be beautiful or impressive, but it always needs to be honest: a prayer that intends to be present to Jesus.
The second part of our mutual self-disclosure with Jesus takes place in the community of believers. The degree to which we are present to the Church will be the degree to which we are present to the Risen Lord.
The first reading tells us that “The apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and great favor was accorded them all.” (Acts 4:33) The source of their very credible witness to the Resurrection was their unanimity. “The community of believers was of one heart and mind.” (Acts 4:32)
To know, and be known, is to give of oneself as Jesus gave of himself. (1 John 5:6)* To believe is to live in mutuality with other believers. We gather each Sunday for Eucharist not only to receive but to give because we come to know the Risen Jesus only to the degree that we make ourselves known.
(*) The cryptic statement “not by water alone, but by water and blood” (1 John 5:6), was probably a polemic against gnosticism, which said that Jesus was not really human, but only appeared to be human and, that he did not really die on the Cross, but only appeared to do so in order to teach an ethical lesson about life in this world. The author of the First Letter of John affirms that Jesus was both the Son of God by divine election at his baptism in the Jordan River (by water), and by his obedience to the point of real physical death on the Cross (by blood). Jesus’ sacrifice was real, not just apparent; he gave himself completely to God and completely for his fellow human persons.