A mixed group
The apostles are a fascinatingly mixed bunch, when you look at them closely. Some of what we think we know about them evaporates like morning mist when you actually investigate, which is what you would expect, as the first people to read the gospels might well have known them directly (so didn’t need much information). It’s the same difficulty that you encounter trying to sort out the women following Jesus, where all you get are scraps of information that work in a small community – so-and-so’s mother, or the person with that nickname, and so on. But we do know that they included fishermen, a tax-collector, possibly a doctor and people who had been following John the Baptist; so actually very mixed for such a small group. And the carpenter’s son in charge, of course.
Most of the time they seem to have managed to get along with each other without trouble, even though the group was often under a lot of strain, with no fixed base, a leader who would not worry about the next day and would stop and talk to any unsuitable person just when everyone else was trying to move on. There’s the odd spat, between brothers, like James and John, probably a hangover from relations as little boys, possibly egged on by their mother who wasn’t sure that the Lord realised quite how exceptional her sons were (like any other mother, then).
Peter a man of authority, not a bumbler
Another pair of brothers among the apostles who don’t squabble, though, are Peter and Andrew. I keep hearing sermons where Peter is chidden for putting his foot in it, for saying the wrong thing, for missing the point, but his own brother, who has known him all his life, defers to him; Jesus chose him; and he’s the one that the Lord leaves in charge of the brethren after he goes to heaven. And I don’t think that this is because Peter is meant to encourage us all by being more hopeless than we are and still a saint, which is another ingenious theory I’ve been offered. I think he is very often underestimated.
He gets so much absolutely right (‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’), and he stays faithful for longer than any of the other men, even making it into the Praesidium and loitering by the fire. His instinct is always to defend and protect Jesus (even against Jesus’ own ideas, ‘You shall never wash my feet’ ). He is simple and direct, much easier to understand and much less given to boasting than Paul, and indeed, amazingly patient with Paul, who must often have been intensely irritating and wasn’t even there when the Lord was. He is generous, humble and very lovable. He must have told the others the stories which don’t reflect well on him, because often they take place when no-one else is there. I don’t think anyone should underestimate or belittle Peter.
Thomas using his brain
The other apostle I think is underestimated and misconstrued is Thomas, and for most people he is defined by the story in the Gospel this week, where he has an unusually high-profile role. He is starkly honest, and he’s not afraid to stand out against the group; he wants to know the truth, and when he does, the truth does indeed set him free. People describe him as sceptical and hard-hearted, but I disagree. Yes, Jesus says to him,’You believe in me because you have seen me….blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,’, and yes, this is a pat on the back for us now, but the situation is different for Thomas.
He’s lived with the Lord for some time. He knows he’s a real person. He knows that he was cruelly killed, and he knows that all the other apostles have been hiding in the upper room afraid to go out, while Thomas has bravely gone out, maybe for supplies, and he knows they have all been fretting and panicking, so he wants some evidence. Also, they still do not understand that Jesus is coming back, unlike us, reading this with the benefit of hindsight. They are terrified, confused, bereaved and alone in a hostile society ready to turn on them. Healthy scepticism is a sensible attitude. God gave us our intelligence. He expects us to use it. We take off our shoes in the presence of the Almighty, we do not put our brains into neutral.
As soon as Thomas sees Jesus, however, his capitulation is total. He does not ask to touch the wounds – that comment sounds to me like the final answer of a goaded man, after a week where everyone else has been trying to bully him. As soon as he is directly convinced by a personal encounter, he simply says,’My Lord and my God’, and that’s it.
I admire these two men so much that it saddens me when people dismiss them as inept, stubborn or cowardly, and I think it’s a lazy reading of the narratives. I paid them the biggest compliment I could: I named two of my sons after them.