If you are wondering why the lectionary has reverted to John on the Second Sunday of Easter, the answer is easy: In the Synoptic Gospels there are no resurrection appearances after Easter Sunday.
- Easter Sunday’s morning is Luke 24:1-12 — the empty tomb.
- The text for Easter Evening is Luke 24:13-49, the Emmaus Road text — which took place on Sunday evening.
- Luke 24:50-53 brings the Gospel to an end with the Ascension — which Luke places on that very same night.
One has to look to John and Acts for Easter as a season.
So to John we go — specifically to John 20:19-31. It is a really rich text, too easily swallowed up in the familiar story of “Doubting Thomas.” But even that highly memorable story deserves a fresh look, lest we see in it things that aren’t quite there. (By the way, you can find my children’s sermon on this text through this link.)
It should surprise no one that Doubting Thomas gathers all our attention. The passage is chosen to include the two parallel scenes that make up this text and his story.
- The first is Easter evening: The disciples are gathered in fear behind locked doors, and Jesus shows up — but Thomas is out. Maybe picking up some groceries or something, who knows?
- The second is a week later, Sunday evening again, and they are still hunkered in the bunker — but this time Thomas is there.
This resurrection appearance is specifically set up for Thomas. Thomas said he wouldn’t believe unless he got to see Jesus and touch his wounds. Jesus very kindly complied.
But the richness of this story is that everything comes with an unexpected twist — and always the twist is a gift.
Twist #1: The gift of peace
When Jesus shows up, he does not jump up and shout “Surprise!”
He also shows that he’s better tuned in to human behavior than the angels. The angels always say “Be not afraid!”
That does little good if you are already terrified by towering figure in glowing garments who has materialized in your living room. It is also pretty useless to try to boss your emotions around. You can influence them by what you do, and by what you think, but you can’t just order your feelings to change.
Jesus, on the other hand, says
Peace be with you.” (John 20:19 NRSV)
He is giving them something — or calling them to embrace a gift already given. Back in the Upper Room Jesus said,
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27 NRSV)
They are feeling anything but peaceful, remembering mostly that the one they thought was the Messianic King had been captured and killed. They fear that the same will happen to them if they relax to the point of, say, unlocking the front door.
But Jesus wants them to know that there is reason to feel peace.
- He is back — and he is the Prince of Peace.
- He is risen — and though he will ascend to heaven, he will remain alive, their Messianic King over all creation.
Things can still be scary. Things can go terribly, terribly wrong. But the most important things are in place. It will be okay.
Jesus is alive, and it will all work out in the end.
If things haven’t yet worked out well, then this isn’t the end.
Twist #2: The gift of calling
When they are over their initial shock, Jesus repeats his message — with a twist.
Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21 NRSV)
Jesus is giving his followers another gift: a vocation, a calling, a mission.
They are, we must remember, afraid to go outside.
So when Jesus tells them he is sending them, giving them a mission, he is calling them to change their current behavior.
Here’s a bit of the secret: stepping into that calling is how they will begin to feel the peace he promised.
So listen up, O ye churches, still hunkering down behind your doors the week after Easter 2000 years later.
- Jesus didn’t say he wanted to “gather” you.
- He said he wanted to “send” you.
And he told them what their being sent would look like: their mission would look just like his own.
The Father sent the Son to leave the comfort of heaven and enter the squalor of the world’s need.
That’s where we gotta go. Figure out what in the world’s brokenness you can help with. Then, in Christ’s holy name, get out there and do some love.
Nothing like doing the hard thing that you know is important, that you know is true to the heart of who you are, to help you grow and thrive.
Twist #3: The gift of the Spirit
How, you ask, are you going to do that hard work of Jesus’ calling in the world?
Jesus anticipated your question.
He breathed on them and said to them,
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22 NRSV)
You will be able to live out your calling in the world because the Holy Spirit will be in you, and with you, and working through you. You’ve been given the hot sweet breath of the risen Lord, so breathe it in and be about your business.
If you are like most Protestants you think the Holy Spirit was first given, and the Church first existed, at Pentecost.
No. The Church was right there already. It just grew at Pentecost.
And the Holy Spirit was there in them already. They just received great power at Pentecost.
Actually they had considerable power already, back when Jesus breathed on them behind locked doors. That day he gave them the power of the Gospel, the power of the Kingdom. The Spirit was given so that they could do Jesus’ own work, what he was sent by the Father to do: bringing forgiveness in his name.
Twist #4: The gift of accommodation
But poor Thomas was out that evening.
When they told him they’d seen the risen Lord, he refused to believe. We call it “doubt” but that’s not quite how it was portrayed. It is more like “refusal,” or “setting up conditions.”
But then, “Doubting Thomas” has a much better ring to it than “Condition-Setting Thomas.” And we all have doubts, right?
Unless I see… and put my finger… and my hand… I will not believe.” (John 20:25 NRSV)
Thomas doesn’t want to take anybody’s word for it. He wants to trust only his own senses. And he sets up those senses of his as conditions that God must meet. Which is, I think, rather appalling.
The gracious gift of God is that Jesus actually accommodates Thomas. Jesus meets his conditions. He makes a special appearance, apparently just to let Thomas get the particular kind of evidence he insists on.
The rest of us, Jesus notes, have to make do with less accommodation. We have to put up with the fact that we hear of the resurrection from other witnesses. And Jesus says we are the blessed ones. It is a blessed thing to trust your friends who have borne witness down through the ages.
I wonder if we should take Thomas as any kind of inspiration in our own doubts.
I think most of the time we misuse the term.
We say we have “doubts” but what what we mean is we have “unanswered questions.”
Questions are good and useful. If you don’t have any questions, you never learn anything.
Not every question we ask will be answered. But we’ve been charged with loving God with our whole minds, so we need to ask the questions and probe for answers.
But we ought not do like Thomas and set up our questions as conditions for God:
Only if you do my will, O Lord, and give me the evidence I want, will I believe.
Jesus gives Thomas that evidence, but he kind or reproves him too.
The translations usually say
Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27 NRSV)
But the vocabulary is more parallel:
Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.
Both the word for faith and its negation in this passage are the same at their root. In both cases it is less about the facts and more about the relationship.
Believing, having faith, trusting, is something you do.
We, like Thomas, are called to live lives of trusting God — whatever our senses say in support or contradiction.
Thomas problem of “disbelieving” was not limited to the fact that he missed the Easter evening appearance of Jesus. He distrusted what Jesus had told him in life, and then distrusted what Jesus’ other followers told him about the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.
Twist #5: The gift of believing
And then, not quoting Jesus but commenting on Jesus’ words, John tells us why all this believing matters.
This “believing” stuff is the whole purpose of the Gospel he’s written. It is all there so you can trust the promise that Jesus is the Messiah, God incarnate, and in trusting find new life.
Because living in distrust? That’s a walking death.
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