Narrative Lectionary Reflection
April 8, 2018
A number of us have scars. Some are scars from an accident, some are surgical scars. I have a scar on one of my eyebrows from the time I banged my head against a marble coffee table when I was about a year old. I have another scar from the time the placed a catheter into my side to drain the fluid that had built up around my lungs when I was battling a major infection two decades ago. My mother and aunt have reminders of their battle with breast cancer in that there are scars from having a breast removed or a lump removed.
All scars involved pain at some point. Even long after we get better, those scars remind us that things were not always well, that there was sickness. Scars remind us that the world can be a very unfair and cruel place.
In today’s passage, we see the disciples locked up in a room fearful of the religious and political authorities. Peter had just seen the tomb was empty and might have wondered who took the body and who was coming for them next. Would they suffer the same death Jesus did? Would their bodies be taken away by the authorities, not giving their loved ones a body to mourn.
Then, Jesus appears. Jesus, who they thought was dead, was alive. The disciples were joyous, except one: Thomas. He couldn’t be joyous since he wasn’t there. Why he wasn’t there, we don’t know. But when he does show up, he is not convinced by the disciple’s joy. He wanted to see Jesus for himself, in fact he wanted to see the wounds himself.
Today we talk about the resurrected Jesus and the disciples as they come to terms learning that their friend that was dead is now alive.
Engaging the Text
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”
We didn’t read the earlier parts of John 20, but here is a recap: Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on that first Easter morning and found the stone rolled away. She tells Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved, that Jesus was gone. Peter and John go to investigate and it’s true; the body is gone. Mary stands outside the tomb, devastated and weeping. In time sees the Risen Christ. Seeing your friend, alive and well isn’t something you keep to yourself, so she goes to tell the disciples saying , “I have seen the Lord!”
If someone tells you a friend that was dead was now alive, hiding in a room wouldn’t be the first impulse. But even after they had heard the good news, the disciples locked themselves in a room in fear. These disciples should not be confused with the Eleven (formerly Twelve), but an unspecified number of Jesus’ disciples. (Remember, that there were more than just 12 disciples.) They hear the “fear of the Jews” (meaning, fear of the Jewish religious leaders) more than they hear the joyous report of Mary. A question to ask is why the disciples were more willing to let their fear speak to them more than Mary’s report.
We will get to Thomas, who has forever been given the name “Doubting Thomas” for refusing to believe the disciples when they saw Jesus was alive and well. But Thomas wasn’t the only one who doubted. Mary Magdalene had told the disciples that Jesus was alive and well. She told them that she not only saw Jesus but touched him and he spoke to her. Despite all of this the disciples were still locked in a room.
Why were the disciples fearful of the Jewish leaders? They were very much like the parents of the man born bling in chapter 9. The parents were afraid of how the leaders would treat them and they knew their son would be kicked out of the synogogue. They disciples feared a similar fate or even worse and fear can sometimes cloud the truth.
When Jesus appears, he says “Peace Be With You,” which was a common greeting of the time. But uttering those words also spoke to the disciples fear, with Jesus offering peace to those who felt no peace at this point in their lives.
Jesus repeats the offering of peace to the disciples who are filled with joy. When Jesus breathes on his disciples to receive the Holy Spirit, he commissioning them to continue the work he started. The gift of the Spirit is part of this commissioning, which means their new mission is one that will be sustained by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus breathing into disciples remind us of God breathing new life in the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. It was taking something that seemed to have no hope of being anything and breathing the Spirit to make the impossible, possible.
In verse 23, Jesus tells his disciples, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” When Jesus talks about sins here, it isn’t about an act of penance to individual deeds, but it is in relation to recognizing and embracing the revelation of God in Jesus.
The work of the third person of the Trinity, can be rather subversive, doing something that we would not normally do. Pastor Ben Cremer notes how the Spirit is not one that colors inside the lines:
We need to remember that the subversive reality of the Holy Spirit is one that deeply unsettles us. While we may sing songs glorifying and inviting the Holy Spirit to fill us, we often do not take into account how it may subdue our fears and send us directly to those who have a vendetta against us. Moreover, the Holy Spirit may lead us to be the very ones who upset the status quo, which we tend to admire especially if we have helped to bring the status quo about. The disciples were on the one side of two extremes. Rome was determined to maintain the status quo of “Pax Romana” (peace of Rome) at any cost, while the disciples wanted to “make Israel great again.” However, both extremes detailed a clear picture of greatness that relied upon who should be included and who should be excluded. In his ministry, Jesus did not show favoritism towards anyone, but ministered to his disciples and Roman centurions alike (Luke 7:1-10; Matt. 8:5-13). Jesus was primarily concerned about inviting others out of their own picture of life and into the true life of God. The Holy Spirit will breakdown anything that limits our faith in God and our relationships with one another. Even at the expense of our own normal. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to understand that the moment we place ourselves in the position of deciding who is including and who is excluded, we will find ourselves on the opposite side of God. For God is not in the work of limiting and dividing, but of redemption and reconciliation. 1
So now we know what happened to the disciples save one. One person wasn’t there to see Jesus; Thomas. Let’s learn his story.
Not Doubt, but Belief
Thomas wasn’t there for that event. When the he finally comes to the room, the other disciples tell him that Jesus is alive. But Thomas is unmoved. Unless he sees the nails in the hands of Jesus, he can’t believe.
Traditionally, we have viewed Thomas as “doubting Thomas.” We see this story as a lack of belief or a story about doubt. However, it is important to note an underlying theme here; it is important to have a personal experience with the risen Savior. Mary believed not because someone told her, but because she had a personal experience with Jesus. The same happened with the other disciples, they had an intimate encounter with Jesus. Thomas wanted to the same. He didn’t want to learn about Jesus second-hand.
The story that many pastors will lift up is the one of Doubting Thomas and how we should not be like Thomas. Indeed, some translations use the word, doubt in verse 27. But the Greek says apistos, which means unbelief, not doubt. Again, the emphasis here is on relationship not about doubt or belief. What should be lifted up is that Thomas wanted a personal encounter with Jesus, he didn’t want to take what the disciples said as gospel.
Why do we think Thomas needed to see the scars? The God we serve is not a God that is disconnected from life. This God came and walked among us and suffered like any human being. The wounds remind us that this was truly the Immanuel, God with us- one that shared our common lot.
Thomas didn’t want to just meet a Jesus that all was all well and better, as if he never suffered. He wanted to meet a Jesus that had really gone through hell; anything else was just an apparition, a figment of the imagination.
Jesus wants us to touch the wounds of the world outside the walls of this church. We are called to touch the wounds of the hungry, the outcast, the lonely and see Jesus in them.
When you read this week’s gospel in John about good ole “Doubting Thomas” you might think about how Tom wanted proof of Jesus’ existence. There will be talk about how doubt is important in the life of faith and we will try to hold him up as a modern hero who didn’t just want to believe something because someone told him.
These are all good things to note in the text, but what if there’s something more here that we aren’t seeing. What if this text is not just about doubt and faith, not just about the Risen Savior, but also a message for the church, the body of Christ?
In his lectionary reflection this week, Russell Rathburn expresses his interest in the actual body of Christ:
After crashing through all that at break neck speed, John slows it down to spend the majority of this verses focusing on his Body. Thomas says he wants to see the Body, see the wounds. Jesus arrives and very graphically shows him the wounds, and in a very intimate gesture, invites him to place his finger/hand inside them. There can be no doubt that this is the Body of Jesus the Christ, very man, very God.
That Jesus literally, physically rose from the dead is the foundation of the Christian faith. This Sunday’s reading starts and ends with it, giving just a verse each to the Great Commission, Pentecost, the rest is all about the Body. After so much emphasis on the Body of Jesus through the Lent and Easter seasons, how do we preach with out one? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? There really are not any other options are there?
The question here is Russell’s talk about the body of Christ when there isn’t a body anymore.
But what if there is a body? What if as some modern theologians ponder, Christ’s resurrection wasn’t only about the physical resurrection, but also about how the resurrection lives in the life of the gathered community, the Church?
Thomas wanted to experience Jesus for himself. He did not want to rely on the experience of others. Belief for Thomas was not about accepting creedal statements, but about a relationship and if he couldn’t experience a body, then what’s the point?
Now for a moment, think about the body of Christ as the church, because in the here and now that’s what modern Thomases are looking at when they want to see Jesus. They aren’t looking to just accept a doctrinal statement, but they are looking to commune with the Body of Christ. In this present age, there isn’t a physical body to talk about, but Christ is found in the Church, the folks who believe in Christ and abide with him.
Maybe, just maybe, if the church can live as a community called, gathered and sent by God to preach the good news, then our modern Thomas will see Christ. Maybe if we live as a community of forgiven sinners, then our modern Thomas will see Christ. Maybe if we welcome all to the doors of our churches, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.
As you prepare to preach or teach this Sunday after the Resurrection, think about what it means to be the Body of Christ in our world. How do we witness to the Living and Risen Christ?
1.Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of John (Vol. 2, p. 292). Louisville, KY: Edinburgh.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.