Part 1 – John 20: 19-23
I have long thought that John wrote his gospel on the assumption that his readers (or hearers) were familiar with at least one of the earlier three. In this short passage about an appearance of the risen Jesus he alludes to all three of the other gospel-writers. We get the sense of fear which dominates the end of Mark’s gospel, with the disciples meeting behind locked doors;
we have the commissioning of the disciples from the end of Matthew, when Jesus tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”, giving them authority to pronounce the forgiveness of people’s sins; and there is the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, which Luke writes about in the Acts of the Apostles, as Jesus says to the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
To this last point, John adds his own insight, picking up on a theme running through the book. In John chapter 1 we read, “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh and lived among us” – an intentional allusion to the first creation story in Genesis chapter 1. At John 20, verse 15, Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus but does not recognise him, “supposing him to be the gardener” and, of course, he is the keeper of the Garden of Eden who no longer keeps sinners out. Now at verse 22, just as God breathed life into Adam, John tells us that Jesus (whom Paul was later to call the second Adam) now breathes Holy Spirit – new life – into the disciples. He doesn’t just give them the Spirit. There is no mighty wind here. Just breath; the breath of life; the breath of new life.
What John is asserting here, to anyone alert enough to spot the hints, is this: the arrival of the once-crucified Jesus alive and well, evading the heavy security, is not some simple one-off miracle (as if miracles were ever simple); it is the beginning of a new era of global significance: it is nothing short of new creation.
Moreover, the disciples were not simply to be bystanders or spectators or witnesses – though to be an eye-witness to the resurrection, an apostle, was important in upholding the historical basis of the faith – but, more than witnesses, the disciples were to be engaged in the transformation that God had just launched. And, as we’ll see later, this is addressed to us, to any who would be disciples of Jesus.
Part 2 – John 20: 24-31
I will not be the first preacher you have heard who has said that Thomas has had a bad deal over the years. Fancy being labelled ‘doubting Thomas’! At café worship on Tuesday those present helped me to think through what had been going on inside Thomas when, first of all, he did not join the other 10 disciples on that first Easter evening, and then what led him to make such a demanding outburst, requiring a forensic examination of the body of Jesus.
Why, do you imagine, Thomas was not with the others? Perhaps he was afraid of being seen with the other disciples who were themselves afraid of the Jewish leaders, afraid of guilt by association. Or maybe he had heard the report of Mary Magdalene and had gone to Jesus’ tomb, trying to find out for himself what was going on. Or perhaps he was trying to come to terms with the shattering of his hopes for the future, grieving the death of Jesus, in his own way. Do you identify with any of these?
Why does Thomas say what he does – “I won’t believe it unless…” ? Was an emotional response? Thomas regretted not having been present, he was annoyed with himself for the missed opportunity and, as so often when we are angry with ourselves, it all came out in an unintended way. Or was it an analytical response? “I will not accept this a second-hand report; I want to see for myself.” Seeing is believing, after all. I wonder if you can identify with Thomas to some degree here. It is an important question, as we will see.
Whatever his motives, we can learn a number of lessons from the what follows. Rather flippantly, I note that Thomas is a sign of equality: he didn’t believe the ten male disciples any more than they believed the women who told them that Jesus was alive! More seriously, Thomas was honest about his doubts and Jesus was gracious enough to understand his individual need to grow in faith and to give him the opportunity he needed. Then, it is not as if the other ten disciples had suddenly become mighty men of faith: despite meeting the risen Christ, despite receiving the gift of the Spirit, they were still shut inside the house as if nothing had happened. So, I’m wondering who the doubters are here. It turns out that God transforms us from fearful hopefuls into Spirit-empowered disciples only slowly. Within that perspective, we see that, on seeing Jesus, Thomas makes the most faithful response of all of them, “My Lord and my God.”
I think I’m probably a similar sort of character to Thomas – rather analytical and therefore prone to scepticism, even cynicism – so I have always winced slightly at verse 29 where Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” I’d interpreted it as an implicit warning not to be like Thomas, that pathetic doubting Thomas. But I see now that the opposite is true. The risen Jesus comes to each one of us in the way that we need and, as verse 31 states, the gospel of John is one of those ways.
As I suggested earlier, God is intent on a transformation of the world so significant that it can be described as a new creation. And, to a large degree, this work is taking place through the agency of ordinary people like you and me. The commissioning in some sense applies to us; the Holy Spirit is given to equip is. The force of verse 29 – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” – is that we do not need to have been eye-witnesses to be fully involved in what God is doing.
That may sound daunting. If it does, if you are tempted to opt out, to mentally lock yourself away or go absent, please think again. Jesus understands human frailty, and God is not in a hurry. The good news is that, whatever motives Thomas had, and whatever his doubts were, Jesus was ready and willing to meet him where he was. The whole implication of the way that John writes his gospel is that the risen Jesus is ready and willing to meet us where we are, not to visibly perform for us, but to lead us into faith in unseen ways. The good news is that we do not need to be disappointed, or even ashamed, if the transforming work of the Spirit of the risen Christ takes some time to have an effect in us.
There are the testimonies of people who can confirm that God met them in the midst of their doubt and uncertainty … I could tell you part of my own story, but I won’t (perhaps another time) because you don’t need to be like me. God will not treat you as if you are someone else; God relates to you as the unique individual that you are. And it is your story that really matters.
What seems of fundamental importance to me is this: that God plans to do extraordinary things with the co-operation of ordinary people like you and me. It would be easy to dismiss the Easter story as unbelievable… This is where the eye-witnesses are important: Paul writes that there were more than 500 of them. It would be easy to file the Easter story in the category of religious dogma that we need to believe with our fingers crossed, but would be rather embarrassed to try to explain, let alone defend. But Thomas shows us that facing up to the reality of what he thinks or feels – what we think or feel, what we can or cannot believe – in the face of the unbelievable is not only essential to our integrity, it earns the respect and response of Jesus.
Real discipleship – and I think we are going to hear that word a lot – real discipleship does not entail believing “six impossible things before breakfast” (as the Queen said to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass), but being real before God. And that is the first step to take us from being locked away by our fears to getting out and making a difference in the world.
So let us all be true doubters, if we need to be; and let Christ stand among us.