Lessons from John, 20 Thomas

John 20:19-31  Thomas

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Oct. 28, 2007. Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. Some of us are not getting enough sleep because we’ve been watching the Red Sox and that other team playing in the World Series. Yesterday was one of those rough days for a Carolina alumnus teaching at Wake Forest. I’ll just say my team won. Remember we have programming here at Home Church on Wednesday nights. The Theology of the Twilight Zone group has been growing and includes a couple of teen-agers. Since it is Halloween on Wednesday, the Monsters are Due on Main Street this week. The past week was filled with phone calls and chance encounters with people from my past, which is a reminder that we never leave the past behind. We are shaped not only by our experiences and relationships, but also by our memories of those experiences and relationships. This is an important reminder as we study the Gospel of John because it is primarily the memory of the early Christians written to bring others into relationship with Christ. This week we are looking at the post-resurrection appearances of Christ to his disciples which were formative for the church.

The Eleven?                        As I mentioned last week, the four gospels give different stories about Jesus appearing after the resurrection. Mark and Matthew focus on appearances in Galilee. Not surprisingly John focuses on Jerusalem, much as he has throughout the Gospel. Luke and John both tell about Jesus appearing to the gathered disciples on the evening of Easter, and their accounts have some similarities. For instance, Luke says that Jesus displayed his wounded hands and feet while John mentions wounded hands and side. There is more significant difference between Luke and John, though. Luke says that Jesus appeared to the Eleven disciples (the Twelve minus Judas), but in John Jesus appears simply to the disciples. We should not assume that this is the same gathering. John uses the word disciple for a broader group than just the Twelve. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, most of the stories in John are about individuals not included among the Twelve. Here in ch. 20, John says that Jesus came to the disciples, not that he appeared to the Eleven.

This is important because many of the Catholic claims about priestly ordination are based on this story in John. The Catholic Church claims that this was Jesus’ ordination of the disciples as the first bishops, and they were all male. Therefore women cannot be ordained. But what if this gathering of disciples in Jerusalem was just that – a gathering of those followers of Jesus who remained in Jerusalem after his arrest? None of the Twelve are named in ch. 20 other than Thomas. Perhaps some were already on the way to Galilee. John may have wanted us to assume that Nicodemus and Joseph were there alongside of Mary Magdalene and other women. That is the simplest reading of this text. John is describing a gathering of the students and followers of Jesus who are grieving behind closed doors. There is no reason to assume women were not there.

Fear and Sending            John says that the have closed the doors out of fear of the Jews. Certainly followers of an executed Messiah would have plenty to fear, but there is more to this statement than that. The story of Easter begins in grief and fear and ends in joy. The disciples are hiding in fear because they believe Jesus is dead, but Jesus will send them boldly into the world with a joyful proclamation of faith. Thus, John’s version of the passion story moves from fear to faith; from selfish hiding to selfless giving. The disciples become apostles while the crucifixion is fresh in their minds. They have good reason to fear, but Jesus gives them faith. Incidentally, ch. 20 is the first time in John’s gospel that his disciples are sent out as apostles. In the other gospels, Jesus sends disciples out as witnesses of the Kingdom of God before his crucifixion, but it John, the disciples are sent out as witnesses of the resurrection. They have to experience the resurrection or being born from above before they can go out into the world.

There is one point about the closed door that has occupied the minds of many readers through the centuries. According to John, the Jesus was able to enter the room through the locked door. John relates this miracle without any fanfare and does not draw attention to it, but it has fascinated readers. People have debated whether this is an indication that the resurrected Jesus did not have a physical body like our bodies. Others have simply accepted this as a miracle similar to Jesus walking on the water before the resurrection. Some have asked rather pointless questions, such as why did the stone have to be rolled away if Jesus could walk through walls? The answer to that is so the disciples could see the tomb was empty, by the way.

By the way, I agree with those who argue that John’s portrait of the resurrected Jesus indicates that he has been transformed. In John’s gospel, the resurrection and ascension were basically a single event. Being lifted up on the cross was part of being lifted up to the Father. In discussing the resurrection, Raymond wisely points out, “It is a basic NT understanding that the risen Jesus is not restored to the normal life that he possessed before death; he possesses eternal life and is in God’s presence. The time and place that characterize earthly existence no longer apply to him…” (Brown, II:1013). The Jesus who appears to the disciples on Easter has already ascended to the Father and is no longer bound by the limits of the physical body. But the evangelist does not dwell on the miraculous. He simply states that Jesus was with the disciples after his death. That was what was important.

Wounded Lord            Jesus greets the disciples with a word of peace, using a phrase that became a common form of greeting in Judaism, which is literally translated as Peace to You. Most English translators add a verb so that it is Peace be to you. Some translators even turn it into a prayer: may peace be to you, but that is not accurate. This greeting in John is declarative, and it is significant that it is repeated three times by Jesus. This means more than “have a nice day” or “good evening.” We should notice that the first thing that the risen Jesus says to the church gathered on Easter is “Peace.” A man who has just been murdered by the Roman Empire appears to his disciples who are huddled in fear behind locked doors, and he says “Peace.” He still bears the wounds of his torture and execution, but he urges his followers to be at peace.  

John here dramatizes the transformation of the church into the community of peace on Easter. This peace or shalom means more than the absence of violence, but it includes the absence of violence. For some reason, we tend to overlook the fact that Jesus’ disciples did not seek revenge for the murder of their master. They did not retaliate in any way. The philosopher Rene Girard has identified this as the most important aspect of Christianity: the usual cycle of violence ended with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why do Christians miss this proclamation of peace when they read the story of the resurrection? Perhaps it is because we are so eager to proclaim that the Lord is Risen that we do not listen to what he says. Peace to you.

Holy Spirit            Following this proclamation of Peace, Jesus breathes on the disciples so they may receive the Holy Spirit. In some of the ancient Christian churches, priests breathed on people at baptism and their bishops breathed on priests at ordination. Historians debate whether this scene in John simply reflects the practice of the church of the Beloved Disciple or whether those ancient practices reflect the original actions of Jesus. In any case, the symbolism of Jesus’ breathing here in John’s Gospel is clear.

The word for spirit in both Greek and Hebrew is the same word as breath or wind. The Holy Spirit (pneuma hagion) means Holy Breath or a Wind from God. The fact that Jesus is the one who breathes this holy spirit means that he is one with the Father and continues to do God’s will. You may remember from Genesis that God breathed life into Adam. Throughout the Old Testament, breath = life. We have seen repeatedly in John’s gospel that Jesus is the one who brings life as well as light to the world. Here he is shown breathing life into the church so that it becomes a new creation; the disciples are born anew from God.

The symbolic connection of breath and spirit explains why this is one of the few times John refers to the Holy Spirit by that name instead of the Paraclete. Paraclete is a word that is hard to translate. Its basic meaning is someone who stands alongside you as a helper, such as an advocate or witness in a court of law. Paraclete can also mean someone who comforts you, which is how Luther translated it. We have seen that the paraclete in John is described in various ways: a spirit of truth, a witness to Jesus, and the one who will lead the disciples into all truth. Here in ch. 20, Jesus simply gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples without explanation, but clearly this is the Paraclete or Spirit of Truth that had been promised. It is interesting that the Paraclete in John is described in terms very similar to Jesus himself. The Paraclete or Holy Spirit represents the on-going presence of Jesus in the community of faith.

Forgiveness of Sins                        As soon as the Spirit is given, Jesus tells the disciples that they now have the authority to forgive sins or retain them. For the Catholic Church, 20:23 refers to the sacrament of penance and the power of the priest to forgive sins. The Council of Trent specifically condemned the Protestant view that Jesus was speaking to all Christians. There has also been a lot of theological debate over whether this power to forgive is prior to or after baptism, but there is no mention of baptism here in John. Many commentators simply assume that this statement in John is the equivalent of Jesus’ statement in Matthew that Peter has the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Rather than reading later church debates into this statement in John, it is probably best to read it in the context of John’s Gospel. What has the Gospel of John said about sin? Not much, actually. John has defined sin primarily in terms of rejecting Jesus as the one sent by God. Sin, in John, has been related to blindness and darkness; a willful turning away from God’s truth and life. John also said that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and throughout the Gospel, Jesus brings healing, life, and wholeness. Through the Holy Spirit, the disciples share in this power of Jesus to bring release to the captives and forgiveness to debtors. In the resurrection, the church has the power to release people from the power of sin and death. Should the disciples of Christ fail to be agents of the Father’s redeeming love, the world will remain enslaved by sin and ignorance.

This statement about forgiveness reminds me of a graduation ceremony in which doctors are told that they have the skill and knowledge to heal others, but if they refuse to use their power, people will remain ill. Or picture teachers being told they have the skill and knowledge to educate, but if they fail, people will remain ignorant. Through the Holy Spirit, the resurrected Jesus is forming the disciples into a community of forgiveness where people can be released from their guilt and live new lives. The church is to be the witness to the Lamb that takes away sin. So why is that churches preach condemnation of sinners rather than release from sin? Why do we preach damnation rather than salvation?

Thomas            Thomas did not participate in this gathering on the first Easter. Verse 24 identifies him as one of the Twelve, and his absence on Easter has troubled many readers of the gospel. Some have seen it as evidence that there was always something wrong about Thomas. That he was not as good a disciple as the others. But, as I pointed out initially, we should not assume that the group of the disciples Jesus appeared to was the Twelve minus Judas and Thomas. John was not identifying Thomas as one of the Twelve in order to rebuke him for not being with the others; he was highlighting the importance of this story about Thomas. One of the most important disciples of Jesus did not initially believe that the Lord had appeared!

There have been many sermons through the centuries about Thomas as the Doubter, but the skepticism of the disciples is a consistent theme throughout the gospels. Peter did not understand what the discarded grave clothes meant in the empty tomb. In the other gospels, the Twelve did not believe the women’s tale. Here, Thomas is representative of all of us who hear the story of the resurrection. People often condemn Thomas for being skeptical, but John tells his story to reassure later believers that the church was not founded by a credulous bunch of people who believed outlandish stories without evidence.

Wounds            Thomas wanted to see for himself, and the following Sunday, Thomas gets his wish. Jesus once again appears to the disciples gathered behind shut doors and greets them for a third time with the word of Peace. Jesus answers Thomas’ request dramatically. Touch the holes if you must. People today tend to be rather squeamish about this scene in the Gospel of John and want to minimize it, but this is a climactic moment in the Gospel. Jesus freely offers himself to Thomas so that he may have faith. He does not condemn or criticize Thomas – he holds out his wounded hands so that Thomas may believe. Perhaps the reason so few people are willing to believe today is that Christians are so willing to offer themselves and reveal their wounds.

People often say that John has a high Christology, meaning that he focuses on Jesus as the Son of the God more than on Jesus’ humanity, but it is John who draws our attention to the vulnerability of Jesus. He is woundable, and even in the resurrection he bears the marks of his suffering as a human being. We would expect that the resurrected Jesus would be as perfect as an angel, but he is wounded for eternity. Zinzendorf asked how people will know who the Lord is when he returns. The answer is that we will know him by his wounds. The only true messiah is the wounded messiah; the messiah who breathes forgiveness and life is that one with scars.

Lord and God!            In many English versions of John, Jesus tells Thomas to stop doubting and believe, but that is not exactly what the Greek says. Literally Jesus says, “do not be unbelieving but believing” (O’Day, John, 850). It is not at all clear that Jesus is rebuking Thomas here as a doubter, the way he is commonly portrayed. It seems to me that Jesus is inviting Thomas into faith, not condemning him for a lack of faith. John’s Gospel is written for this same purpose – to invite the readers to explore Jesus and place their faith in him. Incidentally, there is no indication in the gospel text that Thomas actually touched the wounds of Jesus, the way he is portrayed in Christian art and devotion.

It is a shame that Thomas has been branded with the name “Doubter” because he is the hero of John’s Gospel. It is Thomas who declares “my Lord and my God!” No one else makes this declaration in John, and many biblical scholars are convinced that originally the gospel ended here. Thomas’ confession of faith was the witness of the early church that Jesus is Lord and God. The one who was shamefully crucified is the Lord and Giver of life. This is not just a story of the past; it is a story of the present and future. The evangelist is not an historian, he is writing for those who will not get to see Jesus with their eyes. The story of Easter is that the resurrected Jesus returned to his followers and formed them into a church empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells Thomas and us: “Blessed are you who have not seen and yet believe.” 

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