Reflections on John 20:19-31 (Jesus Appears to the Disciples & Thomas) -Second Sunday of Easter
Let us pray… Lord, now may the words of my [pen] and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight – you, who are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
History has dubbed this the story of “Doubting Thomas” because Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was alive again until he could see it with his own eyes. It is one of those stories that if you only pay attention to what you think is there – a comparison of “doubt” and “belief” – you will miss the best parts of the message.
I freely admit some bias. I have always loved Thomas – you might say he is my favorite of the disciples. I like him because he has the confidence to ask the questions everyone else is too intimidated to ask. In John 14, in Jesus’ farewell discourse, Jesus has just told his disciples that he is going to go away. It is Thomas who speaks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To which Jesus answers, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Here Thomas asks how can I believe if I haven’t seen? The religious cynic in me knows that it is far easier to use (abuse) a position of power and/or authority to compel someone to believe something is true “because I said so” than it is to allow a person the freedom to discover that same truth on their own.
The story of Thomas is about making the reality of the Resurrection visible, both the power and the responsibility of being a reliable witness. And it is exactly the lesson in practical hope we need for today.
Let’s consider the events leading up to this story…
On Easter morning, Mary Magdelene returns from the tomb saying, “I have seen the Lord.” That same evening, Jesus appears to the disciples (minus Thomas) in the locked room. They then tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.”
Thomas may be skeptical, but his request isn’t anything more or less than what everyone has received – to see the Lord and, by seeing, to believe.
This gets us into interesting territory for Christians in every generation since Jesus’ death. Other than those first disciples, we are all among those who have not seen and yet believe. But are we really?
Is our faith – or anyone’s truly free from empirical data? Do we confess Christ as our Lord and our God free from lived experience of divine love, forgiveness, and grace? Is Christian faith merely a concept or theory? We can certainly inherit faith from the stories and beliefs and traditions of others, but at some point, we have seen something for ourselves. And that something, however small or fleeting, is what keeps us going and growing and coming back for more.
Maybe we have seen God in the love of a partner or the birth of a child. Maybe we see it in acts of generosity and solidarity with the poor or in the beauty of a piece of music, a poem, or painting. Maybe the wondrous patterns and interrelatedness of the natural world show us the power of Resurrection.
Maybe we have experienced our own resurrections, hope and new life arising from the pits of depression, addiction, loss, and betrayal.
The risen Jesus showed up for those first disciples. They believed because they had seen. We, too, believe, largely because we have seen. What is important about this story isn’t about “doubt” vs “faith”, but what we learn about what it means to be a witness to the Resurrection.
The important message of this story lies in the first words Jesus speaks to these disciples – “Peace, be with you.”
Peace was something those first disciples did not have. They had plenty of fear and confusion – probably even excitement and joy after Jesus showed up. But they had no real peace. Why do we know this?
Because for a week after Jesus’ first appearance, a week after Jesus showed them the wounds in his hands and his side, a week after Jesus breathed on them the Holy Spirit and commissioned them to forgive sins, they are still locked in the same room, still without hope or confidence in what comes next. They had no peace because their words and their witness weren’t enough to even convince their friend. How could more be possible?
Jesus appears again, with the same words – Peace be with you. Jesus encourages Thomas to touch his wounds, to feel his scars, to see and experience the power of new life that stood before him. In that moment, Thomas experiences not just the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection, but his own resurrection as well.
Thomas the skeptic becomes Thomas the worshiper, Thomas the servant, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas demonstrates that we need to first make our vulnerabilities visible before we can offer the witness of our resurrections.
This week has been an emotional rollercoaster. There is speculation that in some places the peak of the virus may have passed – the number of new infections leveling off or even dropping over several days, and celebrations of patients being discharged from the hospital. There have also been troubling clusters of infection in new more rural areas – at meat processing plants in South Dakota and Iowa, the discovery of a previously unreported outbreak in a nursing home in New Jersey.
The good news gives us hope, a flicker of light that says there is an “end” to this tunnel. The bad news reminds us that even though we are doing our best to be isolated, that we have no protective bubble that separates us from the rest of the country or separates our country from the rest of the world. This is a global pandemic. What happens anywhere affects what happens here.
This is the week when the reality that we are in this for the long haul has really begun to sink in; that there will be no flipping a switch to return us to the way it was “before.” Governors who have extended their safer-at-home orders are facing angry protests.
It is understandable that people want to make the pain and suffering go away, to return to “normal” or at least what is familiar. I want those things too. But the harsh reality is that this is far from over. There are no shortcuts to the other side of this pandemic – indeed rushing too fast to loosen restrictions could have even more devastating effects.
These are difficult times for us all. People we know and love are losing jobs, losing businesses, losing their lives. We pray for an end that feels elusive and distant. None of us have experience being followers of Christ in times of a pandemic, but the Church does.
In the midst of the Bubonic Plague, Martin Luther in 1527 wrote a treatise on “Whether One May Flee the Plague”. In it he wrote that Christ’s peace does not remove us from disaster and death but allows us to have peace in the midst of disaster and death because Christ has already overcome them. This week I found comfort in these words and felt a sense of solidarity stretching across time, this witness from the past able to loan me his peace.
Jesus doesn’t promise that Resurrection means that everything is suddenly all ok. Death, destruction, and disappointment still exist. Because death, destructions, and disappointment are a part of human existence. Jesus doesn’t offer a free pass. Jesus offers Peace in the midst of the trials of this life.
Maybe that is the role of the Church in this time – to offer peace when there is no quick fix. To offer our stories of fear and vulnerability and how our faith in a Resurrected savior has brought new and unexpected blessings. Peace is not a panacea. Peace is the way through to the other side.