Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
To Have Life: John 20:19-31
Just because you hear that someone else has had a deep and meaningful experience with God, it doesn’t mean that you will believe them. This seems to hold true for both the disciples as a whole and, more specifically, for Thomas. After Peter and the beloved disciple saw that Jesus' body was not in the tomb, they left and missed out on seeing Jesus. But, Mary stayed. Jesus called her to be a disciple and share with the others the good news of the Ascension, that is, renewed relationship with God and the possibility of becoming a child of God. Mary, the disciple to the disciples, went to them and told them good news. And yet, on that same evening, they were still locked away. They were afraid, and even Mary's recounting of her amazing morning with Jesus was not enough to help them manage that fear and continue their Gospel mission. Even with an eye witness to a miracle, they needed something more to inspire them to leave the confines of the one place that they know is safe.
Thankfully, Jesus just shows up, in the middle of their fear, and says to them, "Peace be with you." I guess he could tell that they needed some compassion. Notice that he does not fuss at them for hiding away or chastise them for not understanding what to do with the good news that Mary brought them. He addresses the need he sees first... he sees their fear and offers them peace. He offers them his hands and his side, sharing with them his wounds, not because they asked, but, it seems like he knows that it might help them to understand if they see. Just like with Mary, Jesus gives them a mission. He tells them that just as God has sent him, he will send them. Now, remember, Jesus' mission in John is to help people renew their relationship with God. He is creating new life, life that mirrors the richness and intimacy between God and humanity that we have read about in the creation stories of Genesis. Jesus creates new life in these disciples. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them, just as God once breathed life into a lump of mud to create humanity. In a sense, as I have preached before, at this moment, Jesus is creating a new body, his renewed body that is the body of believers. This Body of Christ will carry his work. He gives them one job, to forgive people. And, he disappears, just as quickly as he once appeared. And, Fearless Thomas missed it all.
I'm not sure where he was. Scripture doesn't say. I will say that Scripture does indicate that Thomas was not known for being fearful. Back in the part of the story where Jesus resurrected his friend Lazarus, the disciples were afraid that Jesus was going to be attacked when he went to help Lazarus. After Jesus said that they would go despite the danger, Thomas was the one who spoke up and made it clear that he did not fear death if it meant following Jesus. Maybe Thomas had listened to Mary preach about the Ascension and went out into the world, hope restored, searching for new ways to connect with God. Wherever he was, he missed this second appearance by Jesus. As I stated last Easter season when I preached on this passage, Thomas only asks for the same physical experience as all the other disciples had. He wants to be incorporated into this body of Christ, too, and to do so he needed to actually see Jesus.
It is fascinating to me that the disciples, including Thomas (though I'm not sure about Mary... she seems more inclined to action than the boys were) are still in that same house a week later. Now, I don't know if they stayed hiding away the whole time. I don't know if fearless Thomas stood in a corner, hands on hips, tapping his toes, waiting for Jesus to show back up. Or, maybe they just were practicing their mission with Thomas, forgiving him for insinuating that they might be lying or for being too hard-headed to believe, just like they once were. Maybe they chose to wait, hoping that Jesus would appear again for their friend. Either way, the next place we see them is the last place we saw them, in the same house, doors shut. Waiting or hiding.
Jesus just pops in again, not bothering with the doors that they have closed to protect themselves. Again, he offers peace and he offers his body as proof. Now, the next line of the Gospel has tripped up readers for hundreds of years. In most English translations, it says that Jesus said to Thomas something like "Do not doubt, but believe." I have learned this week that we might do better to translate that word a little differently. In Greek, the word is "apistos," which really means "unbelieving." Doubt is a whole other word, "diakrino." Jesus doesn't tell him not to doubt. He tells him not be unbelieving but to believe. Doubt is a sense of being somewhere between belief and unbelief... it means something more like being uncertain. According to at least one scholar that I read this week, John isn't really concerned about levels of certainty. John is more concerned about the relationship one becomes invested in when one believes. Remember, Jesus is a bridge holding humanity and divinity together. To believe in him is to be in relationship with God through him and to be connected to all of creation through that belief. In this moment, when Jesus asks Thomas to believe, Jesus wants Thomas to affirm that he is in relationship with him, with God, and is now fully a part of the Body of Christ. Unsurprisingly, Thomas, fearless as ever, quickly asserts his belief and renews his relationship, calling Jesus, "My Lord and My God," making one of the most clear statements of belief in the whole Gospel.
The story goes on. In chapter 29, Jesus says that those who have believed without seeing him will be blessed. Karoline Smith, the same author who talked about the difference between doubt and belief, notes that throughout history, many have read verse 29 as Jesus chastising Thomas. Given how gentle Jesus has been with both the large group of disciples and with Thomas in these previous two appearances, that seems like a reading that is out of sync with Jesus' presentation in this portion of the Gospel. She, and other scholars, suggest that this verse is for us, the ones who follow Jesus but have never touched his actual hands or seen his own bleeding side... the ones who've only experience the Body of Christ through the work of his believers, the ones enlivened by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus said "Blessed are those who have not seen (my actual wounds) and yet have come to believe," Jesus was saying that our belief is welcome, too. We can join in the Body of Christ, renewing our relationships with God. Our belief is not second-best. Our belief is powerful and relationship building, too.
I read a powerful article this week that reminded me of the true gift that this kind of belief is. Cindy Huggins, a lay member of Centre Street Congregational Church, UCC in Machias, Maine, wrote of her own vocational evolution in a blog post called "Everything is finished. Everything is beginning." Huggins, long-time English professor, retired last year from her position as president of the University of Maine at Machias. She spoke of the all-consuming nature of such a role: "But from 2005 to 2015, I stopped being Cindy and became the president of a college." While she was honored to do the work, in order to do so as she saw fit, she put aside parts of her life that had given her great meaning.
She knows that retirement was the right choice, but it was still a hard choice. Or, to put it in words that John might understand, she's has heard that there is new life possible, but it is a little hard to see where that new life is. She might could use Jesus to pop in right about now to show her his hands and side. While she didn't say he showed up in her kitchen, it does sound like she's seeing some glimpses of Jesus as she has made her way back to practices that once gave her life. It is particularly interesting to read of her new-found passion for professional editing, a very intimate, relational process in writing, especially in light of this week's Gospel, which is a very intimate story about intimate, renewing relationship with Christ. I'm not surprised that she is finding new life in that kind of work.
She said that at this point in her life, the primary question of her calling is "Who am I know?" She doesn't know yet. But, importantly, she believes that she will find a renewed, maybe even new, calling, even if she can't yet see what that new calling will be. She finishes the essay with these words, paraphrasing the Western novelist Louis Lamour: "Questions with no answers. Faith with no proof. Everything is finished. Everything is beginning." Those phrases seem to capture so much of this Gospel story. The relationship you thought you had with Jesus is finished. The new life with Christ is just beginning. And, the ones who have only seen New Life through the reconstituted Body of Christ, well, we're welcome here, too. We may not have answers to all of our questions but we have a relationship with God through Christ, and we believe that the ongoing relationship matters. We believe so we have life. We have God. Through the Holy Spirit, we are the Body of Christ. Let's go where he sends us.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Cindy Huggins: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/everything-is-finished-ev_b_9667006.html
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3580
Pulpit fiction podcast: www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/61-easter-2c-april-3-2016
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.