John 20:19-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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.”
26 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.” 27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah, [c] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
The late radio commentator Paul Harvey would pick up his message after the commercial break with the words, “now for the rest of the story.” In many ways that is what we have here in the closing section of John 20 (let’s forget for a moment the presence of John 21).
The opening verses (1-18) tell the story of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, finds it empty, and tells Peter and John what she’d found. They run to the tomb, find it empty, and return home not sure what to make of what they’d seen. Apparently Mary doesn’t head right home. She’s determined to figure out what happened to the body, and as she’s checking things out she runs into Jesus, whom she thinks is the gardener. Of course, it’s not the gardener, it’s Jesus. While she wants to embrace him, he tells her to refrain since he’s not yet ascended to the Father. However, he does tell her to inform the rest of the community that he intends to pay them a visit. That’s Easter morning and it’s the message that we celebrate on Easter Sunday. And in case you missed it, John lets us know that Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection (an apostolic qualification).
For those who remember the days of the Sunday evening service, when we would return to the church for another round of songs and a sermon, the remainder of John 20 might serve as a foundation for such events. Easter evening, having gathered together in an upper room, the disciples receive a visit from the risen Jesus. (Have you ever wondered where he went during the intervening hours? Did he go home to the Father or go out for lunch?) This little community of disciples was hiding behind locked doors because they were afraid of the religious authorities (when we read of the “Jews” in John we need to read that as religious authorities, lest we fall into the trap of anti-Judaism). Although the doors are locked, that doesn’t prevent Jesus from suddenly appearing in their midst. Could this be an apparition (consider Jacob Marley’s ghost)? Perhaps wishing to counteract such interpretations, Jesus shows them the wounds from the crucifixion. This leads to celebration, for he is alive. This appearance also confirms Mary’s testimony (remember that in that age, the testimony of a woman wasn’t considered valid).
As the evening wore on, Jesus commissions the community for its ministry. Jesus breathes upon and says to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” When Jesus’s breathes on them it’s not just a general blowing of air into the room. Jack Levison suggests that this is a rather intimate act. It is rooted in the Genesis story when God breathes life into Adam. In each case of usage—whether in Genesis 2, in the story of Elijah and the boy whom he brings back to life, or Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones— when the breath of the Spirit is offered up it brings life to the body. Not only that, but as Levison also notes there is intimacy here—much like a kiss on the mouth. And with this breathing in of the Spirit, Levison writes: “Jesus gives to his friends the new found authority of the Spirit, to forgive or not – but not from arm’s length. The very personal act of inbreathing turns into a fresh call for his frightened and timid friends” [40 Days with the Holy Spirit: Fresh Air for Every Day, p. 21]. With this commission, accompanied by the intimate gift of the Spirit, the disciples are ordained and empowered to grant forgiveness (or retain it). It must have been an exciting, if not also confusing moment (how do you make sense of Jesus’ ability to walk through walls). With this encounter, however, the community believes and is transformed. Resurrection can do that for a community, as we find with Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (Ezekiel37:9-10).
For some reason one of this band of disciples isn’t present that evening. Not everyone gets to see Jesus and receive the Spirit from him. We’re not told why Thomas was absent, but whatever the reason he didn’t receive the benefit of the earlier visitation. He lacks that breath of the Spirit, and so he’s not sure he can trust their witness. Thomas has long filled an important role in the Christian story. He’s the skeptic, the one who raises questions that we might have, but are a bit skittish about asking. He’s not willing to take anyone else’s word for things. Like David Hume, he has to see it to believe it. Frederick Buechner says of Thomas:
Imagination was not Thomas’s long suit. He called a spade a spade. He was a realist. He didn’t believe in fairy tales, and if anything else came up that he didn’t believe in or couldn’t understand, his questions could be pretty direct.” [Peculiar Treasures, p. 165].We need people like Thomas to keep us on our toes. They can be annoying – how come he won’t believe our testimony? However, persons like Thomas push us to ask questions of our faith and push us to offer good solid answers to the questions of faith as well. They also give room for those who find it difficult to believe. Yes, Thomas is a gift to the church, whether or not we recognize it.
There may be another reason why Thomas is an important contributor to the story. Contextually it seems that John’s community is dealing with folks with docetic tendencies. These are people who struggle with the physical nature of Jesus. These folks aren’t real comfortable with the idea that the Word of God would take on human flesh. When Thomas asks to touch Jesus’ body, he offers evidence that Jesus is not a ghost but is a material person. That is, Thomas helps to show that Jesus is not a ghost or a communal hallucination. Therefore, even though John is often seen as being the most explicit advocate of Jesus’ divinity, in this scene we see him demonstrating that Jesus is also truly human – the Word made Flesh.
This passage offers us a good opportunity to discuss the challenges posed to belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus by modern scientific worldviews. The bodily resurrection of Jesus seems require belief in the supernatural, which modern scientific worldviews do not easily countenance. Many Christians prefer to see the resurrection appearances in terms of a vision rather than an actual appearance. The first story, that of Jesus walking through walls, could be understood easily in such a way, but what about Thomas’ experience? While I recognize that challenges posed by belief in a physical resurrection, without the story seems incomplete and unattractive. Could a vision sustain a community going forward? Do we put our lives on the line for a metaphor? As for John, he’s pretty clear that this was physical event and not a dream. This is confirmed in chapter 21, where it appears that Jesus had breakfast (fish and bread) with the disciples.
Lest we get ahead of ourselves, we should return to John 20, which closes with this message: Jesus did many signs during this post-Easter period of communion with the disciples, while other stories could be presented, for John this is sufficient to induce belief.
This of course raises the question of what John means by belief. For many belief entails assent to doctrine, but I’m not sure that’s what John has in mind. It could be a reference here to trust. Of course, it is a trust that has substance. It is a trust that continues to push for answers to questions. Remember that even though Thomas started out doubting, he came to believe.
So, are we ready to believe?