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), 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 that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Easter Sunday, like Christmas Eve, is only the beginning, not the end, of a liturgical season. On Easter morning Jesus broke free of the tomb, and according to John’s version of the story, Jesus encountered Mary (John 20:1-18). He gave her a commission: Go tell the disciples that I’m risen from the dead. That was the morning service. Then, that evening, as the community gathered behind locked doors—because they were afraid of the authorities—Jesus made an appearance. In fact, he didn’t even have to knock. One moment he wasn’t there, and the next he was standing in their midst. You might call this the Sunday evening service, though it seems to have been better attended than the morning service.
There was one person missing from that evening gathering. His name was Thomas the Twin. We’re never told why Thomas was absent, but he becomes a nearly infamous character as a result of his absence. You see, when Thomas finally shows up, after Jesus’ departure, he’s skeptical about the reports he’s hearing. He takes on the role of David Hume. In fact, he probably takes on a role that describes our own feelings about such reports. How can this be? You put a person in a tomb. You expect them to stay there. As this reflection progresses I’m going to stray from the story of Thomas and his doubts, but Thomas’s declarations of skepticism, along with his later affirmation of faith once Jesus appears to him, offer important starting points for conversations about faith and doubt. Thomas gives us a certain amount of permission to be skeptical. There are those in the church for whom the idea of doubt is dangerous. Just believe. Don’t ask questions. It is that perspective that Peter Enns addresses in his book The Sin of Certainty. As I write this reflection, I’m only in the early stages of the Enns book, as he addresses an issue of importance within a segment of the Christian population, one that fears any form of challenge to cherished beliefs. He suggests that instead of achieving certainty in terms of “correct” beliefs, we should put our trust in God. As I’ve been reading, I’ve been wondering if the segment of the Christian population that I serve might have a bit too much doubt and not enough certainty or at least confidence in their confessions of faith, but that’s a different conversation.
As important as the conversation between Jesus and Thomas is to this story, I want to focus instead on the commission Jesus gave the disciples that Easter Evening. When the community gathered they were trying to make sense of Mary’s witness. That’s when Jesus showed up. John writes that when the disciples saw Jesus they rejoiced. Their fear seemed to have evaporated. I should note that when we hear in John references to the Jews, who always seem to be the opponents, we’re seeing signs of the slow separation of Jewish and Gentile Christianity. The sad thing for history is that Christians have used texts like this to defame Jews and call for their persecution.
Each of the Gospels, with the exception of Mark, speak of some form of commissioning of the disciples. In Mark all we get is an angelic commission of the women to tell Jesus’ disciples to meet him in Galilee (Mk. 16:7). In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus tell the disciples that he sends them into the world, even as the Father (God) sent him. Then, Jesus breathes on them and imparts to them the Holy Spirit. Or better, Jesus breathes the Spirit into them. This takes us back to Genesis, where God breathes life into Adam. The Greek word used in John 20 is emphysaō, which is the word used in the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:7. In other words, Jesus is breathing life into them—new life in the Spirit. As Karoline Lewis puts it: “This resurrection appearance is a moment of re-creation, of new birth, or abundant life, of becoming Children of God (1:12-13).” She goes on to say that because “the Holy Spirit is both called alongside us and breathed into us also heightens the intimacy between God, Jesus, and the believer” [Lewis, John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries), pp. 245-246]. It is this Spirit, who will empower them (and us) in their ministry of witness.
As to the nature of the Spirit, we need to go back to John’s account of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, in which he spoke of the paraclete in chapters 14-16. Jesus told the disciples that night of his betrayal that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said” (Jn. 14:26). Later in this sermon, Jesus tells the disciples that when the Advocate comes, “he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (Jn. 15:26-27). Now comes the moment in which Jesus will impart this Spirit, the Advocate, to the disciples so as to empower their witness. It is good to remember that the Greek word parakaletos has a number of nuances that include advocate and comforter. Thus, the Spirit enters the recipient, comforting them due to the loss they are experiencing, but also serving as Advocate. Having been empowered, they are sent out. Karoline Lewis notes that in “marked contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ disciples are never sent out anywhere in the story until now. Sending can only happen with the security of the Spirit” [Lewis, p. 246].
What is intriguing about this commission is that Jesus empowers them to forgive sins, or retain them. This is a similar commission to that given to Peter in Matthew16:13-20. In that passage Jesus commends Peter for making the “Good Confession” and then tells him that he will guild the church on Peter or Peter’s confession (depending on how you interpret this statement), and gives to Peter the authority to “bind on earth” what is “bound in heaven,” and “loose on earth” what is loosed in heaven.” It would seem that whatever authority Jesus has had during his earthly ministry is getting passed on to his disciples, and in this case, it would seem that it is due to the imparting of the Spirit. This scene is understood by many to be John’s Pentecost story (and a reason for which this text is designated for use by the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost, year A).
As for Thomas, he eventually believes. He sees and affirms that Jesus is risen. Jesus notes, however, that even more blessed will be those who don’t see him but believe on account of the testimony given. That leads us to what appears to be a concluding paragraph. John writes that Jesus did lots of signs that aren’t recorded in the Gospel, because there simply isn’t enough room to do so. But what is written has been shared so that people, who unlike Thomas who got to see Jesus, might hear and respond in faith. Such is the news given to us. We receive the message of Jesus’ resurrection as a matter of faith. And living by faith might seem sort of weird, or at least that’s how my friend Tripp Fuller puts it.
If your Christology isn’t weird, you’re doing it wrong. The church’s theological confessions about Christ are not suddenly embarrassing; they always have been. Join the parade! It’s not like it takes a pluralistic culture informed by science to realize that identifying a dead homeless Jew as the Son of the living God is absurd. It is. Let’s own it. [Fuller, Tripp (2015-11-01). The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, OrAwesome? (Kindle Locations 168-170). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.]
John often sounds sort of weird, but even if the world seems to think that the message is weird, it seems to transform lives in the Spirit! We who respond to the call, receive the commission to share the Word in the Spirit of Christ.