Grace Presbyterian Church
April 23, 2017, Easter 2A
Going to Extremes
In every gospel, it is made clear that the first witnesses to the resurrection, whether as recipients of the announcement of angelic beings commissioned to go and tell the disciples or simply as witnesses of the empty tomb, were women. Mary Magdalene is named in all of the gospels; Matthew, Mark, and Luke have her accompanied by one or more other women, while in John’s gospel she goes to the tomb alone.
Earlier in this chapter, Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb and found it empty; she returned to find Peter and “the beloved disciple” and reported what she had seen, leading them to the tomb where they saw it empty. They returned to their homes, uncomprehendingly, while Mary lingered at the tomb. While she was there weeping, she became the first to see the risen Christ himself, who told her to go to the disciples and report what he told her. By “disciples” here we should understand not just the eleven, based on the Greek word used, but to the whole body of followers who had been with Jesus up to the end.
Nonetheless, by the time evening fell that same day, we find the disciples, that whole body, hiding behind locked doors. Fear of the religious authorities was still greater than any hope they had gained from Mary Magdalene’s report of her encounter with the risen Jesus.
Clearly, Jesus will have to do something extreme to get through to them. And so, even with those doors locked, Jesus is in the room with them, “all of a sudden.”
This extreme measure was joined to another, as Jesus showed the scars in his hands and feet and side, the scars of the crucifixion just days before. It was this, the ultimate verification of Jesus’s reality before them, that finally got through to these slow-of-heart disciples and finally allowed them to rejoice. Continuing to “up the ante” Jesus breathes on them and announces that they are to “receive the Holy Spirit,” setting John’s account apart from Luke’s, in which the Holy Spirit manifests itself on the day of Pentecost.
But understand this: after the disciples first failed, evidently, to hear Mary Magdalene’s report and take heart; after the disciples locked themselves away from the world in fear rather than allowing in hope from that news; and even after Jesus appeared before them despite those locked doors only to have to show his scars to convince them…well, the disciples had no business dumping on Thomas when they finally found them and told them what they had seen.
The one thing for which you can truly dump on Thomas is for not being there with the other disciples to hear Mary Magdalene’s news or especially for not being there when Jesus appeared. We have no indication of why Thomas wasn’t there, whether he had thoroughly abandoned all hope and melted back into his pre-Jesus life or whether he had been hiding separately in fear or anything else. Still, what Thomas demanded when the disciples told him “We have seen the Lord!” was really not much more than it had taken for the disciples themselves to be convinced. If you are going to dump on Thomas with the label “Doubting,” you really need to hammer the rest of the disciples equally. They had not acquitted themselves particularly well before Jesus showed up and showed his scars.
Whatever level of doubt Thomas may have had, he did improve in one way: the next time the disciples came together, a week later, Thomas didn’t fail to show.
To this point Thomas’s reality was a cold, hard one: the Teacher he had followed for some part of three years had been executed in the most brutal way known to the Roman Empire, which was pretty good at being brutal. The blood, the spear piercing Jesus’s side, the nails, the lifeless body, the stone rolled before the tomb; all these Thomas saw and, evidently, said “It’s over.” Still, whatever hope he might have given up, he still found enough to be there that next week.
And whatever flicker of hope he had found was rewarded beyond his imagining.
Although Jesus offers his scars for Thomas to touch, as he had said he would have to do to believe, it isn’t recorded that Thomas actually does so. What we get instead is a first: while Jesus has been called “Lord” or “Messiah” or “Son of God” or many other titles in his time on earth, Thomas is the first to make the leap and say simply “My Lord and my God!” From a place of woundedness and doubt, Thomas comes to the most striking proclamation of Jesus’s identity we have yet received.
Jesus can’t resist throwing a little shade at Thomas, though, to use a bit of modern slang. It was an aside that could as easily have been directed at all of these followers, to be honest, found in verse 29. You believe because you’ve seen me? Really? So much more blessed are those who believe even they don’t get to see.
You realize that’s us, right?
The ones who believe even though we don’t see?
Yes, that’s us. Blessed.
Those final two verses, who some have suggested were originally meant to be the end of the gospel, serve as a reminder to us of just what John, and other gospel writers to a degree, are about here. They have no interest in giving us a blow-by-blow biography of Jesus’s life, and if that’s what you’re looking for you are disappointed. John is explicitly telling us that we have not gotten the whole story out of him. What he has told us, he says, is meant to help us to do exactly what Jesus described in that previous verse – to believe, even though we have not seen, and to therefore “have life in his name.” We are given this gospel that we might believe.
We are given the Spirit to sustain us, and much of what we hear in coming weeks will be the story of how the Holy Spirit acts among our ancestors in the faith. But we are given the gospel to teach us and show us the Jesus that is our life and our way to live. Grounded in gospel, we are then sustained and led by the Holy Spirit (remember Jesus breathing that on the disciples earlier in the reading?) to give that gospel to the whole world in our lives and words and actions. That’s what it is to “have life in his name.”
For the Word and the Spirit together, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ Is Risen Today; #810, When In the Night I Meditate; #256, These Things Did Thomas Count as Real; #817, We Walk By Faith and Not By Sight