Please read John 20:19-31
The Second Sunday of Easter is always “Doubting Thomas” Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary. We will certainly get to our friend Didymus in bit, but we have lost of ground to cover before we get there.
John’s Gospel has a “prologue” in chapter one, verses one through eighteen. John’s Gospel also has an “epilogue,” which we find in chapter twenty-one. So, our text comes in three parts today – the first appearance of Jesus to the twelve (minus one) in John 20:19-23; Jesus and Thomas (and us) in John 20:24-29; and the concluding summary and purpose statement for the book in John 20:30-31. I will address each of these sections in turn.
With this general outline, it should be clear that the preacher cannot address all that is in this text. As we go along, it will be clear that the preacher cannot address all that is in each section of the text. The preacher will need to choose and explore in depth one of the many elements of this reading. This is, after all, job security for preachers. I have come to this text every year for most of the last forty years. And I find it new and challenging each year.
1. the first appearance of Jesus to the twelve (minus one) in John 20:19-23.
The writer of John lays out the situation of the disciples that first Easter evening. We should know that the details of the text matter in John’s gospel to an even greater degree than in the other gospel accounts.
Some translators might render the opening words of verse 19 as “later that day.” That is not, however, a helpful translation. John’s gospel urgently desires us to see the Resurrection as the recapitulation and fulfillment of the original creation. God walked with human beings in the cool of the evening in Genesis, and God comes to the disciples in the evening here. Translations should enhance rather than obscure the connection between the first Creation stories and this New Creation narrative. And our preaching should do the same.
We are still “on the first day of the week.” The calendar was emphasized in Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden as well. Here again is Creation imagery. Easter is the first day of a new week and the first day of the New Creation. It is the fulfillment of the Sabbath rest which God took in the first garden. Again, translation and preaching should lift up this aspect of the text. It will be a necessary tool in interpreting the rest of the text today.
We can assume that Mary returned to the disciples and reported her encounter with the risen Lord Jesus at the empty tomb. The disciples would have had all day to discuss and process this information (if they took it seriously at all). They may have discounted Mary’s witness because of her gender and her “emotional state.” More to the point, they were still not equipped to understand what Jesus meant about going to the Father and all that. They had not yet encountered him in person as Mary had.
The doors where they were located were locked or barred due to fear of the Jewish authorities. The locked doors would keep out the threats of the outside world. But they also kept the disciples locked into their old world. Jesus came and stood “into the middle.” As we may have noted in previous texts, we should rarely expect the writer’s vocabulary to have merely one meaning. Here, Jesus becomes the center of their attention and experience.
The locked doors are no “defense” against Jesus’ appearing. He comes to speak peace to them in their fear and confusion. But he also comes to release them from the self-imposed prison of their terror. When he appears, as we shall see, it is for the purpose of sending them out.
Perhaps we can think about how we view our own church sanctuaries in this regard. Do we treat them as places where we escape from the big, bad world and keep it out? Or do we treat them as places where we meet Jesus and have our “sentness,” our vocations, renewed so we can be free to go out and face the world once again? We would prefer the former, but Jesus moves us to the latter.
There is no sense of “entering” or “descending.” John’s description has much more the flavor of “appearing” among them. He wasn’t there – and then he was. This is one of the more typical New Testament ways to describe Jesus’ various “return engagements.” We can read about his “appearing” in 1 Corinthians 15, Luke 24, 2 Timothy 4:8, Acts 26:16, Hebrews 9:26, 1 John 2 and 3, and Titus 2:13. It was the experience of the earliest Christians in numerous texts that Jesus appeared without notice or preparation, but most often in the context of gatherings of believers for worship. That’s an important point for us to remember in our own piety and practice.
This is one of the reasons why I know that gathering together in one place for worship is important for the life and health of the body of Christ and us as members of the body. If it were up to me, I’d be quite happy to sit in my study and wrestle day in and day out with the text. I find that Jesus does meet me in that way regularly and that the Spirit sustains and builds up my faith.
But there is no substitute for the gathered body if we wish to meet Jesus as he appears to us in the preached Word, the embodied Sacraments, and the community of the faithful. No matter my psychological quirks and preferences, I am anxious to return to in person worship when it is prudent to do so. That time is coming sooner rather than later, I pray.
When he appears, Jesus is “with them” in the midst of their confusion and fear. He speaks directly to that traumatic disintegration with familiar words – “Peace to you.” We may find ourselves transported back to chapter fourteen in the Farewell Discourse. “Don’t let your hearts be made turbulent,” he tells them in verse 1. “Peace I am releasing to you,” he says to them in verse twenty-seven, “my peace I am giving to you.”
We know this is not the mere freedom from distress that we crave – not the “peace” that the world offers. Therefore, Jesus continues in verse 27, don’t let your hearts be made turbulent; neither let them be cowed with fear. Jesus begins by calming the disciples so they can focus on the evidence of their senses and the events happening before their eyes. Trauma can affect our perception in ways that alter what and how we see and hear. Jesus wants their full and focused attention.
It’s not surprising that the disciples might be more than a bit distressed, Somehow, Jesus had passed through locked or barred doors. Either their security measures had failed them, or something very unusual was happening. When we are threatened in such a way, we tend to head for the exits and ask questions later.
Jesus shows them his hands and his side. The disciples recognize him through his wounds. Even though Jesus has been raised from the dead and has ascended to the Father, his physical body bears the marks of his crucifixion. The wounds are not incidental or temporary. Rather they are now part of Jesus’ ongoing identity (and are thus part of the ongoing identity of the Trinity).
What, therefore, is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body? Jesus seems to be impervious to walls and doors, locks and bars. Yet his body can be examined and handled as a physical reality. What does that mean for him? What does that mean for us, who hope to receive the gift of a resurrection body in the New Creation? Why did the wounds “come along” into the New Creation?
The wounds came along because in the New Creation, as N. T. Wright notes, nothing good is lost. It is not the case that the wounds themselves were “good.” But the love that bore those wounds is indeed very good. The wounds come along to bear witness to the love.
Is it, then, the case that our wounds will be taken up into the New Creation and redeemed as well? I believe that is the case. There are “wounds” in my life which I know simply cannot and will not be healed in this old Creation. I have prayerful hope and confidence that in the New Creation those wounds will be redeemed and all that was wrong will be set right. I believe that is part of what Resurrection to the New Creation means for us.
If my wounds are redeemed in the New Creation, however, then that process can begin in the here and now. It won’t be completed in the here and now, but we can begin to live on the basis of the abundant life we receive in Jesus Christ. I can see my wounds as part of the journey now and integrate them into the wholeness Jesus offers. Integrating wounds is not the same as ignoring them, however. That’s why the conversation will move quickly toward forgiveness.
“He showed them his hands and his side.” You will recall that Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to “cling” to him because he had not yet ascended to the Father (verse 17). That status has changed during the course of the day. “The first appearance of the risen Jesus presumes Jesus has descended,” Malina and Rohrbaugh writes, “since he offers himself for examination.” As a result, they describe this scene as “the first descent of the risen Jesus” (page 281).
From John 1:51, we have heard Jesus describe his mission as descending from and ascending to the Father. In John’s gospel, it would seem that the writer is suggesting that this mode of visitation will continue, not only for the disciples, but perhaps for the members of the gospel audience as well.
It should again be clear that in John’s gospel, the Resurrection and Ascension are related but separable events. It may be that the Resurrection is a one-time reality, but the descending and ascending relationship is a repeated experience, at least for the disciples. And it will become clear that receiving the Holy Spirit is more than a one-time event as well. We can pick that up in the next post as we finish this first section of the reading.