How will you “play” this text as you read it in worship? Will you read and speak with a smile as Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you”? I think that’s a fairly straightforward choice. This is one of those texts that will really benefit, I believe, from putting the book down on a reading desk and doing some “hand-acting” to illustrate the movement underneath the words.
I have often used the same posture and action in reading the text that I would use in sharing the Peace of the Lord with the congregation prior to the liturgy of Holy Communion. This is an opportunity for worshippers to connect that liturgical action to this moment in the Johannine account. In order for people to make that connection, the preacher may need to highlight it in the message and repeat the action at that point. Once the connection has been made in the minds of worshippers, however, in my experience it sticks with them (at least until you remind them of it again next year).
In extending the blessing of peace to the disciples, I imagine that Jesus extended his hands to them. Thus, showing them his hands would have been a natural extension of the gesture. The Greek text doesn’t have a word for “after” in this phrase. It is a translation choice, since the grammar is a participle that encourages such explication. It is just as likely that the participle is contemporaneous rather than past. “Saying this, he showed the hands and side to them” (John 20:20a, my translation).
When they looked at his hands and side, then they saw the Lord. It is the wounds that help them identify him. That will be important as we think about the interaction with Thomas in just a few verses. Now, how will you play the second “Peace be with you”? If the first one was spoken to allay their fears, it seems that the second one is spoken to quiet them down a bit. I wonder if Jesus used the phrase the way our bishops sometimes say, “The Lord be with you,” in order to quiet down a loud and boisterous group of clergy at a meeting.
Would you consider enacting the Breath of Life that Jesus shares with the disciples in verse twenty-two? I could imagine ending verse twenty-two with a deep intake of breath and a long, slow exhalation before beginning verse twenty-three. I am trying to capture how a Johannine storyteller might deliver this part of the text.
The Greek verb for “breathed” has the clear sense of “into” rather than “on.” This is the breathing I might use in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, not the blowing I might use to scatter dandelion seed. This is the breath that gives life to inanimate clay. Perhaps that can give us a clue as to how we might play the words of commission that make up verse 23. These words breathe the Divine life into us when we are dead in sin.
And these words continue to blow through us until we awake to new life. So, I imagine that Jesus shares them with an encouraging smile and a positive nod of the head. That’s quite different from the threatening and foreboding tones with which I have often read this text in the past. I think verse twenty-three reads much better as a promise than as a threat.
Now we come to Jesus and Thomas. I have often read these verses with tones of anger and frustration. I haven’t done that intentionally, but I think that’s the default setting, at least for me, when I read a great many lectionary selections. Is Thomas arrogant and demanding, haughty and dismissive? That’s the reading we get when we name this text the story of “Doubting Thomas.” “You gullible fools!” Thomas seems to say. “I’m not going to settle for your words. I want real proof!” Suddenly, Thomas has become a post-Enlightenment skeptic, operating with a finely-honed hermeneutic of suspicion.
Yet, what if Thomas surprised and confused? Perhaps we could play Thomas as stunned rather than stern. Perhaps we could read him as reeling in confusion rather than regal in doubt. Could it be that Thomas is pleading rather than demanding? “I have no idea what’s going on here,” he is perhaps saying. “Could someone please help me to understand? I heard what you experienced, friends. Have I missed out on that opportunity?”
Confusion, surprise, disappointment – all of these experiences can certainly come out as anger and frustration. It is perhaps a subtle task to play Thomas with accuracy and empathy in this scene. The preacher may need to help listeners explore the possible options for such a presentation.
As I write this reflection, I begin to wonder if the reading of the text should happen in the middle of or even after the message. That might be an appropriate strategy if the goal is to help listeners experience the story as something other than the same, ho-hum, doubt is bad – faith is good, just-so story we get every year. Could the preacher take some time to prime the listeners to hear the story in a different way? I think that’s worth considering.
The next scene is a week later, probably in the evening. Thomas has had seven days of being on the outside looking in, seven days of waiting for his own encounter with the Risen Lord, seven days of hearing the joyful trust of the other ten. Was he a party-pooper who rained on their post-Easter parade? I suspect not. But the pain of being left out would have been palpable. Perhaps it would be worth wondering in a sermon what those seven days were like.
Now here we are. Thomas is present this time. Jesus comes and offers the gift of his peace. With his hands already extended in that blessing, he invites Thomas to touch him. What is Jesus’ tone in this conversation? How will you play it this time? Too many times I have played Jesus as the scolding schoolmaster ready to rap poor Tom’s knuckles with a ruler for getting his lesson wrong. That seems to be a jarring follow-up to “Peace be with you.”
What if, instead, Jesus is the empathetic encourager? Perhaps we could play Jesus at this point with a warm and inviting smile on his face. “Go ahead, Thomas. It’s ok. You can touch me. I want you to reach out and put your finger here and examine my hands. It’s all right. I won’t smack you in the process. Come close and put your hand in my side. Really, I want you to do it. I want you to have what you need, what I gave to the others a week ago.”
Perhaps we ought to play Jesus as inviting Thomas to touch him, wooing him with his wounded hands and side. “Thomas, I long for you to come out of that fearful box of mistrust. I want you to know the joy of trusting in the life I offer you. This is the moment, Thomas, when you can become the child of God you were created to be. Come on, Tom, it’s all right!”
And how shall we play Thomas’ response? Perhaps we can do the shocked and somewhat chagrined recognition that I have so often put into the text as I read it. That makes perfect sense. But there are no exclamation points in the Greek text. Translators and editors insert such punctuation to assist with our reading. But punctuation is translation. And translation is interpretation. We may use the exclamation point or not, depending on how we read the story.
What if Thomas whispers his response in quiet conviction rather than shouts it in shocked amazement? What if Thomas relaxes into a gentle trust rather than rages into a militant conviction? “Ah, Lord, there you are. I see you now.” Perhaps Thomas is more satisfied than surprised, with less violence and more peace. What if we were to title this story “Growing Thomas” rather than “Doubting Thomas”? How might that impact the faith lives of the listeners?
Then there is Jesus’ follow up to Thomas’ witness. It’s so easy to read verse twenty-nine as critical of Thomas’ demand for visible proof. Of course, many translators do not render Jesus’ response as a question (including Martin Luther, for example), but rather as a statement: “You have come to believe because you have seen me.” Yes, Thomas, you are one of the fortunate witnesses who have seen and can testify. Those who come to believe because of that testimony will be blessed as well.
After all, that is the reason the Johannine author composed this account – so that we, who have not seen, may come to and continue to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus. In that trust, we can continue to have abundant life in his name.
It is a challenge to read this text aloud in such a way as to woo listeners into that ongoing life. I think we are so primed to hear the text as filled with conflict and judgment that we may be able to hear little else. If we play the text in that way, however (as I so often have), then our presentation will work at cross-purposes to the text, no matter what we might say in the message itself.
Sometimes how we play the text is not terribly crucial to how it is heard. But in the Johannine gospel generally, and in this text in particular, how we play it matters a great deal to our proclamation.
References and Resources
Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.
Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.
Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.
Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.
Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.
Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
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