Lay people have sometimes expressed to me the wish that they could have had the experiences of those first witnesses to the Resurrection. After all, the conversation goes, they had up to three years with Jesus. They saw the miracles, heard the sermons, wrestled with the parables, got the explanations, and asked the questions. They witnessed both Jesus’ death and his resurrection appearances.
They had it all right in front of them. It must have been so much easier to believe, based on the direct evidence of personal senses and experience! Doesn’t the Gospel of John say as much at the end of our reading – that those of us who believe without the benefit of seeing are especially blessed? Maybe we get some sort of theological extra credit because we have to do it the hard way. And, if only we could have been among that first generation who had it so much easier!
That doesn’t seem to be the assessment we get in the gospel accounts. This week, we get two of the four resurrection appearances at the end of the Johannine account. In neither of those cases does “faith in the resurrection” come easily or quickly. Nor is it any better for Mary in the garden, as she mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener. Peter recognizes Jesus on the seashore in John 21, but that results in an exceedingly difficult conversation.
Next week we get the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are not models of quick and easy belief either. We know that in the Markan composition, the gospel ends with the women terrified and somewhat tongue-tied. Even in the Matthean account, the most confident of the four options, as the disciples meet Jesus on the mountain for the last time, there are still some who doubted.
Then there’s Paul. He has to be knocked flat on his back and struck blind. When he gets his sight back, it seems in the Book of Acts that he gets right to work at witnessing. But in Paul’s own account in Galatians, it seems that he went off for seventeen years to study and try to work things out before hitting the road as a missionary. And I thought seminary took a long time!
The New Testament documents do not report an easy accommodation to faith on the part of hardly anyone in the early Jesus movement. Could it be that the stories from John we have in this week’s gospel lection are intended to offer support and encouragement to people who struggle not only to believe but also to continue believing? That is, could it be that the stories from John we have this week are directed to people just like us?
What is it, at least for those first disciples, that makes faith in the risen Lord Jesus such a challenge? David Norman discusses this question in his article. His thesis, which probably seems uncontroversial to many of us, is that for the first witnesses, the problem wasn’t the Resurrection by itself. Instead, the problem was this. “How was it possible that the one they hoped would redeem Israel (Luke 24:21) could die,” Norman wonders, “and then manifest himself as one with Israel’s God?” (page 787).
Perhaps the first disciples were able to believe in the Resurrection when they realized that it was not really a literal bodily resurrection but rather some intense but psychologically internal group experience. That is the argument that some scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, continue to make. We don’t need to embrace the notion of a literal, physical, bodily resurrection, because that’s not what the first witnesses had to embrace either. Instead, just as the first witnesses were informed by intensely vivid and even communal (but subjective) visions, so we can content ourselves with that same sort of experience. Problem solved.
Norman and others note that such an interpretation renders accounts of the empty tomb at least superfluous and probably fictional. It seems, however, that the gospel accounts regard the reports of the empty tomb as neither inconvenient window dressing nor made up stories. “Without the empty tomb, the argument for a bodily resurrection is sapped of its force and conviction,” Norman writes, “without the empty tomb narratives there is no link between the glorification/exaltation of Jesus and his death on Calvary” (page 791).
“Dispense with the empty tomb,” Norman continues, “and one can argue that after Jesus gives up his spirit on the cross (John 19:30), he experiences exaltation, rendering the physical resurrection of his body redundant” (page 791). Without the empty tomb, the cross is a mere inconvenience or even an illusion. But the gospel accounts do everything they can to render the death of Jesus as a real death of a living person – one whom we believe was “crucified, died, and was buried.”
But, as Norman notes, what is at stake in the gospel accounts is not merely the story of a man who died and is alive again. That’s not where Thomas ends up in his confession of faith. “The question I want to address,” Norma proposes, “is: why did the followers of Jesus suddenly believe in him as Lord and God? What was it,” he continues, “that moved them from men and women covering in fear to courageous advocates of Jesus as Lord and God?” (page 796).
The gospel accounts show clearly that the first witnesses did not immediately recognize the risen Jesus – not as Jesus, and certainly not as their “Lord and God.” It’s hard to imagine why the gospel writers would compose this difficulty as a fictional element of their reports. This difficulty in recognizing the risen Jesus for who he is doesn’t do much to enhance the credibility of the reports. It is more likely that this is how the experience worked (and works).
“The resurrection narratives cry out that the coming to faith was not easy,” Norman observes, “both Mark and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 indicate that the difficulty lies in the cross, the major stumbling block to belief” (page 798). Norman argues that any inner transformative experience coming out of the resurrection appearances has to be reconciled with the reality of Jesus’ death and burial. “There was no belief in Jesus as Lord and God, the one who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68),” Norman declares, “without the simultaneous recognition that this Lord and God is the Crucified One” (page 798).
Norman reminds us that Thomas comes to his resurrection faith in precisely the way the other ten do. His experience is not, therefore, a demonstration of how much better it would be to believe without seeing. Rather, Norman asserts, “It is that doubt itself is the necessary prerequisite to faith, at least for all those who were Jewish followers of Jesus and who ‘had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (Lk 24:21)” (page 805). Every witness to the resurrection struggles to believe, Norman observes, including the Beloved Disciple in John 20:8.
What, Norman wonders, led in the Johannine account to Thomas’ sturdy refusal to believe the witness of the other ten on its own? “Just as a dead Messiah led to a dead end,” Norman writes, “in the same way, Thomas could not worship a dead Christ until he had experienced firsthand the Exalted One the other disciples called Lord” (page 808). It is the death of Jesus the Messiah and his resurrection as the Glorified One that make it clear that this One is indeed God in the flesh.
“What was mutually exclusive has become inclusive,” Norman writes, “Israel’s God includes both Jesus and the one Jesus called Abba” (page 808). What made this hard for the first witnesses was that the cross of the Messiah was a profound and scandalous stumbling block to such faith. “The faith of Thomas in Jesus as Lord owes as much to his appearing with his wounds,” Norman argues, “as it does to his appearing in the glory of his Father, in the glory of God” (page 809).
Therefore, Norman concludes, Jesus doesn’t reject Thomas’ demands for physical confirmation of Jesus’ identity. Instead, Thomas becomes the first of the rest – all of us who are challenged to put our trust in the crucified God (as Martin Luther describes Jesus). “Those who, through the power of Christ’s Spirit,” Norman continues, “surmount the hurdle that Jesus’ death poses tread in Thomas’s footsteps” (page 810).
I have never found faith in the Risen Christ to be an easy or intuitive matter. For some, it is just that, and I envy such facility of faith. The Johannine account shows four different personal encounters with the Risen Christ and four different experiences. I’m glad that range of experiences includes the witness of Thomas. For me, such faith started out hard and has never gotten much easier. I’m glad I can find myself in the Johannine account, in the one I can call a “twin” in faith.
“In summary,” Sandra Schneiders concludes, “John’s resurrection narrative is not about Jesus’ vindication after his shameful death. It is about where and how his disciples, the first generation symbolized by Mary Magdalene, and all those who were not with them when Jesus came, symbolized by Thomas the Twin, will encounter Jesus as their Lord and God” (page 34). It is not that seeing and hearing Jesus personally are no longer relevant. The question for us is where we see and hear the risen Jesus now. John’s answer is that we see and hear the risen Jesus now in the witness of the community of faith.
References and Resources
Feltman, Charles; Sue Annis Hammond. The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Thin Book Publishing. Kindle Edition.
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.
McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Intervarsity Press, 2020.
Norman, David J. “Doubt and the Resurrection of Jesus.” Theological studies 69, no. 4 (2008): 786-811.
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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