Friday, April 13, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel – John 20:19-31

Read the text here: John 20:19-31
Poor Thomas.  Over the last 2000 years we have come to know the disciple Thomas as “doubting Thomas” because of this one episode in the Gospel of John.  “Unless I see… and touch… and place my hands… I will not believe,” says Thomas.  One can hardly blame him.  After all, the other disciples have not exactly been paragons of faith.  Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied he even knew Jesus and the others?  Well, our text tells us they are hold up in a secret room hiding with the door locked!  Not exactly a testimony of great faith.
These disciples (or at least some of them) had seen Jesus tortured and crucified.  They knew he was dead.  They had seen him do amazing miracles including raising Lazarus, and they had heard him predict his own resurrection.  But of course we know that they really didn’t seem to pay much attention to that.  And affecting ones own resurrection is quite a different matter.  These disciples didn’t believe anymore than Thomas.  In Mark, Jesus picks a nickname for the disciples: he calls them “Little Faiths.”  This moniker seems appropriate for the Gospel of John as well.  What Thomas is saying is this: “I want what you guys have received.  I want to experience the same demonstration of God’s power that you other disciples were granted.”
Another point about Thomas is that this story here at the end of John is not the only time we have met Thomas in the Gospel of John.  There are two other instances.
1.              Raising of Lazarus – Let us go with him so that we may die with him.
2.              During Jesus’ teaching about his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit – You know the way I am going?  Thomas says – Lord, we do not know where you are going – How can we know the way?  Jesus responds – I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father, except through me.
In each of these Thomas is the pragmatic one, the realist.  If we don’t know where you are going we can’t possibly know the way.  If I don’t have the address I can’t program it into my GPS!  That is pretty realistic.  Thomas’ statement here at the end of John is in keeping with his earlier ones.  He knew the salvation history of Israel – he knew that God works through history in many different and amazing ways.  But this – Jesus’ crucifixion and now, resurrection – well, this was different.  Thomas’ statement can be seen as him asking this important question: “how is this consistent with what God has done before?  How is this consistent with the Old Testament and with what we all experienced in the living Jesus?”
This latter point I think is important for us, because we have a tendency to look for God to act in ways that are outside the natural and ordinary world.  We look to God for signs and miracles that are supernatural and extraordinary and while we are gazing at the sky we miss what God is doing in our midst.  We want God to heal our cancer in a flash of light and a click of the fingers, just like that.  And so we may miss that God often brings healing to us slowly through the process of a medical treatment program, a process in which God is present throughout.  Thomas I think is saying, “Hold it guys! What you’re telling me does not seem to be consistent with my experience of God though Jesus or my understanding of how God works; it is not consistent with my faith.  Show me how this is possible.”  This then leads us to perhaps the most important question that is raised by this story – what exactly is faith?
What is faith?  Does faith consist in accepting and believing extraordinary things that would otherwise be unbelievable?  Is faith completely a mental exercise?  Is faith in Jesus solely accepting the veracity of a series of incredible stories of miracles and signs – including the resurrection?  Is that what faith is?  I’m not so sure that this is faith.  It seems more like mental gymnastics to me.
As I have noted before, in the Old Testament and in the Gospel of John there is no noun for the word “faith.”  It is always a verb.  It is always an action.  The point of the miracles and the signs of Jesus and the resurrection itself is not to encourage us to sit back in our arm chairs and ponder whether or not we can find enough credulity to convince ourselves of the truth of these stories.  Rather, they are to lead us to act; they are to lead us to live lives that imitate and reflect the love and teachings and miracles of Jesus.  Mental attitudes are not even important! Ultimately it is God who creates faith.  And as we act and as we live lives that reflect the gifts of God’s love and grace and that reflect the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus, then God instills and creates faith. 
Thomas finally gets what the other disciples get: a personal encounter with the living Jesus.  And it makes a difference to him, and it makes a difference to the other disciples.  They eventually unbolt their locked door and go out into the world sharing the Good News that Jesus is raised and that the powers of death and darkness are defeated.  We too are called to get out of our armchairs, unbolt our doors and live lives that reflect this amazing Good News.
Painting by Caravaggio - 1571-1610
Note - this article is a reworking of my sermon on this text from last year.  It should be posted as Easter 2A - 2011.

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