Last week we began with a quote, which bears repeating for today: “The resurrection of Jesus is the starting point of Christian faith.” (Johnson, 389) Today’s text gives us further insight into how that works. The text describes the initial encounter with the risen Jesus. It is the encounter with the risen Christ which moves the first followers of Christ from fear and confusion to rejoicing and mission. John’s account of the first day of the week begins like the others, with women going to the tomb (though John only mentions one woman- Mary Magdalene), finding it empty, going to tell the others who aren’t yet prepared to believe. We are told that Peter and the beloved disciple go to the tomb to confirm what has been said, and the beloved disciple says he “saw and believed”. Then he and Peter leave with just Mary Magdalene there, and she meets with the risen Jesus in the garden by the tomb. She is sent to tell the others, and so she runs to them and tells them “I have seen the Lord!”. Then we skip ahead to the evening, and there is a group of disciples huddled in the upper room in fear of the Jewish leadership. If word gets out (and it will) that the body is no longer in the tomb, the powers that be will likely react quickly against Jesus’ followers. They have the words of Mary Magdalene, and the empty tomb, but there is fear and confusion, not joy… yet.
The doors are locked, but Jesus appears in the room, with the common Jewish greeting; “Peace be with you” but it’s more than just pleasantries. In his final words to them Jesus said to his friends “peace I leave you, my peace I give you” (John 14:27). His appearance now becomes the source of quieting their restless hearts and minds. He is aware of their fear, and seeks to instill peace. He shows them his hands and his side; the marks are still there. The risen Jesus is the crucified one- there is continuity. This isn’t someone who looks like Jesus, this isn’t a ghost or a vision or a hallucination; it’s really him.
Now the disciples rejoice. The Johannine texts often use the language of seeing- “we have seen his glory” (John 1:18); “that which we have seen and heard, which our hands have touched” (1 John 1:1-4). The disciples see Jesus, and rejoice. For many- then as much as today-, seeing is believing. Thomas wasn’t there, and didn’t see, so he says unless I see and touch, I will not believe. In Greek there are two words for not (ou me). In English a double negative is a positive, but in Greek it’s often used for emphasis, as it is here in Thomas declaration to the disciples; No, I will absolutely not believe.
But before we get to Thomas, there is this weird moment; Jesus breathes on the disciples. Usually not something we would do in social situations. But Jesus breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is echoing Gen 2:7, in which God breathes life into the nostrils of the first human, and he becomes a living soul. Then in Ezekiel 37 we read of a vision of a valley full of bones, and God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the winds to breathe life into the dead to restore life. Jesus’s breath is the sign of new life from God being passed on to the disciples through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is raised from death, not as an isolated event, but one which then is passed to us, which we share in. It now defines and enlivens his people. We are Easter people; a community of those who are marked by the Spirit, and made new creations in the present, as a foretaste of the future.
And this gesture comes as a commission for them: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you”. We are Easter people, resurrection people- that’s an identity statement, the marker of how we are to be defined, and how we shape the rhythm of our lives. Why do we gather on Sunday, and not Saturday as the Jewish tradition had it? St Ignatius of Antioch wrote that we are to be “…no longer living for the Sabbath, but for the Lord’s Day on which life dawned for us through him…” (Mag., IX). We are people of hope, peace, and new life- marked by the new first day. That identity then proceeds into mission- of declaring forgiveness and pardon and welcome and reconciliation. The two things- identity and mission- cannot be separated or pulled apart. The people who receive that new life are simultaneously commissioned to go out and reach others to pass along that life to them. We proclaim the word of life which came to us. To be Easter people is to be sent people.
Then we have Thomas who will not believe unless he puts his finger into the holes. We dub him harshly as “doubting Thomas”. But he does believe the moment he receives the same as the other disciples. We don’t refer to “Doubting Andrew” or “Doubting James”. The text of the Gospel leaves it unclear whether Thomas takes up Jesus on the offer to put his finger into the wounds. The offer isn’t a rebuke, or judgment or criticism of “doubting Thomas”. Jesus says if that’s what you need, here it is. Put your finger here. But what’s translated “stop doubting” or “do not doubt” is more literally “do not become unbelieving, but believing”. This isn’t a criticism of asking questions, or wanting confirmation, but a call to make a decision. Now that you have seen, will you accept or reject? After Thomas makes his confession, Jesus says to him you have seen and believed, but the next generations will need to believe without seeing. They need the testimony of the Church. The testimony of Mary Magdalene and the other Apostles was not enough for Thomas, but the testimony is there to draw us to belief and find life. The beloved disciple writes that the purpose of his writing is for those who haven’t had that opportunity to see the risen Jesus to hear the story (John 20:30-31). We, the Church, and the Scriptures we’ve been given, are now the testimony by which people will hear and believe. We are the means for introducing the divine presence and divine forgiveness to others. That’s a high calling.
The resurrection of Jesus and our belief, hope, trust in that resurrection drives our ministry. We are Easter people and we are sent people.
George R. Beasley-Murray. John (Second Edition). (WBC). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999.
Raymond E. Brown. The Gospel According to John I-XII. (AB). Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.
F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.
Luke Timothy Johnson. The Gospel of Luke (SP). Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.
Craig S. Keener. The Gospel of John Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Francis Moloney, S.D.B. The Gospel of John (SP). Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998.
Marianne Meye Thompson. 1-3 John (IVPNTC). Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 1992.