Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 8, 2018
John 20:19-31 Commentary
Don’t you hate it when you make one mistake and it defines you from then on out?! One little mistake and Thomas becomes a morality lesson, a byword, a counter-example of anything we’d ever want to be. In truth, however, there is more than a little of Thomas in all of us.
When Thomas was first told about the meeting with Jesus that he had missed, he was understandably guarded. The notion that a dead man was back alive again was not exactly something you grabbed hold of and easily believed in a minute or two, not today and not 2,000 years ago, either. Modern scholars sometimes peg the disciples as such naïve bumpkins that they’d believe anything.
They knew the dead stayed dead and this was not a fact you revised on a whim. So Thomas plays it safe but also then speculates aloud as to what it might take for him to believe this after all. As he talks, his rhetoric gets more and more exaggerated. “My friends, I’d have to see with my own eyes the nail holes in his hands. No, tell you what, I’d need to touch those holes with my own finger. Better yet, I’d want to stick my whole hand right into his side where the sword pierced him!” Thomas kept mounting up an ever-larger heap of evidence that he thought he’d need to believe. His words seemed calculated to induce some eye-rolling.
Of course, once he does meet Jesus, all that evaporates. Kind of quickly!
It reminds me of when I met Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. In our house we always referred to him as “Barack” and I was sure that if I met him, I’d want to call him by name. Well, when I did meet him, that went away in an instant and I fumbled even to get out the words “Senator” and “Sir” every time I addressed him in my fairly brief encounter. When you’re face to face with the real deal, things feel different.
Things felt different for Thomas, too. No way was he going to do—or even ask to do—what he said he was going to do. But he did believe. The evidence was right in front of him in ways the rest of us now don’t have. But it’s still faith that leads the way to the truth of it all.
To paraphrase a traditional aphorism, if you don’t have faith, then there will never be evidence enough to convince you, and if you do have faith, no evidence is needed.
Without faith, no evidence is sufficient; with faith, no evidence is necessary.
And although most of us probably agree with that in principle, we can perhaps admit that sometimes we are still hungry for a little evidence, or a little more evidence than we usually have.
Jesus himself knows that faith is both a blessing and a miracle. That’s why he says in verse 29 that while it was one thing for Thomas to believe with Jesus standing right in front of him, it would one day be quite another thing to believe without such undeniable physical proof standing in the same room.
But John at least seems confident that he has given us enough for just such faith to be born. And just to be sure we get it, John breaks down what in theater and movies is called “the fourth wall.” One of the most difficult disciplines that film actors need to learn is to resist the temptation to look directly at the camera (or in a play to cut their eyes in the direction of the audience, which they are supposed to pretend is not there). If they do this, the gig is up. They break the magic spell of this being “real” in some sense—they remove the fourth wall by acknowledging there are only three actual walls and the other one is missing so viewers can peer in. If you’ve ever watched amateur video productions, then you know that one of the main things that distinguishes amateur work from professional films is that you can often spy one of the people in the scene cutting their eyes in the direction of the camera. It’s hard to resist!
Occasionally, of course, having an actor intentionally look at the camera is done for humorous effect. It becomes like an inside joke between the actor and the audience. (Here is a classic example from the movie Trading Places where Eddie Murphy looks at the camera to indicate his incredulity at being condescended to by another character in the film.
But at the end of John 20 (and he will reprise it at the end of John 21) John steps out of the drama he is narrating to look his readers straight in the eye. “Now listen, friends: I have left out a ton. Jesus said and did lots of other really amazing things that I just have not gotten around to even mentioning. But what I have given you is enough. Read it and believe!”
Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting more, but by faith we need to be satisfied with enough, which is exactly what our God in Christ gives us. Thanks be to God for enough.
There is a curious textual dispute concerning the tense of the verb “to believe” in John 20:31. Textual critics seem to be divided between those who think this is an aorist subjective (which would mean “so that you may believe”) or a present subjunctive (which would have the sense of “so that you may keep on believing”). Obviously the choice one makes has something to say about the audience one envisions here. If John is writing to a missionary context in which the potential readers of this gospel are not yet believers, then the aorist would make sense: John is trying to generate faith.
But if John is writing to an established Christian community, then the present tense makes sense in that he is furthering and bolstering a faith already present. If you consult the critical apparatus of the text, you see that the present subjunctive may well be the better attested in early manuscripts, including Codex Vaticanus and Parchment 66 but the aorist version can call some heavy early manuscript hitters to its side, too, including Alexandrinus and certain versions of Sinaiticus. Most translations skirt the issue by translating it “that you may believe” which could go either way. This may be similar to how in an Assurance of Pardon we pastors may say to the congregation, “Believe the Gospel—your sins are forgiven!” knowing that some who hear those words have believed that for a long time already and are now re-celebrating that belief even as some who maybe have not believed before could be called to faith via that same expression. Maybe that ambiguity works in also John 20:31. Those who believe find their faith deepened each time they read this gospel but those who have not known Jesus as Messiah before may well come to belief via that same gospel witness.
When I was a kid, my father read the end of John 20 at the dinner table one night for our family devotions. After he read the part about Jesus’ telling Thomas that there would be lots of people who would not see him but who would still believe in him anyway, my mother commented, “Jesus means us. He’s talking about us. We’ve never seen him the way the disciples did, but he is our Savior and we believe in him. Jesus is talking about us.”
All these years later, I can still remember marveling a bit over a thought that tantalized my young heart: I am in the Bible! Little Scott Hoezee of Ada, Michigan, is in the Bible!
A few years later when I ran across that same passage in high school, I realized that my mom might have been guilty of a little rhetorical excess. No, I am not in the Bible. Not specifically, not personally, not really. That’s the kind of thing a naïve kid thinks. And when I was a child, I thought like a child and reasoned like a child but now . . .
Then a few more years passed. I entered Seminary and began to understand a few things about the divine inspiration of Scripture, about how the Word of God is alive, living, vibrant, sharper than a two-edged sword and cutting clean to the bone of those who read that Word. I began to understand that the living God really can and does encounter his people through his Word and that he’d been doing just that to countless millions of people across the millennia. And so when the evangelist John turns to the reader to say, “These are written that you may believe,” by the Holy Spirit, that is a direct and living address to me as the reader. Maybe all of us are, maybe each of us is, really in the Bible after all. I am in the Bible. This is my story.
And all God’s people said, “Cool.”
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