Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 19, 2020

John 20:19-31 Commentary

Locked inside because of fear.  Sound familiar to anyone?  Well, alas, yes it does just now.  We will loop back to this COVID-19 related thought below but first let’s look at the disciple at the center of this post-Easter story.

Poor Thomas.  He is the classic example of the old saying, “Make just one little mistake and you’re labeled for life!”  Or in Thomas’s case, labeled for something more like forever!  But honestly, would any of us be so different were we faced with what Thomas confronted?  Probably not.  We’d be skeptical too.  After all, his fellow disciples were not asking Thomas to embrace some commonplace.  We’re talking about the history-shattering truth of the resurrection here!  It is supposed to be an amazing, unique, and (just so) a hard thing to believe.

So let’s stop pigeon-holing poor Thomas with the adjective “Doubting” for saying exactly what we’d all say if someone came up to us three days after a loved one’s funeral to say they’d run into the once-dead person at the supermarket.  Not one of us would say, “That’s wonderful!  Thanks for telling me!”  No, we’d say “Right!  I’ll believe that one when I see it!  (And by the way, are you feeling alright?)”

Thomas did too and it is wholly understandable.  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.  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!”  You can almost imagine Thomas’s smirk of incredulity getting a little wider with each rhetorical flourish.

Thomas kept mounting up an ever-larger heap of evidence that he thought he’d need to believe.

Of course, once he does meet Jesus, all that evaporates.  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.  Thomas ended up with the advantage of an ample helping of both.  Lucky him.  Er, blessed him.

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.  That’s why he immediately follows this comment by Jesus with his own commentary in which he says, “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!”

Now I don’t know about you, but when I read how much John left out, there is a part of me that wants to cry, “Tell me!”  It’s rather like narrating a story to a little child.  You know what happens the moment you say something like, “I’ve left out some of the best parts but I’m not going to tell you all that now!”  The child’s reaction is predictably along the lines of, “Awww, come on! Don’t leave me hanging in suspense!”

There was so much more to say but John seems convinced that he had said and written enough.  And by the Holy Spirit who guided John’s pen, we believe that he’s right about that.  If John could know how many millions of people over the centuries have come to faith, or had their faith strengthened, by what he wrote in this gospel, wouldn’t it most certainly reduce him to tears?  Could he have had any idea how great an effect his carefully crafted account of Jesus would finally have?

Of course if we preach on this text the Sunday after Easter in the midst of COVID-19 isolation, we do so once again via Zoom or other such virtual platforms.  Just now we not only cannot grasp Jesus’ nail-pierced hands, we cannot shake anyone’s hand.  We pastors cannot even grasp the hand of the suffering and the sorrowing.  People are dying alone in ICUs without even family allowed close by.

If ever we were in a moment of doubt, of wanting to see some evidences that God is near, is in control, that a better day may come by God’s grace . . . well, this is such a moment.  We may feel a bit less like Thomas and a bit more like that father in another Bible story who cried out to Jesus, “I believe!  Help my unbelief!”  Because we have some very good questions for God just now.  And let’s not pretend we pastors or anyone else have easy answers.  We are as caught up in this pandemic as anyone to whom we minister.

All we can do with spiritual integrity is to direct God’s people to God’s Word, to what John wrote, to the witness he bore long ago and to the witness that, by the Spirit, John bears this day still.

I find it curious that in both of the Sunday encounters we read in this passage of John 20, both times the disciples are hiding out in a locked room.  On the first week we are even overtly told they locked the doors out of fear.  For some weird reason, the outer world did not transform in an instant just because Jesus had been raised from the dead.  There were still things to fear.  The Jesus who told the disciples six chapters earlier “Let not your hearts be troubled” encounters still-troubled hearts in this chapter, Easter’s reality or no.

We are troubled too.  We are locked up in our houses out of fear of a virus we cannot see but that stalks us.  So maybe there is Good News in this story that Jesus pops into locked rooms of fear.  That he presents evidence—somehow, some way—of the Life he has to give.  That he gives us a servant like John to tell us the story that we may believe.  And this year perhaps that is enough.  “My Lord and my God!”  Yes, Lord God, stay close.

Textual Points:

As everyone knows, John 20:30-31 looks powerfully like the end of the gospel.  Jesus’ ministry is summarized, John admits he’s written down only a portion of what all Jesus said and did, and then gives the purpose statement for the whole gospel: “But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ of God and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”  You can almost see the words “The End” following that verse.  Fade to black.  Roll the credits.

But then comes the surprise: another entire chapter with a homely story on a beach.  Jesus cooks breakfast for his friends, re-commissions Peter despite his recent failing, and then John again concludes the narrative in almost word-for-word replication of the conclusion of John 20 but this time, in John 21:25, he reaches for a hyperbole to indicate that not only did he not write everything down that Jesus said and did (a point he’d already granted at the end of chapter 20) but that as a matter of fact, IF anyone even could write them all down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.

This double-ending of John seems strange.  It’s almost as though John finds it hard to ring down the curtain on his gospel.  He knows it has to end and yet . . . and yet maybe not just yet.  One more story.  And then when that one final narrative snippet gets written down, he knows he has to quit and so says in essence, “I’m really going to quit this time but it’s not the end of the story.  In fact, the story has no end.  I have to quit writing and you have to quit reading but in truth, the world isn’t big enough for this story.”  It seems to be John’s way of reminding us that when he quits writing and we quit reading, what remains is for us to go out into all the world to tell of the Christ who, though for a while he was in the world, was actually bigger than the world, too.  And THAT is something to talk about every day forever and ever!

Illustration Ideas:

One of the most difficult disciplines that film actors need to learn is to resist the temptation to look directly at the camera.  Actors need to pretend like the camera is not even there because if for even a second or two they glance into that lens, viewers see it immediately.  In fact, 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!  But it’s a problem because when it happens, it breaks the magic spell that films try to cast—it breaks down what in theater they call “the fourth wall” which is the one that exists between the stage and the audience.

Viewers need to suspend the awareness that this is just play acting so as to get immersed in the movie or the play as though it were really happening.  But the second some actor becomes obviously aware of the camera, the viewer is aware of it too and the gig is up.  I have been interviewed for a couple of mini-documentaries and the rule is the same.  To help, the person who interviewed me stood just to the left of the camera and insisted I maintain eye contact with him so I would not start cutting my eyes in the direction of the camera lens.

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.  (As in this clip from the movie Trading Places when Eddie Murphy’s character is being condescended to so badly that he looks square at the camera as if to say to the viewers of the movie, “Oh puh-leeze!” )

In general, though, not looking into the camera remains a thespian rule of thumb.

If you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then you know that these three evangelists also avoid, as it were, “looking into the camera.”  They tell the story of Jesus straight out but without addressing their reading audiences directly.  John, however, is different.  Throughout his gospel John keeps stepping out of the scene to talk to us directly as readers.  As you read various stories, it’s almost as though John stops the narrative now and again to whisper into your ear, “Now, remember, when Jesus first said this to us, we didn’t get it.  It was only years later that we figured it out.  OK, now back to our story!”

But nowhere is this as clearly evident as at the end of John 20 when we readers take center stage as John turns directly toward us.  He even uses the second person pronoun: “This is written so that you may believe.”  You can almost see John’s finger pointed in your direction.

But then . . . what John is writing is no piece of fiction, no novel or play or short story.  It is the truth.  And it is a truth that comes straight at every one of us!


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