Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 7, 2024

John 20:19-31 Commentary

The second Sunday of Easter brings us to this text. The disciples have heard from the women that Jesus has risen from the dead but they are so afraid that they have locked themselves up tight, worried that their lives are in danger by those who put Jesus to death. Fear trumps the witness of the women.

In a previous sermon commentary, I focused on Jesus’s physical movements and words of peace transforming their fear. This year I’d like to add some reflections regarding Jesus’s words about belief’s relationship to what we see for ourselves. In John’s gospel, the idea of witnessing plays a significant role to the challenges and charges brought against Jesus throughout his ministry. People want to see signs for themselves in order to believe, and witnesses are brought against Jesus to testify to what he said and did. At every turn Jesus rejects these demands and laments those who voice them as lacking faith.

The disciples’ response to the women’s witness to the resurrection, then, is quite telling. Even those closest to Jesus, those who heard what would happen from Jesus himself—and some who even saw partial proof (John and Peter went into the empty tomb!)—struggle to believe what they have not seen for themselves. Why? Because they are afraid. Their fear has closed them down, literally locked them up in a room, hiding.

Jesus makes his way into the midst of their fear, showing them his very scarred self. By doing so, Jesus is doing them a grace of stooping down to them in their weakness and strife. And his words of peace are matched by proof of his conquering what they fear: he is scarred but he is not dead, he is alive! Actually, he is more than alive—he did make his way unseen into a locked room after all.

It is not just mourning that God turns into dancing. God transforms our state of fear into rejoicing. And becoming free from their fear, Jesus commissions them with his calling and with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I’ve often wondered about why Jesus specifically speaks about forgiveness here. When I think about the context, of how the disciples’ fear of those who put Jesus to death has taken over their lives, I think that Jesus was being very intentional here. Witnessing the resurrected Jesus has freed them from fear: those who killed Jesus did not actually succeed. Freed from their fear, they are now free to forgive so that they will be free to fulfill Jesus’s sending call. Rejoicing is difficult to do when harbouring grudges, bitterness, and a hardened heart. The power of freedom from fear is God’s Easter power.

Thomas’s doubt, then, seems a bit par for the course; he reacts the same way they did: he needs to see for himself—no one else’s witness, man or woman, will be enough for him. Thomas doesn’t seem to have had the same fear as the other disciples though, since he wasn’t locked up in the room with them the week before. I can’t help but wonder if his struggle is more with disappointment and sadness. (See the textual point below for the way Thomas is portrayed in John’s gospel.)

Notice that the disciples are no longer so afraid that the doors are locked; this time they are just shut. Jesus, again, comes into the midst of the struggle with abundant grace, allowing Thomas to see and touch his scars so that he might choose for himself to believe.

I say choose to believe intentionally because of the structure of the sentence “Do not doubt but believe” in the Greek. This isn’t a literal translation, which would be “Do not be unbelieving, but be believing.” Jesus has given Thomas more than he needs to believe now.

And boy howdy does Thomas believe. In the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary entry for Thomas, John D. Turner notes that Thomas’s explicit confession of Jesus as God is the only one made in the fourth gospel. Grace met Thomas and turned his struggle into a reason to praise God.

But God had already given Thomas and the other disciples graces so that they might believe. It just so happened that those graces happened to other people, were recounted to them by other witnesses. This is what Jesus is getting at: their fear and whatever else was getting in their way of trusting the resurrection message the women gave them is just like the things keeping so many others from believing the truth about Jesus because it wasn’t on their terms. “Blessed,” Jesus says, “are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The disciples will have to rely on this as they fulfill Jesus’s call as apostles. They will be people who tell and witness to others about what they have seen in the hopes that the Holy Spirit will use their words to bring faith and belief in those who have not seen or experienced these things for themselves. It’s almost ironic; the disciples will see people believes in ways they themselves could not.

As the gospel writer closes this section, he says that these things, among the many that could have been included, were written so that we too “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” for the purpose of “life in his name.” We have not seen or touched Jesus’s uniquely resurrected body and will not do so until we join him. Which is not to say that we do not experience the resurrected Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s Easter power. That is, we do have personal experience that helps us believe and the fact that we trust in Jesus’s spiritual presence through his Spirit in the midst of our fears, struggles, and disbelieving means that we’ve already learned in important aspect of God’s design for faith communities. We listen to each other’s stories to be encouraged in the faith. We celebrate the ways God shows up for each of us and let God’s ways of showing up lay a foundation of trust that God is with us. Those with this posture, Jesus says, are blessed, knowing a deeper, richer, faith and life with God.

Textual Point

The disciple Thomas features more prominently in the Gospel of John than he does in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is Thomas who believes Jesus is worthy of following unto death (11.16) and he is the one who seeks to know how to go with Jesus to heaven (14.5). Maybe what Thomas was struggling with was his own disappointment about not following through with his commitment to Jesus. It seems fitting, then, that Thomas is the one who makes the only explicit confession of Jesus’s divinity (“My Lord and my God!” in verse 28) in John’s gospel.

Illustration Idea

“The proof is in the pudding.” Actually, this saying is an edit of an older one from the 1600s: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and didn’t refer to our dessert treats but to savoury dishes cooked in bags: you wouldn’t know if it was properly cooked until you tried eating it. When we use it, we mean that we want to see and experience something for ourselves rather than just trust the words of someone else. Thomas applied this test to Jesus’s resurrected body, but what if we turned it around applied it to our own faith? Our faith is proven by what we believe and trust—sometimes in spite of our circumstances?


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