Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
John 20:19-31 - link to NRSV text
Thomas gets a lot of bad press, and I don't think he deserves it. He wants to touch Jesus, and who wouldn't? A lot of us feel that way. One of my favorite worship songs (which is track #10 from my favorite worship record) has a chorus that goes like this:
I need to know that God is real
I need to know that Christ can feel
the need to touch and love and heal
the world including me
That's something that Jesus' followers most definitely need as they gather in this Sunday's gospel. They are gathered secretly, behind locked doors, "for fear of the Judeans." If you can, please read hoi ioudaioi in verse 19 this way, rather than "the Jews," as the NRSV has it. First off, there's no Greek word in the first century that corresponds neatly to our use of "Jew." Particularly as the Gospel According to John uses the term, hoi ioudioi aren't all adherents to Judaism, or all those of the people of Israel (Jesus and all of his disciples are Jews; they're not locked up for fear of themselves!), but rather those who not only live in Judea but whose primary allegiance is to the Judean authorities and the Temple aristocracy. The 'Judeans' hold what power and influence they have at the pleasure of Rome, and its basis is the Temple system that, in the Gospel According to John, Jesus rails against from the very start of his career.
So the question on the minds of Jesus' followers, in the dark and confusing days immediately following Jesus' execution at the hands of Roman soldiers and the instigation of the Judean authorities, is probably not so much "will we be next?" as it is, "how long do you think we can last?"
That totally understandable fear is keeping the disciples in hiding -- though apparently not Thomas, as he's not with those cowering in the locked room when Jesus appears to them. And so Thomas doesn't see Jesus, doesn't experience Jesus' breathing on his followers, doesn't receive the commission the risen Jesus gives the others.
But does this mean that Thomas is less faithful than the other disciples? Not necessarily. In the appearance of the risen Jesus that Thomas misses, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out into the world, forgiving as he forgives. I like to think that Thomas wasn't present to hear those words because he, unlike the others, was not locked inside in fear, but was already out there, in the world.
Thomas, the disciple who wants to touch Jesus, is onto something.
If you want to touch Jesus, if you want to KNOW that God is real, that Christ is alive and at work in the world, the best place for you to be is out there, in the world.
And Thomas is onto something even more important:
If you want to have the most profound experience possible of the risen Christ, you'll need to touch Christ's wounds. Thomas is entirely right about that. Touch Christ's wounds, and you'll find yourself crying out with Thomas, "My lord and my God!"
There's only one point on which Thomas is stumbling in this Sunday's gospel, but it's an important one, one that I believe the Spirit is cautioning us to heed. Thomas, who might have been the only one of Jesus' followers brave enough to be out there in the world while the others were hiding behind locked doors, takes the other disciples' report to mean that Jesus had been with the others and not with him, that those hiding in the room had, in seeing Jesus there, experienced Jesus' presence in a way that Thomas missed out on. Thomas takes the others' report to mean that, if he really wanted to touch Jesus, he'd been in the wrong place.
Not so. The biggest mistake Thomas makes is in thinking that the body he wants and needs to touch, the body of the risen Christ, is the body that had been nailed to the cross. But it's not like that. If Thomas was out in the world, he was in precisely the place Jesus wanted him to be. If Thomas was out in the world, he didn't need to hear Jesus' commission to the others because he was already following it.
Do you need to know that God is real? Do you need to know that Christ is alive, that sin and death itself are not the last word, but are passing away? Do you need to experience Christ's presence? Do you want to touch Jesus, and KNOW that Jesus is really right there with you?
Then hear Jesus' commission to those upon whom he breathes his spirit: you are being sent out, into the world, and specifically to the world's brokenness. You are being sent to touch those places, to proclaim and participate in the reconciliation and healing that is Christ's work in the world. You are being sent because YOU -- each one of us about to gather at Jesus' table here, and at every other table at which bread is being broken in remembrance of him -- are now the Body of Christ, Jesus' presence at work in the world, called and empowered to do what he did, and more.
If we want to know that, if we want to experience that, we'll have to leave the rooms we lock ourselves in because of fear. We need to do what Thomas did -- get out into the world, and insist upon touching Christ's wounds. When we try to sequester ourselves and our children away from the world's pain, we are hiding them from Christ's presence. Fortunately, Jesus keeps after us, breathing peace and power to go out there and touch the places where the Body of Christ is still suffering. More than 38 million people infected with HIV. The life expectancy in Botswana down to 30 years old. One in five people in the world trying to live on less than a dollar a day. One person in seven trying to stay alive without access to clean water.
What can one person do? I don't know. But I know what Jesus can do. We can read about the signs of Jesus' power and how Jesus used that power in the Bible. But these signs were recorded not to provide us with something to read as we wait in locked rooms and gated communities, but to inspire us to experience the life of the risen Christ by living as Christ's Body in the world, touching, loving, healing, forgiving in Christ's name and to Christ's glory.
So let the gospel come alive
in actions plain to see
in imitation of the one
whose love extends to me
I need to know that God is real
I need to know that Christ can feel
the need to touch and love and heal
the world including me
Thanks be to God!
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Second Sunday of Easter, Year A:
Tracked on Apr 3, 2005 8:21:31 PM
What a wonderful breath of fresh air! THANK YOU!
Thank you also for not making the centuries-old assumption that Tom accepted Jesus' invitation to touch his wounds ...
Posted by: Alistair Bain | Mar 30, 2005 7:00:59 PM
Being a Thomas myself I always want to stand up for Thomas. It seems that more and more people stick up for him these days but I love your suggestion that maybe he wasn't hiding in fear like the others. Maybe he's got guts. He does say "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (Jn 11.16). I don't know whether that's fatalistic resignation, courage, sarcasm, or something else. If it's courage then maybe that's why he's not in the room when Jesus shows up.
I like your stuff.
Posted by: Thomas Arth | Mar 31, 2005 11:33:34 AM
I enjoyed especially your paragraph that begins with "Then hear Jesus' commission . . ." The contrast between hiding inside and going outside is important in this story. We are called to be outside people, not hiding in a room (or a church).
Posted by: Josh Miller | Mar 31, 2005 12:01:58 PM
Another Thomas here . . . and I affirm the right of all Thomass to doubt. I'm not so sure that Thomas was outside being brave, however. I'd like to think he was "outside" saying the same things Jesus did before he was killed. But we just don't know.
What about the empowerment to forgive/retain sins as part of the call to be on the "outside"? The former seems rather liberating. Do you think Jesus, by emphasizing his capacity to forgive sins, implied that all Ioudaioi had the same capacity?
Posted by: Thomas Bond | Apr 1, 2005 8:54:46 AM
Any insight into issues of community? The community gathers together and Christ comes into their midst. Thomas misses that. Is there instruction here for the importance of the community of faith? Like Ed Norton says in Keeping the Faith "There are no Lauren Hills here, only Fugees."
Posted by: Mark | Apr 1, 2005 7:27:18 PM
I like your point (and not just because I'm partial to both Ed Norton and Keeping the Faith. I do think that the Gospel According to John (and Johannine literature in general) doesn't look kindly on those who 'keep the faith' in secret, but you've got to go with the preaching point most relevant to the particular ears listening.
I've also got to add the not-particularly relevant point that I'm partial to Lauryn Hill -- especially the track "To Zion" on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Good stuff!
Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Apr 1, 2005 8:09:14 PM
Three points always come up for me (and in my head since I'm appointed to preach this Sunday):
1) The gospel does not say that Thomas touched Jesus' wounds. I think rather that he didn't, especially given that Jesus speaks about those who have not "seen", not those who have not "touched".
2) I've never heard a single sermon beat up on Thomas. Never. Not once. So while I like what you said, consider that in about 32 years of hearing sermons (I'm 37 years old), I can't recall a single sermon that beat up on Thomas. So the first sentence, I would drop. Thomas doesn't actually get much bad press at all.
3) I've never liked sermons whose whole logic is that what the gospel says is wrong and we should do the opposite. Today's gospel, most clearly and plainly, is about Jesus words to Thomas, that he is blessed, but more blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed. You didn't run afoul of this, but I don't need more sermons that tell me that doubt is a good thing. I greatly enjoyed instead reading a sermon about how action is a good thing.
I suspect my focus on Sunday will be the great praise that Jesus has for all of us; that we have an advantage over the apostles. Wow, that's freaky stuff, but that's something I think we need to hear.
Posted by: Thomas Bushnell, BSG | Apr 1, 2005 8:33:58 PM
Sam Portaro in his new book, "Daysprings," writes about a parallel account in Luke, that there isn't much emphasis on touching. "It is unnecessary for them to touch Jesus; Jesus has instead touched them."
He goes on to note that there is no description of what anybody touched or what they felt when they did. "We have only accounts of how Jesus touched them, their minds and hearts, not with his hands but the reality he represented to them -- the reality that there was to be no punishment for what he had so lately endured... This incredible, abundant forgiveness -- this holy amnesty -- what they witnessed. This was how he touched them. This was their gospel, the gospel we inherit..."
Posted by: Jed | Apr 1, 2005 11:55:17 PM
I come to your post about Thomas in a different fahsion. I read them mostly and don't comment but this sermon "hits home" today. I have come home again, to my small rural hometown, to take care of elderly mother. I didn't get the guy called back soon enough on the job offer so he gave to another. I like Thomas "missed the boat." I was angry at the man offering the job because I felt he didn't give me time enough to respond to his offer which is in a city 2 hrs away from my hometown. I had told him before I left that I was going home to check on my elderly mother and would not be by my phone readily. He sent an email which I didn't get to read until this past Friday--too late. He sent it Wednesday late but I didn't get to it since I was with my mom and dealing with her medical problem. Also don't own cell phone.
I am mad at self and the guy who offered--his email lead me to believe I had job unless I said otherwise but apparently that was not it. I had just interviewed for a job. I am still unemployed--going on 10+ months.
So I feel like Thomas this day. Then I note that http://www.dailyguideposts.com for today 4.2.2005 had as its prayer:'Dear Lord, thank You for the opportunity to turn my failure into success.'
Maybe God is telling me I am a Thomas. I have tried to live my life as I have posted in my priorties: God, family and friends, work, etc. With this event and others I keep seeing myself as being punished for wanting and expecting a job that will allow me to take care of my mom and work at a job that pays a living wage. That is the goal but mostly had to choose jobs that didn't pay AND didn't treat me very well. Yet I try to persist--like Thomas. I get told that I am crazy or a dreamer to think that because I live in a city that claims to be full of "Christians who support family values" that is the walk they should do. Why not give people a living wage and weekends off for family if you have it--give it to others. Instead I see the opposite.
Partially related issue: This Tuesday my state votes on a 'marriage amendment' which some of the so-called Christians claim is necessary to protect "marriage." Those of us who want and expect employment with jobs that pay a living wage or if not be treated with human dignity AND that adults who love each other with no domestic violence --that those issues/things should be standard for humans.
I apologize for the rant but my missing the boat and this marriage thing is gnawing on me. We need more Thomases not less.
Posted by: Brenda M. | Apr 2, 2005 12:02:44 PM
Hi-- thanks for this. I love that "love and anger" music from Iona too. It was great to see it so skillfully woven into your message. I'm not using it with my congregation because we're new to each other and it's not music they know yet (they will. . .) However, my angle on Thomas is very similar to yours. I include a litte taste of the post-gospel tradition about Thomas-- that he went as far as India with the message of thr resurrected Christ (there are Thomas Christians along the Malabar coast even now). It's also instructive to think about what else this Thomas the Twin says in John's gospel-- he's the one who says "let's go with him all the way" during the Lazarus event, as well as but "we don't know where you're going!" back at 14:5 He don't know, but he'll go anyway.
Brenda-- I have been out of work for a long time until recently when I finally got a call to a congregation.
I will pray that doors will open for you as they have for me. Your devoted care for your mother is deeply moving. Funny how "family" is always defined as one thing, when in reality our families are all so different.
Posted by: Jenny | Apr 2, 2005 8:44:46 PM
Thank-you for this great post. I am as it happens reading this tomorrow and I struggled with that exact problem of "the Jews" which I would not say-- Judeans works for me--I had planned to say "religious authorities" and to hope no one noticed.
Here's a question for Dylan or anyone reading this: is this story in the earlier Gospels--I seem to recall that Luke has something about touching but nothing at all like this, and that it is absolutely not in the two oldest texts. I'm totally relying on memory--not usually a great idea. But if my memory is true doesn't this fit with not seeing Thomas as quite as central as many would have him?
Posted by: Faithful Progressive | Apr 2, 2005 11:50:15 PM