John 20:19-31 New Revised Standard Version 19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. An expanded version of John 20:29 Posted on April 20, 2022 by Maren Tirabassi
Have you believed because you have gone to church? Blessed are those who have never set foot in Christian sanctuary, house church, storefront ministry, or mosque, synagogue, temple, but love others as themselves. Have you believed because you have been surrounded by loving family, caring friends a creative environment? Blessed are those damaged by the ones who should love them, wounded by friends, impacted by addiction or incarceration, but offer a smile to sadness. Have you believed because you lived among the extravagant beauty of nature, consumed raw juice and CSA produce, read books of wisdom? Blessed are those who find an alley dog companion, eat chips in a food desert, read a Marvel comic, and are willing to share them. Jesus did many signs in the presence of disciples, says John, and many more, never scriptured down. They are written across many unexpected faces. The proof?
The old gospel-writer implies it’s whether they get a life, and give it away.
This week I read a commentary on this scripture written by Nancy Claire Pittman. I want to begin with a segment of her essay. She writes, “In John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator John has a number of conversations with his friend Owen Meany about the meaning of belief. In one scene at the schoolyard, Owen illustrates his faith in God by pointing to a gray granite statue of Mary Magdalene as twilight falls. When it has become so dark that the statue is no longer visible, Owen asks John if he knows that the statue is still there. (To convey the unusual quality of Owen’s voice, Irving capitalizes his speech.) Johns says that of course he knows. Owen keeps pushing:
“YOU HAVE NO DOUBT SHE’S THERE?” [Owen] nagged at [John].
“Of course I have no doubt!” [John] said.
“BUT YOU CAN’T SEE HER—YOU COULD BE WRONG,” [Owen] said.
“No, I’m not wrong—she’s there, I know she’s there!” [John] yelled at him.
“YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE—EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN’T SEE HER?” [Owen asked].
“Yes,” [John] screamed.
“WELL, NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD,” said Owen Meany. “I CAN’T SEE [GOD]—BUT I KNOW [GOD] IS THERE!”
(John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), 451.)”
We, like the Thomas early in our scripture that Pat read for us today, have never seen the risen Christ. Never put our hands in his wounds. How did we come to believe? How shall we come to believe?
I suspect that many of us have at least one instance of coming to believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit. An occasion when God was so very real, so very evident, so very present—that hours, days, months, maybe even years after we had the experience, it is still spine-tingling real. But yet, with the passage of time, the clarity and immediacy of the moment fades. And we begin to question what we once knew to be true. Not always—but sometimes.
Paul Tillich writes that, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
We come to doubt the presence of God in the face of the brutal realities of the war in Ukraine. We come to doubt the presence of God when our child dies; when our spouse dies; when we get sick.
We wrestle with wondering where God is, and sometimes come to find God in our neighbors, in our family, in the stranger that comes to our aid. And our belief is restored, if only for a time.
The movement of this passage is from doubt to faith to doubt and back again. A fitting vessel to carry us through the spiraling chaos that occurs in our own lives.
This is John’s Pentecost passage, appropriate for the first week after Easter as we re-learn how to live with the risen Christ. Jesus breathes life into his followers – breathes the Holy Spirit into them and commissions them to go and do the work of converting people into believers… believers of living as Christ did… believers of living together as God desires.
First, he gets their attention by coming to them, risen from the dead, in the flesh, yet capable of materializing out of thin air. One week after proclaiming and celebrating that Christ is risen, John’s gospel tells us that the apostles spent the early days wrestling with belief and doubt. They find themselves face to face with Jesus’ risen self and they believe. But those who have not had this encounter are skeptical and unbelieving. It is possible, even likely, that some who witnessed Christ with their own eyes vacillated between doubt and belief.
Jesus comes to them on multiple occasions and greets them in a familiar fashion. Shalom. Peace.
It may have more significance in this setting, however. I think of Jesus’ greeting at these appearances in the same way as the appearance of angels to mortals. The non-earthly visitors’ first words are typically, fear not. Jesus comes to those he was closest to and encourages them to be not afraid. The visibly shaken, grief-stricken followers do not wish to meet the same fate as their Teacher and so they lock themselves in a room to keep distance from the Roman authorities. They need to get out and continue the ministry that Jesus has started. In order to do that, they must conquer their fears.
And so, Jesus comes to them with words of comfort and encouragement. Shalom—Peace—Fear not. Jesus breathes on them the Holy Spirit and commissions them to go get to work. Jesus came to bring us closer to God—to reconcile us with God—to bring us at-one (at-one-ment) with God. Their work then, is to make believers of all the nations; of all the people.
Jesus the Christ comes to us, offers us peace. Peace be with us when we believe, peace be with us when we doubt… peace be with us always.
How do we, who have not seen, come to believe? By seeing the works of Christ in the world. By feeling the works of Christ within us.
It is okay if we do not always have the same conviction as John Irving’s fictional character, Owen Meany.
Like the apostles before us, our faith is in motion, ebbing and flowing like the tides.
May your faith remain ever present, like the tides, even as your confidence ebbs and flows.
Rev. TJ Mack – Union Congregational Church of Hancock