Sunday, April 7, 2013
John 20: 19-31
In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus was missing—from the tomb, the tomb where the women went to face his death.
In today’s Gospel reading, Thomas is missing—from the room, the room where the other disciples gathered in fear.
Where was Thomas? Why was he not with the others when Jesus appeared on the day of resurrection. He eventually rejoins the group—perhaps later that same day or as late as the next week and just before the Risen Christ appeared a second time. But scripture says nothing about where Thomas had been or why he’s the only one absent when Jesus first returned to the core group of his followers.
Maybe Thomas was the only Jesus follower not terrified that the authorities would come for him next. Maybe he thought they’d all have a better chance if they split up, which the heroes in action films usually suggest as the bad guys give chase. Maybe Thomas just needed time to be alone—with grief, confusion. Maybe Thomas was actively searching for Jesus in response to unconfirmed reports that their lord had rematerialized. The Bible doesn’t say.
So I’m going to do a little midrash to fill in some of the holes in the story in ways that seem consistent with the larger narrative. This is pure speculation, but I’m wondering if Thomas, a man of action (see John 11:16) might have responded to Jesus’s murder with more anger and action than fear. While his cohorts were hiding from the authorities, maybe Thomas was planning to avenge his leader’s murder, take advantage of this moment of outrage among all those who’d loved Jesus, make use of the many sympathetic visitors still in Jerusalem for the Passover, attempt a revolt against the oppressors or at least make them pay for their unjust action against the people’s favorite, Jesus of Nazareth.
It was common in the occupied territory of the Roman Empire for revolts to spring up, as often happens among oppressed people. Public crucifixions were just one way Rome kept its subjugated peoples terrorized enough to stave off rebellions simmering just below the surface. But the Johannine community that later composed this story at least 70 years later might not have found it wise to include any overt reference to treason in their writings lest they antagonize the Roman authorities in their day. At most, the writers of John’s Gospel might have only dared to hint that Thomas had at one time considered responding to Jesus’s crucifixion with more violence.
Yet with this mere intimation of a back story, I picture Thomas, in the week following Jesus’s death, slipping into the shadows of Jerusalem’s side streets, whispering his way into conversations with the folks who’d shouted “hosannas” the week before. I see Thomas warily gauging the outrage at Jesus’s execution, reminding those whom Jesus had fed and healed of all he’d done for them, then reciting all that Rome had done against their own fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. Thomas could have added the ingredient of a fresh injustice to an already simmering pot. And turned up the heat. Things might have been on the verge of boiling over. But Thomas returned to his faith community and there reconnected with Jesus who was certainly not pro-Empire but neither did he support violent responses to injustice.
One reason I wonder if violence was on Thomas’s mind is because he insists on seeing Jesus’s wounds before he can believe. He fixates upon the gruesome marks of his friend and teacher’s recent torture. Why? Because he thought the crucifixion might have been a hoax? Not likely. Because Jesus was the only person ever to have been crucified and therefore the nailprints, Jesus’ deathmark, become the inverse of a distinctive birthmark and could thus prove his identity? As if Thomas would not recognize him otherwise? Of course not.
I think Thomas demands to see the wounds because they are his measure of reality. Death is the final reality for Thomas in this dark time. Violence is his answer to violence. One recent hymn about Thomas begins:
These things did Thomas count as real:
the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of flesh and bone.[i]
The sign Thomas understands in that dark time is a sign of violence. But the sign Jesus offers is the sign of peace.
Three days Jesus lay in the tomb.
Three times he speaks “peace” to those in the hidden room.
If Thomas was planning death-dealing insurrection,
Jesus was meanwhile doing death-defying resurrection.
What Thomas the doubter is doubtful about is Jesus’s Way of peace. How hard it is to believe in peace when the one who is innocent of any harm has been brutally murdered. It’s easy to be peaceful when no one has harmed or oppressed you. But when you are slighted, when your loved one has been injured, when peace talks between nations stall, when heads of state become belligerent . . . how hard it is then to believe in peacemaking. Certainly the horrors of the cross would be enough to test anyone’s faith in nonviolence. “I won’t believe . . . I can’t believe,” Thomas said, in effect, “unless the very wounds of Jesus attest to a peace that can survive the death of the Peacemaker.”
I know I’m interpreting this story differently than you expect. Usually Thomas’ doubts have been explained as doubts about Jesus’s divinity. And John’s biography of Jesus does show Thomas acknowledging Jesus as his lord and God (John 20:28). The most elevated portrait of Jesus is found in John’s Gospel, written last of the New Testament gospels when a higher Christology was developing.
But if we listen to the words Jesus emphasizes in this encounter, it is peace that the risen Jesus prescribes and gives. Jesus literally speaks peace to the frightened disciples—three times. Jesus offers his signature greeting, “Peace be with you,” to say that the dream of peace can survive the most violent of deaths, to assure his followers and friends that the Way endures. When we read this Gospel passage aloud earlier, I intentionally assigned Jesus’ words to the congregation, so you would have his words of peace upon your lips. The resurrection is inexplicable mystery; the peace of Christ Jesus is difficult but doable and, I believe, at the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus who died but lives on.
If Thomas, in the week after Calvary, had been encouraging violence, his encounter with the Risen Christ ended any plans he had to perpetuate the cycle of violence.
John’s Gospel and all the Christian testaments say to me that to believe in the risen Christ is to believe in—that is to trust—the Spirit of peace, as Jesus did. Thomas had doubted Jesus’s way of peace. Thomas’s climactic declaration of faith has nothing to do with a yet-to-be-articulated creed. Thomas comes to believe in the Way of peace in spite of the violence he’s seen with his own eyes and the violence perhaps he was tempted to perpetuate with his own hands. That is God’s resurrection hope for us. Therein lies our salvation.
The key question this story poses to us is not “Where was Thomas?” but “Where are WE in this story?” Jesus breathed the Spirit of peace into his followers, saying, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” The peace of Christ is passed on to others. So Sunday after Sunday, we speak peace to one another in this place. That is what it means to pass the peace. As we do, we remind one another that God’s peace remains alive in us and others who live in ways that continue to resurrect the living Body of Christ. This is a hard lesson we always must keep learning. We can learn the language and duties of peace only in community. Despite the scars we bear—from our own woundedness that makes us afraid and ornery and sometimes downright combative—we can be instruments of God’s peace.
Like Jesus, we can walk amongst others with our scars showing. Like Jesus, we can let others see and touch our woundedness while offering words of peace. Like Jesus, we can refuse to respond to aggression with aggression. We can give up our need to get back at someone, to have the last word, to always be right, to elevate ourselves by demeaning others, to demonize those who are different. We can acknowledge our woundedness without obsessing over the old wounds or inflicting them upon others. We can instead cultivate empathy. We can assume the best of others. We can forgive. In fact, today’s Gospel reading tells us that Jesus invested his followers with the job of forgiving others (John 20:23).
St. Francis is said to have prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith.” Do you see how St. Francis linked peace to faith? We can live out that very prayer. Rather than doubting, we can have faith in God’s peace. I’m not so sure that God cares about human-concocted doctrines so long as we believe in (commit ourselves to) the Way of peace that Jesus lived and died for, as long as we work for God’s realm of shalom, as long as we trust that love is stronger than hate.
Three days ago we sadly marked the 45th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., another carrier of Christ’s peace who trusted that love is stronger than hate. But peacemaking is not the job of Jesus or King alone. Marian Wright Edleman has bemoaned the fact that “so many are waiting for Gandhi to come back or King.” But “they’re not coming back. We’re it,” she says.
Yes, we’re it. Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). We are charged with passing on the peace of Christ whose Spirit remains at work among us. We have the potential to reach out to an estranged family member, to use conflict in healthy ways within our church, to exercise our responsibilities as citizens of a war-prone and gun-toting nation.
Thankfully, we are part of a faith community and a much larger faith tradition that have formed for peacemaking. Being a solo peacemaker doesn’t work. If it takes two to tango, it takes a whole community to do the peace dance. Today’s story emphasizes that Thomas’ commitment to the way of peace is revitalized when he returns to his faith community. And it’s there, with other believers in the Way, that Thomas reconnects with Jesus again. That’s what we try to do each Sunday. The very challenge of maintaining peaceful relationships in a close community of faith is itself the means of cultivating peacemakers. In the simplest occasions when we make decisions together, in the commonest acts of communication, we as a faith community can have disagreements and miscommunications that, if mishandled, can lead to tension or aggression. But if handled peacefully, can bring God’s kingdom a little closer. What wonderful practice we receive simply by being in community—a Jesus-led community committed to learning the way of peace.
We are an Easter people. It is our hope in things not yet in evidence that defines us. When skeptics tell us that peace will never work, we believe by holding onto a vision of God’s shalom that tells us otherwise.
May the peace of Christ be with you.
[i] Troeger,Thomas. “These Things Did Thomas Count” in The New Century Hymnal