John 20 tells us that Jesus appeared to some of his most important disciples “on the first day of the week.”
First of all, to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18). Commissioning her as the Apostle to the Apostles, he commands her to proclaim the resurrection, which she does (“I have seen the Lord!”). He also tells her to proclaim the result of the resurrection — that the hearers of the gospel are now “children of God,” sharing the same Parent as Jesus, just as John started foreshadowing in 1:12-13.
To whom must she proclaim all of this good news? To Jesus’ adelphoi. The NRSV translates adelphoi as “brothers” in verse 17, but elsewhere they translate it “brothers and sisters,” correctly. Adelphoi is the word used if both males and females are present and it’s the word used if only males are present. There’s no reason to limit Mary’s audience to males. If one chooses to do so, it must be on grounds other than grammatical, linguistic ones.
Did Thomas hear her proclamation of the gospel?
Behind Closed Doors
Presumably “the disciples” (again, unspecific) we meet in verse 19 heard her at least. And what do the disciples do in response to Mary Magdalene’s proclamation of the risen Jesus, of abundant life, of a world forever changed and open with possibility? They hide in fear behind locked doors. Sound familiar? You might help your people ponder this narrated fact.
Note one of John’s favorite motifs: light versus darkness. Like the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene is a person of the day, the light, out in the Garden. Like Nicodemus, the disciples are huddled in the darkness that comes from “hiding out” for one reason or another.
As a “church” (they are, after all gathered disciples meeting where they usually met, verse 19), they have locked the doors out of fear (verse 19). Can your people relate to this? They have “enfortressed” themselves. I recall David Bartlett saying that: “We sing ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God,’ but what we mean is ‘A Mighty Fortress is our Church.’”
Jesus seeks out these unnamed disciples and meets them where they are, offering them peace in place of fear (verse 19). He shows them his hands and his side, and they know it’s Jesus. It never stops being the case that we have this treasure in clay jars, that we experience the world, both inner and outer, through our bodies. What do you make of the fact that the body of the risen Jesus still carries the marks of lived experience? Certainly, from a doctrinal perspective, it emphasizes that Jesus was really human and his body was essential to his personhood, and that the risen Christ is, in fact, Jesus of Nazareth. But what does it mean for you and your people at a more personal level?
He then reiterates (verse 21, palin, “again”) his offer of peace. As far as I’m concerned, he can never remind us enough. He also does to them what he did with Mary Magdalene earlier — he sends them on mission (apostello, pempo, verse 21). But Jesus never sends us without equipping us for it, spiritually. And I mean that literally. Just as he bestowed the Spirit on the newly formed church at the foot of the cross (19:31), he now breathes on them with the Holy Pneuma (spirit/breath). He then reminds them that with great power (the Holy Spirit) comes great responsibility (discerning God’s confrontation of sin and offer of forgiveness).
Remember when we first met Thomas back in 11:16? Jesus was planning to head to Judea to raise Lazarus, and the disciples were trying to talk him out of it, since it was dangerous territory for Jesus. When I hear Thomas, I imagine the voice of Eeyore: committed, but in a resigned, underwhelmed, less-than-hopeful tone. Maybe you have parishioners like that? Maybe you are like that? in each case. Eeyore-Thomas makes his first appearance in the Gospel when he says in his forthright, resigned, if brave statement: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas next appears in 14:1, when Jesus is talking about his impending death and ascension to heaven. It’s unlikely that the other disciples have a clue about what Jesus is saying (suggested by his interaction with Philip in verse 9), but they remain silent. Not Thomas. He speaks up and says, “Well, actually, I have no idea what you’re talking about” (verse 5, my translation). Thomas is a straight shooter, a practical guy. He may not have much imagination or sense of mystery, but he does have an enquiring mind. Thomas asks the tough questions that others may be scared or embarrassed to ask. Thomas is a no-nonsense guy, and I can appreciate that. So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised at what happens in John 20– Thomas stays in character.
When Jesus appears to the disciples in the locked room, where’s Thomas? The text doesn’t say, so we are free to imagine where he is, what he’s doing, and what he may be thinking and feeling, based on what we know about Thomas. We don’t know where his friends find him, but they tell him the news. And how does Thomas react? Is he overjoyed and comforted? No. He reacts just as the disciples do when Mary tells them the same thing. Are they overjoyed? Do they run out to the garden to find Jesus? No, Jesus the Good Shepherd must find his sheep.
Thomas then makes his dramatic statement: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and shove my finger into the mark of the nails, and shove my hand into his side, I absolutely will not believe” (20:25, my translation). The verb is a forceful one (ballo), as is the emphatic negative (ou me). Not a simple, “I’ll believe it when I see it” –Thomas has lot of conditions. And this may make him relatable for the people you preach to and for. He puts conditions on his faith. He wants hard evidence, unquestionable eyewitness fact that Jesus is risen. I can’t blame him. You know why? Two reasons: First, he’s asking to see at least what all the other disciples already saw. Second, who doesn’t love a solid sign in a moment of crisis and vulnerability? No, I can’t blame Thomas. So, what happens?
Eight days after Thomas makes this pronouncement, his wish comes true. And then some. Jesus appears and speaks directly to Thomas. Scripture doesn’t tell us that Thomas ever even touched the wounds. Again, you are free (invited, required?) to use your imagination. Once Thomas got a look at and felt the presence of the risen Lord, perhaps he forgot all his conditions. Perhaps the only thing he could spit out was, “My Lord and my God.” In other words, perhaps the presence of the risen Lord blotted out Thomas’s petty skepticisms and puny proofs and arrogant arguments. This was the glory of the risen Lord, and the only appropriate response was to confess him as Lord and God.
And that’s another reason I like Thomas. He knew when he was beat. He knew there was a time to shut up and bow down. In my eyes, Thomas was blessed, and maybe I’m a little envious that he got such a wonderful opportunity. But you know what Jesus says? He says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me (reread John 2:23–25 and 4:48 to see that John is quite impatient with those who need signs and wonders to believe and follow Jesus)? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That, of course, includes at least the reader of John’s Gospel, including you and your people.
In Thomas, we see the pattern of Christian discipleship established from the beginning of John 1. One person encounters Jesus. Then they share their experience with the next person, who may express some reluctance. Then that person experiences Jesus on their own, directly, and becomes convinced about him and then shares the news about Jesus with the next person. Andrew tells Peter. Philip tells Nathanael. The Samaritan woman tells the townspeople. “Come and See” is the refrain.
With respect to the witness of the resurrected Jesus, Mary Magdalene starts it off. She encounters Jesus, shares the news; the others don’t really buy it until they have their own experiences so that they can own the experience. They become convinced and then share it with Thomas. Like the other disciples, Thomas doesn’t come to the fullest faith until he has his own experience. I say fullest faith, because he already has faith. The text says, “Don’t become a faithless person” (my translation). Move from where you are to the next level.
Scholars debate whether Thomas has faith beforehand or not. The debate centers on how to interpret the second person singular imperative, me ginou — it can mean either “do not be without faith (apistos)” do not continue to be without faith (with a durative emphasis), or “do not become without faith” (with an ingressive emphasis). I, with others, argue for the latter. You, the preacher, have wiggle room here.
Then the story moves through the chain, and you, your people, and I are up next. Thomas makes his confession and, through this text, testifies to us. Now what will we do? Will we hang in there with some level of interest and commitment until we encounter Jesus in a way that moves us to the next level? What would the next level look like for us, understanding that we are all in very different places? For the author, the highest level is living abundantly. Are we there yet?
In the end, it’s not Thomas’s “doubting” or demanding that matters; it’s his believing. Everybody doubts; not everyone believes. Be a believing Thomas; push as hard as you need to until you are awestruck and moved to proclaim with him: “My Lord and my God!”
This essay is an adaptation of chapter 15 of Jaime Clark-Soles’ new book Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
This Sunday presents us with a portion of Peter’s first public sermon, preached on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem.
The Holy Spirit has come upon the disciples with power, just as Jesus promised (Acts 1:8). The phenomenon of the disciples proclaiming the works of God in the diverse languages of those gathered — “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” (2:5) — amazes and perplexes everyone and leads to speculation about whether they have had too much to drink (2:13).
Peter addresses the crowd to dispel these rumors and interprets what is happening in light of the promises of Scripture (2:14-16). In verses 17-21, he cites the prophet Joel to show that this is the fulfillment of God’s promise to pour out his Spirit on all flesh in the last days. Starting in verse 22, Peter explains how this phenomenon is inextricably linked to Jesus of Nazareth, “a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you.”
God is emphatically in control in Peter’s interpretation of events. This Jesus was “handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (2:23). Human beings are certainly culpable for the death of Jesus — both Jews and Gentiles, as Peter says, “you (Israelites) crucified and killed [him] by the hands of those outside the law (Roman Gentiles)” (2:23). But God had a much greater plan for Jesus and raised him from the “pains of death, for it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (2:24; my translation).
The Greek word used to describe the “pains” (ôdinas) of death is normally used to describe birth-pangs. The language of birth-pangs is often associated with the coming of the messianic new age in apocalyptic literature of this period, and we find this language also in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark (13:8). The image suggests that the sufferings of the present time will ultimately lead to new life being birthed.
At this point in his message, Peter begins an intricate exegetical argument whose logic may seem obscure to hearers today. Peter cites Psalm 16:9-11 (15:8-11 in the Septuagint), introducing the citation by saying, “For David says concerning him…” Peter assumes that David wrote the Psalms, and that he was also a prophet. Even though David speaks of my soul (“For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption”), he cannot be talking about himself, for as Peter points out, David did see corruption: “he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (2:29). Since David was a prophet, Peter continues, he knew that God had promised to put one of his descendants on his throne, and it is of this descendant, the Messiah, that David speaks in the Psalm.
In referring to God’s promise to put David’s descendant on the throne, Peter alludes to several other Psalm verses — 132:11 and 89:3-4 (131:11 and 88:4-5 in the Septuagint) — as well as Nathan’s oracle to David in 2 Samuel 7:12. Each of these scriptures was interpreted by the early church as referring to the Messiah.
Peter then returns to Psalm 16, affirming that David foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah in saying, “He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption” (Acts 2:31). The fulfillment of this prophecy has now come to pass, for “this Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” (2:32).
Unfortunately, the lectionary text ends at verse 32, but verses 33-36 are necessary to complete the logic of the argument, explaining how the resurrection of Jesus is the catalyst for what is happening on this day. Jesus is not only risen but ascended and exalted at the right hand of God, where he has received the Holy Spirit, which he has in turn poured out upon his disciples (2:33).
Finally, Peter cites Psalm 110:1 (109:1 in the Septuagint): “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Again, Peter says that David could not have been talking about himself, since he did not ascend into the heavens (2:34-35). The implication is that David again speaks about the Messiah, who is also referred to as “Lord” (kyrios). Notably, Psalm 16:11 (Lxx: 15:11) ends with “at your right hand are delights forever” (though the citation in Acts 2:28 omits that final phrase). Both Psalms 16 and 110, then, are understood to refer to the Messiah who is at the Lord’s “right hand.”
Finally, Peter concludes his sermon with the bold affirmation: “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36).
The response to this sermon of the people in Jerusalem will be explored in next Sunday’s reading. For the preacher, however, it is necessary to reflect on how Peter’s sermon might address the people of God today. What is important for listeners today to hear and understand?
One option is to explore the tension in the text concerning the divine will and human will. The blame for the evil that was done to Jesus is placed squarely on the shoulders of human beings, yet somehow this is understood to have been done according to the plan and foreknowledge of God. How do we make sense of this?
While it is impossible to resolve the tension completely, one thing is clear: God counters the evil, death-dealing ways of humans by emphatically defeating death, snatching new life from the “pains of death, for it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (2:24, my translation). The image of the “birth-pangs (ôdinas) of death” suggests that suffering finally gives way to new life. God’s life-giving power simply cannot be contained by death.
Psalm 16:9 has a lovely turn of phrase in the Greek version that Peter cites (2:26). The Greek (Psalm 15:9 in the Septuagint) says literally, “my flesh will pitch its tent on hope” or “my flesh will nest on hope.” The psalmist then declares the reason for this hope: for God did not allow his Holy One to see corruption, but snatched him from the jaws of death and exalted him to God’s right hand.
Peter declares that the Holy One of whom the Psalm speaks is none other than “this Jesus whom you crucified.” God has exalted him and made him both Lord and Messiah (2:36). Even the worst of human evil cannot derail the life-giving will of God. We are not abandoned to death and destruction. All that Jesus preached and enacted in his ministry is validated and confirmed by his resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of his Spirit on his followers. God’s life-giving power breaks the bonds of death and continues to be at work in the world through the power of the Spirit. This is the hope on which we pitch our tents, the hope in which we dwell.
In the context (wake, aftermath, light) of Easter, Psalm 16 proposes a contrast of sorts, between “the holy ones” (verse 3) and “those who choose another god” (verse 4).
This contrast is set within the opening and closing verses of the psalm; the opening verse is a call for help, “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge,” while the closing verse is an affirmation of trust, “You show me the path of life…” This contrast lies between the “present” reality of need (Protect me!) and the hoped-for reality of deliverance (in your presence there is fullness of joy), and implies a decision of sorts: to say of the Lord, “you are my lord,” or to choose some other God.
The psalmist’s answer is clear. Verse 2 offers her declaration of intent, “I say to the Lord, you are my lord.” Here again we have “Lord” and “Lord.” The word “Lord,” capital “L” with “ord” in small caps, is the Hebrew name for God: Yahweh, and “Lord,” capital “L” with lowercase “ord” is the translation of the Hebrew word adonay, which means lord, or master. The psalmist’s theological declaration of intent pairs these words to say, absent any confusion, that Yahweh is her Lord and God.
The bulk of the body of the psalm that follows is an exploration of what it means that God, Yahweh, is my Lord. The key word there is “my.” Four more times the word “my” is used in the psalms to expand on theology at work. The Lord is called:
“my chosen portion,” “my cup,” and “my lot,” in 16:5
and is described as being “at my right hand” in 16:8. To claim God as “my Lord” brings an intimacy, a closeness, and a provision, that is entirely dependent on God. The lot of the psalmist is cast entirely with the Lord. “Portion” and “cup” are also found together in Psalm 11:6, in which the “portion of their cup,” “their” being the wicked, shall be “a scorching wind.” Portion and cup, in both of these cases, Psalms 11 and 16, are relational; one gets in kind what one deserves in these psalms, and this is used to call upon God to deliver the pray-er by providing the portion and cup of one who is in right relationship with God.1
Another striking element of Psalm 16 is just how much of the psalmist is given over to, and then influenced by calling the Lord “my Lord,” and, again, the word “my” is key.
In contrast to those who “choose another god,” our psalmist will not “take their names upon my lips.” The antecedent of “their” is ambiguous, and may mean that the psalmist will not speak the names of the unrighteous who have turned away from the Lord. But in the context of the comparison which the psalm sets up I am inclined to take “their” as referring to any other god than the Lord.
“My lips” will not speak their names; “my lips” will not speak any other name than that of the Lord. The psalmist argues that the confession of lips has an effect on the rest of the body:
“my heart instructs me,” because of the counsel of the Lord, in 16:7,
which leads to “my heart” being “glad,” “my soul” rejoicing, and “my body” resting secure in. The fundamental claim of the psalm is that in the Lord, there is security, joy, comfort, deliverance, and protection. When one says to the Lord, “you are my Lord,” the lot is cast, and the inheritance is ensured. The confession of faith and that which is trusted are bound together. And so, the aim of the psalm is the same as its claim; to invite all who read/hear it to join in claiming the Lord as God, to say to this God “you are my Lord,” and so be one with our God.
Easter Sunday provides a certain sort of context for this contrast, and this invitation. Will we choose a God who suffers and dies? Do we trust that it is to the cross and through the grave that the path of life runs? Shall we believe this unbelievable counsel — that in Christ Jesus God has chosen us, and shown us the way? Can we “drink his cup”?
1. It is interesting to note that in Psalm 63:11 the word translated as “portion” here is translated in the NRSV as “prey”; those who seek the life of the author of that psalms are going to “be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for the jackals”; i.e. their “portion” is to be lunch.
The blessing at the beginning of 1 Peter overflows with joy and hope.
Like the thanksgivings that typically begin Paul’s letters, this Jewish-style blessing lays out the author’s main themes. Though many — perhaps even the majority — of the Christians in Asia Minor were resident aliens and visiting foreigners (see 1 Peter 1:1, 2:11), God has given them a new birth through Jesus’ resurrection and has made them members of God’s own household.
God has given them an inheritance and the honor that their society denies them. Even if they are suffering at the moment, they can trust that God is reliable and that their lives and their futures are in God’s hands. No matter how fiery the trials that their faith may endure, God can be counted on, not only to rescue them in the future, but to give them joy and hope in the midst of their suffering.
According to Acts, Jews from Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia were among those who heard Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9; see 1 Peter 1:1), and it is likely that Christianity was brought to Asia Minor by these first converts. Many of the Christians in this region were Diaspora Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Jewish Christians joined with Gentile Christians to form the Christian churches scattered throughout the geographically widespread and primarily rural Roman provinces in northeastern Asia Minor. Together they formed a diverse community different enough from their neighbors that the author of 1 Peter could refer to the whole group as “God’s chosen strangers” or “exiles” (1 Peter 1:1 CEB, NRSV).
As John Hall Elliott has demonstrated through careful study of the historical evidence from the first century, there was no empire-wide persecution of Christians at this point in history, nor was there systematic local governmental persecution of the believers living in the Roman provinces in Asia Minor to whom 1 Peter is addressed. Nevertheless, Christians who were not citizens — and this may well have been the majority of the Christians in this region — were vulnerable to abusive treatment by their neighbors and by local authorities. As resident aliens and visiting foreigners they were culturally and religiously different from the majority population. They paid taxes and contributed to the local economy, but they could not inherit property, and they were denied the legal protections that citizens enjoyed.
The difficulties faced by these ancient Christians were not so different from the suffering of immigrants and of people who practice a faith other than Christianity in the U.S. today. People who stand out because of their ethnic background or religious practices are often perceived as endangering the economic security and social wellbeing of the community. Undocumented immigrants — including those brought here as children who have lived almost their whole lives in the U.S., working, volunteering with civic organizations, serving their communities, and paying taxes — have few legal protections and cannot vote.
A Green Card, a Visa, or even citizenship, though they provide legal status, do little to protect against prejudice, ostracism, and various kinds of social and physical abuse. As recent news reports have reminded us, people who appear middle-Eastern or who practice another faith, especially Islam, are often denied service in restaurants and shops, publicly humiliated, verbally abused, and labeled “terrorists” without any evidence whatsoever. Since 9/11, Muslims and Sikhs have repeatedly been attacked, beaten, and in some instances killed because someone in their community perceived them as a threat to the good order and safety of the society. Whether they are immigrants or citizens, those who are religiously or ethnically in the minority tend to be seen as “other,” as “strangers,” as “not from here.”
It is to outsiders such as these that 1 Peter is written. God has given them the sense of belonging, the inheritance, and the honor that their society denies them. They have been reborn into God’s own family. Their neighbors may see them as worthless, but God sees the tested value of their faith as more precious than gold. Through the resurrection of Jesus, God has given them new life in the present and the promise of salvation and an eternal home when Jesus is revealed.
In the meantime, the in-between time, they live in hope. Such hope is not the mere wishful thinking that we express when we say, for example, “I hope everything goes well for you!” No, their hope is a firm confidence grounded in God’s character and God’s saving actions. By raising Jesus from the dead and by giving them new life, God has showed them who God is and what God can do.
Though they did not witness the resurrection of Jesus, and though even now they do not see him in the flesh, they know him and put their trust in him. This trust, this confidence in the One whom they have come to know and love, sustains them even when their society strips away everything else that might give them a sense of worth and a sense of place. Because God loves and protects and honors them, they can endure their neighbors’ scorn. More than that, they are brimful of joy over God’s life-giving power and lavish mercy. God’s actions in the past and God’s promises for the future have transformed their lives in the present.
The joyful blessing in 1 Peter continues to speak to Christians today who rejoice in the resurrection of the Christ whom we have never seen and yet love and trust. 1 Peter’s blessing resonates especially for Christians who feel ostracized or dishonored by their communities. Minority groups in every age know what it means to be excluded because of their ethnic identity or immigration status, but many Christians also know the shame and scorn heaped upon them because they do not fit social norms regarding economic status, sexual orientation, or gender identification. Perhaps they are unemployed. Perhaps their family of origin has rejected them, or they have left a dysfunctional family in order to preserve their own health and safety.
1 Peter has a message for those whom society rejects as well as for those who feel at home in society — perhaps even too at home. This blessing reminds us where our value lies. God loves and welcomes and honors us. Our worth comes not from human opinions, but from God who made us and who gives us new birth. Easter is not only about eternal life after we die. It is about the new life that God gives us in the present, in this world, in the here and now. Alleluia!